|IV. Suple et Animé||03:08|
|VIII. Lent (excerpt)||00:41|
During the first seven years of Darius Milhaud’s American period, when he resided and worked exclusively in the United States, he collaborated on four ballet projects with important choreographers and companies, including The Bells, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe; Jeux de printemps, with choreography by Martha Graham; La Création du monde (Black Ritual), choreographed by Agnes de Mille; and The Man from Midian. In August 1940, the fledgling Ballet Theatre (known after 1957 as American Ballet Theatre)—which, in its seven-month existence as an independent troupe under the management of its founder-director Richard Pleasant, was already gaining critical recognition as “the American Ballet”—commissioned Milhaud to compose a score for a one-act (twenty-five-minute) ballet to a choreographic scenario by Winthrop Bushnell Palmer. The work was based liberally and poetically on the life, leadership, and mission of Moses. Palmer had titled her highly personal interpretation The Man from Midian, loosely drawn from the narrative account in Exodus in which Moses takes refuge in Midian following his flight from Egypt. After killing an Egyptian taskmaster whom he saw beating an Israelite slave, Moses marries a Midianite woman, sires a son, and lives the life of a shepherd—until he is mandated by God in the familiar “burning bush” incident to return to Egypt to lead his people out of bondage and to the land that will be their own as a free nation.
Milhaud titled his score Moïse (with the subtitle Ballet symphonique in the manuscript), which later, as a concert suite, became his Opus Americanum no. 2. But the two ballet titles—Moïse and The Man from Midian—appear to have been used interchangeably during the contract negotiations and during the preparation and rehearsal period, and the initial billing for the subsequently postponed and ultimately aborted premiere, first scheduled for February 1941, referred to the production as “Eugene Loring’s The Man from Midian.” Loring, who had established his reputation as the choreographer of Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid and other ballets (Harlequin for President, City Portrait, and The Great American Goof) before joining Ballet Theatre, was assigned the role of choreographing Milhaud’s score to Palmer’s scenario, which was stipulated in Milhaud’s contract. As part of its raison d’être and its mission to expand American ballet beyond the confines of traditional European classical molds, Ballet Theatre had been organized by Pleasant into various subdivisions—with their own choreographers—that would focus on corresponding styles of ballet repertory: French, American, Russian, English, American black, and other influences. Loring was the director of the American division. The intended production of Moïse under its wing may be an indication that some circles in the American artistic world were already ready to “claim” the recently arrived French-Jewish Milhaud as at least partly an American composer.
The dramatic outline that Loring furnished Milhaud specified a three-part structure—two “movements” and a coda—each further divided into what Loring called themes. Each theme was subdivided into tentatively labeled choreographic moments and an uninterrupted flow of mini-scenes of between one and three and a half minutes each. The opening scene was a general preludial depiction of the anguish of the Israelites’ slavery, followed chronologically but freely by key incidents in the Exodus narrative—beginning with the birth of Moses and ending with fanciful aspects, drawn loosely from the account in Deuteronomy concerning his final hours, superimposed on the Exodus account of Moses’ anger and disillusionment following the “golden calf” regression to idolatry and paganism.
That dramatic outline appears to have been a starting point for the composer. The subdivisions and their scenic references were of course subsequently adjusted, amplified, and refined after the music was composed and as Loring proceeded to work out his choreographic ideas—all of which is reflected in his succeeding choreographic synopsis (labeled simply “Choreography” in the typewritten draft) and in the superscriptive labels in the manuscript of Milhaud’s orchestrated score.
Milhaud completed the music in California in less than two months, and after delivering the four-hand piano version, he proceeded to orchestrate it over the next six weeks. As of October of that year (1940), a Chicago world premiere was being discussed, but it was soon established that the premiere would take place in New York, as originally envisioned. When Loring was unable to complete the choreography and other production preparations in time for a 1940 premiere, it was postponed to January 1941, then again to February, and yet again, without an announced date—that last postponement triggered both by financial difficulties within the company and by internal administrative and managerial disputes that resulted in Pleasant’s departure. By March, when Ballet Theatre concluded its 1940–41 season, it was clear that the Moïse production would have to wait until at least the 1941–42 season.
Meanwhile, Ballet Theatre had formulated an innovative procedure concerning reduced orchestra size for all its productions. It apparently adopted this as firm policy only after Milhaud’s score had been completed. That policy, which had the endorsement of a number of major composers, including Stravinsky (though not the frequently disagreeable Virgil Thomson), was born out of a candid confrontation with the budgetary realities and qualitative orchestral standards endemic to ballet production in America. Rather than continue the common practice of arbitrary reductions and on-the-spot instrumental substitutions or even eliminations, especially on tours and nearly always without the composer’s involvement or even knowledge, or the employment of inferior players to meet the orchestra size required by a score—all of which risked violating artistic integrity and undermining the composer’s intentions—the new policy called for a twenty-one-piece chamber orchestra for all productions (except when conditions permitted the surety of a full symphony orchestra for scores written as such). Under Pleasant’s direction, therefore, the company announced its project of soliciting new versions of standard ballet repertory scores in the form of proper reorchestrations, either to be requested from the composers themselves or commissioned from other serious composer-orchestrators. The desiderata was the accumulation of new versions for Ballet Theatre’s entire repertory that would be artistic products on their own merits, not reluctantly diluted patchwork after the fact.
In keeping with that policy, in January 1941, when the premiere of Moïse that season was still being held out as a possibility, Pleasant asked Milhaud to reorchestrate for an additional fee not only Moïse but also his earlier ballet La Création du monde. Ballet Theatre had staged this work in its first season as Obeah (Black Ritual), with choreography by Agnes de Mille for sixteen black female dancers—the “American Negro wing” of the company—for its new “model ballet orchestra” of twenty-one pieces.
Milhaud replied that in the case of Moïse, such reorchestration would require complete artistic “rethinking.” But he shrewdly offered to reorchestrate not only the two requested scores, but also his ballet Train Bleu—all three for a flat inclusive fee. It is not known for certain, however, whether he ever actually did reorchestrate Moïse.
In the wake of the fallout from the administrative shake-up and Pleasant’s departure, Loring also left Ballet Theatre in late spring or early summer of 1941 and organized his own small company, Dance Players, in which Winthrop Palmer was also involved—possibly in a patronage capacity. Dance Players was in effect a successor to Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, for which Loring had choreographed Copland’s Billy the Kid. Both Loring and Palmer were eager for their Moïse collaboration to see the light of day. They thus sought to transfer its production to their new company, especially since the Ballet Theatre production seemed increasingly unlikely—at least in the short term. (The future of Ballet Theatre itself was in some question at the time, prior to its rescue and assurance of a major place in American ballet under the new management of the illustrious and star-oriented impresario Sol Hurok.)
Although Milhaud had retained the rights to his music, the separate choreographic rights (viz., to his Moïse score) specifically remained with Ballet Theatre. Moreover, under the terms of his contract with Ballet Theatre, Milhaud would have been free to have his score rechoreographed by another choreographer and staged by another company only after the expiration of the time period he had granted to Ballet Theatre, which also declined to abrogate that provision. Loring and Palmer’s only alternative was to seek another composer to provide a new and unrelated score, which Loring could then—at least in theory—choreograph anew as an independent work of art. This time they turned to Stefan Wolpe, who had immigrated to the United States three years earlier, and who did indeed write a new score to Palmer’s scenario (and, it seems, to Loring’s preliminary dramatic outline). That score was staged by Dance Players as The Man from Midian in Washington, D.C., and New York in 1942, presumably with Loring’s new choreography. (Wolpe's score toThe Man from Midian appears next in Volume 17.)
Once it was obvious that Ballet Theatre’s production of Moïse had in effect been aborted, Milhaud seems to have put aside concerns about its staging in the immediate future, and he focused on its use as a concert suite. The work, in concert form as Opus Americanum no. 2, at last received its premiere in 1942 by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux. It took another four years for Milhaud to retrieve the manuscript from Ballet Theatre (which claimed to have misplaced it). In 1947 he published it as Opus Americanum no. 2, Suite from the Ballet Moïse, with the original three movements (two movements plus coda) now spread among nine newly labeled movements—six of which are excerpted on this recording. Sandra Sedman Yang, whose Ph.D. dissertation on Milhaud’s ballets goes into substantial detail, assures us that musically, Opus Americanum no. 2 corresponds measure for measure to the original piano reduction of the Moïse score intended for Ballet Theatre, even though that score—as expected—contains many more stage directions. Whether Opus Americanum no. 2 represents any orchestrational revision of Milhaud’s original full score, however, remains in question.
Ironically, Moïse was first staged as a ballet in 1950 in an unauthorized production by the Rome Opera Ballet. It was next danced in Milan in 1957—this time with Milhaud’s sanction—by the Ballet of La Scala, with choreography by the Hungarian Aurel von Milloss.
The opus number in the title represents an interesting personal decision by Milhaud. Upon his arrival in America in July 1940 as a refugee from German-occupied France, he decided to begin his opus numbering anew, starting with the tenth string quartet (initially written mostly on his transatlantic journey, but completed in New York). The quartet was thus numbered as Opus Americanum no. 1, even though his last works composed in France (April 1940)—a Cours de solfège and a part song, both with a text by Henri Fluchère—are numbered together as Opus 217 in published catalogues (218 in his own handwritten register). The Moïse concert suite therefore became Opus Americanum no. 2, which was actually incorporated into its title.
The six movements of the suite excerpted here are:
I. Ouverture (Corresponding to the depictions in the ballet score of the Israelites’ suffering under slavery.)
II. Modéré (Corresponding to depictions in the ballet score of Moses’ birth, his mother’s hiding him along the banks of the Nile in a basket of bulrushes, his discovery by the pharaoh’s daughter Bithia [Batya] as she bathes in the Nile, and her summoning the infant’s sister, Miriam, to have her organize a wet nurse—his actual mother, Yoḥeved.)
III. Animé (Corresponding to the imagined depiction in the ballet score of Moses being brought to court.)
IV. Suple et Animé (Corresponding to depictions in the ballet score of Moses shown as the pet of the ladies at court, and a scene of typical but imagined political intrigue among the pharaoh and his ministers.)
VIII. Lent (Excerpt: from Introduction et Bacchanale, corresponding to depictions in the ballet score of Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, his smashing the tablets of the Decalogue, and his anger and anguish.)
IX. Modéré (Divided into two parts, corresponding to depictions in the ballet score of (a) Moses walking among the people and mandating death for the idolatrous generation; (b) Moses gathering the people for their final processional and his solitude at the end of his life.)
The movements omitted here, V. Animé, Rude; VI. Très Lent; VII. Marche; and the remainder of VIII. Introduction et Bacchanale, correspond respectively to depictions in the ballet score of (a) Moses killing an Egyptian taskmaster and burying him in the sand, his panic on realizing that his deed has been witnessed, and his flight to the land of Midian; (b) Moses’ “conversation” with God (God’s voice or angel) in the burning bush incident in Midian; his meeting with Aaron, after agreeing to God’s mandate to lead the Israelites out of bondage (despite his speech impediment), when Aaron is appointed as Moses’ spokesman; and the gathering of the Israelite leaders to advise them of the impending mission; (c) the parting of the waters of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites crossing, and Moses’ ascent to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah; and (d) the golden calf incident, before, during, and after: the peoples’ restlessness during Moses’ absence, Aaron’s desperation that leads him to buy time by acquiescing to the peoples’ demand to create an idol, Joshua’s pleading, and the actual pagan ritual.
Coproduction with DeutschlandRadio Kultur and the ROC Berlin GmbH
Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.