The Ballet I Did Not See in 2012
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by Barnett Serchuk
2012 did not bring the two works I've been anticipating for years: choreography to Schubert's Fifth Symphony and Haydn's Symphony no. 100, also known as the Military. I'll probably never get to see them but since it's the end of 2012 I can keep dreaming. Every year I read about choreographers and dance companies commissioning new music from conservatories, graduate schools or established composers. Sometimes (but rarely) it's good, most times forgettable (I am sure that I hear rumblings already.) So I'm putting in my two cents for Schubert and Haydn, both of whom have had works choreographed to their music, but not my particular symphonies.
Let's take a brief look at these two composers. First there's Haydn. Talk about a successful career: an employee of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy and then his brother Nikolaus, both from the richest family in the Hungarian nobility. I like the name "Paul Anton Esterhazy" It sounds like the name of a successful producer. Couldn't you just see it on a marquee: "Paul Anton Esterhazy presents Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Haydn?"
When Nikolaus was building a palace complete with opera house he put Haydn in charge of its productions. Haydn now went into an accelerated mode: composing operas, symphonies, concertos, sonatas, chamber music and lieder (German for songs.) He signed a contract with the Prince that allowed him to sell to sell his compositions to publishers, ensuring him a big income and royalties. He was later invited to London for two successful seasons where he was greeted and feted as a mega celebrity. It was during these two sojourns that he wrote what became known as the 12 London symphonies, some of the greatest works of the 18th century. He later moved to Vienna, wrote two celebrated oratorios and continued to drive hard bargains with publishers. He died in splendor, famous throughout Europe, his music performed more often in his lifetime than any other living composer.
Schubert was a different story. He began his career as a schoolteacher, leaving that profession to lead the life of a freelance composer. Like Haydn he composed string quartets, symphonies, sonatas, operas and most important, lieder (600 of them!), which he started composing at the age of 17. By all standards it was an uneventful life and professionally it was disastrous. Some of his operas and incidental music for plays were unsuccessfully staged in his lifetime and his lieder were usually performed at intimate gatherings at the homes of his friends. Otherwise he remained unknown. He died at 31 from either typhus or syphilis, no one is sure. So Schubert never knew success in his lifetime, only in death was he admitted into the pantheon of great composers.
Haydn's music has been the source of many ballets: Balanchine choreographed a ballet to Trumpet Concerto, Massine a ballet to the Clock Symphony, Jiri Kylian his ballet Symphony in D to Symphony No.101 (The Clock) and Symphony No. 73 (The Chase), Miro Magliore's The Letter to Haydn's Sonata in D Major, Uwe Scholz choreographed the oratio The Creation (talk about ambitious ballets!) and John Taras choreographed his Haydn Concerto to the Concerto no. 1 for flute, oboe and orchestra.
If there's been anyone whose used Haydn as a source of stimulation it's been Twyla Tharp.: the last two movements of Symphony no. 45 for As Time Goes By, Symphony no 82 for Push Comes to Shove, and the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn for the Brahms/Haydn Variations.
These were not stuffy dance works; people did no parade around in 18th century garb. Tharp, I may assume, wanted them to fit right into the contemporary dance landscape. They can press the right buttons and make us jump up in our chairs. Think of Push Comes to Shove. When I've seen performances of the ballet, audiences go into something approaching ecstasy. Do audiences ever go that wild after hearing Haydn in a concert performance? No. But have a meeting of the minds in theory between Tharp and Haydn and it can generate combustible results. If dance had played as prominent a role in the arts during Haydn's era, I'm sure he would have composed scores expressly for choreographers, both seasoned and aspiring.
Schubert has not had such a good track record. Leonide Massine choreographed Labyrinth to the Symphony no. 9, as did William Forsythe for Thrill of Exactitude to the symphony's last movement. Balanchine used Schubert once for his ballet Errante, set to an arrangement of the Wanderer Fantasy, Peter martins used the fantaisie in F Major and the Impromptus for Paiano, no.4 for A Schubertaide, Richard Tanner the Sonata in A Major for A Schubert Sonata andTrisha Brown produced the Winterreise song cycle as a dance piece with the male singer dominating the proceedings not only with song but with movement. Along the way there have been other solo dramatizations of this epic song cycle. I might add that not one of these works has ever become a repertory staple.
But I'm concerned with two symphonies here, and they have never seen the light of the choreographic dawn. Schubert's Fifth Symphony is one of the loveliest symphonies ever composed. I know this will sound silly, but every time I hear the symphony it is almost a life affirming experience, at once poignant and captivating. And what could be more exquisite than the second movement? It almost begs for a pas de deux: relaxed, vital and loving. Or is the symphony, as I once read somewhere, too danceable? I don't know because I've never seen it danced!
The Haydn Symphony, replete with Turkish instruments (triangle, cymbals and bass drum), is certainly loud enough to wake up an audience in our overheated and dry theaters. The opening movement could have the entire ensemble circling around the stage until the principal pair of dancers appears for the pas de deux. It is not what I would call a loving pas de deux; the music does not call for that. Warlike might be a better way to describe it. The third movement could introduce a few couples while the last movement would bring everyone on stage on one by one in military formation. Or perhaps that sounds just like Balanchine's Union Jack?
So let me make a suggestion. If you can't see these works danced at least listen to them. I can assure you that you won't be disappointed. After you finish listening to these symphonies you might want to write your favorite choreographer and suggest using them in the future.
Schubert Symphony No. 5:
Haydn Symphony No. 100: