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Scènes de ballet
1944; commissioned by Billy Rose for his show The Seven Lively Arts

'Stravinsky: The Fairy's Kiss & Scènes de ballet' (CDA67697)
Stravinsky: The Fairy's Kiss & Scènes de ballet
No 01: Introduction: Andante
No 02: Danses 'Corps de ballet': Moderato
No 03: Variation 'Ballerina': L'istesso tempo
No 04: Pantomime: Lento
No 05: Pas de deux: Adagio
No 06: Pantomime: Agitato ma tempo giusto
No 07: Variation 'Dancer': Risoluto
No 08: Variation 'Ballerina': Andantino
No 09: Pantomime: Andantino
No 10: Danses 'Corps de ballet': Con moto
No 11: Apothéose: Poco meno mosso

Scènes de ballet
While this underrated masterpiece is openly based on a nineteenth-century idea of narrative dance, Scènes de ballet relates more discreetly to that tradition. It was commissioned in the summer of 1944 by the Broadway impresario Billy Rose as a classical dance item in a show called ‘The Seven Lively Arts’ which Rose was mounting at the Ziegfeld Theatre that autumn. Rose had wanted to include a shortened version of the second act of Giselle, in which Alicia Markova was dancing at the Met. But Markova had jibbed at this, and instead Rose invited first Kurt Weill and then—when he declined—Stravinsky to compose a fifteen-minute dance score ‘after’ Giselle. To the composer of The Threepenny Opera this might well have seemed a pretty mad idea, but to the composer of Apollo and Jeu de cartes, with their candid debt to French romantic ballet, it made at least sufficient sense to be worth the considerable sum of money he was able to extract from Rose. With Anton Dolin, who would be dancing the piece with Markova, he accordingly devised a semi-abstract scenario with vague allusions to Giselle among other nineteenth-century ballets; and then proceeded to compose, as it were, ‘away from’ such models, to the extent that his music constantly suggests their ethos and formulae but always through a neoclassical prism and without direct quotation.

After a brief, arresting Introduction, typically Stravinskian in its alternation of loud chords and gentle oscillations, the corps de ballet enters and performs a set of dance Variations, the last and quickest of which (more like Glazunov, perhaps, than Adam) is allocated to the ballerina in her guise, so to speak, of ex-Giselle. There then follows a he-and-she Pantomime, with hints of Tchaikovsky, leading to a Pas de deux with a sultry melody for solo trumpet which Desmond Shawe-Taylor once wrote ‘sounds like a tune played outside a celestial pub’. A second Pantomime is followed by solo Variations for the two dancers in turn, the ballerina’s exquisitely accompanied by a pair of solo cellos straight out of some no-less celestial Palm Court. Then, after a final corps de ballet, the work ends with a mock-apotheosis suitable to accompany curtain calls for a show whose pretensions are perhaps slightly greater than its substance.

This score, so typical of Stravinsky in its unwavering perfection in the face of grotesque provocation, must have cut a bizarre figure among the Seven so-called ‘Lively Arts’, which were not necessarily the ones Diaghilev dreamt of combining in the early days of the Ballets Russes. Rose’s line-up included stand-up comic turns and sketches, songs by Cole Porter (including Every time we say goodbye and Easy to love), Benny Goodman and his band, and a big set-piece called ‘Billy Rose Buys the Metropolitan Opera House’. Rose noticed (with surprise?) that Easy to love was punctuated by bursts of applause, whereas the Stravinsky piece was heard out in silence—a contrast which sums up the problem for American impresarios who wanted to tap Stravinsky’s fame but preferably without the disadvantages of his music. After the pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia, Rose tried (unsuccessfully) to get Stravinsky to rescore parts of the work, and he did succeed in persuading him to cut the opening dance, whose five-in-a-bar had proved to be beyond the comprehension of the ‘hoofers’ who made up the corps de ballet. In return, Stravinsky made Rose bill the performance as ‘excerpts’. In this form the show ran for 183 performances at the Ziegfeld, which—though the music is today among Stravinsky’s least familiar—must at the time have made it one of his most-performed ballets, apart from the famous three early ones. In fact it was still running in early February 1945 when Stravinsky himself conducted the first concert performance in Carnegie Hall. So on that day, a Saturday (with, therefore, a Billy Rose matinée as well), a true enthusiast might have heard the work, more or less complete, three times.

from notes by Stephen Walsh © 2010

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Details for CDA67697 track 12
Variation 'Ballerina': Andantino
Recording date
16 November 2008
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Stravinsky: The Fairy's Kiss & Scènes de ballet (CDA67697)
    Disc 1 Track 12
    Release date: April 2010
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