Stokowski himself was justly admired for his flair with Bach transcriptions, best known in the mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, which he adapted for Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). A little earlier Stokowski had arranged the solemn Prelude in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, for a dark-hued orchestra of muted strings and low winds (bassoons, French horns, and trombones). The Chorale Prelude "Wir glauben all' an einen Gott," BWV 680, was Bach's fugal elaboration of a popular hymn tune he used several times; Stokowski's arrangement was published in 1947.
Paul Taylor's Promethean Fire premiered in 2002.
Notes on the Dance
Although Johann Sebastian Bach had no occasion to compose an actual ballet, dance is one of the wellsprings of his music. Even in seemingly abstract pieces, there is kinetic physicality and motor energy, and those wonderfully braided lines that seem to cry for spatial as well as aural definition. The list of 20th-century and contemporary choreographers who have created dances on the music of Bach is endless: George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Doris Humphrey, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Roland Petit, Bella Lewitzky, John Neumeier, Helgi Thomasson, Peter Martins...
And Paul Taylor. The American modern dance master has created at least seven major works with music by Bach. The Paul Taylor Dance Company brings two of them, Musical Offering and Promethean Fire, for its Hollywood Bowl debut, August 25, with Leonard Slatkin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"I have always felt like Bach is an old friend. I do not read music, so it is not some kind of complicated thing, I just like the music when I listen to it," says Taylor. "I choose music that I will not mind listening to hundreds or thousands of times. You see, once I have chosen a piece of music for a dance, I know I am going to have to listen to it for the rest of my life. You have to choose music that you like, or it will drive you crazy."
Born in Pennsylvania in 1930, Taylor grew up near Washington, D.C., and attended Syracuse University as an athlete and art student, before he found his calling in dance. He studied dance at Juilliard, forming his own company in 1954. He danced with Merce Cunningham, was a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company for seven seasons, and was a guest soloist with New York City Ballet in the premiere production of Balanchine's Episodes in 1959. Taylor retired as a performer in 1975, concentrating on creating at least two new works for his company every season; his work list now numbers 122 dances.
More than 75 ballet and modern dance companies around the world have presented Taylor's choreography. His own company, now completing its 50th anniversary season, has performed in more than 60 countries since its first international tour in 1960.
"I am really proud that my company has been able to survive for 50 years, although I never really thought about it in terms of the company having this long history," Taylor says. "I just keep making the best dances I can, and leave al the historical stuff to the critics and dance scholars."
Promethean Fire, first danced in 2002, is based on three of Bach's keyboard pieces - the Toccata and Fugue in D minor; the Prelude in E-flat minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier; and the chorale prelude "Wir glauben all' an einen Gott." Leopold Stokowski's beloved orchestration of the Toccata and Fugue, of course, is well-known from its use in Walt Disney's classic animated film, Fantasia. Which is what Taylor remembered when choosing transcriptions for Promethean Fire.
"I didn't discover them; I remembered them from my childhood in Fantasia. There's a sequence in Fantasia with Stokowski conducting and there are all these colorful shapes zooming around," Taylor told Gilbert Kaplan in a radio interview. "It was a challenge...such a big orchestra and so forceful, I [was] afraid of getting swamped. But I thought, okay, I'll give it a try, and for the way I pictured the dance, it seemed to be the thing to use."
"As I have suggested," critic Clive Barnes wrote in his appreciation of the choreographer, "Bach has a special resonance for Taylor, enabling him to capture the precise complexities of the composer's Musical Offering, with tribal-like dances said to be inspired by primitive Polynesian art. And then there is Promethean Fire. Walt Disney can have inspired comparatively few ballets, yet his movie Fantasia, in association with the great Anglo-American conductor Leopold Stokowski, helped a whole generation - Taylor's and my own - to an appreciation of classical music. Even now I can never encounter Bach's great Toccata and Fugue in D minor without hearing and seeing in my heart Stokowski's grandiose orchestration and Disney's inspired squiggles and strokes - like a Kandinsky abstract painting come to life - that accompanied it in Fantasia. I suspect Taylor had the same reaction, only he transported that reaction to genius. Now, the fascinatingly 'wrong' thing about Stokowski's Bach was that it gave the composer's Baroque austerity a Romantic voice. And in this Promethean Fire Taylor precisely encapsulates the ornate grandeur of Bach/ Stokowski, presenting a complex yet pellucid view of the music. The choreography doubles in and back, twists inside itself, only to reform in great gushing segments of pounding movement - relentless, heroic, and perfect."
In his work as a choreographer, Taylor considers himself a reporter, observing the world around him and recording his impressions. He is reticent, however, about making specific correlations between his movement images and external inspirations - "The only important thing in art is that which cannot be explained," he says. Coming as it did not long after the tragedy of 9/11, Promethean Fire has proven particularly suggestive to critics, but Taylor says that his dance was not a conscious reaction to that event.
"I really was not thinking about 9/11 when I made Promethean Fire. Lots of critics have tried to make that connection, but I was not creating the dance with that in mind.
"I chose the transcriptions [rather than the original versions or other arrangements] because I liked the very majestic sound. I am really looking forward to hearing it played live."
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.