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Les Noces

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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".

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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?

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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.

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"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 :)

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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?

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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.)

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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?

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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)

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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?

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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!

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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."

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More from the Robert Johnson article:

"The way Bronislava Nijinska immediately saw "Les Noces" was affected by the intensity of her life in revolutionary Russia. Nijinska had only recently returned from Kiev, and when Diaghilev asked her to mount "Les Noces", in her own words, "I was still breathing the air of Russia, a Russia throbbing with excitement and intense feeling. All the vivid images of the harsh realities of the Revolution were still part of me and filled my whole being".

Nijinska's vision also grew out of a keen appreciation of the emotions of the Bride and Groom. Although Stravinsky had made these emotions clear in his score, he preferred to ignore them when it came to staging the work. Nijinska, in her recollection of the ballet's creation, discusses them at length:

"I saw a dramatic quality in such wedding ceremonies of those times in the fate of the bride and groom since the choice is made by the parents to whom they owe complete obedience-there is no question of the mutuality of feelings. The young girl knows nothing at all about her future family nor what lies in store for her. Not only will she be subject to her husband, but also to his parents. It is possible that after being loved and cherished by her own kin, she may be nothing more in her new, rough family, than a useful extra worker, just another pair of hands. The soul of the innocent is in disarray-she is bidding good-bye to her carefree youth and to her loving mother. For his part, the young groom cannot imagine what life will bring close to this young girl, whom he scarcely knows, if at all.... From this understanding of the peasant wedding, and this interpretation of the feelings of the bride and groom, my choreography was born. From the very beginning I had this vision for "Les Noces".

Nijinska's experience during the Revolution and her instinctive sympathy for the two young people in Stravinsky's scenario led her to hear "Les Noces" primarily as an expressionistic work, and to value the music's spiritual qualities above all others. This in turn, led her to a specific source of inspiration for her choreography, the art of Russia's icon painters and archaic mosaicists. Nijinska had ample opportunity to study the work of these traditional masters, for Kiev's Chathedral of St. Sophia has some of the finest mosaics and icons in Russia. In this spare and powerful art she encountered a spirituality not unlike that of Stravinsky's music, and also related to the nature of the marriage rite as she perceived it. In taking inspiration from such traditions, the choreographer, like the composer, joined the ranks of the primitivists".

About dancing en pointe in "Les Noces". :)

"Nijinska is reported to have told Diaghiliev, "Noces is a ballet that must be danced on point. That will elongate the dancers' silhouettes and make them resemble the saints in the Byzantine mosaics. When the Bride's sad faced escort of maidens rises on point and begins to bourree in place, their toes shoes seem to flicker beneath them, like votive flames beneath the solemn images of a Russian church".

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Leigh, are you certain those lyrics are entirely accurate? Then again, perhaps its my translation that is wrong--my voice teacher said the French translation of the Russian was not very good. In my copy of the score, it is a bass duet, and it reads: Et vous, pere et mere, benissez votre enfant/Qui s'approche si fierement/Toutes murailles renversants/Pour ravir sa douce promise/Qu'il entre dans l'eglise/Et qu'il baisse la croix d'argent.

Which translates to:

And you, father and mother, bless your child who approaches so proudly, all walls (renversants is difficult to translate--roughly, the phrase means "all obstacles [between the parent and child] removed") to claim (I believe) his soft promise, that he enters the church and kisses the silver cross. [Edited after reading Leigh's post below]

This has a somewhat different meaning from the text you posted...is anyone able to translate the Russian directly into English?

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More from Robert Johnson's article:

"Nevertheless, if Igor Stravinsky had had his way, the spirituality of the wedding would not have been visible on stage. The composer's original staging concept is described in his autobiography:

According to my idea, the spectacle should have been a divertissement.... I wanted all my instramental apparatus to be visable side by side with the actors or dancers, making it, so to speak, a participant in the whole theatrical action.... The fact that the artists in the scene would uniformly wear costumes of a Russian character while the musicians would be in evening dress not only did not embarrass me but, on the contrary, was perfectly in keeping with my idea of a divertissement of the masquerade type.

Though the idea of presenting the wedding as a kind of masquerade may seem anomalous now, Stravinsky's original inspiration, with all its primitivist and psychological appendages, was at least party humorous. Nicolas Nabokov, recalling the composer's search for a title, describes how the Russian title Svadebka was found:

One day Stravinsky and Diaghilev had a conversation about peasent marriages in Russia and Diaghilev remembered a peasant marriage.... and said (in Russian), "It was such a mad little marriage (Svadebka)." Stravinsky, who told me the story himself, jumped in the air and said "Wonderful!" It really meant the women all weep and the men all get drunk..."

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Hans, I checked a second source - a 1934 recording of the score conducted by Stravinsky in London, sung in an English version translated by D. Millar Craig. It reads the same as what I cited (a translation used for the Bernstein Recording in the late 60s), except it ends "break it down."

The problem is, the French version has authority too. I'm guessing the version you are citing is translated by C.F. Ramuz - and I think he did Stravinsky's lyrics for L'Histoire du Soldat (and who knows, maybe Renard?) so it isn't as if they are made by someone with no knowledge of Stravinsky. The French and the English are shown side by side in my liner notes, and it is not a literal equivalence. (Just as a note, they say "baise la croix" or kiss it, rather than "baisse" - to lower)

So as Hans asked, who here knows the Russian lyrics? I've got them transliterated ("Ko stolnu gradu pristupit kamennu") but obviously that may not be any help because it's not in Cyrillic.

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Leigh wrote:

Just as a note, they say "baise la croix" or kiss it, rather than "baisse" - to lower
Thank you--that does make more sense. Perhaps the line about the wall could be translated as "who approaches so proudly, breaking down all the walls"?
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Both translations of the lyrics of Les Noces which I have are "who goes against the strong wall of stone to break it (down)". I think there is a quite clear double meaning here.

With regard to the Bride weeping I wonder if rather too much isn't made of this. A sleeve note by Stravinsky himself on one recording: "The bride weeps in the first scene, not necessarily because of real sorrow at her prospective loss of virginity, but because, ritualistically, she must weep." I'm sure I also recall in a very early Royal Ballet programme not for Noces that much the same quote was printed with the addition of the words "even if she is looking forward....., even if they already have........" Life may have been hard but not all marriages were unhappy surely.

Interestingly, the tradtion of the bride weeping as she leaves home for the church still persists. I remember seeing a photograph in the National Geographic magazine a few years ago of a Romanian or Bulgarian girl in white micro-mini dress and veil clinging to her mother and crying on the steps of her old home. The caption explained that this was all part of the wedding ceremonies.

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It's difficult to complain about this, but amazingly enough, is Les Noces becoming part of the repertory of the National Ballet of Everywhere?

This year it's being done by the Joffrey and the Kirov, among other companies. Next year the Royal and Paris.

I can only say I'm glad the work is getting the exposure it deserves as a touchstone of modernism.

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So am I... especially as so far I've only seen it on video (the POB hasn't danced it for quite a long period... I wonder if those revivals at the same time are just a coincidence, or is it also a matter of staging (for example is it staged by the same person?) Now let's hope that it won't be forgotten after that...

By the way, which ballets by Nijinska are still "active" (I mean, which ones are still danced or could be revived in a decent shape)? "Le Train Bleu" and "Les Biches" were danced by the POB in the early 1990s, but I don't know how faithful the stagings were, and unfortunately they haven't been danced again since then...

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Amory's bio of Berners came in, courtesy of Amazon, and in that, he quotes Ashton as the originator of the idea that "A Wedding Bouquet" should be a sort of parody of "Les Noces" but expresses amazement, just as has been expressed here, that the ditzy ballet should be so related. I can see it, in the way that Ashton wanted to make a rather mad, comic wedding to contrast with Nijinska's stark ritual, which he tremendously admired. Something else that comes out is from listening to the score. When it's done with a chorus, it sounds a lot more Stravinskian, sort of like the ensemble work in The Rake's Progress, but with a narrator alone, it sounds more like Satie!

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