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About this Piece

*© The George Balanchine Trust

Composed: 1927-1928
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: strings
First LA Phil performance: February 8, 1934, Otto Klemperer conducting

George Balanchine first worked with Stravinsky’s music when he worked out some dances to the score of Pulcinella as a student at the Imperial Ballet School in Petrograd. In 1924, aged 20, he joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and was given The Song of the Nightingale in 1925 as an exercise. Apollo, the Stravinsky ballet with which he has always been most closely associated, was not in fact written for him and Diaghilev, but for the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in Washington, D.C., which paid Stravinsky $1000 for a short ballet to be performed at a festival of contemporary music at the Library of Congress in 1928. The choreography was by Adolph Bolm.

Never without an eye for an opportunity, Stravinsky realized that he could offer his new ballet also to Diaghilev, who was delighted with the score and who put it immediately into his repertoire, now with Balanchine as choreographer. It opened in Paris a few weeks after the Washington premiere, with Serge Lifar dancing the role of Apollo. Balanchine later wrote that this was the turning-point in his life: “In its discipline and restraint, its sustained one-ness of tone and feeling, the score was a revelation. It seemed to tell me that I could dare not to use everything, that I too could eliminate.”

Discipline and restraint were indeed the hallmarks of Stravinsky’s new neo-classic manner. For a start he removed all woodwinds, brass, and percussion from the orchestra, and selected just strings, writing in a spare style as if for chamber music. In addition he picked Apollo, the god of order and self-discipline, as the central figure, leading the muses to Parnassus. Of the nine muses he kept just three: Calliope, muse of poetry; Polyhymnia, muse of mime, and Terpsichore, muse of dance.

Compared with the colorful earlier ballets and with Stravinsky’s recent stark oratorio Oedipus Rex, Apollo has a sweetness and purity that exactly match the delicacy of the action. There is no disturbance or conflict: Apollo’s pure form and the elevated mission of the muses ensure that serenity will dictate the tone. The Prologue (taking the form of a Baroque French overture) portrays Apollo’s birth attended by two goddesses. Apollo’s first variation features a violin cadenza and a playful duet for two violins.

We meet the three muses in a Pas d’action, then each muse has a variation in turn. Calliope’s is wrapped in poetic conceit since Stravinsky wrote a pair of alexandrines by Boileau at the head of the score, then wrote a pair of figures for the first violins which match their meter. In the middle Calliope has an elegant cello solo to dance to.

Polyhymnia’s variation is speedy and light, Terpsichore’s more reserved and halting. Apollo is then revealed in splendor in his second variation. If there is an emotional heart to this ballet, it is the Pas de deux for Apollo and Terpsichore that follows, slow, muted, and never tarnished by passion.

The Coda is thoroughly joyous and the Apotheosis shows Apollo bringing the muses to Parnassus, the perfection of serenity and calm. 

Balanchine’s choreography has been performed all over the world, for the first time in America by the American Ballet in New York in 1937, and since 1951 by the New York City Ballet. 

— Hugh Macdonald