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Stravinsky's ballets: a guide to all his masterpieces

Over four decades, Stravinsky revolutionised the world of ballet. He elevated the artform, taking its music in drastic new directions and drawing on influences from the past to create a unique series of works

Which ballets are written by Stravinsky?
Published: January 4, 2022 at 7:32 am

'I love ballet and am more interested in it than anything else.’ When Igor Stravinsky wrote these words in 1911, he was basking in the afterglow of the phenomenal success of his early ballets The Firebird and Petrushka.

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But this commitment to ballet remained with the Russian composer for life. Indeed, it became the focal point of his creativity and resulted in him composing a dozen highly distinctive ballet scores spanning a period of over 40 years, as well as many other works for the stage in which dance played an important role.

That writing ballets assumed such importance for Stravinsky is all the more remarkable given the generally low status that had been accorded to the medium during his formative years. With the obvious exception of works by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, ballet scores of the late 19th century were generally blighted with insipid, vulgar or inconsequential music that bore little relationship to what was happening on stage. Ballet plots were no better, beset as they often were with inane scenarios that were more concerned with spectacle than dramatic coherence.

All this changed with Stravinsky. Under the charismatic influence of Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, the composer collaborated with a host of inspirational creative figures, from Fokine, Benois, Nijinsky and Balanchine to Bakst, Goncharova, Matisse and Picasso, and elevated ballet into a dazzling and vibrant medium of artistic expression. The Times critic, reviewing the Ballet Russes’s appearances at Covent Garden in 1913, vividly communicated what was so novel and exciting about their achievements: ‘The Russians have endowed us with a new art whose sense lies in the harmonious and free cooperation of men of the greatest distinction and daring in the four arts which go into the making of ballet. Music, colour, the poetry of original literary thought and the poetry of motion have never been so united, each indispensable, each illuming the others as by this company of great artists.’

But this was just the beginning. From the unknown 20-something first engaged by Diaghilev to a world-renowned composer in his 70s, Stravinsky continued to push the artform in all manner of new directions with a stream of notable ballets, each one inventive in its own distinctive way.

Which ballets are written by Stravinsky?

The Firebird (1910)

It would be difficult to overestimate the seismic impact of the Ballets Russes’s first Paris season in 1909. Audiences were simply wowed by the spectacularly staged adaptation of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor and elegant ballet confections such as Les Sylphides which presented piano music by Chopin in orchestral garb.

The only missing link in this feast of attractions was a new and entirely original Russian ballet, which Diaghilev hoped would materialise by the 1910 season. His chief choreographer, Michel Fokine, had in fact sketched out a detailed scenario for such a work, entitling it The Firebird – an amalgamation of various Russian fairy-tales about a bird whose magic feather rescues a prince from the clutches of the evil demon Kashchei.

Finding someone who was willing to write the music was another matter. Diaghilev tried to interest several established Russian composers such as Lyadov and Nikolai Tcherepnin, but without success. Only his fourth choice, Rimsky-Korsakov’s 28-year-old pupil Stravinsky, eagerly seized the opportunity.

How much of a gamble Diaghilev took in entrusting this task to such a relatively unknown composer is open to question. After all, he had heard Stravinsky’s early orchestral piece Scherzo fantastique performed in St Petersburg early in 1909 and was much impressed by its brilliant orchestral mastery and imaginative use of harmony (qualities confirmed by the premiere later that year of Stravinsky’s Fireworks). Diaghilev’s judgement in this respect proved to be impeccable, since Stravinsky rose to the challenge magnificently. Quite simply, the score for The Firebird is astounding. Stravinsky had completely absorbed all the tricks of the trade from Rimsky-Korsakov, the master orchestrator himself. The sheer range of colours that Stravinsky extracts from his huge orchestra is bewitching, in every respect fully complementing Léon Bakst and Alexander Golovine’s lavish costumes and exotic stage sets. Certainly, nothing Stravinsky had written up to that point quite matches the high levels of inspiration and imagination achieved in The Firebird.

Stravinsky’s score pays homage to his Russian forebears such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin and draws much of its melodic inspiration from Russian folk music. But other elements of his music already reflect his distance from these models and feature modern chromatic harmonies that are more reminiscent of Scriabin and Debussy. There are also premonitions of the way his music would evolve, in particular his daring manipulation of rhythm in the famous ‘Infernal Dance’.

The critical reception for The Firebird matched the enormous enthusiasm of the French audience, one writer going so far as to acclaim it as ‘the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium ever imagined between sounds, movements and forms’.

Recommended recording

Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft

Naxos 8.557500

Conducted by a close associate of Stravinsky’s, this Firebird is a sonic spectacular – also the only one to offer the entire original score.

Petrushka (1911)

Even after more than a century, Stravinsky’s music for Petrushka still sounds amazingly fresh and vibrant. The score presents a dazzling array of intoxicating colours, reflecting all the excitement of the Shrovetide fair in 19th-century St Petersburg. But the underlying tension between this external world and the internal drama of the hapless puppet Petrushka, who is rejected by the Ballerina and meets his death at the hands of the Moor, also creates an underlying sense of anxiety that is reinforced by the work’s emotionally equivocal closing passages.

After the overwhelming success of The Firebird, Stravinsky had initially resisted Diaghilev’s request for a further ballet for his 1911 season, and instead set to work on writing a purely abstract Konzertstück for piano and orchestra. It soon became evident, however, that the new work’s fragmentary writing and dislocated rhythms had programmatic connotations which, in the words of the composer, effectively ‘mimicked the actions of a puppet that had suddenly been endowed with life and was exasperating the patience of an orchestra with devilish cascades of arpeggios’.

After hearing Stravinsky’s music, Diaghilev was convinced of its dramatic potential. He encouraged Stravinsky and stage designer Alexander Benois to come up with a suitable scenario, and the idea of Petrushka was born.

Petrushka marks a considerable advance on The Firebird in its range of expression, its ingenious manipulation of Russian folk material and its rhythmic diversity in numbers such as the Russian Dance in Tableau 1 and the Waltz between the Ballerina and the Moor in Tableau 3. More importantly, the relationship between the music and the action on stage reaches a new level of integration that far exceeds any previous ballet.

Audiences in Paris were just as dazzled by Petrushka as by The Firebird. But the biggest compliment paid to Stravinsky surely came from Debussy, who told the composer that he was ‘bewitched by the sonorous magic of his orchestral writing’. Indeed, this strong admiration for Petrushka can be discerned in many of the Frenchman’s later scores.

The Rite of Spring (1913)

Nothing would be the same after the controversial first performance of The Rite of Spring in Paris in May 1913. Although Stravinsky’s score still exhibited the strong influence of Russian folk melodies and an adherence to Rimsky-Korsakov’s octatonic scale, almost all the fundamental elements of music were forever changed. The huge orchestra is used in an extravagant and almost relentlessly percussive and pounding manner. No less provocative are the few quieter sections in the score where Stravinsky exploits instruments in completely unfamiliar registers and builds up a complex web of polyphony made up of completely disparate melismas and shrieks in the woodwind. After hundreds of years, Stravinsky abandons the tyranny of the barline – metre and pulse are now in a state of constant flux. In some respects, this revolutionary approach to rhythm can be compared to Picasso’s liberating line drawing and cubist shapes.

The scenario, devised by the artist Nicholas Roerich and the composer, depicts a sequence of rituals in pagan Russia celebrating the advent of spring which culminate in a chosen woman dancing herself to death. It was matched by equally daring choreography from Vaslav Nijinsky that broke all the conventions of ballet. One of the dancers commented at the time that ‘Jumps were no longer completed on toes with slightly flexed knees, but flat-footed and straight-legged…With every leap, we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in our bodies.’

The Rite eventually received acclaim in the concert hall as a virtuoso orchestral showpiece and achieved even more widespread dissemination when it was featured in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Yet experiencing it in the theatre, as originally intended, still has a devastating impact.

Recommended recording

MusicAeterna/Teodor Currentzis

Sony 88875061412

Out of several hair-raising recorded accounts of Stravinsky’s revolutionary score, this one is one of the most thrilling in modern sound

Les Noces (1914-23)

‘When I first played Les Noces to Diaghilev,’ wrote Stravinsky in 1962, ‘he wept and said it was the most beautiful and the most purely Russian creation of our Ballet.’ Subtitled choreographic scenes with music and voices, this ballet depicting the rituals of a Russian peasant wedding exhibits an earthy rhythmic drive and exhilaration just as mesmerising as The Rite.

The political turmoil of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, which forced the composer to leave his homeland for ever, was only partially responsible for the unusually long time Stravinsky spent bringing the work to its final form. More crucially, he made several attempts to arrive at what he believed to be the most apposite instrumental accompaniment for the voices and chorus. His eventual decision to score the work for four pianos and percussion proved to be a masterstroke, as the ‘perfectly homogenous, perfectly impersonal and perfectly mechanical timbres’ of this ensemble provided the ideal foil for Bronislava Nijinska’s austere and geometrically conceived choreography.

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Soloists; English Bach Festival Chorus & Percussion Ensemble/Leonard Bernstein

Deutsche Grammophon 423 2512

Pianist Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman feature in this beautifully recorded account which invariably casts its spell with its final peal of bells.

Pulcinella (1920)

In 1919, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to consider writing a ballet featuring commedia dell’arte dancing characters, which featured unpublished 18th-century Neapolitan music that the impresario had discovered in an Italian library. He dangled a further carrot in front of the composer with the prospect that Picasso would be involved in the production.

Stravinsky was initially very sceptical about the idea, but nonetheless agreed to look at the music. To his amazement, he was totally enchanted by it and set to work almost immediately on composing the work. What emerged, however, was something far beyond mere arrangement or pastiche. Remarkably, Stravinsky leaves all the notes of the original music by Pergolesi, Gallo and other 18th-century Italian composers fully intact. But the way in which he rearranged or refracted it, using a plethora of imaginative orchestral textures, unconventional harmonic patterns and irresistible rhythmic syncopations, made the score sound uniquely his. Stravinsky eventually came to realise the significance of what he had achieved: ‘Pulcinella was my discovery of the past and the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible.’

Recommended recording

St Paul Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood

Decca 425 6142

Christopher Hogwood brings his invigorating insight to Stravinsky’s treatment of Pergolesi, also recording the original source material.

Apollo (1927)

Apollo is the epitome of Stravinsky’s so-called neo-classicism. It was described by the composer as a ‘white’ ballet – a score of diatonic (non-chromatic) purity and emotional restraint conceived for string orchestra that strips the music down to its barest essentials and seems as far removed as possible from the Dionysian world of his early ballets.

The scenario centres around Apollo, the Greek god of music, who on his ascent to Parnassus is visited by three muses: of dance and song (Terpsichore), mime (Polyhymnia) and poetry (Calliope). George Balanchine, who had joined the Ballets Russes in the early 1920s, devised the choreography for the ballet which, in its plasticity and classical elegance, won the full admiration of the composer. It proved to be the first of many enormously fruitful and intellectually fulfilling collaborations between the two that lasted to the ends of their lives.

Recommended recording

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle

Warner 967 7112

One of Simon Rattle’s finest Stravinsky recordings captures the balletic grace and haunting beauty of this neo-classical score.

The Fairy’s Kiss (1928)

Stravinsky’s capacity for confounding expectations never ceased to amaze. Almost immediately after completing Apollo, with its strong echoes of 17th- century French composers such as Lully, he turned somewhat unexpectedly to the music of Tchaikovsky as the model for his next ballet, whose scenario is based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Ice Maiden.

Most of the musical material for The Fairy’s Kiss is drawn from Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known piano music and songs. Yet it is so utterly transformed in the Stravinsky’s hands that the two composers’ musical languages are miraculously merged into one. As he wrote in a letter to The Times in 1921, ‘To my mind Tchaikovsky’s music is often more profoundly Russian than music that has long since been awarded the facile label of Muscovite picturesqueness.’

Jeu de cartes (1936)

The death of Diaghilev in 1929, which prompted the disbandment of the Ballets Russes, devastated Stravinsky and brought to an end to a collaboration of unparalleled artistic richness. It therefore took some years before the composer returned to writing ballets. Meanwhile, George Balanchine had moved to the US and was appointed choreographer of The American Ballet, resident at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Largely thanks to Balanchine, Stravinsky soon secured a commission to write a new ballet entitled Jeu de cartes (Game of Cards), which was premiered at the Met during a Stravinsky Festival in April 1937.

The characters in this ballet are the chief cards in a poker game. According to a note in Stravinsky’s published score, the joker ‘believes himself to be invincible because of his ability to become any desired card’. Yet after dealing the cards for a third time, the joker is outwitted by a royal flush ‘putting an end to his malice and knavery’.

Jeu de cartes is a virtuosic orchestral showpiece containing witty allusions to music by other composers, most notably Johann Strauss II, Ravel and Rossini. But beneath its almost breathlessly high-spirited character lies a more disturbing resonance that perhaps mirrors the increasingly uncertain political situation in Europe during the 1930s.

Recommended recording

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov

Hyperion CDA 67698

Stravinsky’s three greatest American ballet scores receive lively accounts which reveal their distinctive and contrasting characters.

Circus Polka (1942)

Three years after Stravinsky emigrated to the US, he received one of the strangest commissions in his entire career. Balanchine had been contracted by the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum and Bailey Circus to provide the choreography for a dancing group of elephants. He managed to persuade Stravinsky to come on board, and the composer duly obliged by creating a sparkling piece of music which, with its sudden rhythmic jolts and the outrageously grotesque quotation of Schubert’s Marche Militaire near the close, delighted audiences at New York’s Madison Square Garden. As the composer himself once reflected, ‘My music is best understood by animals and children’.

Scènes de ballet (1944)

Stravinsky described this ballet, effectively a sequence of stylised dance movements, as a ‘featherweight and sugared period piece’. It was his only contribution to Broadway – a brilliant frothy score that reinvents elements of French Romantic ballet music in the composer’s own image. Stravinsky suggested that the unusually upbeat and raucous nature of the ballet’s concluding movement reflected his own joyous mood at the news that the Allies had finally liberated France from Nazi occupation.

Orpheus (1947)

For many years, Balanchine had longed for Stravinsky to compose a companion piece to Apollo which would also be based on Greek mythology. This opportunity only came after the Second World War, when both men decided to create a ballet based on the legend of Orpheus.

In line with his assertion that he visualised the character of the music as ‘sounding like a long and sustained chant’, Stravinsky produced an extremely lyrical score for Orpheus which has an austere and arcane quality that can be attributed to its Greek setting. The restrained orchestration gives a prominent role to the harp as the musical representation of Orpheus’s lyre, and a plaintive oboe solo movingly conveys his loneliness and sense of melancholy. Much of the music moves at a relatively slow tempo, thereby making the sudden and surprisingly brief explosion of frenzied violence, as the Bacchante viciously tear Orpheus to pieces, sound all the more terrifying.

Agon (1953-57)

Stravinsky’s capacity for self-renewal is brilliantly exemplified in the last of his Greek ballets, whose title means ‘contest’. In contrast to Apollo and Orpheus, the scenario for Agon is purely abstract. According to Balanchine, the ballet ‘has no story except the dancing itself – a measured construction in space, demonstrated by moving bodies set to certain patterns or sequences in rhythm or melody’. Effectively, what the audience sees is 12 dancers on stage engaging in a kind of competition before the gods that is animated by a sequence of 17th-century courtly French dances which ‘explode into the 20th century’.

Agon lies at the cusp of Stravinsky’s late style. In response to the changing musical climate of the 1950s, the composer moved away from a tonally based neo-classicism, which had served him so well for nearly 30 years, to embrace his own idiosyncratic use of 12-note serialism. Yet these two musical styles manage to coexist perfectly convincingly in Agon, not only since Stravinsky planned from the outset to include both styles, but also as he dazzles the ear with his highly ingenious treatment of the orchestra in which strikingly different combinations of instruments are employed for each individual movement.

The sheer rhythmic dynamism and compelling creative energy of Agon demonstrated conclusively that even in his seventies Stravinsky’s aural imagination was as vivid as ever. It’s little wonder that after its triumphant first performance by the New York City Ballet, a leading dance critic pronounced it to be ‘quite possibly the most brilliant ballet creation of our day… 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.’

Read our reviews of the latest Stravinsky recordings here

Find out more about Stravinsky and his works here

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Authors

Erik LeviJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Erik Levi is a journalist and critic for BBC Music Magazine and a visiting professor in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a leading authority on the music of the 20th century, and has written books on the topic of music in the Nazi era, including 'Music in the Third Reich' (1994) and 'Music and the Nazis' (2010). He is also a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and is on the reviewing roster for International Piano Magazine.

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