In Greek, the word agon means struggle or contest. But Stravinsky’s collaborator, choreographer George Balanchine, explained that he saw their neo-classical/modernist ballet Agon “less as a struggle or contest than a measured construction in space, demonstrated by moving bodies, set to certain patterns in rhythm and melody.” Plotless, intricate, and abstract – performed by 12 dancers, constructed in 12 sections, and employing 12-tone technique – Agon exuberantly fuses math and music, intellect and emotion. Critics hailed its premiere by New York City Ballet in December, 1957, as a landmark in modern dance history, “a living textbook on the art of blending music and motion.” Balanchine called Agon, Stravinsky’s last ballet score, “the most perfect work” to come out of their long collaboration.
When he completed Agon at his home in the Hollywood hills in late April, 1957, Stravinsky was soon to celebrate his 75th birthday, but was still exploring new schemes of composition, collaboration, and dramatic presentation. Sergei Prokofiev, a fellow Russian and veteran Stravinsky-watcher, had noted in a 1924 letter that Stravinsky was always aware of “trying to lead music.” Even as a septuagenarian, he had not lost that ambition.
Balanchine and Stravinsky had been working on the project for several years. They saw it as the third in their trilogy of “Greek ballets,” following Apollon Musagète and Perséphone. Unlike its two Greek predecessors, and all the rest of Stravinsky’s ballets, Agon does not tell a story – the music is the story. The score notes the dancers’ movements in detail, with exact timings corresponding to the music. Each of the short twelve sections (plus a prelude and two interludes) uses a different combination of instruments, just as each dance employs a different combination of the eight female and four male dancers.
The score reworks (or deconstructs) 17th-century French court dances that Stravinsky found in a manual published in 1623 – saraband, galliard, and bransle. What makes the music so startling and fresh is the ingenious union of antique style (the orchestra includes a mandolin) with hyper-modernist atonality in the form of dodecaphony. Arnold Schoenberg (Stravinsky’s Los Angeles neighbor) and Anton Webern had developed the 12-tone system early in the 20th century as an alternative to what they regarded as outmoded conventional diatonic tonality. In Agon, Stravinsky employs 12-tone rows, but still retains a tonal framework.