Apollo (originally Apollon musagète and variously known as Apollo musagetes, Apolo Musageta, and Apollo, Leader of the Muses) is a ballet in two tableaux composed between 1927 and 1928 by Igor Stravinsky. It was choreographed in 1928 by balletmaster George Balanchine, with the composer contributing the libretto. The scenery and costumes were designed by André Bauchant, with new costumes by Coco Chanel in 1929. The scenery was executed by Alexander Shervashidze, with costumes under the direction of Mme. A. Youkine. The American patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge had commissioned the ballet in 1927 for a festival of contemporary music to be held the following year at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C.
The story centres on Apollo, the Greek god of music, who is visited by three muses: Terpsichore, muse of dance and song; Polyhymnia, muse ofmime; and Calliope, muse of poetry. The ballet plainly takes Classical antiquity as its subject, though its plot suggests a contemporary situation. It is concerned with the reinvention of tradition, since its inspiration is “classique“, or even post-baroque; nevertheless, it uses a chamberorchestra, with only 34 string instruments (18.104.22.168.4).
Stravinsky began Apollo on 16 July 1927, and completed the score on 9 January 1928. He chose to make a ballet blanc, which he composed for a refined instrumental force, manifested as a string orchestra of 34 instrumentalists: 8 first violins, 8 second violins, 6 violas, 4 first cellos, 4 second cellos and 4 double basses. The commission from the Library of Congress and underwritten by Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge paid $1,000 for the piece, which was required to use only six dancers, a small orchestra and last not more than half an hour, but he was given a free choice of subject. Stravinsky had for some while been thinking of writing a ballet on an episode in Greek mythology and decided to centre it on Apollo, leader of the muses, reducing their number from nine to three. Stravinsky explained the originally titled Apollon Musagète as meaning “Apollo, conducteur of the Muses”. These three were Terpsichore, personifying the rhythm of poetry and the eloquence of gesture as embodied in the dance, Calliope, combining poetry and rhythm, Polyhymnia, representing mime.
Stravinsky wrote for a homogeneous ensemble of bowed string instruments, choosing to replace the contrasts in timbre that one hears in Pulcinella with contrasts in dynamics. As much later in Agon, this ballet takes its inspiration from the grand tradition of French 17th- and 18th-century music, in particular that of Lully. The prologue begins with dotted rhythms in the style of aFrench overture. The composer depends on a basic rhythmic cell, presented at the beginning of the work, which he transforms by subdivisions of successive values which are made increasingly complex. Stravinsky slightly revised the score in 1947. His 1963 book of conversations with Robert Craft, Dialogues and a Diary, indicates still more desired changes, particularly with respect to double-dotting many of the dotted-rhythm passages in Baroque style. Stravinsky himself conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performances of this music, in April 1958.
The first ballet version of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète, commissioned especially for the Washington festival, premiered on Friday, 27 April 1928, with choreography by Adolph Bolm, who also danced the role of Apollo. It was Adolph Bolm who put together a company of dancers, in dance-impoverished US for the premiere. Ruth Page, Berenice Holmes (Gene Kelly‘s ballet teacher), and Elise Reiman were the three Muses, while Hans Kindler conducted.
Unfortunately for Bolm, Stravinsky himself had no interest in the US project. He had reserved the European rights to the score for Serge Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes production, choreographed by the 24-year-old Balanchine, opened at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris, on Tuesday, June 12, of that same year. This performance was conducted by the composer himself; the violinist was Marcel Darrieux. Balanchine’s version for Diaghilev, which is now hailed as a landmark work, quickly superseded Bolm’s effort, now practically forgotten.
As the composer had wished, the style of dancing was essentially classical, and Stravinsky thought of “Apollon Musagète” as a ballet blanc. Balanchine, too, later said that when he heard Stravinsky’s music, all he could see was this pristine white. Certainly it is the clarity, calm, even serenity of the music which makes it seem almost infinitely remote from the excitements of the earlier ballets. The avoidance of any conflict in the scenario, indeed of any narrative, psychological or expressive intent, was further matched by monochrome costumes for the dancers and the absence of elaborate scenery on stage. In Apollo, Balanchine found the way to unite the traditions of classical Russian ballet and the spare austerity of modernism, which led to the evolution of the new classicism that is the hallmark of New York City Ballet.
Scenery and costumes for Balanchine’s production were by French artist Andre Bauchant, with new costumes designed by Coco Chanel in 1929. Apollo wore a reworked toga with a diagonal cut, a belt, and laced up. The Muses wore a traditional tutu. The decoration was baroque: two large sets (some rocks, and Apollo’s chariot). One senses in the dance a reappearance of academicism (in the stretching out and upward leaping of the body). But the choreographer George Balanchine bent the angles of the arms and hands. It is therefore aneoclassical ballet. The scenario involved the birth of Apollo, his interactions with the three muses, Terpsichore (dance), Polyhymnia (mime) and Calliope (poetry), and his ascent as a god toMount Parnassus. The original cast included Serge Lifar as Apollo, Alice Nikitina as Terpsichore (alternating with Alexandra Danilova), Lubov Tchernicheva as Calliope, Felia Doubrovska as Polyhymnia and Sophie Orlova as Leto, mother of Apollo.
Balanchine staged Apollon Musagète for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1931. Following his move to the United States two years later, the work was performed by his American Ballet in 1937 withLew Christensen in the title rôle and subsequently became a feature of Balanchine’s New York company and of many other companies around the world. In 1978 Balanchine made major changes to the piece, discarding the ballet’s prologue which depicts Apollo’s birth.
For a revival with Mikhail Baryshnikov as Apollo in 1979, he also omitted Apollo’s first variation and rechoreographed the ending of the ballet. This revision saw the piece concluding not with Apollo’s ascent to Mount Parnassus but rather with the earlier memorable tableau of the muses posing in ascending arabesques beside Apollo. In the 1980 staging for the New York City Ballet, Apollo’s first variation was restored. Suzanne Farrell restored the birth scene for her company in 2001, as did Arthur Mitchell for his Dance Theatre of Harlem performance atSymphony Space‘s Wall to Wall Balanchine in conjunction with City Ballet’s Balanchine centennial.
The characters are Apollo and three Muses: Calliope, the muse of poetry; Polyhymnia, the muse of rhetoric; and Terpsichore, the muse of dance. The theme is: Apollon musagetes (“director of the Muses“) instructs the muses in their arts and leads them to Parnassus. The ballet is divided into two tableaux:
- First tableau
- Prologue: The birth of Apollo
- Second tableau
- Variationof Apollo
- Pas d’action (Apollo and the three Muses)
- Variation of Calliope (the Alexandrine)
- Variation of Polyhymnia
- Variation of Terpsichore
- Second variation of Apollo
- Pas de deux