Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”: Ballet for Martha

In interviews, Aaron Copland recounted, with amusement, conversations he had with concertgoers following performances of Appalachian Spring: “Mr. Copland, when I hear your music I can just see the Appalachian Mountains and I can feel spring.” In fact, Copland composed this music under the working title, “Ballet for Martha.” The more evocative title, inspired by a line from Hart Crane’s poem The Dance, came after the music was written. Still, for most of us there is something distinctly American about Appalachian …

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Stravinsky’s “Orpheus”: Melancholy, Love, and Mystery

“Myths never were, but always are,” wrote the 4th century Roman commentator, Sallustius. So it is with the story of Orpheus, which inspired Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine in mid-twentieth century Hollywood as deeply as it did Claudio Monteverdi in 1607 and the lyric poet Ibycus in the 6th century BC. In 1946, Stravinsky received a commission from Balanchine and the impresario, Lincoln Kirstein, for a contemporary treatment of the Orpheus story. The resulting …

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Stravinsky Meets Tchaikovsky: Reimagining “The Sleeping Beauty”

Tchaikovsky’s fairytale ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, was first performed at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre on January 15, 1890. Among the audience members of this premiere production was the eight-year-old Igor Stravinsky, who later noted it as a formative musical experience. For the first time, the young Stravinsky was struck by the majesty of the orchestra, and well as the music of Tchaikovsky, a personal friend of Stravinsky’s father. In January of 1941, Stravinsky received a …

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Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” Finale: The Spell is Broken

Tchaikovsky’s 1876 ballet, Swan Lake, tells the fairy tale story of a young prince (Siegfried) who falls in love with a princess (Odette) who has been kidnapped by the evil sorcerer, Rothbart. Through a spell cast by Rothbart, Odette is transformed into a white swan during the day, returning to human form only at night. Later, Rothbart lays a trap for Siegfried, deceiving him with a woman who looks like Odette, but who …

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“The Fairy’s Kiss”: Stravinsky’s Musical Homage to Tchaikovsky

In 1893, while attending a performance at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, the 11-year-old Igor Stravinsky caught a fleeting glimpse of Tchaikovsky. The occasion was the 50th anniversary production of Glinka’s opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, in which Stravinsky’s father, Fyodor, an acclaimed bass, was singing. Tchaikovsky would die two weeks later. Stravinsky recalled, I looked and saw a man with white hair, large shoulders, a corpulent back, and this image has remained in the retina of …

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“Daphnis and Chloe”: Ravel’s Shimmering “Symphonie Chorégraphique”

Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé was conceived as a ballet score for Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes. It premiered on June 8, 1912, two years after Stravinsky’s The Firebird and a year before the same composer’s riot-inducing Le Sacre du printemps. Yet this radical and monumental work—the closest Ravel ever came to writing a symphony—boldly transcends its original purpose. Scored for a massive orchestra and chorus and unfolding in three parts with four recurring leitmotifs, Ravel referred …

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Eight of Prokofiev’s Quirkiest Ballet Melodies

Last week, the Richmond Symphony returned to the orchestra pit for five performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s shimmering and comic 1944 ballet, Cinderella. Bringing off Prokofiev’s music, both technically and musically, often feels like solving a puzzle. Hovering somewhere between austere twentieth century Neoclassicism and moments of sudden lush Romanticism, this music is always keeping us off guard. We never know exactly how to take it. It is simultaneously humorous and sarcastic, cool and calculating (like …

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