The Kennedy Center

Danses concertantes, for chamber orchestra

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Richard Freed

In 1940 Stravinsky, who had just taken up residence in the United States and was completing the Symphony in C commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for its fiftieth anniversary, began composing the Danses concertantes under a commission from Werner Janssen, the conductor of the Janssen Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles. It was the first large-scale work he composed entirely in America, and he himself Janssen's orchestra in the premiere, on February 8, 1942. At that time the work's title and the headings of its individual sections were regarded simply as references to the composer's long identification with the world of dance. Stravinsky had in fact included in the heading of his autograph score the subtitle "Concerto for Small Orchestra," but that designation did not appear on the published score, and a danced version was presented in New York by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as early as September 10, 1944. The choreographer was George Balanchine, who had begun his collaboration with Stravinsky in Paris in the 1920s and continued it energetically till the end of the composer's life. Balanchine stated, in fact, that, although the

Danses concertantes was first performed as a concert piece, . . . the composer had conceived the work with the choreographer and had intended his score to be used in the theatre. When the work was first played . . . it was apparent that the music embodied dancing--not only dance rhythms, but specific poses and gestures for a group of dancers--so that to hear Danses concertantes was also to visualize a ballet.

Such respected commentators on Stravinsky as his Roman Vlad and Alexandre Tansman, both of whom wrote helpful books on his music, may not have been familiar with Balanchine's early involvement in the creation of this work, which they tended to regard as having been after-the-fact. Tansman described the work as "abstract ballet music, in the form of a series of dance forms unrelated to any subject or any specific imagery," and also as "the first work in which Stravinsky re-worked his own music rather than that of others." (Some of the "others," in the two decades preceding the Danses concertantes, were Pergolesi, on whose music--and/or music attributed to him--Stravinsky created his Pulcinella; Tchaikovsky, whose melodies were used in Le Baiser de la f?e; and Johann Strauss, Rossini et al. in Jeu de cartes.)

Vlad also quoted Tansman's description of this work as

having "the pleasing melodic quality of Jeux de cartes, the harmonic and rhythmic concetnration of L'Histoire du soldat, the pulsating complexity of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, the wealth of modulation of the Symphony in C." But as in all Stravinsky's "syntheses," the components mentioned above are completely transformed.

Still others have regarded this work as "a satire of the traditional ballet genre," but the satire is of a pronouncedly gentle and affectionate nature. Since Balanchine wrote that "The plot of the ballet Danses concertantes is the plot of the score," his own description of the stage action is quoted in this brief guide to the work's five sections:

The MARCH--INTRODUCTION is a cheerful ensemble piece in which the cast of entertainers is introduced.

In the succeeding PAS D'ACTION the ballerina's solo is definitely not without humor and, in Balanchine's words, "You get the impression that you might get from reading a lyric poem whose lines are sometimes truncated in the middle of words but nevertheless flow on to a graceful conclusion."

The VARIATIONS are five in number; the middle one, a wistful Andantino, is framed by emphatically vigorous ones. The PAS DE DEUX finds the dancers "almost personified in the music, which demands at first beauty in slowness, then a quiet, pointed wit that ascends to an elevated, noble manner, [to end on] a note of tenderness."

The concluding MARCH is a shortened reprise of the opening one: "The music ends sharply and unexpectedly. All rush forward and bow low to the audience as the curtain falls behind them."