Exploring Music: In the Best of Hands/Enchanted Forest Works by Geminiani and Vivaldi
The MHS Review 398 VOL. 12, NO.2 • 1988
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David M. Greene
People with any sort of historical perspective (rare birds these days!) tend to think of ballet as a French art, just as they think of haute cuisine as a French art. Ballet, according to this notion, was what the French patriotically and stalwartly opposed to Italian attempts to poison the cultural air with opera. And to a great degree this is justifiable.
But it is interesting to discover that what is generally agreed to be the ancestor of the French ballet tradition has, like French classical cooking, deep Italian roots. Presenting the story of Odysseus' encounter with the witch Kirke (or Circe) by way of a combination of dance, music, and verse (1581 ), it was known as the Balet comique de la Royne (The queen's comic ballet). The queen in question, who spent 3 1/2 million francs to see it mounted, was Florence-born Catherine de Medicis, who must have seen such multimedia spectacles back home. The composer-choreographer was her dancing-master Balthasar de Beaujoyeux, born Baldassare de Belgioso.
For the next century the French court ballets, especially as overseen by Jean-Baptiste Lully (ne Giovanni Battista Lulli), remained quasi-amateur affairs that involved the terpsichorean talents of the monarchs and their courtiers. But theatrical dance, often linked with opera, grew and developed into an art of its own: women were eventually allowed to participate; poetry and song gave way to mime; stars came to the fore. By the next century something like what we know as ballet was a thriving concern all over western Europe.
If so, where, you may ask, is the evidence? In the theater one encounters nothing earlier than Herold's reworking of La fille mat gardee (1828) (with modern choreography), and little more on phonograph records, exclusive of Gluck's Don Juan and Beethoven's Prometheus. Well, for one thing, even had the choreography survived, one suspects that modern audiences would find the works, with their endless mythologizing and their "special-effects" machinery, not much to their taste. And, with few exceptions, the music seems to have been provided by composers whose names have not reverberated down the centuries.
One ballet that has appeared several times on records is Geminiani's The Enchanted Forest. The ballet seems not to have loomed large in theatrical history; it was probably not performed after its premiere in the theater of the Tuileries Palace in Paris on March 31, 17 54, though the score was published in London the next year as "AN Instrumental Composition Ex pressive of the same Ideas AS THE POEM of TASSO of that Title."
THE Inchanted Forest, as the English publication had it, should not evoke images of dryads and fauns or of Walt Disney animals--and one will hunt in vain for a Tasso poem so called. The poem in question was the epic Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, in its first English translation), one of a handful of great and wildly popular Renaissance poems of that genre. Historically, the work is based on episodes in the First Crusade, with ,1 generous freight of romantic, chivalric, and supernatural impedimenta.
In canto 13, the source of the ballet, till Christians, laying seige to Jerusalem, enter a nearby woods to seek fuel, but are routed by the nameless horrors they encounter there. Finally the hero Tancred (who has just by mistake butchered his lady-love Clorinda) gives it a try, but is driven off by voices proclaiming him a murderer. Gradually the whole countryside falls victim to the heat emanating from the forest, until the Christian leader invokes God's aid.
Francesco Geminiani was a follower and pupil of Corelli, and his sonatas and concerti are in that vein. But here, at a time when Italian music was at last winning French acceptance overtly, he astutely combines the principle of the concerto grosso with French-style dance movements--though one will be hard put to find the programmatic equivalents in the music. The presence of John Eliot Gardiner at the helm of this half-century-old Canadian orchestra will assure you that the music is in the best of hands. The delightful Vivaldi concerto is new to me, though I see that it has been elsewhere recorded by the Aston Magna group.