Igor Stravinsky invigorated ballet music to such a profound degree that his musical presence still resonates on ballet stages around the world. His first efforts in that genre for orchestra, written between 1909 and 1913 – The Firebird, Petrushka, and especially The Rite of Spring (see below) – changed the world of dance and music forever. He didn’t stop writing music for dance with those ground-breaking works, either. Rénard, followed, as did Les noces, Chant du rossignol, and Pulcinella, all within a decade. Even when Stravinsky conceived music for a small, mobile chamber group – his Histoire du soldat was originally conceived as a piece to be performed on a portable, flatbed stage – dancing was still on his mind: Histoire, scored for only seven instruments and three voices, also included a dancer.
The 1928 score, Apollo (Apollon Musagète) , was a turning point in Stravinsky’s continuing collaborations with dancers. At the work’s European premiere, the ballet was choreographed by the famed George Balanchine. (Adolph Bolm, a veteran of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, choreographed and danced Apollo’s world premiere at the Library of Congress.) Balanchine and Stravinsky would collaborate again on ballets inspired by two more Greek themes: Orpheus (1947) and Agon (1953; 1957).
In Greek drama, the agon was a moment of deliberation, or a contest, between two characters or competing ideas, sometimes also taking the form of a debate between a single character and the chorus. No literal program or story guided Stravinsky as he wrote the music for Agon – he was striving to create that pure, absolute music he so fervently spoke about – but in a clever, idiosyncratic, and totally unique way, it became a dialogue between old and new. Indeed, his musical inspiration came as much from the Baroque French court as from the atonal serial technique and sparse orchestrations of Second Viennese-school composer Anton Webern. It is this juxtaposition of old and new – the obsolete vs. then-cutting-edge technique of 12-tone serialism – which creates a “debate” in the music of Agon.
In addition to the tonal vs. atonal opposition, Stravinsky also allows for the orchestration to create a dialogue: his choice of instruments is quirky, reinforcing the contrasts between old and new. Strings and a single mandolin – instruments with Renaissance origins – are set among a more contemporary-sounding ensemble heavy on winds, brass, and percussion.
The ballet itself, choreographed by Balanchine, was considered by many dance critics to be a “high-water mark” in American ballet. The Library of Congress Performing Arts Division website describes the “Pas de deux,” a dance originally created for Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell that begins the fourth section of Agon, as “one of the defining moments of mid-century ballet.”
In a letter to Stravinsky, dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, who along with Balanchine commissioned Agon, outlined an idea for the scenario: a dance competition “before the gods… as if time called the tune, and the dances which began quite simply in the 16th century took fire in the 20th and exploded.” At a 1996 revival by Houston Ballet, Houston Chronicle critic Ann Holmes described the movement: “eye-popping, with offbeat angularity, unexpected footwork, and bent and twisted bodies, as dancers responded to the [often] dissonant music… If there is a dance in the contemporary armory that could be called ‘cool,’ Agon is it. One wants to re-invigorate the word… adapting it to describe the cutting edge, the bravura styling, the sheer shock of strangeness, while still conveying elegance and grace.”
Simple and emotionally detached titles such as “Pas de quatre” (dance for four), “Interlude,” and “Four Duos” designate the musical movements. Directions in the musical score are sparse, specifying only which dancers, male or female, would appear in each movement, and giving rudimentary theatrical directions. As Agon commences, for example, the score indicates “as the curtain rises, four male dancers are aligned across the rear of the stage with their backs to the audience.” The work ends similarly.
The 12-tone serial “row” – an atonal, ordered sequence of notes which Stravinsky used to compose some of the movements – is reflected fascinatingly in the choreography. Balanchine calls for 12 dancers, four men and eight women, who are then divided into various combinations of dancers for the four musical movements, which are further subdivided into three shorter tableaus.
The music travels from a tonal center in the first movement – around the note C – moving into polytonality in other sections, on to atonal and 12-tone material, sometimes combining tonality with atonal serialism, several times reprising the music of the opening dance. Stravinsky concludes the work again with the note C as a tonal anchor. Surely with this mixture of tonal and atonal, the composer has created his own agon within the sweep of the music.
Another notable contrast of old and new in Agon was Stravinsky’s use of counterpoint, an ancient musical art which dictates how individual musical lines interact with one another, in particular, governing how individual notes move from consonance to dissonance to consonance again. He cleverly takes the ancient rules and freshens them up for the 20th century. From the initial overlapping trumpet entrances to the many curious multi-voiced textures he creates throughout, Stravinsky – as much as any composer – demonstrated how counterpoint could still be a valid practice in the 20th century.
The first concert performance of Agon took place at the University of California, Los Angeles, June 17, 1957, with Stravinsky’s friend and champion Robert Craft conducting the Los Angeles Festival orchestra, as part of film composer Franz Waxman’s Los Angeles Music Festival and in commemoration of Stravinsky’s 75th birthday. The dance premiere occurred several months later in New York City.
-- Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA, is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Publications Coordinator.
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, harp, mandolin, piano, timpani, percussion (castanets, 3 tom-toms, xylophone), and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 28, 1981, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting (Royce Hall).