Houston Ballet: The Russian Composer and the French Queen

Classic Arts Features   Houston Ballet: The Russian Composer and the French Queen
On Feb. 26, Houston Ballet presents the the premiere of Marie, a new full-length ballet created by Stanton Welch and featuring the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Charles Ward explores the surprisingly appropriate intertwining of Marie Antoinette and the Russian composer.

On first consideration, the 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich doesn't seem an obvious fit with the 18th-century Queen Marie Antoinette of France.

More than two centuries separated them. He composed in an era where, aside from the repressive politics of Stalinist Russia, artists had great stylistic freedom. She lived in a highly structured and regimented cultural milieu. Artistic expression faced far greater constraints.

But probe a little deeper and a link becomes clearer. "I believe that both Shostakovich and Marie were severely straitjacketed (in Marie's case corseted) into lives that were not of their choosing but, rather, predetermined for them by the political powers and the expected social norms of their time," says Houston Ballet music director Ermanno Florio. "Both were offered lives of privilege, but the extreme compromise and personal sacrifice they endured made them victims of their times."

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Ermanno Florio
photo by Jim Caldwell

Marie was Austrian, a member of the Hapsburg royal family who was parachuted, for geopolitical reasons, into a marriage with a man she had never met and into a country that in its deepest heart hated Austria. Shostakovich, one of the 20th-century's greatest composers, walked a tightrope of survival that began in the mid-1930s during Joseph Stalin's Great Terror, when thousands and thousands of people simply disappeared in a never-ending purge of politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals.

Shostakovich (1906-1975) was already an international star when Stalin attended Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Moscow in January 1936. Two days later, the official newspaper Pravda published a brutal attack on Shostakovich and his opera under the headline "Muddle instead of Music." Nine days later came a second Pravda attack, this time on Shostakovich's third and final ballet, The Limpid Stream. Immediately, Shostakovich feared for his freedom and life. Like many others, he kept a suitcase packed with underwear and essentials in case of arrest.

And, in 1948, he endured a second official denunciation when government officials began a new campaign against "formalism," i.e., music that had an intrinsic intra-music meaning rather than an overt message that served the government's political goals.

Especially until Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich was constantly pulled between artistic instincts and need for survival. Out of that tension he produced music that was unusually rich emotionally _ exalted and pedantic, triumphant and resigned, occasionally happy and frequently sardonic, witty and bitter, and much more. "His music had all the power, pathos and emotional intensity to bring this version of Marie's story to life," Florio says.

Shostakovich left supreme legacies in symphonies, concertos, string quartets, other chamber music and opera (notably Lady Macbeth). He also wrote a huge volume of works in other idioms including film. Florio has mostly mined the latter for his score of Marie, especially the four ballet suites assembled by the frequent collaborator Lev Atovm'yan from various Shostakovich works (including The Limpid Stream).

Florio and Welch worked out the musical score for Marie over 10 months and through several face-to-face meetings. Florio started by recommending a general group of works for Welch's listening. The artistic director chose specific movements to match the scenario and the pair then set about solving problems of musical consistency.

One example was the prelude and fugue for piano that Welch chose for Marie in a scene where she is taking a keyboard lesson (in her time the instrument would have been a harpsichord). For dramatic impact and musical continuity, Florio recommended that the pianist play for only a few seconds. He then orchestrated, i.e., arranged, the remainder of the work for orchestra.

Radical readjustments are rare for Florio. In all his ballet scores _ others use music of Felix Mendelssohn, Carl Marie von Weber, Hector Berlioz, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Leon Minkus _ he employs works written for orchestra. When necessary, he changes the key of a piece, composes a small transition, or makes other small alterations to obtain musical continuity.

One notable departure in Marie will be a movement from the Piano Trio No. 1 in the original version for piano, violin and cello. It will be one of the few 'major' works in the score. Others are the First and Second Piano Concertos and the Symphony No. 10.

Marie closes with heart-wrenching irony, as she heads to the guillotine accompanied by the Adagio from the Ballet Suite No. 2.

When Welch and Florio settled on that piece, they didn't know that the Adagio comes from The Limpid Stream, the ballet denounced in Pravda. But through it, the tragedies of the Maries' and Shostakovich's lives are symbolically intertwined.


Houston Ballet's premiere of Marie, runs from Feb. 26 to March 8. For tickets and information, visit Houston Ballet.

Read more on Marie in the Playbill Arts feature article Who Was Marie?

Charles Ward is the retired classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle.

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