The Kennedy Center

Apollon Musagete, Ballet in Two Scenes

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

Stravinsky composed his score for the ballet Apollon Musagète ("Apollo, Leader of the Muses") in 1927-28, under a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge; the work's premiere took place on April 27 of the latter year in the auditorium she had recently created at the Library of Congress, with choreography by Adolf Bohm and with Hans Kindler conducting. The ballet was retitled simply Apollo when Stravinsky revised the score in 1947. The National Symphony Orchestra performed this music for the first time on March 27 and 28, 1998, under Eri Klas, and in the present concerts is giving its first performances of it since then.

The score calls for an orchestra of strings alone. Approximate duration, 30 minutes.

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In commissioning a ballet from Stravinsky, in 1927, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge specified that the size of the orchestra be limited to fit the smallish pit in the Coolidge Auditorium, and that the work was not to exceed a half-hour in performance time. The choice of subject, as well as the actual instrumentation, was left to the composer (who received a fee of $1,000), and Stravinsky responded with an idea that had interested him for some time: a ballet based on Greek mythology and interpreted by what he described as "the so-called classical school" of dance.

His choice of this specific subject apparently had a great deal to do with providing something luminous and serene by way of contrast with his treatment of a quite different Greek theme in his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex , which he completed and introduced in Paris immediately before undertaking Apollon Musagète . (The staged version of his Oedipus, in fact, was given its premiere in Vienna only nine weeks before the world premiere of Apollon in Washington.) Stravinsky more than once remarked on these two Greek-inspired works as representing "black and white," not in the cliché sense of general contrast alone, but in reference to the different natures of the two works and the different interpretive styles they suggested to him in specifically balletic terms. In his 1936 autobiography Chronicle of My Life , he wrote:

I chose as the theme Apollo Musagetes [the reference here is to the Greek form of the name]--that is, Apollo as the master of the Muses, inspiring each of them with her own art. I reduced their number to three, selecting from among them Calliope, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore as being the most characteristic representatives of choreographic art. Calliope . . . personifies poetry and its rhythm; Polyhymnia represents mime. . . Finally, Terpsichore, combining in herself both the rhythm of poetry and the eloquence of gesture, reveals dancing to the world, and thus among the Muses takes the place of honor beside the Musagetes.

When, in my admiration for the beauty of line in classical dancing, I dreamed of a ballet of this kind, I had specially in my thoughts what is known as the "white ballet," in which to my mind the very essence of this art reveals itself in all its purity. I found that the absence of many-colored effects and of all superfluities produced a wonderful freshness. This inspired me to write music of an analogous character. It seemed to me that diatonic composition was the most appropriate for this purpose, and the austerity of its style determined what my instrumental ensemble must be. I at once set aside the ordinary orchestra because of its heterogeneity, with its groups of string, wood, brass and percussion instruments. I also discarded ensembles of wood and brass, the effects of which have really been too much exploited of late, and I chose strings.

This was in fact Stravinsky's first composition for string orchestra, and would remain his only one until the Concerto in D of 1946. Despite his avoidance of "many-colored effects," the rich expressive quality he achieved within his self-imposed austerity is one of the most remarkable aspects of this remarkable score. On June 12, 1928, barely six week after the Washington premiere, Stravinsky himself conducted the ballet in Paris, with new choreography by George Balanchine, and with Serge Lifar in the title role. Balanchine, who had worked with Stravinsky once before, in Le Rossignol (1925), regarded Apollon Musagète as not only the true beginning of their extraordinary series of collaborations, but as "the turning point" in his own life. Years later he wrote of this work:

In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could, for the first time, dare not use all my ideas; that I, too, could eliminate. I began to see how I could clarify, by limiting, by reducing what seemed to be myriad possibilities to the one possibility that is inevitable.

Stravinsky, for his part, found Balanchine's interpretation "exactly as I had wished," and the ballet is still in the active repertory under the title Apollo, which Stravinsky came to prefer to his original one when he revised the score in 1947. The revision involved for the most part (but not exclusively) numerous clarifications in the dynamic markings; the essential content is the same in both versions.

The scenario is simplicity itself, and is limned in the score in the most direct and unadorned manner. Following an introductory section (THE BIRTH OF APOLLO), Apollo is presented together with all three Muses, and then each of the Muses in turn dances a solo variation. The last in the sequence is Terpsichore, and following her solo variation she and Apollo dance together. She is the only one of the Muses to dance with him alone, and for their pas de deux Stravinsky created one of his most unreservedly expressive episodes--also one of the simplest, in the noblest sense of that term, to be found in any of his scores. Following the understated exaltation of this tender climax, the ballet concludes with a Coda for Apollo with the three Muses, and a brief Apotheosis.

Although the National Symphony Orchestra did not perform Apollo until 1998, this music might be said to have constituted, at least in part, the genesis of this orchestra. It was as conductor of the premiere, almost exactly 70 years earlier, that Hans Kindler, who had only recently taken up conducting after firmly establishing himself as a cellist, made an impression that stayed with the group of Washingtonians determined to have an orchestra in the Nation's Capital. He was a frequent visitor to Washington in the summer of 1930; by February 1931 he was able to present a detailed plan for the creation of an orchestra and the specific role it would play in the community's life, and on November 2 of that year, in Constitution Hall, he presided over the first concert of the NSO, an event that might have been considerably later, and with a different figure on the podium, if not for the premiere of this ballet .