Hyperion Records

Agon 'Ballet for twelve dancers'
begun 1953; completed 1957; commissioned by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein for the New York City Ballet; first performed in New York in December 1957

'Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus' (CDA67698)
Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67698 
No 01: Pas de quatre
No 02: Double pas de quatre
No 03: Triple pas de quatre
No 04: Prelude
No 05a. First Pas de trois: Sarabande-Step
No 05b. First Pas de trois: Gaillarde
No 05c. First Pas de trois: Coda
No 06: Interlude
No 07a. Second Pas de trois: Bransle Simple
No 07b. Second Pas de trois: Bransle Gay
No 07c. Second Pas de trois: Bransle Double
No 08: Interlude
No 09: Pas de deux
No 10: Coda
No 11: Four Duos
No 12: Four Trios

Agon 'Ballet for twelve dancers'
Having got his pair of classical ballets, Kirstein was soon pestering Stravinsky for a third score to give him a complete evening of star works for his company, meanwhile rechristened the New York City Ballet. His fertile mind kept throwing up possible subjects: something from the Odyssey, T S Eliot’s Sweeney, and a visionary idea Balanchine had had for ‘a competition before the gods … reanimated by a series of historic dances … as if time called the tune, and the dances which began quite simply in the sixteenth century took fire in the twentieth and exploded’. What neither Kirstein nor Balanchine seems to have known was that Stravinsky, after conducting the premiere of his Rake’s Progress in Venice in September 1951, had undergone a creative crisis, partly as a result of his first encounter with the severe and complex serial music of the post-war generation of composers in Germany and France, and was now engaged in a radical overhaul of his compositional technique. Just when Kirstein was bombarding him with ideas that presupposed another classical project, Stravinsky was writing small vocal and instrumental works in a spikier modern style using a limited serial method distantly derived from Schoenberg and Webern. And when at last a contract was signed and Stravinsky started work on the new ballet at the end of 1953, its plan was studiously unclassical, completely plotless, and musically somewhat speculative. By the time it was finished, some four years later, Agon had turned out unlike anything Kirstein can conceivably have envisaged when he first broached the project nine years earlier.

He might just possibly have recognized Balanchine’s ‘visionary’ idea in the musical scheme. Though completely abstract and devoid of any stage narrative, Agon (the Greek word for a contest or competition) clearly derives its musical design from the idea of a series of antique dances which explode into the twentieth century. Kirstein had at one point sent Stravinsky a seventeenth-century dance manual with music examples, and the composer plundered this volume for rhythmic and melodic ideas which, however, he mostly twisted beyond recognition. The idioms survive in dances like the Sarabande-Step, Gaillarde and Bransle, while the Pas de quatre and Pas de deux are, in name at least, echoes of the later classicisms we saw also in Jeu de cartes and Orpheus. But musically these pieces view the past at best down a long tunnel of musical history. Listen to the violin solo in the sarabande, with its tortuous chromatic embellishments, or try to catch the dance rhythm in the galliard, with its astonishing reinvention of the orchestra (double basses with flutes at the top, thick cello and viola chords at the bottom, and in the middle a barely audible canon at the fifth between mandoline and harp). The so-called ‘Coda’ to the galliard was Stravinsky’s first experiment in proper twelve-note serialism, and bizarrely he modelled the solo violin writing here on the Violin Concerto of Berg, a composer as remote from him aesthetically as one would think possible.

At this point in his ballet, Stravinsky put it aside in order to compose the Canticum sacrum for the Venice Biennale of 1956. But this hiatus is not the reason for the rapid changes of style that mark Agon out. The changes were built into the idea. And how brilliantly they convince, as the music flows increasingly towards the fifties modernism that had so impressed Stravinsky on his 1951 visit to Europe, then cuts back, with irresistible insouciance, to the quasi-tonal (neoclassical?) music of the opening. The speed and imaginative range of this twenty-minute score thrilled its first New York audiences, in December 1957, every bit as much as Balanchine’s abstract choreography, based pointedly on the number 12, and with the eight female and four male dancers in rehearsal costume and taking up their positions prosaically for each dance to the fascinating strains of the machine-like interlude music. ‘The balcony’, Edwin Denby wrote, ‘stood up shouting and whistling … Downstairs, people came out into the lobby, their eyes bright as if the piece had been champagne.’ And the Herald Tribune critic, Walter Terry, thought Agon ‘quite possibly the most brilliant ballet creation of our day … True, Agon is not warm, not overtly human, but its very coolness is refreshing and it generates excitement because it totally ignores human foibles, dramatic situation, and concentrates wholly on the miracle of the dancing body.’

from notes by Stephen Walsh © 2009

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