Apollo and Dionysus

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is difficult to imagine a history of Western art that does not begin with the legacy of the classical world. Indeed the entire notion of “Western,” the idea of a coherent cultural tradition which in fact is anything but coherent, is largely the result of a conceit first developed in earnest during the nineteenth century. The core of that idea was the notion that modern European culture is a direct descendent of ancient Greece and Rome. The Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt (1818–1897), whose epoch-making book The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) pioneered the idea of defining history as a succession of related periods, identified the “rediscovery” of classical antiquity as the impetus for the civic humanism that was the hallmark of the Renaissance. The Renaissance became the defining era of modern Western culture. (Of course, the irony is that Europe before the Reformation spent several centuries selectively refuting the learning of the ancient world and effectively obliterating the artifacts of a classical heritage. The “rediscovery” came about largely because of European forays into Egypt and Arabia, where much of the learning of ancient Greece had been preserved by the great Arab scholars.) The Renaissance desire for continuity with the classical world is most strikingly evident in Dante’s choice of Virgil as the guide of the Christian soul in the Inferno. Virgil, a symbol of humanity’s highest possible achievement before Christian revelation, holds for Dante the beginning of the thread of history. Dante presumed his readers would have an intimate acquaintance with the Aeneid, which itself dramatizes the continuity between ancient Troy and Virgil’s Rome.

Burckhardt was a bit like Virgil with his thesis that the Italian Renaissance was the result of a rediscovery of classical heritage. The idea was as constructive as a guide to self definition for the nineteenth century as Virgil’s epic was for Augustan Rome. Burckhardt’s Renaissance was considered to be the beginning of early modern culture. The notion rested on the presumption that before the Renaissance, a period existed which could conveniently be called the “Dark Ages” or the “Middle Ages,” that is, an amorphous period between the classical and the modern. This idea gave a fine pedigree to the current age, a sense that fit in very well with nineteenth-century European aspirations with respect to secular culture. Burckhardt was an enormous influence on his contemporaries. The most important contemporary was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), a classicist as well as a philosopher. Nietzsche, also an amateur composer and pianist, famously cultivated the friendship of Richard Wagner. He eventually turned on Wagner’s art and personality in an equally memorable fashion with trenchant and perceptive sarcasm. Nietzsche and Burckhardt had considerable regard for one another and overlapped as resident academics in Basel.

For both of these thinkers, the transition from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance represented a decline in the dominance of ignorance, superstition, and the irrational, and the revival of reason. The identification of the Renaissance as the beginning of modernity was itself a revisionist idea that challenged the previous preeminence of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as the first modern age. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment was an age of great progress that began with the English Restoration in 1660, and saw the accomplishments of Newton, Locke, Lessing, and Goethe. The period (not the century) ended in 1789 with the French Revolution. The Enlightenment was an age of rapid industrialization and scientific progress, the development of democratic social contract theory, and the flowering of letters. It represented the erosion of the power of the Church in political affairs, and the strengthening of the secular nation space. The founding fathers in the United States and the Jacobins in France cherished a vision of themselves as heirs to the great leaders and orators of classical Greece and Rome. Indeed one group of great poets and writers of Britain were often referred as the “Augustans” and the era in Britain and on the Continent has been called the Neoclassical Age. In German-speaking Europe there was no more articulate defender of the priority of the ancients than Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), who had a tremendous influence on writers and artists, and who developed the false impression of ancient Greek monuments and buildings as smooth, white, and pristine. This idealized image is still evident in the buildings of our own nation’s capital and our Greek temple-inspired banks and libraries.

As an age which put itself at the apex of historical progress, the nineteenth century—once it had established the Renaissance as the beginning of modernity and the Enlightenment as its adolescence, as it were—developed its own version of the meaning of its classical inheritance, of this look backwards on behalf of the present. The writing of history is inevitably as revealing about the era of the writer as it is of the writer’s subject matter. In the nineteenth century, Romantic writers developed their own fascination with the ancient world. But it was a fascination tinged with urgency, because the modern inhabitants of the ancient lands, the Greeks, Turks, and Arabs, were seen as an object of compassion and condescension. Byron died defending his beloved Greece from the Ottomans. Elgin transported the legendary Parthenon Marbles to the British Museum for safekeeping from the Greeks who did not value what they had. Schliemann did the same for the artifacts of Troy, which ended up in Berlin (albeit allegedly with some selective alterations to make them look more idealistically “Trojan”).

But by the mid nineteenth century the intent had become to challenge the smug assumption about reason and progress inherited from the Enlightenment. In contrast to the earlier century, the nineteenth century shifted the focus away from the Roman era of Cicero, Livy, Virgil, and Horace to the earlier classical iterations of the Greek worlds of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. If Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) was the most eloquent expression of the appropriation of the classical past for the eighteenth century, then Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) might be counted as the single most significant mirror of the later nineteenth century’s view of the classical past.

Consequently, this shift also brought about a shift in interest from politics to mythology, from a benign consideration of Roman religion as an aspect of civic life (comparable perhaps to the restrained Christianity of Thomas Jefferson’s deism), to a fascination with mythic archetypes in pre-Christian classical thought that might offer a glimpse into the innate nature of humanity. This notion was of course loaded with the disillusionment with and suspicion of modern progress and industrialization, which by the end of the nineteenth century, was fairly apparent in the face of unprecedented poverty and discontent caused by commerce and industry. Could the Greeks, the birthplace of civilization, tell us through their mythic archetypes something about the nature of the human before it became disfigured by modern progress?

Nietzsche thought so. He initially identified the power of Greek tragedy as an act connected to religious ritual. Within that ritual lay a vision of the world not defined by Christianity. Using Greek myth and dramatic ritual as his basis, Nietzsche concluded that there are two fundamental but contradictory characteristics in the human spirit, and therefore in the way art both comes into being and is received. The Greeks were well aware of this duality. They personified it into two gods in the Olympian pantheon. The first of these gods is Apollo, god of light, learning, and music. As a characterological impulse that informs art, the Apollonian is that which imposes discipline of form, finds beauty in symmetry and proportion, expresses refined sentiment, grace, and reason. It is the Apollonian that raised humanity above the beast and controls action through thought in order to create order and promote civilization. The second god is Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy. Dionysus represents the irrational, the erotic, the physical, the uninhibited, and the boundless. Dionysus is undirected energy, frenzied joy, and absolute freedom with all the consequent destructiveness. The Dionysian impulse is pure instinct, that which connects humanity to the natural and animal world. Nietzsche used these two warring archetypes, neither of which can exist without the other, to depict the human factors that inform art with both its beauty and its psychic power. It is not at all surprising that Nietzsche’s reflections on aesthetics and history of ancient culture emerged in a transformed manner in the writings of Freud, who found in the eternal struggle of the Dionysian, which in Freud’s language became the id, the seat of the mind’s violent and sexual impulses (and also its truth),and the Apollonian, or the rational, controlling ego, the basis for human civilization.

Among artists of Nietzsche’s generation and after, this powerful explanation of human nature proved irresistible. How fascinating to suggest that we all have a primal force lurking in our psyche, from which we are protected by conscious discipline and the learned art of civilization, whose true value cannot deny that force’s inevitable legitimacy. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that his masterful portrayal of what can happen when the balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian is upset, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was inspired by a dream, a message from his own subconscious. Music was an even more fertile arena for an exploration of the Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo was the god of music, after all, and his lyre formed sound into disciplined patterns of beauty and symmetry. But Dionysus also had his sacred aulus or pipe which drove his followers, the Maenads, to frenzied orgies. For Nietzsche, both impulses constituted the essential elements of music: the beauty of its form, and its ability to touch primal emotion. When he admired Wagner, Nietzsche saw in Tristan und Isolde a reconciliation of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and in Wagner’s music in general a rebirth of the Greek spirit, which was in turn a rejection of moralistic Christianity. He later changed his mind about Wagner, but not Christianity. It should not surprise us that the generation of composers that was caught in this intellectual framework popularized by Nietzsche, and struggled with the overpowering legacy of Wagner, returned again and again to these archetypes as a source of inspiration and innovation.

In the end, however, it was Nietzsche’s use of the idea of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and its absorption into modern psychoanalytic theory that helped solidify the significance of this version of the classical heritage for the twentieth century. In the closing section of his classic essay on the relationship between Protestanism and capitalism, the great social scientist Max Weber (an avid music lover) described the predicament of the individual in modernity as an “iron cage.” There was no escape in life from the tyranny of rational action. The horrors of the First and Second World Wars vindicated this skeptical criticism of modern life. Music remained an art form potentially immune from such controlling rationality. It had the Apollonian virtues of form and beauty and at the same time could give expression to the joyous irrationalism symbolized by Dionysus. Tonight’s program provides a cross section of how twentieth century European composers integrated a Nietzschean-inspired sense of the crisis of modernity into their artistic vision, seeking in classical symbols a route around the bland and oppressive utilitarianism of a tradition of reason Nietzsche himself located not in Apollo or Dionysus but in a later legacy of classical antiquity, the influence of Socrates.

Sir Arthur Bliss, Hymn to Apollo

By John Wright, 2010, The Arthur Bliss Society (arthurbliss.org)

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It has never been easy to pin a convenient label to the music of Sir Arthur Bliss, encompassing as he does the genres of symphonic, chamber, film, choral, and ceremonial music. Regarded as avant garde in the 1920s, he still displayed vitality and a reactionary streak in his seventies. The poet Kathleen Raine recognised his role as a musical ambassador for the troubled twentieth century when she wrote, “In your music you have understood, and imposed form and beauty upon our strange times.”

Bliss was very aware of the dual allegiance he had inherited from an American father and English mother, and nowhere is this observed more keenly than his Hymn to Apollo. Outwardly, its American genesis came as a result of elation following performances in Boston and New York of his Colour Symphony by Pierre Monteux and the BSO, but there is a second and far more personal reason that this work came to fruition. During a two-year stay in the U.S. from 1923–25, Bliss met the young Trudy Hoffmann in Santa Barbara, California and they married in those idyllic surroundings on June 1, 1925. It is likely that Hymn to Apollo was first sketched out during this time of courtship, before they moved to London, although the music does not reveal romantic associations.

The world premiere was given in Amsterdam on November 28, 1926 by Monteux and the Concergebouw Orchestra; followed by a Royal Philharmonic Society concert in London on January 27, 1927. The American premiere took place on March 18, 1927 in Cincinnati, Ohio with Fritz Reiner conducting the CSO. Two local newspapers printed favorable reviews. Bliss was present at the next performance on August 9, 1927 at the Hollywood Bowl. Two photographs, possibly taken by Lady Bliss, are described by her as “Hollywood Bowl 1927. Rehearsal of Hymn to Apollo. Eugene Goossens conducting, Arthur Bliss listening.”

In 1964, Bliss revised Hymn to Apollo, modifying the form and reducing the orchestration. He justified his actions in his autobiography, As I Remember: “During my career I have continually found that my second thoughts are usually better than my first, and the third sometimes better still.” This version (being played today) received its premiere in the Cheltenham Music Festival (U.K.) in 1965 with the composer conductingDescribed in the score as an invocation addressed to Apollo as the god of the healing art, Apollo latromantis, physician and seer, the music evolves from the quiet opening woodwind and harp phrases and the violin melody that follows. It takes on the character of a ritualistic procession, gathering in volume and intensity to reach a climax, and then subsiding again. Although cast in a generally four-square and diatonic framework, there are characteristic Bliss touches such as angular melodic intervals and some harsh discords. In its most majestic moments, the music also suggests Apollo the God of the Sun, and reminds the listener that Arthur Bliss was to embrace the ceremonial in his role of Master of the Queen’s Music to Elizabeth II.

Luigi Dallapiccola, Frammenti Sinfonici from the ballet Marsia

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Phoebus Apollo may have been the golden god of music, healing, and the life-giving sun, radiating light from the nimbus around his head, but he could be a cruel, even vicious god, especially to those he desired, as Hyacinthus, Cassandra, and Daphne all learned to their cost. If the grim destinies of these three reveal how terrible a suitor Apollo could be, then the myth of the satyr Marsyas elucidates with horrifying clarity the fate of one foolish enough to challenge the supremacy of this god. In some traditions, Marsyas had already risked his luck by picking up the aulos, the double-flute discarded by Pallas Athena after her fellow Olympians ridiculed her distorted face as she played; Athena is supposed to have struck the satyr on the head in exasperation. Unbowed by this Olympian chastisement, Marsyas then had the temerity to challenge Apollo himself to a test of musical skill. Apollo won, as gods always do, and punished Marsyas for his hubris by lashing the satyr to a pine tree and flaying him alive. For the Greeks, the lesson was clear: hubris brings only disaster and sure, painful death.

In his ballet Marsia (Italian for “Marsyas”), the great Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola reinterpreted this ancient cautionary tale in light of his own very twentieth-century experience. Born in the disputed region of Istria, which was then a part of the Austrian empire, Dallapiccola suffered the traumatic experience of being interned with his family in Graz during the First World War. The Austrian authorities deemed the Dallapiccola family as dangerous Italian nationalists. Dallapiccola and his family returned home only after the war when Istria became part of Italy. This early internment bred in the young composer a fierce love of liberty—he named his daughter “Anna Libera”—that led him to oppose courageously the rise of Mussolini’s brand of Fascism from the mid-1930s; during the Second World War, Dallapiccola’s life was often in grave danger. Over the course of his career, Dallapiccola composed a series of works that protested vehemently the oppression of the weak by the strong, including his operatic masterwork, Il prigioniero (“The Prisoner” 1944–48).

Before beginning work on Il prigioniero, however, Dallapiccola composed his only ballet, Marsia. Completed in 1943, this ballet is the last of the composer’s scores to use tonal materials. Dallapiccola, who loved deeply the music of Alban Berg, employed his own Italianate adaptation of the twelve-tone technique for all of his works after Marsia.

The scenario of Marsia, by Aurel Milloss, inverts the meaning of the Classical myth in order to make a trenchant and very modern political point. Instead of the satyr being rightly punished for his hubris by Apollo, the god becomes a symbol for cold, cruel oppression, an Olympian Mussolini. Marsyas, whose music is dominated by eloquent and evocative writing for the flute, dies a heroic martyr who dared to confront a tyrant through music. (Dallapiccola signals his sympathies unmistakably by assigning the suggestive tempo marking Allegro molto sostenuto e pomposo to the “Danza de Apollo.”) At the moving conclusion of the ballet, Marsyas’s followers grieve so deeply that their tears create a river bearing the satyr’s name, thus immortalizing his courage and providing sustenance to a parched land. In 1947, Dallapiccola excerpted about three-fourths of Marsia to create an orchestral work entitled Frammenti Sinfonici dal Balletto “Marsia” (“Symphonic Fragments from the Ballet ‘Marsyas’”), tightening the musical argument in the process but preserving the basic outline of the original plot.

Hans Werner Henze, Symphony No. 3 (1949–50)

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

An Apollonian concept of “beauty” has always been an essential part of Han Werner Henze’s aesthetics. Henze’s espousal of the beautiful in music is far from simplistic, however no composer has returned more often to the dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus. As if compelled to rehearse obsessively Nietzsche’s observations in Die Geburt der Tragödie (“The Birth of Tragedy,” 1872) about the interaction between the Dionysian and Apollonian kunsttrieben (“artistic compulsions”), Henze has repeatedly found inspiration in the landscape and myths of ancient Greece, most famously in his stunning opera, The Bassarids (1965), a modern reinterpretation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman of Euripides’ terrifying play.

By the time that he composed The Bassarids, Henze had followed in Goethe’s footsteps and sought the blazing sunlight of antiquity in Italy, living on the island of Ischia; his neighbors there included both Auden and William Walton. Even in his turbulent Dionysian opera there are moments of extraordinary beauty. As Henze has written, “The sight of . . . beauty moves us, we feel a sacred awe, it plucks a string within us which vibrates and reverberates. It causes something to happen inside us, perhaps it’s a kind of conversion.” But, as Henze observed, the contemplation of beauty cannot be divorced from darker, chthonic powers: “We cannot prevent our thoughts from turning from the sight of a handsome human face to pictures of its destruction. And we cannot prevent mourning and regret sounding like an incessant dissonance, distracting us from the contemplation of beauty, a steadily dripping poison which clouds our sight and makes our eyes smart.”

Henze’s keen apprehension of the adulteration of Apollonian beauty by Dionysian chaos may have had a partial origin in his own turbulent youth. The teenaged Henze witnessed to the full the degradation of Germany during the Second World War. His father, serving willingly in the German army, disappeared forever at the Eastern Front; at 17, Henze himself was an unwilling conscript in the final days of the war. Both his love of music and his homosexuality provided a blessed sense of “otherness” that saved Henze from being seduced by the blandishments of fascist ideology, just as he would later reject the totalitarian aesthetics of post-Webernian serialism preached by the ideologues of Darmstadt. Despite an early flirtation with the twelve-tone technique, Henze was unable to eschew the sensuously beautiful, for, as he remembered, “the discovery of melody brought about an enrichment of my expressive means. . . in place of serial melody which outwardly guaranteed a certain ‘contemporaneity,’ came the most simple sequence of notes—the basic intervals that were naturally related to song.”

But Henze did not cross over the Italian border and transform his style change overnight, for several of his earlier works anticipate his Italianate allegiance to melody. One of his first characteristic works, Apollo et Hyazinthus (1949), a concerto for harpsichord and eight solo instruments, anticipates his later refulgent style. Completed in 1950, just after Apollo et Hyazinthus, Henze’s Third Symphony opens with a glistening Anrufung Apolls (“Invocation to Apollo”), music that evokes an uncanny sensation of sun-dappled voluptuousness. This opening invocation, which is cast as a prologue, passacaglia, and epilogue, is succeeded by a multi-layered hymn to Dionysus, “Dithyrambe.” The finale, entitled Beschwörungstanz (“Incantation Dance”), is a tour de force of brilliant orchestration influenced by early Stravinsky and American jazz. One of the most alluring features of the Third Symphony, which is surely the finest of Henze’s first five works in this genre, is a prominent part for saxophone; in this final bacchanal, the saxophone and trumpet play wild, jazzy riffs that conjure up a vision of a sweaty, sexy Dionysus improvising bebop in a smoky basement club in New York, circa 1950.

Granville Bantock, Prelude to ‘The Bacchanals’

By Lewis Foreman

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The British composer Granville Bantock succeeded Elgar as Richard Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University in 1908 and remained there for more than twenty years while simultaneously the Principal of the Midland Institute School of Music. This effectively created Birmingham as a significant alternative to the London conservatoires. In 1951, the choral conductor Charles Kennedy Scott remembered, ”From the first Bantock was regarded by his young contemporaries as a musical leader; the critic Ernest Newman reporting how, ’Those of us who were then ”young” and “modern” regarded Bantock as of much more importance than Elgar. . . Bantock was definitely “contemporary.” Indeed it was Elgar himself who referred to Bantock as “having the most fertile musical brain of our time.”’”

Bantock came to artistic maturity during the decade before the First World War, and between 1900 and 1914 he produced a succession of epic scores, tone-poems, orchestral song cycles, and enormous choral settings whose revival and appearance on CD—championed by the conductor, the late Vernon Handley—have ensured Bantock’s re-valuation today.

Bantock successively responded to five contrasted literary influences, at first with romantic poetry, especially Southey’s The Curse of Kehama and Moore’s Lalla Rookh. There followed works derived from the Bible, Persian and Arabic poetry in Victorian translations, Greek plays and mythology, and Scottish and Hebridean story and folksong.

Bantock synthesised a remarkable personal language from the influences of the time, which he used to set quasi-philosophical texts often taken from Victorian English translations of middle-Eastern verse, including Hafiz, Omar Khayyám, and Browning’s imagined verses of the Persian historian Ferishtah. When he turned to Sappho, Helen Bantock, the composer’s wife, produced her own version of the then known fragments of Sappho from the recent English edition by H. T. Wharton. Bantock’s most celebrated choral work is his setting of Fitzgerald’s English text of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. After the First World War, the language of music had significantly changed and Bantock’s music began to seem not as newly minted as once it had, and became increasingly forgotten. After the Second World War—he died in 1946—he seemed a figure from another world. Yet in 2007, during the Chandos recording sessions for Omar Khayyám, orchestral players crowded into the control room to hear the playbacks, clearly enthusiastic. One remarked to me, “Why haven’t we heard of him before? It’s like Hollywood before its time.”

Bantock was a self-taught linguist and he owned books in Greek, Persian and Arabic. His interest in classical Greek imagery and literature started with Sappho, but soon embraced writing incidental music for Greek plays with, in 1908, Hippolytus by Euripides, translated by Gilbert Murray.

Bantock’s contemporaries wrote music for the Greek plays, given in Greek at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. These included Vaughan Williams’ very well-known music for Aristophanes’ The Wasps, Parry’s music for several plays including The Frogs and The Birds,and Armstrong Gibbs’ 1920 score for the Oresteia of Aeschylus (“Agammemnon,” “The Choephori,” and “The Eumenides”). Bantock was outside this circle, but wrote music for productions by London’s Bedford College in 1909 for Sophocles’ Electra, seen at the Court Theatre on December 16, 1909 and at the Scala Theatre in 1914.

In 1910, Bantock produced five choral songs and dances for The Bacchae in the translation by Gilbert Murray, then recently-appointed Regis Professor at Oxford. This must have been for a now forgotten stage production, but the music then disappeared and was not published for over twenty years.

Bantock’s best-known orchestral work derived from a Greek play is the Overture to a Greek Tragedy, in fact Oedipus Coloneus by Sophocles, which dates from 1911 and was first heard at the Three Choirs Festival in September that year. In such works he attempts a programmatic symphonic paraphrase of the action of the play.

During the First World War and after, Bantock was obsessed by Hebridean folksong, first heard in the Hebridean Symphony, generally agreed one of his finest works, and the chamber opera The Seal Woman. We find him returning to Greek plays when he sketched the Prelude to ”The Bacchanals” (Bantock’s word) by Euripides in piano score, dated August 17, 1934, using motifs from his earlier choruses. He subsequently produced the Comedy Overture The Frogs (of Aristophanes). Dated August 27, 1935, it was written for the 1936 season of Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts, and enjoyed a brief popularity, was recorded, and was even arranged for brass band. Bantock returned to The Bacchae soon after war broke out in 1939, and the orchestral full score of the Prelude is dated December 26, 1939. Although semi-retired, Bantock was not done with Greek drama, and he produced three more orchestral overtures, really miniature tone poems: the ”symphonic overture” Agamemnon (Aeschylus) (1940); Overture to a Greek Comedy (“The Women’s Festival—Thesmophoriazuesae”) (1941); and his last work the comedy overture, The Birds by Aristophanes (1946).

In Bantock’s last years, his friend Cyril Neil, joint-owner of the music publisher Paxton, issued a long series of 78rpm discs of Bantock’s music as a means of providing the impecunious old composer with an income. These recordings included The Frogs, The Birds, and The Women’s Festival, but not The Bacchanals, for the composer died before it could be recorded, presumably the reason why it is almost certain that we enjoy a world premiere performance in our concert this afternoon.

Albert Roussel, Bacchus et Ariane

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

For oenophiles, the name Bacchus et Ariane may conjure delights of the famous Parisian wine shop, while visitors to the National Gallery may first think of the Titian painting, but to Albert Roussel the Ovidian tale provided the inspiration for a new style of ballet music, diametrically opposed to his earlier success, The Spider’s Feast.

Although there are many parallels between the lives of Roussel and Maurice Ravel (they were both, for example, ambulance drivers in The Great War), musically Roussel’s career mirrors much more closely that of another de facto Parisian composer, Igor Stravinsky. In the world of the ballet, the rhythmic drive and lushly rounded Romantic melodies created for Diaghilev in the Firebird run parallel to and are roughly contemporaneous with Roussel’s Le Festin d’araignee (1912–14), while twenty years later Bacchus et Ariane—with its sets and costumes designed by de Chirico—anticipates the clipped, truncated phrasing of such neoclassical works as the Russian master’s Jeu de cartes.

One major difference between the two ballet composers was the adaptability of their works for the piano. Stravinsky never created away from the keyboard, while Roussel, like Berlioz before him, heard all of his mature music as fully formed orchestrally. This is evidenced in a work like Bacchus et Ariane by the complex and yet diaphanous contrapuntal writing and the establishment of a unique and fragile sonic universe. Roussel conceived of his theater music symphonically, so much so that the two suites from the ballet heard this afternoon constitute the entire score for the original production. Strictly speaking, they are not suites at all: This is the complete ballet, just without dancers.

Act I finds Theseus landing on the island of Naxos after rescuing Ariadne and a group of youths from the Minotaur. The early choreography, which includes Theseus recreating the kill in dumbshow, is sinuously circuitous, suggesting the labyrinth at Crete. A cloaked stranger approaches and Ariadne is drawn to him. Some token resistance from the young men is stifled when the figure reveals himself to be the god Bacchus (some versions of the original Greek myth have Dionysus alert Theseus in advance of his intentions for Ariadne). Bacchus lays Ariadne on a rock and imperiously orders the others to depart the island. Bacchus begins a passionate dance around the slumbering body of his conquest which leads to that most delightful of all classical ballet devices, as Ariadne dreams that she joins him in sensual terpsichorean display.

In Act II, Ariadne awakens and spots the galley of Theseus on the horizon. In despair, she flings herself seaward, only to land instead in the arms of Bacchus. Their kiss is transformative, as the entire island bursts into new life. Fauns and Bassarids emerge, expressing their joy through ecstatic dance and the offering of a cup of wine to Ariadne. Parenthetically, it is this moment in the Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal opera Ariadne auf Naxos from 1912 that is most hilarious, as a troupe of vaudevillians cavort in the ocean while the “serious” god and maiden intone their lofty pseudo-Wagnerian love duet on shore.

Of course, the audience expects a Bacchanale and Roussel delivers in glorious Technicolor. All ends with the apotheosis of the maiden, as Bacchus leads her to the summit of the highest peak, forever crowning her with stars.