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Sergey Prokofiev / Paul Hindemith

Text of the booklet "Sergey Prokofiev / Paul Hindemith. BALLET MUSIC"

This disk brings together two compositions closely linked to 20th-century ballet music. They are also close from a chronological point of view: Sergey Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces for Piano from the Ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’ appeared in 1937, Paul Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments for piano and strings in 1940.
Among composers of the last century Prokofiev in particular was devoted to the programmatic suite genre, which allowed him to breathe new life into the musical material of his own, mainly scenic, works. The composer regarded such genre changes as an opportune and natural way to expand not only the range of performers, but also his auditorium. Often Prokofiev worked simultaneously on a scenic work and suites derived from its musical content. Especially fruitful in this respect were three ballets composed in his homeland during his mature creative period – Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and The Tale of the Stone Flower. Music from each of these was embodied in four suites – the maximum number for Prokofiev’s genre transformations.
Three orchestral suites and one for piano were written using material from Romeo and Juliet. The piano arrangement of the first version of the ballet was finished in September 1935, and immediately the composer set to work on the suites. Even the distressing events that followed could not stop him: the audition of his music for Romeo and Juliet at the Bolshoi Theatre, rejection of the ballet by the conductor and troupe, and the refusal to stage it at the two principal Russian theatres – the Bolshoi and Kirov. Thereafter this brilliant composition was ignored for almost three years.
Nonetheless, the appearance of the suites meant that the composer’s ballet music assumed a life of its own, independent of the scenic realities. The first three suites extracted from Romeo and Juliet – two for orchestra and one for piano – were performed in a twelve-month period between November 1936 and Novem-ber 1937. Prokofiev called the piano suite Ten Pieces from the Ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The first scenic version of the ballet was created using the orchestral suites, and the world premiere took place in Brno in December 1938. By the time the Russian premiere was held at the Kirov Theatre (in January 1940) the ballet music had gained worldwide recognition.
The process that produced the 1st and 2nd orchestral suites is related in some detail in Prokofiev’s notebooks, which contain jottings about the instrumentation of various numbers and sections. However, there is no mention in any source of how work proceeded on the Ten Piano Pieces.
The most likely reason is that no particular creative or compositional efforts were required to complete them. Prokofiev selected and wrote the score for the suite in 1935; the order of the pieces was decided by the end of March 1937, following a meeting with editors from the State Music Publishers (GMI). The composition was given a separate number as opus 75, unlike both the orchestral suites, whose numbers were taken from the ballet’s opus number (op.64-bis and op.64-ter). The Ten Pieces were first performed in Moscow by their author no later than autumn 1937, and published by GMI in the summer of 1938.
The narrative line of the Ten Pieces is considerably shorter than in the ballet variant. In fact the concept of a piano composition arose when the first version of Romeo and Juliet was confined to a happy ending, when Juliet awakens before her beloved kills himself in the crypt scene. This interpretation at odds with the plot of the original provoked many critical responses, and the composer himself was inclined to agree. The three suites were written before Prokofiev had decided whether to opt for a happy or tragic finale to the ballet, and each marked a stage in his overall progress towards resolving the action. The 1st orchestral suite ends with Tybalt’s funeral, the piano suite with the lovers’ scene before parting, while the 2nd orchestral suite ends with Romeo’s appearance at Juliet’s tomb. In 1937 the music halts a few steps away from the fatal conclusion, as if waiting for the author’s final decision and anticipating the tragic mood of the last orchestral suite, the 3rd, created after the ballet had been premiered in Leningrad.
In Ten Pieces there is a distinct sense of narrative balance between the ‘theatre of representation’ and the ‘theatre of experiencing’. Despite the psychological complexity, dancelike and quasi-dancelike numbers or episodes are predominant. The tarantella of the Folk Dance (No.1) is set off by the minuet accompanying the festive Arrival of the Guests at the Capulets’ house (No.3). The aggressive and ponderous footfall of the Dance of the Knights (No.6) is succeeded by the unhurried succession of voluminous ‘organ’ chords from the betrothal scene (No.7) and the headlong vortex of Mercutio’s theme (No.8). As in No.2 (The Street Awakens) and No.5 (Masks), the last of these numbers (Mercutio) presents scherzo themes of various kinds – precipitate and measured, with greater or lesser brilliance, with a small or large choreographic ‘step’, both in duple and triple time. Shakespearean humour – diverse, sharp and at times crude or verging on the grotesque – emphasises the defenceless quality of the lyrical assertions that characterise Juliet (no numbers in the suite contain music that exclusively ‘belongs’ to Romeo).
Another scherzo theme sounds at Juliet’s first appearance (No.4), but in this rondo it is replaced at times by a fanciful and ethereal waltz, at times by a rising, rhythmically capricious eddy or delicate adagio woven from soft, high-pitched and bright harmonies. Also stylistically close to Juliet’s tender themes is the Dance of the Girls with Lilies – slow, as if swaying from side to side and skilfully playing with shadows of timbres and registers. In the ballet this marks the final point before the tragic culmination; a minute later Juliet’s bed curtains draw back and she is revealed to her family, fast asleep after swallowing the sleeping draught. They presume she is dead. From this moment in the ballet all events are headed towards the fateful denouement, while the finale of the piano suite is ambiguous. The concluding piece – the scene of the lovers’ tryst before parting – ends with the unhurried advance of the potion theme, embellished by the accompaniment’s figurations, halting like drops on glass. The heroine falls asleep, leaving the audience faced forever with the choice: will she live or die?
It was a long time before Hindemith’s ensemble for piano and strings entitled The Four Temperaments finally reached the stage. In 1939 George Balanchine, a skilled piano player, asked the composer to write a piece for piano and string quintet that he could perform with friends at domestic musical evenings. Hindemith declined the commission since he was overwhelmed with work. Driven from Germany by the Nazi regime, in February 1940 the composer moved to the USA and resumed his negotiations with Balanchine. Through his agent Hindemith announced his willingness to write ‘an untitled suite suitable for dance’. It was first performed, as intended, at a concert in Balanchine’s home, and in 1941 the choreographer began planning a ballet production to the music.
Probably the idea of demonstrating the four human characters in dance form was influenced by the ballet The Four Temperaments staged in Copenhagen in 1939 by Borge Ralov (he created choreography for Nielsen’s 2nd Symphony, also entitled The Four Temperaments). Meanwhile, during the inevitable wait for the ballet premiere, Hindemith’s opus, like Prokofiev’s ballet, was adapted for concert performance and took on a life of its own, independent of the ballet images. The piece was first presented to the wider public in Boston on 3 Sep-tember 1944: the piano part was performed by Lukas Foss, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by violinist Richard Burgin – concertmaster of this ensemble and assistant to Serge Koussevitzky.
In 1940 the future of Balanchine’s American Ballet was already in doubt. A few years later the company disbanded and he was obliged to seek work elsewhere. With the aid of art connoisseur, patron and impresario Lincoln Kirstein Balanchine organised the Ballet Society in 1946, in New York. The company later evolved into the renowned New York City Ballet. At the Ballet Society opening ceremony on 20 November 1946 the ballet Four Temperaments was first performed onstage, as the choreogra-pher’s first production for the new troupe. This was one of Balanchine’s most striking creations on the path from classical dance to plotless ballet. The choreographer’s famous credo ‘Just make steps!’ (i.e. without showing emotion) did not prevent him from giving his own interpretation of the various humours, and therefore of the various ways in which emotion is expressed. Until 1951 the ballet was performed with decor by Surrealist artist Kurt Seligmann; subsequently the stage sets were removed and this enabled choreographer and soloists to make full use of the play of light, movement and, of course, the music.
Hindemith designated the structure of The Four Tempera-ments as Theme and Four Variations: Melancholy, Sanguine, Phlegmatic and Choleric (the first two pieces were originally entitled Melancholic and Sanguinic). The Theme has three sections: Moderato, Allegro assai, Moderato; in the Variations it always retains its original form altering quite freely in terms of rhythm, texture and genre. Especially noteworthy are the whimsical and unanticipated metamorphoses of the last section of the Theme, the siciliana in E flat minor. In the Melancholy, which Balanchine denotes as gloomy and pensive, it becomes a funereal march. The Sanguine ends with a decisive and bellicose apotheosis. In the Phlegmatic it is turned into a dance tune. Finally, in the Choleric rendition the siciliana’s motifs find a new confidence and amplitude and all the parts are gradually drawn into an unwavering forward movement.
The Four Temperaments combines the principles of composition characteristic for both a chamber and ‘large-scale’ (symphony or concert) opus. Sometimes this work is called a concerto for piano and chamber orchestra, recognising the concerto style, the breadth of tone and voluminous form. However, it was written with the composer’s customary attention to minute nuances, articulations, acoustic and rhythmic changes, a capricious melodic design and harmonic shifts – in the required technique for realising the imagery and aesthetics of a miniature. Balanchine brilliantly interpreted this score. In general the ballet’s action is conveyed by the soloists; it is only in the finale that 20 dancers appear onstage, and this is not a ‘crowd scene’ where all appear at once, but a gradual conquest and structura-lisation of scenic space. The subtle connection between original gestures and poses, the configuration of movements, black-and-white leotards and bright light, the natural shift of colouring in transition to the next section of musical form – once witnessed, all this remains fresh in the memory for a long time. We are reminded of Balanchine’s unpredictable fantasy world every time this music originally commissioned for domestic musical soirees is performed in a concert hall.

Svetlana Petukhova, translation by Patricia Donegan


Sergey Koudriakov on this project:

"My aim was to make a recording of music connected with ballet, both classical and modern dance, and to select works for various types of performance – for piano solo, and for piano with ensemble or orchestra. I played The Four Temperaments at the Konzerthaus in Vienna, and wanted to record these variations. Combining Hindemith with 19th-century composers would, in my opinion, be less successful and entail greater risk, so I deci-ded on Prokofiev. Their piano styles are completely different, but I think the juxtaposition turned out well.
Prokofiev’s music is accessible even to the unprepared liste-ner, even children – it is familiar, played everywhere. Since the music of Hindemith may at first prove incomprehensible to those unaccustomed to the composer’s particularities, I would like to say a few words about my interpretation of The Four Temperaments. Specifically, I agree that the pieces entitled Sanguine and Choleric correspond to these humours, but certain episodes of Melancholy and Phlegmatic set me thinking.
Melancholy begins with a duet between the piano and muted violin, and the violin’s responses can be termed melancholic by their very nature. But the march at the end of this piece does not fully correspond to my perception of this humour. I perceive it as mournful and solemn rather than melancholic. It rises to a climax, bright as a flash of light, with the fortissimo culminating in A flat major harmony, before everything is extinguished, terminated.
The Phlegmatic piece is without orchestra, played by a string quartet joined in the last section by the double bass. Probably this introduction of the strings corresponds to the phlegmatic mood, sounding very peaceful but apparently with no concern for their surroundings. Yet further on something very different begins. Here I tried to represent indifference, but not passive indifference: something happens and I see it happening, but pay no attention. Finally the dialogue between quartet and piano leads to a very confusing episode: within it I can hear Jewish motifs. Preserving a sense of apathy is most difficult at this point, and I simply trusted my intuition and auditory instinct.
On the whole I believe the piano is very subversive in the work. It often counterbalances what occurs in the string orchestra. This is already established in the Theme: initially the orchestra plays a lengthy melody, then the piano makes a sudden entrance, in a completely different mode and Allegro tempo. The same thing continues with the siciliana in E flat minor: the orchestra launches into dance music, but what about the piano? Here there are fitful, highly-strung trills. But as soon as the piano part ends, everything calms down. There is no way I can accept this Theme as subordinate, as a pretext for the music that follows – it is undoubtedly a complete and self-sufficient piece."



Text of the booklet "Sergey Prokofiev / Paul Hindemith. BALLET MUSIC"


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