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EXPLORING MUSIC: A Much-Admired Composer/Three Ballads by Richard Rodgers

The MHS Review 397 VOL. 12, NO. 1 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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The years between the two great wars of this century saw, at least in this coun­try, a last-ditch effort to bridge the widen­ing gap between what were alleged to be two kinds of music: "popular" (i.e. com­mercial) and "classical" (art-music). There were experiments in what was op­timistically called "symphonic jazz" (a con­tradiction in terms if ever there was one). Film scores proselytized the Great Unwash­ed in favor of the classics-the most bla­tant example being, perhaps, Fantasia--­or unashamedly imitated them. Opera singers nightly retailed the latest smash suc­cesses over the airwaves. And composers whose fame was apparently assured in the one area were easily tempted to try their hands in the other.

One such was Richard Rodgers. The oc­casion on which I am about to focus preceded Oklahoma! and its string of suc­cessors that revolutionized the American musical stage. But for 20 years Rodgers had been one of the most admired of Broadway composers, with at least 27 musical com­edies to his credit, containing dozens of songs to the brilliant lyrics of Larry Hart. The son of a Manhattan physician, Rodgers had had impeccable, if arch-conservative, training at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School). As a passionate opera buff, he no doubt dreamed of a chance to enter the Elysium occupied by more "respectable" composers.

His opportunity came in the fateful year of 1939, courtesy of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Since that name evokes con­siderable confusion in all the material I've seen on Rodgers' effort, I must pause to clarify. The Ballets Russes (plural, no qualifiers) was formed by Serge Diaghilev in 1909 and, after a glorious history, disbanded on Diaghilev's demise in 1929. To fill out a contract with the Monte Carlo Opera, its director, Raoul Gunsbourg, ap­pointed Rene Blum to shark up a "Russian" company in 1931.

Blum joined forces with a refugee Cossack officer, Vassily Grigorievich Voskresensky, who called himself "W. de Basil." They hired Balanchine as ballet master and, in 1932 as "Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo," the company became a glorious reality. Under various permuta­tions of that name it survived until 1939. In that year internal dissension split it in two; De Basil called his half "The Original Ballet Russe," while Leonid Massine headed the "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo," based in the United States and lasting until 1963. It was this latter group who tendered a commission to Richard Rodgers.

Among the corps de ballet when I first saw the company was a young dancer hill­ed as "Marc Platoff," though he was born Mark Platt in Seattle. Now beginning a suc­cessful career as a choreographer, he wanted a "western" theme for his com­pany's first American-composed ballet, no doubt harking back to the parent com­pany's success with Nicolas Nabokov's Union Pacific. The book involves an old prospector's narrative-a flashback to the night when Jenny Lind, Adah Menken, and Algernon Charles Swinburne came to in­augurate the opera house and news came that the vein of gold had run dry.

The work was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in November of 1939, the composer conducting the half­hour score. There were five performances that season; then it was taken on the road and performed in New York again in 1940. The public loved it; the critics turned up their noses. It lay dormant until 1978 when Richard Rodney Bennett (thanks to the miracle of electronics) recorded his own two-piano arrangement on the obscure DRG label (along with one of Cole Porter's Within the Quota and one of Harold Arlen's "Civil War Ballet" for Bloomer Girl), but this is the first in Hans Spialek's original orchestration.

There is nothing obscure about "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," a ballet for the musical On Your Toes (1936) which relates how an American hoofer saves a Russian ballet company. The first-act "Princess Zenobia" is a spoof on the "Sheherazade" sort of thing. Here both works are presented in Spailek's reconstruction (50 years after the the fact) of his original orchestrations.

Review of Three Ballets by Richard Rodgers pg 7

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