Hyperion Records

Orpheus 'Ballet in three Scenes'
1946; commissioned by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein for the Ballet Society; first performed at New York's City Center in April 1948, with designs by Isamu Noguchi

'Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus' (CDA67698)
Stravinsky: Jeu de cartes, Agon & Orpheus
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67698 
No 1: Orpheus weeps for Eurydice – Air de danse – Dance of the Angel of Death – Interlude
No 2: Pas des Furies – Air de danse – Interlude – Air de danse, conclusion – Pas d'action – Pas de deux – Interlude – Pas d'action
No 3: Apotheosis of Orpheus

Orpheus 'Ballet in three Scenes'
Orpheus was the brain-child of Lincoln Kirstein, who specifically wanted a companion-piece for Apollo to grace the second season of his new venture, Ballet Society. Stravinsky was not normally responsive to being told what sort of music he should write; but he trusted Balanchine, whose idea the Orpheus story was, and he enjoyed working with a choreographer who seemed to understand his music and whose native language was Russian. For the first time they worked closely together from the start, deciding on the details of the scenario (‘with Ovid and a classical dictionary in hand’, the composer later recalled), and agreeing on the essential tone, which would treat the well-known subject as little more than a pretext for a kind of formal/musical/spatial geometry, endowed with significance by the merest framework of narrative. For the first performance, at New York’s City Center in April 1948, the designs were done by Isamu Noguchi, who was known mainly as a sculptor. So the plastic qualities of the work were emphasized in every dimension, and its narrative elements correspondingly downplayed.

Stravinsky’s score, though routinely included among his neoclassical works, is in many ways quite unlike anything that precedes it. During the war, in America (of which he became a citizen in 1945), he had fulfilled a string of more or less openly commercial commissions, while working quietly on two eventual masterpieces—the Symphony in three movements and the Mass—which he found for a long time hard to crystallize in his mind, perhaps for lack of any likely performance. The uncertainties of war seem to have drawn him back to the church, and also to his Russian inheritance. And at some point he became intrigued by medieval music, especially the Ars Nova of the fourteenth century, with its decorative lines and intricate polyphonic techniques.

All these influences left their mark, however obliquely, on Orpheus, while to some extent directing it towards the more esoteric aspects of the next and final phase of his music. Orpheus is not in any sense a serial work; but it does hint at a new austerity and intensity that might suggest a breaking away from the more mechanical aspects of neoclassicism. Compared with the brusque, almost hearty opening of Jeu de cartes, the introduction of Orpheus has a repressed, secretive quality. Orpheus weeps for Eurydice, the stage direction informs us, but with his back to the audience, standing motionless. Later, as the Angel of Death leads him into Hades, the Furies protest, it seems, mainly in undertones (and soon submit to the beauty of Orpheus’ playing). Then, at the crucial moment when Orpheus tears the bandage from his eyes and looks back at Eurydice, who at once falls dead, the music responds with a bar of complete silence. Even the Pas d’action in which the Bacchantes tear Orpheus to pieces is truly violent only for a few bars, which must have seemed a very strange turn of style for the composer of The Rite of Spring.

from notes by Stephen Walsh © 2009

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Details for CDA67698 track 21
Pas des Furies – Air de danse – Interlude – Air de danse, conclusion – Pas d'action – Pas de deux – Interlude – Pas d'action
Recording date
15 April 2009
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 21
    Release date: September 2009
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