Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, now Lomonosov in the Northwest Saint Petersburg Region of Russia, on June 18, 1882, and died in New York on April 6, 1971. He began work on Perséphone in May 1933, completed a summary sketch on December 30, and finished the orchestration on January 24, 1934. He himself conducted the premiere on April 30, 1934, at the Paris Opera. Ida Rubinstein, who had commissioned the work, recited and mimed the title role, and the tenor soloist was René Maison. Stravinsky led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the American premiere performances on March 15 and 16, 1935, featuring Eva Gauthier, Colin O’More, and the Cecilia Society Chorus, Arthur Fiedler, conductor.
The score of Perséphone calls for tenor soloist (Eumolpus, the Priest), speaker (Persephone, the Goddess), mixed chorus, children’s chorus, and an orchestra of 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets (including high trumpet in D), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, bass drum, snare drum), 2 harps, piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Perséphone is about 55 minutes long.
Le Sacre du printemps and Perséphone, separated by twenty-one years, are Stravinsky’s two paeans to spring: the one, wild, fiercely ecstatic, revolutionary, and a symbol of a new musical era, is the most famous composition to have come out of the 20th century; the other, all lyric leisure, but with every note what Elliott Carter has called “a Stravinsky-note,” is still one of the least known of the 20th century’s masterpieces, a hidden treasure.
The choice of story was Ida Rubinstein’s. She came from Russia, a tall woman of what has been described as “mysteriously androgynous beauty.” She was wealthy and she was demanding: Stravinsky recounts that she commissioned the painter Léon Bakst to arrange the flowers in her Parisian garden—in boxes, so that the design could be changed every few weeks. She kept a black tiger cub, and it was bruited that she drank champagne out of Madonna lilies. Her real talent was in mime, but she was ambitious to dance, act, and sing. In 1909, Diaghilev introduced her in Fokine’s Cléopâtre, and she was sensational in a role perfectly suited to her gifts and limitations, as she was again a year later in Scheherazade. Her last performances for the Ballets Russes were in Scheherazade in Monte Carlo in 1911.
After that, Rubinstein was off on enterprises of her own, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, with a text by Gabriele d’Annunzio, music by Debussy, and choreography by Michel Fokine, being the first of what the dance historian Lynn Garafola calls her “genre-defying spectacles.” After seeing her as the martyred saint, Proust wrote to his friend Reynaldo Hahn: “I found the legs of Mme. Rubinstein sublime…. For me this was everything.” In 1928 she formed her own company, the Ballets Ida Rubinstein, with Bronislava Nijinska as her principal choreographer. In 1960, she died in the Provençal town of Vence at, as Nicolas Slonimsky writes, “an uncertain age (but old).” Music lovers are profoundly in her debt: aside from her involvement in Perséphone and The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, she commissioned Joan of Arc at the Stake from Honegger, got Stravinsky to compose Le Baiser de la fée, and it was for her that Ravel wrote Boléro.
Rubinstein had wanted to stage Stravinsky’s Apollo, but that score belonged to Diaghilev’s company and could not be made available to her. She therefore commissioned Le Baiser de la fée, which she produced at the Paris Opera in November 1928, with choreography by Nijinska. In January 1933 she asked André Gide to approach Stravinsky about a collaboration for a “symphonic ballet” based on Gide’s Hymn to Demeter. Early in February, Gide and Stravinsky met in Wiesbaden to discuss the project, and in short order a libretto was delivered and the composition begun. The “entente parfaite” Gide noted both in his journal and in a letter to Rubinstein did not last long. Gide tells the story in Ainsi soit-il (So Be It) and Stravinsky in Memories and Commentaries, one of his books of conversations with Robert Craft. What exactly happened, or when, does not emerge with ideal clarity, but it is evident that Gide was upset with a proposed staging far less realistic than he had envisioned and than his script implies, and that he was even more disturbed by Stravinsky’s treatment of his text. At any rate, he chose to leave Paris for a vacation in Sicily rather than attend the premiere. Later he sent Stravinsky a copy of the published libretto with the dedication “In communion,” but the two men did not meet again.
In brief, the issue was syllables. The day before the premiere of Perséphone, Stravinsky published an article in the Paris Excelsior, saying that for his new work he had wanted “only syllables, beautiful, strong syllables—and beyond that, a plot.” I do not know how beautiful, strong, and satisfying Stravinsky found Gide’s syllables. He did, on one occasion, refer to his collaborator’s poetry as “vers de caramel.” Stravinsky’s love for beautiful, strong syllables as musical, sonorous objects leading a life independent of their communicative function informed Stravinsky’s vocal music always, no matter whether he was setting French, his own native Russian, or church Slavonic, Latin, English, or Hebrew. Gide preferred his words to his syllables.
A quarter-century later, Stravinsky the critic quarreled with Stravinsky the composer. Conversations with Stravinsky, the first of his conversation books with Robert Craft (1959), includes the following exchange:
R.C. What is the feeling now about the use of music as accompaniment to recitation?
I.S. Do not ask. Sins cannot be undone, only forgiven.
To which there is a postscript. In January 1961, Stravinsky completed A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, one of the most beautiful of his late settings of sacred texts. The Narrative is of the stoning of Saint Stephen as told in the Acts of the Apostles, and much of it is told in spoken recitation with music. The fascinating thing, though, is that the 78-year-old composer of A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer had truly and precisely reconsidered the “sin” of the 51-year-old composer of Perséphone, and one of the most wonderful features of the later work is the subtle, intensely “composed” dovetailing of speech and bel canto.
Gide, roughly following the second Homeric Hymn (written in the sixth or seventh century B.C.E., and not by Homer), has divided the action into three tableaux:
Persephone Abducted—Eumolpus, chief priest of the Eleusinian rites in honor both of Demeter, goddess of fertility, and of her daughter Persephone, begins with an invocation. The nymphs in whose care Demeter has placed Persephone praise the beauty of Spring. They warn Persephone not to pick the narcissus, for whoever breathes its scent will see the Underworld. As Persephone bends over the cup of the flower, she sees the hopeless, wandering Shades. Eumolpus tells her that they await her coming. Persephone’s compassion leads her to go to the Underworld, there to become Pluto’s bride and to bring solace to the Shades.
Persephone in the Underworld—Persephone sleeps in the Elysian Fields. The Shades ask her to tell them about the earth in Spring, but Pluto calls her, and Eumolpus reminds her that she is there to reign over the Underworld, not to show pity. The Shades, the Hours, Mercury himself, offer her gifts. She rejects them, but Mercury hopes that, remembering her mother, Persephone will be tempted by a fruit. She succumbs when he offers her a bite of a pomegranate, which brings back a longing for the earth. Gazing into the narcissus, which she has brought with her, Persephone sees the earth held in the grip of winter, and her own mother, Demeter, desperately searching for her. Eumolpus consoles Persephone, telling her that Demophoön, now an infant boy, will teach humankind to till the soil and that he will bring her back to earth to be his terrestrial bride and the Queen of Spring.
Persephone Reborn—Demophoön, now called Triptolemus, removes Demeter’s cloak of mourning. Persephone reappears, and roses spring up where her feet touch the earth. She rejoices at her union with Demophoön-Triptolemus and at being restored to her mother. Persephone also understands that her bond with Pluto and the Underworld cannot be broken, that for a certain time of each year she must descend to her other home. And that is when and why we have Winter.
Gide ends the text of Perséphone by invoking the words of Jesus as Saint John reports them: “Except a corn of wheat falls into the ground and die, it abideth alone: But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” This Christianization of the Persephone myth—the emphasis on Persephone’s compassion and on the idea that it is by her choice that she descends to the Underworld—is Gide’s peculiar and touching contribution to the tale. It represents for him a reconciliation of two currents, classicism and Christianity, whose collision had caused him painful conflict as a young man. For Stravinsky, Perséphone was a return to the theme of sacrifice for the sake of renewal, brutal and involuntary in Le Sacre du printemps, here a voluntary act of compassion and love.
Let Stravinsky have the last word (from a conversation with Robert Craft, first published in Perspectives of New Music in 1962, where he proposes that Auden fit the music with new words!):
Perséphone does start tentatively, the B-flat music in 3/8 meter near the end is long, and the melodramas tend to beget large stretches of ostinato. I am no longer able to evaluate such things, or ever again be as I was when I wrote Perséphone. But I still love the music, especially the flutes in Persephone’s final speech (this needs stage movement!), and the final chorus (when it is played and sung in tempo, and very quietly without any general crescendo). I love the chord before the C minor Russian Easter music, too [when the chorus sings “Nous apportons nos offrandes”], and I love, above all, the lullaby Sur ce lit elle repose. I composed this berceuse for Vera de Bosset in Paris during a heat wave, and I wrote it for her to my own, Russian, words originally. But the whole of Perséphone was inspired by Vera de Bosset, and whatever tenderness or beauty may be found in the music is my poor response to those qualities in her.”
Michael Steinberg was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1979, and after that of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Oxford University Press has published three compilations of his program notes, devoted to symphonies, concertos, and the great works for chorus and orchestra.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the first American performances of Perséphone under Stravinsky's direction in March 1935.