Apollon musàgete

Programme note

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Apollon musagète (1927-8)

One of Stravinsky’s earliest so-called ‘neoclassical’ works written in the aftermath of the First World War was the ballet Pulcinella, commissioned by the impresario Sergey Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, the company that had first brought Stravinsky to international fame with Firebird. Pulcinella was Stravinsky’s discovery of the past, as he later described it, "the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course – the first of many love affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror, too." Despite its dependence on the music of the past, Pulcinella represents an important turning point in Stravinsky’s artistic development. It revealed to him the possibilities of an engagement with all kinds of earlier music in order to renew his own musical language. Crucial, though, for his neoclassical music was not the material he borrowed (which could come from anywhere) but his attitude to it. Everything he touched he made his own.

If Pulcinella was the epiphany, then Apollon musagète must surely be the apogee of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. Commissioned by the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1927, Stravinsky chose, as he explains in his autobiography, "to compose a ballet founded on moments or episodes in Greek mythology plastically interpreted by dancing of the so-called classical school". He wanted to create what he termed a 'ballet blanc’, a score of great purity and unity, in which violent contrasts were avoided and all elements were pared down to their simplest. Hence it is scored for strings alone and makes almost exclusive use of diatonic harmony (the equivalent of the ‘white notes’ on the piano keyboard). For George Balanchine, choreographer of the 1928 European premiere, the work was a revelation: "In its discipline and restraint, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling… [Apollon] seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I, too, could eliminate". The result was the perfect union of music and dance in the expression of pure, classical beauty.

In order to achieve this sense of order as symbolized by the Greek god Apollo, Stravinsky turned to poetry. Each dance explores a basic iambic (short–long) pattern, while the ‘Variation of Calliope’ (the muse of poetry) is headed by two lines from Boileau and takes the twelve-syllable lines of the alexandrine as its rhythmic model. Another means of order was achieved by alluding to the stateliness of French Baroque dances, such as the ouverture style of the opening ‘Birth of Apollo’ or the pavane-like second ‘Variation of Apollo’. The closing ‘Apotheosis’, in which Apollo leads the three Muses towards Parnassus, brings together the various rhythmic elements of the work in music that is not just serenely beautiful but also seems to speak of something deeper and darker, something beyond reason and order. Stravinsky looks back to ancient Greece but is ultimately, perhaps, only able to see the reflection of his own tragic age.

© Jonathan Cross