American Ballet series: George Antheil

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George Antheil (1900-1959)
Capital of the World Suite, ballet for orchestra, 
W. 249 (1955)

Part 1 - The Street 0:00
Part 2 - The Pompous Bullfighter 6:10
Part 3 - Paco Back in Shop

Ballet Theatre Orchestra/Joseph Levine

This hot-blooded and dramatic ballet score illustrates why George Antheil, the one-time avant-garde "Bad Boy of Music," came into high demand as a film score composer and orchestrator. It pulses with action and Spanish color. Antheil wrote it for the Ballet Theatre, which premiered it in December of 1953. Virgil Thomson called it "The most original, striking, and powerful American ballet score with which I am acquainted." It is a tragedy [based on Hemingway's short story of the same name] about a rural youth named Paco who dreams of becoming a great bullfighter. He goes to Madrid, to him the "capital of the world" to see the great matadors and learn of life and women. Despite meeting three broken-down matadors he retains his idealism, in contrast to Enrique, another farm boy who earlier made a similar trip. When Paco continues to talk of the glory and courage of bullfighting, Enrique challenges him to a test of courage, a mock bullfight with Enrique hold a chair with knives are tied to two legs as "horns." Paco dies when he fails to sidestep quickly enough.
To the standard orchestra Antheil added a part for a Spanish dancer, writing into the score Flamenco-style foot-stampings and tappings. This unique solo part contributes an exciting audible subtext to the music, enhancing its strong physical appeal. ~ All Music Guide

Dreams (1934-35)
ballet music

I. Introduction 0:00
II. Andante 0:45
III. Polka 2:51
IV. Rat 4:00
V. Acrobat 5:27
VI. The King's March
VII. Can-Can
VIII. Valse
IX. Finale & Epilogue

Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Spalding

In 1934-35, Antheil was working for Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur as music director of their film studio in Astoria, Queens, which provided him with valuable new experience in orchestration. And he was composing a dance score for Martha Graham (Dance in Four Parts) based on his piano collection, La Femme 100 Têtes. Antheil recalled later that since '[choreographer George] Balanchine was looking for an American ballet sufficiently Parisian! I regret to say that he found exactly the combination of Americanness [sic] and Parisianness he wished in me. He had attended the premiere of [Antheil's opera] Helen Retires, liked it (he was probably the only one), and on the strength of that commissioned me to write him a ballet. I did. It was called Dreams and had a décor by Derain, explained by Balanchine in gorgeous Balanchinesque choreography.' While they did share a recent Parisian history, Balanchine had already met Antheil in New York, through an introduction by the Russian dancer Lisa Parnova ... What Antheil doesn't mention is that Dreams had a prior existence, in Paris. It was called Les Songes, and Darius Milhaud wrote the music in 1933. The plot was based on a surrealist poem by the painter André Derain. And Balanchine choreographed the production for his company Les Ballets 1933. The following year in New York, Balanchine acquired Derain's sets and costumes, discarded Milhaud's version of the ballet, and asked Antheil to write a new score ... The premiere was on March 5, 1935, in New York City, with the American Ballet and the American Ballet Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sandor Harmati. Derain's plot centers around the dreams and nightmares of a ballerina. In a posed period photo, eight beautiful dancers -- in tight-fitting polka-dotted bodices and flounced long skirts -- reach upward, holding stylized masks above their heads. They wear ecstatically joyful expressions. For this recording, Daniel Spalding used the same orchestral parts and comments, 'The score is in Antheil's own hand -- complete with lots of hard-to-read cuts. All the cuts were observed (some of them were pretty long) except one.' [...] Antheil plays sarcastically with contradictions: waltz versus march; folk song versus orchestral romanticism ... The score alternates between the inspiring and the insipid: after a banal Introduction, the Andante offers a novel waltz in 2/4 time. The Polka moves with Antheil's trademark enthusiasm, rhythmic drive, and percussive sense. Rat is a tone poem, a musical painting. To prepare for Acrobat, the pianist places a piece of paper softly over the strings before playing -- the effect is Antheil's so-called 'harem theme.' Combined with flute and oboe solos in the high registers, it creates a haunting image. The King's March is rousing Slavic music, with lots of chromaticism over a securely C major bass drum. And, astonishingly, development of the theme, including a reference to the 2/4 waltz. Can-Can, co-orchestrated by the young composer Henry Brant, has much in common with the open orchestration and brief riffs of the piano concerto. The Valse's chromatic modulations return to a predominant and clear tonality. Meanwhile, a strongly indicated metric pulse and lush orchestration place this movement squarely in the Russian school of ballet writing. The end fades out in a manner that promises more, but... Antheil does an about-face and the Finale & Epilogue recaps earlier material in a waltz, with careful doses of bombast, and an intensely difficult piano cadenza. A creepy bit of piano tremolos bring back the 'harem' and Can-Can themes. [...] Antheil recalled with pleasure that writing the ballet 'took a considerable while, and in order to get it just right, I had to come to [Balanchine's] classes very often.' Antheil was living a bohemian life with his wife and another artist in an apartment near Carnegie Hall, and remembered those as good times despite the Great Depression: 'Balanchine would occasionally join us, usually arriving at two or three in the morning -- rather late afternoon for us.' Unfortunately, Antheil and Balanchine did not complete any more projects together, nor was Dreams ever revived. But the work lived on in several forms: La Vie Parisienne, a collection of solo piano pieces which Antheil composed in 1939, incorporates similar themes and styles. And the Can-Can also exists in a solo piano arrangement of Antheil's: Can-Can from the Ballet Dreams. ~ Guy Livingston

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