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Les Noces


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#1 glebb

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 06:22 AM

In the not too distant past there were posts about the text for the score of Stravinsky's "Les Noces". I recently read a 1987 article by Robert Johnson - RITUAL AND ABSTRACTION IN NIJINSKA'S LES NOCES - for DANCE CHRONICLE that might help make clear Stravinsky's intentions.

"Stravinsky culled the text for "Les Noces" from a famous collection of Russian folk poetry, the "Sobranniye Piesni" of Kireievsky, and arranged his selections in a rather unorthodox manner. In comparing this text with James Joyce's "Ulysses", Stravinsky evinces his fascination with the theme of the unconscious. "Les Noces" he told Robert Craft, "might be compared to one of those scenes in "Ulysses" in which the reader seems to be overhearing scraps of conversation without the connecting thread of discourse." The key words are "without the connecting thread of discourse." Stravinsky did not obey the logic of chronological sequence in arranging the text for "Les Noces", but rather imitated the disjointed nature of the internal, psychological reality. The stylization of the text hints at the existence of the irrational world within.

Associated with this disconnected text is the separation of the singers from the characters their voices represent. In Stravinsky's words, "Individual roles do not exist in "Les Noces", but only solo voices that impersonate now one type of character and now another. Thus the soprano in the first scene is not the bride, but merely a bride's voice.... the fiance's words are sung by a tenor in the grooming scene, but by a bass at the end..."

This separation of voices and characters recalls the practice of some Symbolist directors, who used the device to draw attention away from the concrete reality of a drama and to suggest the mystical, inner world that was its object. Stravinsky's goal must have been similar - to point to the existence of the unseen or irrational by disassembling the spectacle into its constiuent parts".

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 06:31 AM

Nice contribution, Glebb!:) And makes me think a little bit about the lost topicality of Ashton's "A Wedding Bouquet" where Lord Berners' music is very much one-off Stravinsky, and the text, by Gertrude Stein, is taken from her play "They Must. Be Married. To Their Wife." In the original score the text was sung by a chorus(!) and is sort of a "stream of consciousness" thing about thoughts and fragments of overheard conversations, as at a wedding. Were Ashton and Berners thinking of "Les Noces" when they concocted this wonderful bauble?

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 08:25 AM

Glebb and Mel (or anyone)

What's the performance tradition of Les Noces? I know the Ballet Russe performed it originally and Ashton revived it for the Royal Ballet in the mid-60's (it was considered an artistic coup) but was it off the stages utterly in the interim?

Ashton is supposed to have loved Les Noces (certainly understandable to me) I wouldn't be surprised if Wedding Bouquet was a reaction to it.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 09:31 AM

"Les Noces" (originally performed in 1923) was revived for the de Basil company in 1936 and then not performed again until Ashton revived it for the Royal in 1966.

I can't see any connection between Les Noces and A Wedding Bouquet except the subject. Vaughan says, "[Berners'] original intention was siply to write a choral work, with words by Gertrude Stein, and only later did he decide that it should be a ballet. The scenario was concocted by Berners, Ashton and Constant Lambert, in weekends at Berneers' country house."

Vaughan goes on to say, "The striking thing about 'A Wedding Bouquet' is that it is not, like de Valois's Douanes, say, a character ballet in the manner of Massine, but essentially a classic ballet, and it is full of dancing."

Glebb, I'm very glad the Joffrey is still dancing it. It's one of the finest things I ever saw them do, and I love the ballet :)

#5 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 10:07 AM

Since the de Basil company revived "Noces" in 1936, and "Bouquet" premiered in 1937, I think that makes an even more compelling circumstantial argument for influence on the latter by the former. And the recording of the original scoring makes the Stravinskian character of parts of "Bouquet" far more apparent than it is when offered with simply a narrator. I'm just thinking out loud here. Wonder if there's any lengthy bio of Berners about?

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 10:13 AM

I don't want to have to type in the whole chapter in David Vaughan's biography of Ashton (the ballet is discussed on pp. 149-154 if anyone is curious), but the ballet was announced in Dancing Times in January 1937 (from which it can be inferred that the ballet, which premiered in April of that year, had been in progress for some months previously) and "The idea for the ballet was Lord Berners's; he began to compose the music before actually entering on the collaboration with Ashton."

There's nothing to suggest that anyone went bounding out of a performance of Les Noces wanting to do a classical, comic ballet about weddings. But more importantly, there's nothing choreographically, musically, or visually that links the two ballets that I can see. Ashton often borrowed from Nijinska -- patterns, arm positions -- but I think trying to make the case here is a real stretch. The inspiration for this ballet was Gertrude Stein's writing (chosen by Berners, mostly from "They Must. Be Wedded. To Their Wife.") The score was originally performed as a choral piece. The narrator replaced the chorus later, during the War, for budgetary reasons (and probably a shortage of singers) and retained afterwards. (The narrator, which everyone else loves, I think hurts the ballet, because the jokes -- like rowing movements during the "I am older than a boat" line -- seem very obvious when you can hear the words.)

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 10:53 AM

To get back to "Les Noces" and the quote Glebb posted, compared to that, Nijinska's treatment of the score seems conventional -- or, if one thinks that the kind of fragmentation and modernism that Stravinsky's words reflect are difficult to transform into public forms of art, like theater and dance (as opposed to private forms of art, like painting and music), then she made a modernist adaptation of a traditional ballet, but with set roles and, if not a literal narrative, a drama nonetheless.

Glebb, or others more familiar with the score than I am, is there a matching -- or contrasting -- fragmentation in the choreography?

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 12:27 PM

Don't need to quote the whole chapter, Alexandra. I have the book right here. I just went to Amazon and ordered Mark Amory's bio of Berners (new members, please note the Amazon banner at the top of every page!) to see what Mark Amory in his bio of Berners, The Last Eccentric, has to say about the project. There's a whole chapter there, too.:) It'll take awhile, but it should be interesting to see what 'is Lordship had on his various minds about the ballets he composed!

(And now back to our main topic)

#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 06:01 PM

When I saw the Nijinska version, I felt like she was reacting less to the fragmentation of the text (thank you so much for finding that text, Glebb, it's fascinating!) but to the monolithic score itself. The score has a massive power (the scoring for four pianos doesn't hurt) Nijinska's divisions of men and women may not exactly mirror the score, but they feel like it.

Glebb, did you dance Les Noces ever? Was there anything you learned from the current revival and how it was set? I know Sayette is also responsible for setting Billy the Kid - I gather he was ballet master of Oakland Ballet - and both were in their repertory. Paging Mr. Parish - did you see Oakland's Les Noces, and what did you think?

#10 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 06:25 PM

Doing a little research on Sayette turned up some fascinating things. He's got exclusive rights to set the ballet right now by the Nijinska trust - and here is a fascinating article - he was setting the ballet also in Russia, where it will finally be seen there for the first time.

Glebb, perhaps this is an excuse to go visit!

#11 Treefrog

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 08:30 PM

I'm so glad I stumbled on this before we see the performance tomorrow!

Could someone clarify for me this quote from the article Leigh cites? (Great article, Leigh.)

Diaghilev burst out laughing. He couldn't imagine a Russian ballet on point.


What does this mean? Why not a Russian ballet on pointe?

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 08:36 PM

Treefrog, I think this would mean that Diaghilev associated character dancing with Russian subject matter rather than classical dancing. "Swan Lake" might be Russian to us, but it wasn't to them. Petipa's ballets -- all that I can think of, at any rate, took place in a different place and time. Part of Fokine's manifesto was to use footwear appropriate to the character. Boots for Russian peasants. Nijinska wanted them in pointe shoes, not boots.

#13 Hans

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 08:37 PM

I haven't danced the ballet, but I've sung the second tableau, and I think Nijinska's choreography is rather odd--she makes it seem more horrifying than I think it is. In her choreography, it seems as if the bride and groom don't really like each other and their relatives are all annoying and self-centered. Rather, I found the music evocative of a joyous celebration, though of course there is some sadness in the children leaving home, &c. I sang it in French, but was coached by a former Kirov Opera singer who spoke both Russian and French and was therefore able to read both texts. She seemed to be extremely familiar with the work.

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 08:49 PM

I think both Stravinsky and Nijinska were portraying a similar thing - an arranged marriage. In the Nijinska, I don't think it's that the bride does not like the groom - she's never even met him. I think what you're seeing as antipathy is actually fear. Stravinsky's lyrics have moments of beauty as well, but that sense is there - from the second tableau, the Bride sings "And grow used to my young man's ways" or the Groom "Bless me, Your child who goes proudly against the strong wall of stone to break it."

#15 Treefrog

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Posted 01 March 2003 - 09:01 PM

Thanks, Alexandra, that makes perfect sense to me.


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