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Orpheus, Ballet in three scenes

The ballet Orpheus edges toward the extreme reaches of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism.

Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky was born at Oranienbaum, Russia, on the Gulf of Finland, on June 17, 1882, and died in New York on April 6, 1971. He composed his ballet Orpheus in Hollywood in 1947, completing it on September 23. It was introduced on April 28, 1948, by the Ballet Society at the New York City Center, with choreography by George Balanchine and decor by Isamu Noguchi; the part of Orpheus was danced by Nicholas Magallanes, that of Eurydice by Maria Tallchief. With Stravinsky conducting, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the first concert performances of this score, in Boston on February 11 and 12, 1949, followed by New York performances on February 16 and 19 at Carnegie Hall and on February 18 in Brooklyn.

The score of Orpheus calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The ballet is 30 minutes long.

Completed in Hollywood on September 23, 1947, this is one of the series of works on classical Greek subjects which suited so well Stravinsky’s neoclassic middle period. Earlier examples include the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927), the ballet Apollo or Apollon Musagète (1928), and the melodrama Perséphone (1933). Allied to this, too, is his recourse to Latin in Oedipus Rex, the Symphony of Psalms (1930), and the Mass (1948).

Orpheus was staged by the Ballet Society (now the New York City Ballet) at the City Center, New York, with scenery and costumes by Isamu Noguchi, on April 28, 1948. Noguchi, the composer said,

saved use from cliché “Greek”: the chlamys [Greek mantle with shoulder clasp], Doric backdrops, and so on…. His greatest success was the transparent curtain which fell over the scene during the Interludes like a fog…. The ballet was an immediate success, largely because it was brilliantly danced, especially by some of Balanchine’s present and future wives…. Because so much of Orpheus is mimed song, it seemed inevitable that my next work would be an opera [The Rake’s Progress].

Like the music of Apollo and Agon, that of Orpheus is succinct and “symphonic” enough that no concert suite or adaptation has ever been deemed necessary, so it is played in concert exactly as it is heard in the theater.

Ingolf Dahl, the composer and Stravinsky pupil, says of the music:

Throughout major parts of this ballet, Stravinsky thinks of his music in terms of its speaking quality, as if it were giving voice to the inflection of the protagonists and their story. It is not the language of everyday life, but rather a hieratic speech, intoned by the orchestra and by the instruments individually. This minutely controlled music, so expressive through its proportions and shape, so expressive through its own melodic attitude, is in complete accord with its function: the unhurried, tenderly evocative retelling of mythological story….
Never before had Stravinsky so consciously and so consistently applied himself to the creation of a one-leveled monochromatic music. He was aware of the responsibility that such a subjugation to the Apollonian principle would impose on him. But in rejecting the temptations which Dionysian dynamism constantly offers, he accomplished a subtle variety of musical means of a much higher order. His insistence on unification produces no more monotony than one finds in the music of Bach or Buxtehude. For the shaping and profiling of melodic phrases, the life of the inner parts and of the harmonies, the vitality of the rhythm, all of these in balance supply a truly musical variety that seems inexhaustible.

The opening lament is a subdued piece of polyphonic character, built on a choralelike subject whose beats are measured by the harp almost throughout. The first Air de danse is a spun-out and highly developed variation. The descent into Hades (first Interlude) is a fugue set in slow, measured phrases.

“The music for the Furies is soft,” Stravinsky wrote, “and constantly remains on the soft level, like most of the rest of this ballet.” The second Air de danse is a recitative and aria for two oboes and harp, accompanied by the orchestra. The continuation, after a short pause (second Interlude), is a canonic elaboration of the aria, followed by the first Pas d’action. The Pas de deux is a climax of polyphonic but not dynamic intensity; only toward its conclusion is there a short crescendo leading to four beats of silence, as Orpheus looks on Eurydice and she falls dead. The third Interlude, as Orpheus returns to earth, is simply a retrograde form of the first. The second Pas d’action, the attack of the Bacchantes, at last brings loudness and ferocity, with slashing chords in the manner of Le Sacre du printemps.

The closing Apotheosis is derived from the music of the beginning. But, in the words of Ingolf Dahl, “two solo horns, as if they were the voices of Orpheus and Apollo, intone a two-part fugue which is a paraphrase of the chorale subject with which the ballet opened.”

The following outline of the numbers is correlated with excerpts from various synopses of the original ballet productions.


(Lento sostenuto). Orpheus stands alone, mourning at the tomb of Eurydice. His lyre lies soundless at his feet as he stands with bent back and helpless arms. Three of his friends enter. They offer their sympathy, lay tributes on the grave, and depart.

Air de danse (Andante con moto). Taking up his lyre, Orpheus strikes music from it and begins to dance. Wood sprites and a satyr appear in answer to his playing, but they cannot comfort him. For a moment he dances with them, but then returns to his lonely vigil.

Dance of the Angel of Death (L’istesso). The Angel of Death rises from Hades and appears to him, granting him the power to cross the Styx and rejoin Eurydice. A golden mask is placed over his eyes, and the Angel of Death, taking the lyre in his hand, leads Orpheus on the long journey.

Interlude. A white silken curtain descends as if a mist has fallen, and figures move behind it, stirring it into swirling, ominous shapes as the two make their descent to hell.


Pas des Furies (Agitato in piano; Sempre alia breve ma meno mosso). A company of Furies wait to destroy Orpheus. They are surrounded by tortured souls oppressed by great rocks, who move only with difficulty. The Furies prepare to attack the invaders. The Angel moves behind the masked and unseeing Orpheus and, guiding his hand, urges him to play upon his lyre.

Air de danse (Grave; Un poco meno mosso). Orpheus plays, and the Furies are stilled. He stops playing.

Pas d’action (Andantino leggiadro). His music has conjured up Pluto himself from the darkness. He brings Eurydice with him, and Orpheus, sensing her presence, pleads that she be restored to him. Pluto consents, and himself joins the hands of husband and wife, only commanding that Orpheus shall not raise the golden mask and look on Eurydice until he reaches earth once more. The Angel of Death, taking the lyre again, leads them out of Hades. The misty curtain of white again falls.

Pas de deux (Andante sostenuto). At first, Eurydice simply follows Orpheus’ footsteps. Then she grows impatient and passes him, dancing a lighthearted dance before him which he wishes to join. At last Orpheus tears the mask from his face. Eurydice falls dead at his feet.

Interlude (Moderato assai). Orpheus, turning to grasp his lyre from the Angel of Death, finds that it disappears as he reaches toward it. The bereft Orpheus continues his journey, and earth reappears.

Pas d’action (Vivace). Orpheus wanders into the country of the Bacchantes, fierce and violent women. The Bacchantes attack him, seize him, and tear him to pieces.


Apotheosis of Orpheus (Lento sostenuto). Orpheus dies, but his severed head sings on. Apollo appears and carries the singing head up toward heaven.

Jack Diether

The late Jack Diether, an American musicologist born in Vancouver, British Columbia, was also a critic, annotator, and frequent contributor to scholarly and general publications. For his studies of the life and works of Gustav Mahler he was awarded the Mahler Medal of Honor of the Bruckner Society of America. His program note on Stravinsky’s Orpheus appeared originally in the BSO program book of October 1973.