George Balanchine and the Music of Europe

Classic Arts Features   George Balanchine and the Music of Europe
New York City Ballet music director Andrea Quinn sheds light on Balanchine's musical choices.

Balanchine's love for and appreciation of music are celebrated in NYCB's spring season in three different music festivals: European, American, and Russian. The European Festival runs from April 27 through May 23.

The sheer diversity of music to which Balanchine choreographed is no more clearly evident than in the European Festival of the Balanchine Centennial. Not only are there flavors of several different countries, but also delicacies of contrasting eras and styles, from the Italian Baroque delights of Vivaldi and Corelli in Square Dance to the extraordinary complex serialist miniatures of Webern's Austrian orchestral music in Episodes. Furthermore, there is a wide range of classical music in the broadest sense, from Hershy Kay's jocular arrangements of Britain's folk melodies in Union Jack to the intense romanticism of Robert Schumann's "Davidsbündlertänze" and the chasms of the deeply serious, dark, violent music of Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 2.

How did the choreographer's affinities with such a vast and eclectic repertoire come about? Of course, the most obvious reason is Balanchine's mastery of music itself; in this sense he is, as a choreographer, unique. He was born into a musical family: his father composed and his mother played the piano and initially gave the young George lessons. The boy showed early talent and spent many pleasant hours improvising and playing duets with his brother, Andrei. The former was something he was especially fond of, as was noted by students in the St. Petersburg ballet school where study of music was compulsory. He proved himself such a competent pianist that he was frequently chosen by senior students to accompany them at their graduation dance performances.

When Balanchine graduated from the ballet school in 1921, he was taken into the State Theater of Opera and Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet. But at the same time he enrolled in the (by then) Petrograd Conservatory of Music, and at that point was strongly tempted to become a musician rather than dancer. Balanchine's curiosity and thirst for music enabled him to become familiar with much of the Russian repertoire of that time, published or not. This inquisitiveness extended to experimentation with composition, which was much encouraged by his father. Indeed, the very first review of Balanchine's choreography was of a work called Valse performed in 1922, with both the music and steps by him.

The choreographer rapidly developed an appreciation for and understanding of music that went to the bare bones of musical anatomy and included a fascination with the way a score looked and sounded. Thus the choreography in his masterpieces seems to illuminate the most intimate details of a composition in a glorious yet unaffected way. Balanchine's most famous collaborator, Igor Stravinsky, suggested that the choreographer's inventions added a new layer of understanding to his music of which even he was previously unaware. Martha Graham, observing Balanchine working with his dancers in Episodes, said, "It's like watching light pass through a prism. The music passes through him, and in the same natural yet marvelous way that a prism refracts light, he refracts music into dance." The pleasure of working with a choreographer who was not only such a fine musician, but also a genius of its visualization, acutely affected his collaborators.

Balanchine believed that the commissioning of new music was an extremely important part of the continual creative processes enjoyed by the hungry and remarkably broad-minded New York City Ballet audience. While his most famous partnership was with Stravinsky, there were others which also yielded wonderful results. One such pairing was with Paul Hindemith, a German-Jewish composer, in exile in America from 1940. Balanchine in an interview said, "I used to have concerts at home every month or two weeks. And I had musicians. And I had unknown music. I invited Hindemith to one of these soirees." The choreographer asked him to compose something for piano and a few strings that he could play with friends. Thus The Four Temperaments was born and in 1946 became a masterpiece of choreography.

Balanchine also had a great love for French music. In addition to the compositions of Ravel, the music of Georges Bizet delighted Balanchine and was the impetus for one of his best-known ballets, Symphony in C, choreographed on Paris Opera Ballet in 1947 as Palais de Cristal. Bizet composed his symphony in 1855 at the age of only 17, but soon after the manuscript disappeared and was not rediscovered until 1935‹sixty years after the composer's death. Balanchine's choreography played a large part in the popular rediscovery of the work. The tightly formed music with its outer fast movements shackled into classical harmonic structure, witty scherzo, and beautifully poignant adagio was a wonderful floor on which to make one of the most exciting abstract ballets of all time. Famously on one occasion, the choreographer stepped in to conduct the work from memory after confused scheduling left the podium empty. Dancers of the time have strong recollections of the terrific speed of the last movement!

Balanchine was a master when it came to fulfilling requirements for an event even when the circumstances were not ideal. In 1956 he was asked to choreograph something by Mozart for a Connecticut festival celebrating the bicentennial of the composer's birth. Despite his belief that Mozart was "too touched by heaven" to be choreographed, he made several ballets, including the now popular Divertimento No. 15. Balanchine demonstrated his humility after the work premiered in New York: a friend, coming to congratulate the choreographer, spied him alone in a corner rapturously exclaiming, "Oh! That Mozart! That music!"

The European composers who provided Balanchine with the musical ground on which his company could dance were chosen by the choreographer at many different stages of his life and in varied circumstances. He had no musical snobbery; his tastes fell into no category. Some music he carried in his head for years before using it; other works were set to totally new music, the results of commissions; and still other pieces were chosen to fulfill the needs of a specific event. Then, of course, there was much music that Balanchine loved that he did not feel was appropriate for dance. The very diversity of the music he chose opens a small window onto the knowledge and respect that he had for music. He said, "When I do a ballet, I don't think about happiness or sadness. I think about the composer and his music."

This article is excerpted from "European Music Festival" by Andrea Quinn, from NYCB's Balanchine 100: A Commemorative Journal.

Recommended Reading: