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Jeu de cartes 'Ballet in three Deals'
1936; commissioned by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein for the American Ballet and first performed by them in April 1937 in New York, Stravinsky conducting

'Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus' (CDA67698)
Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus
No 1: Introduction – Pas d'action – Entry and Dance of the Joker – Waltz-Coda
No 2: Introduction – March of the Hearts and Spades – Variations I-IV – Pas de quatre for the four queens – Coda
No 3: Introduction – Waltz – Battle of the Spades and Hearts – Final Dance and Coda

Jeu de cartes 'Ballet in three Deals'
The first product of the association between Balanchine and Stravinsky was Jeu de cartes, composed in 1936 and staged in New York by the so-called American Ballet, with Stravinsky himself conducting, in April 1937. After Diaghilev’s death, Balanchine had tried to establish himself as a choreographer in Paris, but in 1934 he had been invited to New York by Lincoln Kirstein to help him set up his School of American Ballet—the first establishment of its kind in the United States. Early photographs of work at the school show Balanchine practising with some disconcertingly well-fed-looking ballerinas; but the company that formed from the school—the American Ballet—soon developed sufficient professionalism to be invited to be the resident troupe at the Metropolitan Opera, and it was this appointment that prompted Balanchine and Kirstein to commission a ballet from Stravinsky for the new company. The idea was highly speculative, since the Met seems to have had no particular intention of staging pure ballet (as opposed to ballet sequences in operas). But Stravinsky, having recently completed and premiered his Concerto for two solo pianos, was ready for a new project, and started work at once, in December 1935, still with no idea of what the ballet would be about.

The origins of the plot, such as it is, are obscure. For a time, Jean Cocteau was involved, and may have suggested La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Wolves and the Sheep’, an epigraph from which heads the eventual score. Some time later, Balanchine offered Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘Little Ida’s Flowers’. In the end—Stravinsky told a newspaper interviewer—he thought up the card-game idea himself in a Paris taxi, and was so pleased with himself that he promptly offered the cabbie a drink. But the idea hardly seems worth the outlay, and probably its main virtue from Stravinsky’s point of view was its sheer neutrality, its lack of any kind of direct human interest. The characters, as a note in the score explains, are the chief cards in a poker game, including the Joker, ‘who believes himself to be invincible because of his ability to become any desired card’. However, in the last of the three ‘Deals’ (that is, scenes), the Joker’s straight flush is beaten by a ‘natural’ royal flush, which ‘puts an end to his malice and knavery’.

Stravinsky was not a poker-player, and the scenario even suggests that he was a trifle vague about the rules. What poker gave him was the framework for an abstract re-creation of the form of classical ballet, somewhat in the manner of Apollo, whose plot is so static and uneventful as to be seriously hard to describe in narrative terms at all. Thus in Jeu de cartes, after the ceremonious Introduction (which recurs at the start of each Deal), we get a Pas d’action, introducing the minor characters, the Entry and Dance of the Joker, and a Waltz-Coda. In the second Deal, a March (hearts and spades) is followed by a series of solo Variations and a Pas de quatre for the four queens, while at the core of the final Deal is the combat of spades and hearts, reminiscent of the battle in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (though it actually quotes Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture). This rather formal approach to dance drama reflects Stravinsky’s recent interest in the concept of ‘modelling’. In the twenties, the approach had usually involved some kind of style borrowing (Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky). But by the mid-thirties Stravinsky had evolved an individual ‘neoclassical’ style of his own, and though the music of Jeu de cartes is broadly tonal, rhythmically and metrically regular, and orchestrally conventional, it never really suggests anyone else’s style, even when it may seem to quote (Beethoven, Ravel, Johann Strauss and Delibes have all been ‘spotted’, besides the unmistakable bit of Rossini).

Balanchine, it turned out, liked this somewhat detached approach to the conventions of the past, and he particularly warmed to the idea of the plotless (or almost plotless) ballet. Later, he much preferred making ballets out of concert works, including many of Stravinsky’s, to re-choreographing story ballets like Petrushka (which he never attempted) or The Firebird (of which he staged only the 1945 suite).

from notes by Stephen Walsh © 2009

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Details for CDA67698 track 3
Introduction – Waltz – Battle of the Spades and Hearts – Final Dance and Coda
Recording date
14 December 2008
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus (CDA67698)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: September 2009
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