1949: Stravinsky Visits WQXR with 'Orpheus'

Aural program notes from the composer

Monday, October 24, 2011

The immediacy of hearing a composer discuss their own work, as it unfolds, is a lot like watching the "director’s cut" of a DVD. Stravinsky's "aural program note" for his then-newly-composed ballet, Orpheus, is a WQXR exclusive, straight from our archives.

Recorded in 1949 for WQXR listeners, this clip captures Stravinsky’s staccato accent superimposed on the opening bars of Orpheus. After conjuring the ancient mythology of the Greek characters depicted in the ballet, Stravinsky goes on to justify his modern musical treatment of the story by comparing himself to Renaissance-era painters. “[They] painted the stories of ancient Greece, or the Bible, and the European landscape in customs of their own time, without attempting to reconstruct the scene of Greece or Palestine with historical accuracy. I have also avoided all unessential ethnographic details for the sake of a higher symphonic reality.”

A higher reality, indeed: the collaborative effort behind Orpheus achieved historic results. The "Ballet Society" which commissioned and produced Orpheus, with music by Stravinsky, choreography by George Balanchine, and sets and costumes by Isamu Noguchi, was consequently invited to become the resident dance company of the City Center of Music and Drama. Today, we know it as the New York City Ballet. At the time of the premiere, in 1948, The New York Times reported that the Ballet Society “has more than justified its existence” with the production.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Stravinsky conducting, is featured in this clip.

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