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Masterpiece Theatre: Part One - Stravinsky's Orpheus




Stravinsky's neo-Classical works turn to ancient Greek myth almost as often as they call upon musical styles from earlier centuries. It was perhaps inevitable that he would at some point adopt the tale of Orpheus, which had inspired so many important works from the Renaissance on, as the basis of one of his own compositions. Stravinsky wrote his Orpheus (1947), a ballet, while studying the music of Claudio Monteverdi. The influence of Monteverdi, composer of the first great opera based on the Orpheus myth, is indeed evident in Stravinsky's work. Still, as he always did in his neo-Classical music, Stravinsky integrated his disparate influences into his own artistic personality to produce something wholly original.

Orpheus was composed in collaboration with the choreographer George Balanchine. The two men synchronized their thoughts on music and action precisely, and when the score was complete and choreography began, Stravinsky attended rehearsals to ensure that their original vision would remain intact. Balanchine's Ballet Society premiered Orpheus in New York on April 28, 1948.

Opportunities for melodrama abound in the Orpheus myth; however, much in the manner of Monteverdi's treatement, Stravinsky's Orpheus is distinguished by nobility and restraint. The dynamic level rarely rises above mezzo-piano, and the tempi are similarly moderated. This restraint was partly dictated by the instrumentation; having assigned the role of Orpheus to the harp, Stravinsky carefully ensured that the instrument's delicate sonorities would not be overwhelmed in the texture; even the whooping string chords in the dance of the Furies are palpably tempered. At the same time, the establishment of this slow, soft atmosphere allows Stravinsky to rip the musical fabric to great effect. After a song to tame tormented souls, which has the echoes of a Bach siciliana, Hades relents and allows Eurydice and Orpheus to exit the underworld, accompanied by noble, eloquent string polyphony. A short, sharp crescendo jolts the listener to attention and is followed by a bar of silence, during which Orpheus unbinds his eyes and Eurydice falls dead. Ominous sounds from the strings lead up to the only truly fast and loud music in the score, which accompanies the dismemberment of Orpheus by the Bacchantes. This passage recalls the composer's Rite of Spring in its brutally shaped rhythms, stabbing accented chords, and cruel, off-center downbeats. The closing music, which depicts Apollo raising Orpheus' song heavenward, is reminiscent of the opening, lending an odd sense of peace to the work as it draws to a close.

[Article taken from All Music Guide]

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This is one of my favorite ballets from Stravinsky. What does everyone think of this work? Any favorite performances? It's not a violent work and given what happens to the protagonist, it's a wonder! Please feel free to talk about the work however you wish. This will be the first in a series of ballet works that I'm going to be posting. I thought this was bit of an unusual one to start with, but I love this work so much.
 

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Would it make sense to post this in the ballet forum? It could use more activity.

Oddly enough, although I have been a subscriber to New York City Ballet for over a decade, I have never seen Orpheus. It isn't performed as often as Apollo, or Agon, Balanchine's other two Stravinsky commissions, both of which I've seen several times. My only audio recording is the one conducted by Stravinsky.

As I posted in the ballet section, I have been working my way through the Royal Ballet's box set (15 Blu-Ray discs). I am in the Ashton section now, and I saw La Fille Mal Gardee for the first time. An absolute delight. The music is serviceable and appropriate, though it was cobbled together from a number of sources. Oddly enough, the Decca 1960s vintage recording of excerpts is a perennial on The Absolute Sound's Super Disc Best of the Bunch list.
 

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Would it make sense to post this in the ballet forum? It could use more activity.

Oddly enough, although I have been a subscriber to New York City Ballet for over a decade, I have never seen Orpheus. It isn't performed as often as Apollo, or Agon, Balanchine's other two Stravinsky commissions, both of which I've seen several times. My only audio recording is the one conducted by Stravinsky.

As I posted in the ballet section, I have been working my way through the Royal Ballet's box set (15 Blu-Ray discs). I am in the Ashton section now, and I saw La Fille Mal Gardee for the first time. An absolute delight. The music is serviceable and appropriate, though it was cobbled together from a number of sources. Oddly enough, the Decca 1960s vintage recording of excerpts is a perennial on The Absolute Sound's Super Disc Best of the Bunch list.
The lack of activity in the ballet forum is precisely why I'll be posting these particular threads here. There's more 'foot traffic' here so to speak. I hope the mods understand.

Anyway, it doesn't surprise me that you haven't seen Orpheus programmed. It's not a popular work by any stretch of the word. I can certainly understand why of course: of the 'Greek ballets' from Stravinsky (the others being Apollon musagète and Agon of course), it has the least recordings and I'm not sure about it's performance history, but I can't imagine it being anywhere near the two other aforementioned ballets.

I own quite a few Orpheus recordings: both of Stravinsky's recordings (mono and stereo --- from the Columbia/Sony box set), Salonen, Craft, the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Colin Davis, Ilan Volkov and Neeme Järvi. They're all very good performances, but my favorite remains the Stravinsky-led stereo recording:

 

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@jegreenwood, I'd really appreciate it if you would keep your posts specific to Orpheus since this is what this thread about. Thanks.
 

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I agree about Stravinsky's stereo recording being the one, that one tends to return too.
It's one of my favourite Stravinsky ballets, besides the three most famous ones, and Agon and Apollon Musagete - all so different from each other. In none of the others, Stravinsky's own recordings would be my preferred one, btw.

Besides the other, mono RCA Victor recording (1950), there's also a Stravinsky recording from his visit in Moscow (1962), but the Moscow recordings/performances are generally clumsy and not very good.
 

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This reminds me I would need to revisit Stravinsky's Orpheus, I rarely listen to his neoclassical period; I usually tend to prefer his works of the Russian period or his serial compositions.
 

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This reminds me I would need to revisit Stravinsky's Orpheus, I rarely listen to his neoclassical period; I usually tend to prefer his works of the Russian period or his serial compositions.
I love Stravinsky's Neoclassical period and it seems to be unjustly ignored and/or criticized by listeners, critics and other composers. I remember reading that many critics were incredibly disappointed when he started writing in this style. Like someone of Stravinsky's musical curiosity and thirst for change, could continue composing in the style that they wanted him to compose in. If he listened to his critics, we wouldn't have masterpieces like Pulcinella, Orpheus, Apollon musagète, Jeu de cartes, the Mass, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony of Psalms, Duo concertant, Dumbarton Oaks, the Violin Concerto (!!!), Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments et. al. Thank goodness he listened to himself and his own intuition!
 

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I love Stravinsky's Neoclassical period and it seems to be unjustly ignored and/or criticized by listeners, critics and other composers. I remember reading that many critics were incredibly disappointed when he started writing in this style. Like someone of Stravinsky's musical curiosity and thirst for change, could continue composing in the style that they wanted him to compose in. If he listened to his critics, we wouldn't have masterpieces like Pulcinella, Orpheus, Apollon musagète, Jeu de cartes, the Mass, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony of Psalms, Duo concertant, Dumbarton Oaks, the Violin Concerto (!!!), Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments et. al. Thank goodness he listened to himself and his own intuition!
For the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, Balanchine choreographed ballets to all four of these* plus a Divertimento from Le Baiser de la fée.

*Pulcinella was a joint effort with Jerome Robbins.
 

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One of my favorite ballets, and I don't consider myself much of a ballet person*. I will never tire of hearing Orpheus which is just so concise without me left wanting more.

*most of them to me just sound a bit generic.
 

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One of my favorite ballets, and I don't consider myself much of a ballet person*. I will never tire of hearing Orpheus which is just so concise without me left wanting more.

*most of them to me just sound a bit generic.
It's great to read that you enjoy Orpheus. What is it about the work that draws you in?
 
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