Whipped Cream—Viennese Ballet and Pop Surrealism Meet Dark Medicine

The Arts and Medicine
Jama Network
February 19, 2019
Jason F. Wang, BA1; Nicholas A. Soter, MD2; Simon A. Morrison, PhD3

Late in his long and distinguished career, German composer Richard Strauss decided to “go light.” Weary of politically influenced music critics and of economic instability in post–World War I Vienna, Strauss said, “I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy.” He composed a Nutcracker-like ballet entitled Whipped Cream (Schlagobers), which premiered at the Vienna State Opera in 1924.

It tells of a boy who is hospitalized for abdominal pain after overeating at a Viennese sweet shop and who subsequently hallucinates about being rescued from a sinister attending physician by a dancing Princess Praline. It’s campy, but underlying this seemingly innocent childhood fantasy of dancing confections was (and is) public distrust of medicine.

In its time, the ballet carried veiled political commentary on relationships between France, Poland, and Russia, symbolized in a dance of anthropomorphic liquor bottles, but the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) 2017 production, with choreography by artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky and sets and costumes by pop-surrealist artist Mark Ryden, emphasizes medical matters.

ArticlesErika Barbee
Tchaikovsky: Polestar of the music of the future

Simon Morrison considers the mix of conservatism and irreverent innovation in the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Grace Notes
By Simon Morrison - March 21, 2019

Grace Notes is a TLS Online series which celebrates pioneering composers and musicians, and assesses the enduring impact of their work 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a delicate boy, a “child of glass”, whose caregiver once found him weeping in bed, because the music in his mind would not grant him peace. It reverberated throughout his fifty-three years of life, and he often (unjustifiably) felt inadequate in service to his gift. It demanded expression.

Despite his talent, however, Tchaikovsky seemed at first destined for a modest, even tedious life. He attended the School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg before enrolling in the newly established St Petersburg Conservatoire. After graduating in 1865, at the age of twenty-five, he accepted a full-time position teaching counterpoint and orchestration at the conservatoire in Moscow, an institution that now bears his name. His rise to fame began slowly in the 1870s thanks to the patronage of a reclusive, recently widowed heiress with a deep love of music: Nadezhda von Meck. Her support bolstered him financially as well as creatively, such that he began to write in the more prestigious genres of the symphony, opera and ballet. Eventually he outgrew the need for her support, becoming comfortably ensconced in the court as a successful and respected imperial composer. Late in life, as the musicologist Richard Taruskin has extensively argued, Tchaikovsky anticipated the aesthetic preoccupations of the Silver Age. The younger generation of progressive artists, known as Symbolists, explored the unconscious in search of meaning beyond the sensory realm. Their aesthetics were often convoluted, but Tchaikovsky strove to make his music accessible, infectious and pliant. Although eventually revered as an icon of Russianness, he saw himself as a cosmopolitan composer – he did borrow from folk songs, but they were not always Russian.

ArticlesErika Barbee
Experience Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—Without Dance

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?

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
Art in an artless place

Celebrating the anniversary of Prokofiev’s birth, and calling for the Soviet scores to be resurrected 

By SImon Morrison - July 22, 2016

The Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared 2016 to be the “Prokofiev Year” in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Let’s hope it proves better for Prokofiev’s legacy than did 2014, when the international airport named after him in Donetsk, Ukraine, was blown to smithereens in the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Three letters of Prokofiev’s name were left visible in the rubble: “ROK,” which uncannily spells “fate” in Russian. The centennial of the composer’s birth in 1991 also had its troubles, being the year the Soviet Union collapsed, and this past fall, Russian television dramatized the perverse fact that Prokofiev died on the same day as Stalin: March 5, 1953. The television broadcast juxtaposed images of the mass weeping that accompanied Stalin’s death with descriptions of the desolation that took hold of musical life in Moscow after Prokofiev’s passing. 

Erika Barbee
"125 Years of Prokofiev"

The Times Literary Supplement
By Simon Morrison - July 20, 2016

The Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared 2016 to be the “Prokofiev Year” in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Let’s hope it proves better for Prokofiev’s legacy than did 2014, when the international airport named after him in Donetsk, Ukraine, was blown to smithereens in the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Three letters of Prokofiev’s name were left visible in the rubble: “ROK”, which uncannily spells “fate” in Russian. The centennial of the composer’s birth in 1991 also had its troubles...

What The Candidates' Rally Music Says About Them

By Simon Morrison - May 25, 2016

Though loath to join the political snarkatariat, I feel compelled (as a musicologist specializing in cultural politics) to comment on music in the US presidential election. Each campaign has a playlist that presumably reflects something about the candidate and the voters he or she is courting; after all, the music we love at once mirrors our deepest desires and projects our individual as well as collective imaginings... 

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.

Scriabin: The spirit ascends

The Times Literary Supplement
By Simon Morrison - November 18, 2015

The composer and the ‘mystic’ chord
It’s a Scriabin year, the centenary of his untimely death. Hence the rush to celebrate, if not reassess, the composer’s legacy. This autumn, families in Moscow were invited to visit the Alexander Scriabin Memorial Museum on Saturdays and Sundays, with “Night in the Museum” scheduled for Thursdays. The museum also welcomed a host of academics to a scholarly conference earlier this year. Like the family fare, the programme offered a tour through Scriabin’s life and work – without delving too deeply into the sordidness of his personal life (he was accused of rape, more than once) or his occult aesthetics.

"The Spirit Ascends"

The Times Literary Supplement
By Simon Morrison - November 18, 2015

It’s a Scriabin year, the centenary of his untimely death. Hence the rush to celebrate, if not reassess, the composer’s legacy. This autumn, families in ­Moscow were invited to visit the Alexander Scriabin Memorial Museum on Saturdays and Sundays, with “Night in the Museum” scheduled for Thursdays. The museum also welcomed a host of academics to a scholarly conference earlier this year. Like the family fare, the programme offered a tour through Scriabin’s life and work – without delving too deeply into the...

"Emperor Putin’s War on the Truth"

The New York Times
The Opinion Pages
By Simon Morrison - October 2, 2014

PRINCETON, N.J. — I spent most of the summer in Moscow, treading past kiosks stocked with T-shirts that read, essentially, “Bring on the sanctions.” In retaliation for financial constraints imposed by Washington and Brussels for Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine, which make foreign check card purchases deeply problematic, the Russian prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, has barred the import of a wide range of American and European foods. The McDonald’s restaurant on Pushkin Square has been closed “for technical reasons.” And at the otherwise posh Bakhetle supermarket two teenage boys took pictures of Oreos; they had apparently been tasked with reporting the infiltration of enemy trans-fats to the authorities...

"The Bolshoi’s Spinning Dance of Power"
Credit: Christina Hagerfors

The New York Times
The Opinion Pages
By Simon Morrison - November 25, 2013 

Moscow’s renowned Bolshoi Theater is in crisis. Last January, Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi, was almost blinded when distilled car battery acid was thrown in his face outside of his apartment. Pavel Dmitrichenko, a mercurial soloist who harbored a grudge against Filin for failing to cast his ballerina girlfriend in choice roles, confessed to organizing the assault — then recanted. His trial is now underway, but it seems a foregone conclusion that he will be convicted and sentenced to a dozen or more years in the penal colonies...

"Yet More Tales from the Bolshoi"

London Review of Books Blog
By Simon Morrison - July 10, 2013

On Monday, Anatoly Iksanov, the besieged general director of the Bolshoi Theatre, was forced to resign. It has been speculated in Moscow that his departure was hastened by Yuri Grigorovich, the octogenarian éminence grise of the Russian dance scene, who had not to this point got involved. The intervention was long overdue, in the opinion of Iksanov’s harshest critics, who have...

"More Tales from the Bolshoi"

London Review of Books
Vol. 35, No. 13
By Simon Morrison - July 4, 2013

On 19 March, Anatoly Iksanov, the general director of the Bolshoi Theatre, held a press conference in Moscow to announce a month-long festival to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. His aim was to reclaim the ballet for the nation that inspired it. (It had its premiere in Paris in 1913.) Most of the journalists who cleared the metal detectors were familiar faces trusted by the Bolshoi’s administration. Iksanov introduced the choreographers of the season’s four new productions, then fell silent. In February the avant-garde choreographer Wayne McGregor, who had been due to put together an entirely new production of The Rite of Spring, suddenly pulled out, leaving the Bolshoi scrambling to find a replacement. McGregor had received the commission in 2009; the concept was settled and the set designed. He hasn’t publicly explained his withdrawal, although it’s generally assumed that... 

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.

"The Bolshoi’s Latest Act"
AP Photo  People watching the re-opening of the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, October 28, 2011

The New York Times Review of Books
By Simon Morrison - November 12, 2011

On July 1, 2005, just before it closed for renovation, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater staged a final performance of two Russian classics: Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake and Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. Like the Bolshoi itself, these two works have, over the course of their long histories, accrued heavy political baggage. The ballet was shown on state television during the failed Soviet coup d’état of 1991. And the opera, which pits an illegitimate czar against a pretender to the throne, found nightmarish parallel in the struggle for control between Gorbachev and Yeltsin during the eerie final months of Soviet power...


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