Stravinsky: Apollo Musagete

Stravinsky is a great composer of ballet music, indeed he may be THE great composer of ballet music. The way in which his style developed is perhaps more exciting than any other composer of his time or any other time. Some of his music continues to present a challenge to the listener even though it is familiar through dozens of recordings and analyses.

The wonder of Stravinsky is that he could slip so easily from complex musical ideas into what seems to be familiar territory or even old fashioned – but it always has a Stravinskian flavour. It is hard to think of another composer who when writing for dancers presents so many and so varied challenges.

Much as I admire the Firebird, Petrushka and the Rite of Spring, it is one simple piece which I think presents another pinnacle of Stravinsky’s art which is often overlooked – its another peak in the mountain range of his achievements – Apollon Musagete.

Apollo (as it later became known) was written following commission in 1927/8 and is a work in two tableaux the first of which is a Prologue “The birth of Apollo” and the second tableau is a series of 6 variations and ending with a Pas de deux, Coda and Apotheosis. The setting is quite straightforward: Apollo instructs three muses Calliope (poetry), Polyhymnia (rhetoric) and Terpsichore (dance) and leads them to Mount Parnassus – the home of the Gods.

The ballet was first given in April 1928 in Washington following the commission by the US arts patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, but this setting was rather ignored by Stravinsky and surpassed by the European production by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe: premiered on 12 June 1928. This was the first collaboration between the composer and ballet master Georges Balanchine, and both music and choreography were traditional with a modern (at the time) twist. It was seen as a great innovative ballet production and has been revived several times since.

The piece was written for a small group (34 players) of strings – though subsequently more have been used. The musical style can be termed “neoclassical” and its not Stravinsky’s first or only efforts in this style. But whereas the ballet Pulcinella (1920) uses a full orchestra and makes use of diverse orchestral effects of timbre and texture, Apollo is much more homogeneous in that sense and achieves its nods towards classical and baroque music in different ways.

For me, Apollo is a brilliant of the expression of the neoclassical idea. Within the confines of a classical structure (scenes of a ballet) and using limited resources for expression Stravinsky achieves some of his greatest musical effects. No doubt the purists will argue the point, but I think the result, though granted not the intention, is a highly affecting romantic piece. The old structures and forms reverberate with a modern elegance and élan. The lean strings sound emphasise this suavity. It is the exquisitely understated presentation of subtle harmonic changes, side-lights and nuances which are the glorious hallmark of the piece. and the meat of the piece for the listener. It could be by no other composer so indelible is the stylistic signature. And Stravinsky’s daring is never over-worked or emphasised. To my ear it is the delicate suspensions, the subtle atmosphere of a piece which has “classical” roots in every sense and yet is thorough of its time and still appealing today.

I’d urge you to hear two recorded versions:

1) Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Jukka Pekka Saraste – this is highly sensitive and lithe and alert. Closer to a Stravinskian vision than any other I’ve heard and the SCO strings are superb. This is a finely balanced and intricate reading - well worth repeated auditions.

2) Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan – the work entered Karajan’s repertoire in the early 70s and continued as a showcase for the amazing BPO strings in full orchestral complement. Karajan takes liberties, but dares to entice and beguile which adds to the dramatic effect. A most moving interpretation.


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