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Experience Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—Without Dance

PLAYBILL
By Simon Morrison - January 23, 2018

 Sergei Prokofiev Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Sergei Prokofiev Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

This month’s all-Prokofiev program at the New York Philharmonic is an opportunity to experience the composer’s musical storytelling in its purest form.

How do music and movement relate? Is one merely accompaniment to another? An ornament, akin to a costume, or just the setting—perhaps a stage? Or might music itself embody the motions of dance and so convey a sense of story? For conductor Stéphane Denève, Prokofiev’s music creates entire scenes through sound. In the ballet Romeo and Juliet, for example, the teenage heroine is introduced with a rising C-major scale that climbs ever upward. A pause in the ascent suggests a moment’s hesitation, a looking down to measure the distance, before the music moves up again. The simple scale thus captures the lure of freedom, suggests a desire to escape. Denève asks the musicians he conducts to imagine “landing on a cloud” at the end of the episode. Another tune is then introduced, but with an errant note, signaling Juliet’s polite but knowing refusal to heed the rules.

Prokofiev himself, in composing Romeo and Juliet, refused to heed Shakespeare’s text: not wanting Juliet to die, he concluded the original 1935 version of his ballet in an undefined elsewhere. The young couple simply walks out of the plot, away from the drama, and into a realm awash in lush C-major chords—that same key of Juliet’s first appearance. She and her beau are left spinning alone to the music of the spheres. Love lives on. (Or at least it did until the composer was overruled and Shakespeare’s ending was restored for the ballet’s premiere.) You can hear it all at the David Geffen Hall January 25–27.

Cole Porter, ballet, Princeton University, and the immigration ban

By Simon Morrison

The attempted Trump administration “ban” on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations threw lives into chaos, sparked mass protest, sewd confusion, consumed lawyers, and generated anguished debate about just how much love the United States truly has for the “tempest-tost” of the world. Yet as with the slogan “America First,” we have been here before in history. And artists have responded.

After World War I, immigration rose dramatically, fueling the fear that refugees (especially from Southern and Eastern Europe) would seek out new opportunities in the United States. In concert with a rank pseudo-scientific racism, wholly endorsed by the U.S. government through the Dillingham Commission, Congress distinguished between those who were deemed more or less likely and able to assimilate to American culture. In 1921, the House passed a bill enacting a two-year moratorium on all immigration, but the Senate refused to support a complete ban. Instead, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 slashed immigration into the United States from Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, and New Zealand, setting strict quotas based on the 1910 census to ensure an unchanging ethnic and religious population. Immigration within the Western Hemisphere was not limited (California and Texas relied on cheap agricultural labor from Mexico) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had already banned Asian immigration. Under the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, ships bearing would-be immigrants were turned away from U.S. shores. Three years later Congress passed the National Origins Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, which fixed and froze immigration quotas by racial groups to preserve the “pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock” of the United States, as one Senate supporter explained. Only in 1965 was this racially discriminatory immigration policy repealed.

The American composer Cole Porter, now revered as a Broadway genius but at the time still an ambitious young songsmith, mounted a response in the form of an acerbic, staged-on-the-cheap pantomime-ballet first called Landed, then, in response to the new immigration laws, named Within the Quota. The ballet, to a scenario by Gerald Murphy, was premiered in Paris the Ballets Suédois before itself emigrating to the United States.

There is no real plot, just a series of encounters that culminate in a caustic satire of a modern, American happy ending: It’s not love but fame and wealth that conquers all. Choreographer and dancer Jean Bӧrlin took the lead role, playing the part of an immigrant who, upon passing through Ellis Island, meets various clichéd American types extracted from the silent screen. The would-be hero is number thirteen within the immigration quota, a number he wears as a tag on his ill-fitting town suit. Arriving in the United States, he first encounters a bejeweled heiress, a role taken in 1923 by the glamorous Klara Kjellblad, whose role today could be played by Ivanka Trump. Next appeared a strutting racist caricature: a “colored gentleman” in natty attire, a throwback to Zip Coon from the minstrel stage. The part, performed in blackface by Kaj Smith, inspired the catchiest music in Porter’s score and sated a noxious, perverse fascination among the French ballet-going public with American minstrelsy. A posh “jazz baby,” inspired by the mercurial femme fatale actress Pola Negri, enters next; the role was danced in a slit gown by the black-haired, pale-skinned Ebon Strandin. Lastly a deeply tanned, constantly squatting cowboy comes to the stage. He’s the antithesis of the inner-city types, the coastal elites, the Hollywood liberals who compose the rest of the cast. The series of encounters with American stereotypes leaves immigrant number thirteen confused and frightened, especially because each clichéd character encounters the forces of repression and hypocrisy. A prohibitionist drinks the bottle that he confiscates, then there’s a tax collector, a sheriff, and finally a film censor. The censor follows the appearance of a movie star in long curls, pink ribbons, and heart-shaped necklace pendant representing the silent film comedienne Mary Pickford.

Titled “The Sweetheart of the World,” the rhapsodic tune that accompanies Pickford’s appearance at the end of the ballet almost begs for a crooner to perform its unwritten lyrics in a smoky cavern somewhere. The gorgeous musical twinkling is the sonic equivalent of the now-standard Hollywood practice of blurring a love scene with a pulled-back, expanding shot accompanied by swelling strings, and so on. 

Mary Pickford herself tended to portray pathetic immigrant characters (and she was from Canada) on film in the 1920s. In Within the Quota, the Pickford-esque sweetheart and Bӧrlin’s immigrant perform a miniature pas de deux, ballet’s corseted emblem of romantic ecstasy, as the cameras click and the light-bulbs flash, and as the upper strings rise heavenward. The real America has let the immigrant down, terribly, so he selects La-La-Land. The show ends with him not lost in the New World, but lost in the stars. The rest of the characters dip and spin as the curtain descends. Within the Quota concludes somewhere between the real and the fantastic, no longer within the quota of either. 

To look for the steps and gestures Bӧrlin created for Within the Quota is to confront an abyss. Such is the haunting oddness ballet, past and present: it is an ephemeral art, it disappears, the dreams it conjures evaporate. Once the immigrant lands in the U. S. and finds the forces aligned against him, he dissolves into the Hollywood illusion that America denied him after he someone made it across the border. The illusion is preferable to the real in the plot. “Can we do better?” Cole Porter asked in ragtime rhythms in 1923. Shouldn’t we in 2017?

EVENT
On May 4, Princeton University will presented a 21st century version of this work, allegorized as an act of resistance to the policies of the current Trump administration. It was performed in Richardson Auditorium by the students of the Princeton University Ballet, in an arrangement of the music prepared by Simon Morrison and London-based Penguin Café Orchestra, whose ten members are traveling to Princeton for the performance. Funding was provided by the Music Department, the University Center for Human Values, the Lewis Center for the Arts, the Humanities Council, the Department of African-American Studies, the Department of English, the Program in American Studies, and the Program in Latin-American Studies.

Dance of Steel

The Paris Review
By Simon Morrison - February 13, 2017

In Soviet Russia, getting a ballet off the ground was no mean feat, as Sergei Prokofiev learned the hard way.

"In Russia, during the Soviet era, government control made the challenge of getting a ballet onto the stage no less onerous than being admitted into the ballet schools of Moscow or Leningrad. The daunting auditions of Soviet legend—teachers scrutinizing preadolescents for the slightest physical imperfection—found an ideological parallel in the required inspections by censorship boards at the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky–Kirov theaters. First, the subject of a prospective ballet was adjudicated in terms of its fulfillment of the demands for people-mindedness; the music and the dance would be likewise assessed. There would follow a provisional closed-door run-through to decide if the completed ballet could be presented to the public, after which it would either be scrapped or sent back to the creative workshop for repairs. Dress rehearsals were subsequently assessed by administrators, cognoscenti, politicians, representatives from agricultural and industrial unions, and relatives of the performers. Even then, after all of the technical kinks had been worked out, an ideological defect could lead to the sudden collapse of the entire project..."

Choir in Plane Crash Projects Russian Pride and Soft Power

By Zachary Woolfe - Dec. 27, 2016

Confusion has flooded the web since it was announced that dozens of members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, a famed army choir and orchestra, were among the 92 killed when a Russian military passenger plane headed for Syria crashed into the Black Sea on Sunday.

Did that choir perform Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” at the Sochi Olympics? Just about everyone in Russia could answer that question correctly: No.

“This ensemble is better known in Russia than the Vienna Boys Choir is in Austria,” Simon Morrison, a professor of music at Princeton University and the author of “Bolshoi Confidential,” said in a phone interview. Mr. Morrison spoke about the choir’s history and sound, as well as the ensemble with which it has been confused. These are edited excerpts from the conversation...

ArticlesErika Barbee
Landed: Cole Porter's Ballet

Submitted to Forthcoming Cole Porter Companion
By Simon Morrison

There is no doubting the importance of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the history of musical and choreographic modernism. But the stress placed on Diaghilev’s achievement has come at the expense of another organization no less innovative in terms of its aesthetic risks and rewards. That was the Ballets Suédois, which in 1923 premiered a brief ballet-pantomime to music by the untested Cole Porter.

Debussy’s Toy Stories
 The Toy Box in San Francisco (Biblioth`eque nationale deFrance)

The Toy Box in San Francisco (Biblioth`eque nationale deFrance)

By Simon Morrison

When and where was Claude Debussy’s The Toy Box premiered? Completed in piano score in 1913, the ballet went on tour under the original French title La Boıˆte a` joujoux, the Russian Yashchik s igrushkami, and the Swedish Leksaksladan ˚ . The preferred American title, The Toy Box, was changed by the English to The Toy Shop. In any language, Debussy wanted the ballet to entertain children, and even imagined children performing it. Puppets too. But once the orchestration was finished and adults got involved, things became complicated.

ROSTROPOVICH’S RECOLLECTIONS

Music and Letters, Volume 91, Number 1, February 2010, pp. 83-90
Published by Oxford University Press
By Simon Morrison

Several histories of Soviet music exist, but many are hobbles by an absence of primary-source documentation about crucial events: the circumstances surrounding the denunciation of Dmitry Shostakovich in 1936, for example, or the anti-formalist resolution of 1948. The gaps tend to be filled by uncritical references to uncritical sources. These include the uncorroborated testimony of eyewitnesses, partial (rather than complete) publications of compositions, and unchallenged recollections. Every survivor of the Stanlinist period, the worst of all times in terms of thought control seems to have a sorrowful tale to tell of censorship and deprivation, sometimes supplemented with fanciful accounts of defiance. Though the system was monstrous, it did offer perks, as evidenced by the career of the eminent cellist and (later) conductor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). 

ArticlesErika Barbee
The Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of October, or How the Specter of Communism Haunted Prokofiev

University of California
By Simon Morrison and Nelly Kravetz

It is well known that during a terrible period in Russian history, marked by the consolidation of totalitarian control over all aspects of society, the composer Sergey Prokofiev moved from Paris to Moscow. The Stalinist government needed celebrities to shore up its cultural standing, and Prokofiev, an international artist longing to return to his homeland, succumbed to the government’s temptations. In 1936, he became a national artist, composing patriotic works that celebrated Russia’s cultural and political history. In the months ahead, he composed a series of works for the centennial of Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), the nation’s most beloved poet.

ArticlesErika Barbee
The Origins of Dapnis et Chloe (1912)

19th-Century Music, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Summer 2004), pp. 50-76
by Simon Morrison

Besides Maurice Ravel’s score, the remnants of the original production of Daphnis et Chloé—one known stage photograph, an assortment of studio photographs, seven known costumes, brief reviews, anecdotal memoirs, and a bundle of pencil and pastel drawings—constitute choreographer Mikhail Fokine’s draft and revised scenarios. There also exist proof pages for a shorter version of the 1910 piano score, musical evidence to suggest that Fokine conceived the ballet in 1907 for another composer, and reproductions of Léon Bakst’s stage décor.Though interrelated, these materials are scattered across the globe, preserved in libraries and museums in Russia, Sweden, France, En-gland, and the United States. Their contents detail...

The semiotics of symmetry, or Rimsky-Korsakov's operatic history lesson

By Simon Morrison for Elena Strona - November 2001

Abstract: Rimsky-Korsakov dwelled at length on his place in music history. His musings informed his creative processes, notably his handling of operatic time and space relationships. His stage works rely on structural and syntactic reflection rather than patterns of cause and effect for cohesion. This article examines the narrative contents of Sadko (1896), a setting of the merchant tale "Sadko the Rich Trader" that follows the contours of the Orpheus parable. The analysis, focusing on the mirror relationships between Russians and non-Russians, indicates that the composer conceived the score as a parody of nationalism and orientalism. In depicting self as other and other as self, Sadko also demonstrates the inherent universality, rather than the inherent Russianness, of Rimsky-Korsakov's music. 

ArticlesErika Barbee
Skryabin and the Impossible

Journal of The American Musicological Society
By Simon Morrison - 1998

Abstract: We demand of the poet that he should constantly offer up his "holy sacrifices," not only in his verses but in every hour of his life, every feeling: in his love, in his hatred, in his achievements, and in his failings. Let the poet create not his books, but his life. Let him ...

ArticlesErika Barbee