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Virgil Thomson Interviews Jacquelyn Helin: It's Different And It's Lively--It Works

The MHS Review 375 Vol. 10, No. 15 • 1986

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Jacquelyn Helin


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Virgil Thomson talked with Jacquelyn Helin, the pianist on the Thompson release, and about his life and music.

JH: During the '30s, you began your col­laborations with film makers.

VT: I did my first film score in 1936: The Plough that Broke the Plains with Pare Lorentz-that's a documentary for the United States Government-and another one called The River the next year. After that, I didn't do any more film scores-I went back to France-until I did the Louisiana Story in ...

JH: I think it was '48 ...

VT: Forty-eight, I guess, yes, and I did one or two after that.

JH: What about the ballets; for example, Filling Station?

VT: That was '37.

JH: Could you tell us about that, because it is one of the works to be included in this recording.

VT: Well, there was a ballet school in ex­istence by that time, and a ballet company which called itself the Ballet Caravan be­cause it went around in buses and trucks. And it had a very brilliant director, who had put in all his personal friends to run the school and prepare dancers: that was George Balanchine. And he thought he would train some choreographers, too. And so with Lincoln Kirstein, who was sort of running the whole business for him, and from one source or another pro­viding money, he got some ballet scores. I think mine was the first one. Then Aaron (Copland] did one the next year, (and] a fellow named McBride, Paul Bowles, vari­ous others. Every year, they were to do one or two new American ballets; and he found that the best way to get good chore­ography for them was to let the male dancer, the leading male dancer, chore­ograph the ballet in which he starred.

JH: Good idea.

VT: Well, it's one of those ideas you run into without being at all sure it's going to work, but it did.

JH: And Lew Christensen was the hero of this ballet, he was the dancer-chore­ographer.

VT: Oh yes, well Lew was a terrific dancer. I suppose the finest male dancer in the sense of "danseur noble" that we have ever produced. He could do virtuoso tricks too, such as 12 cartwheels in the air, never touching the ground except with his feet.

JH: The story of Filling Station is very clas­sic Americana, with the gas station atten­dant as hero ...

VT: And the neighborhood, with people coming by and all that. Well, that was our intention of course.

JH: ... and the people driving, and the gangster, and the shoot-out, and then the resolution and funeral. You've described the pieces that you used-tangos, a fugue, "Big Apple," "Holdup•:..__as all designed "to evoke roadside America as pop art."

VT: Well, the term pop art was used later to describe an intellectual movement in painting and sculpture.

JH: So they called it pop art later.

VT: But there was this kind of thing long before. Of course the 19th century called its pop art "folklore." But that tended to be rural folklore. Urban folklore gives you pop art.

JH: So you didn't call it pop art in the '30s, you called it that when you were writing about it later in the '60s.

VT: Somebody else called it, the painting dealers called it, pop art. Then there was op art too, which has to do with visual angles.

JH: At the Hartford opening of Filling Sta­tion, on January 6, 1938, the production was first done with piano accompani­ment. Was that the same piano score that I will now be recording on the Musical Heritage album?

VT: I don't remember. I think probably; I'm not sure. There is a two-piano version also, and the ballet toured with the two­ piano version alos, and the ballet toured with the two-piano version for quite a while. They would use an orchestra if there was one around. The orchestral score was first first performed in a WPA theater in New York, I think probably, sometime in '38. During the war, when the Caravan made a big South American tour, they used the local orchestras wherever they were. But they could .always do two-piano dates in colleges and so forth.

JH: The Ballet Suite from Lord Byron will also be on this record. Now we've talked, you and 1, many times about what we're going to call it. It's got a very interesting history. It began life as your Second String Quartet.

VT: It is a string quartet and one which I've always been fond of. I also had the idea fairly early that it could be put on the stage. I once played it clean through on a piano for George Balanchine; he thought he might put it on the stage, but he didn't. It remained string quartet until the early 70's, when I was producing my Lord Byron opera at the Julliard School. And I had an idea of putting a ballet into that and getting Frederick Ashton over from Lon­don to direct the opera--we'd enjoyed so much working together long years before in the Four Saints. And he said he was delighted and would do it . Peter Mennin, who was running the school at that time, delayed in writing to Ashton. I thought you see once I got him here, I could run up a ballet for the opera, an appropriate and proper one on some kind of theme that we would think up together. Well, the delay in salting down the engagement, --he (Ashton) waited around for two months in London and then took a job in Australia that was offered him to do a ballet. And so we were going into rehearsal and there was no ballet, and so I went back to my earlier idea of making a ballet out of the Second String Quartet, and I orchestrated it for that purpose. And we use it in the opera. Well, for various reasons, I decided I wasn't going to do that again.

JH: Who did the choreography for that ballet?

VT: Alvin Ailey. I didn't like that music as a ballet, and I didn't like the idea of there being a ballet anyway. I thought it my mistake. So that work existed as a ballet for about how many performances did they do-about seven or eight maybe. After that it was published and for publication purposes I called it Third Symphony. It's a four-movement work in symphonic form, and as such, it works perfectly well. Now, when I showed you the piano score and you decided you were going to play it as a piano piece, you thought it would look attractive on a program as Ballet Music from Lord Byron. Well, it had long since ceased to be Ballet Music from Lord Byron (laughter), and it had never quite become a Third Symphony. You can't call a piano piece Third Symphony. I still don't know what to call it. [Mr. Thomson has since decided to call the work Lord Byron on the Continent.]

JH: The question that Jeffrey Nissim of Musical Heritage asked me to ask you was, "Why should anyone listen to piano trans­criptions of these works when they can hear the orchestral version on record­ings?"

VT: Well, because it sounds good and peo­ple seem to like it. Anybody who likes music of course enjoys piano music. There's a four-hand arrangement of my first and, I think, also my Second Sym­phony. These get played from time to time quite successfully.

JH: So it's not that the music loses anything from not having orchestral color.

VT: No, no, it's different and it's lively. It works.

JH: What do you think is your most im­portant contribution to the ballet and film score genre?

VT: To the ballet? Why, I don't know whether I've ever even made a contribution, except certain pieces that work nice­ly. The Filling Station works completely and, as I say, from 1937 to, now we're get­ting on toward '87-that's getting on to 50 years-it's remained pretty steadily in repertory. A ballet was made by Erick Hawkins on my Second Symphony. It works. It works in the full orchestral version and also works in a reduced ver­sion for seven instruments which a very gifted young man, Braxton Blake, did for the Erick Hawkins company. Then there's another ballet which I did for Erick Haw­kins which is made out of music from the Federal period, which I've sort of fitted to the ballet story and orchestrated for seven instruments, which is the size of the group that he uses. That's quite successful; it works nicely too.

JH: What piece is that?

VT: It's called Parson Weems and the Cherry Tree. Now the one on the Second Symphony's called Hurrah. That's all 1hout white flannel pants and straw hats, you know, pre-World War I youth life. Then there's another ballet which didn't work at all. George Balanchine thought he would make a ballet out of an orchestral suite which was published and which was derived from my music for Louisiana Story. Its authentic Cajun folklore. Stra­vinsky told

him he shouldn't do it; he said "If you want to make a ballet out of Louisiana Story, you should take the big suite which has longer pieces and sustained construction" But Balanchine thought he would go his own way and put these short pieces to music. Well, the ballet as produced, I've even forgotten what is was called, something about , Acadian ...

JH: Bayou?

VT: Yes, that it's. It's called Bayou; it's all Acadian Bayou tunes arranged and orchestrated by me exactly as they are in the Louisiana Story film. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, who was always his adviser about such things, got a very good painter, Dorothea Tanning, to make decorations, and she filled the stage full of dripping Spanish moss, or paintings that looked like it, which were very pretty as paintings; but Spanish moss is pretty dismal on on stage or off. (laughter) ... Anyway, (the ballet) was not successful... I think it was sunk by the fact that it was too many short pieces, as Stravinsky had told him, and too much Spanish moss, as anybody could have told him. (laughter) Anyway, it's nev­er been given again. Nor have they ever used the scenery again. (laughs)

JH: You did lot of research into folk mu­sic for the film scores; for example, you went to the Library of Congress and researched the Cajun tunes, and you unearthed a lot of old anthologies on which to draw.

VT: Well, every now and then and then you look something up in a book in a library, sure. I've been to the New York Public Library too. (laughs)

JH: Well, I guess I was thinking that you, perhaps more than any composer before you, really drew on the fold materials of America.

VT: Well, I wouldn't know about that. People did Indian folklore, don't you re­member the "Land of the Skyyyy Blue Waaater?" AndMr. Cadman (Charles Cad­man) wrote a whole opera on Indian themes; so did Victor Herbert. Even Madama Butterlfly of Puccini is full of Japanese themes. There's nothing novel about that. Petrushka's full of Russian themes.

Jll: No, what I think is novel about it is that, when you're watching a film like The Plough that Broke the Plains and listening to your music, there's a real sense of Ameri­ca that comes across from the use of the hymn and the folksong.

VT: Well, that is music criticism on your part, which I'm in no position to dispute, because it's about my work. In general, whenever what you might call a social background, that is to say, a people, has a musical literature, it's very effective to use that musical literature as accompaniment to photographs of their actions. You can't use it for landscape because landscape is not folklore, a tree is a tree anywhere. There are ways of representing landscape which composers have used for centuries. If you want to do a sea storm, you can give it any geography; but you can't stick Basques and their music into a picture about American Indians. And cowboys happen to have a literature, and of course the Cajuns a terrific one.

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