|I. Serfdom. Lamentation
|II. Mother conceives child
|III. Pharaoh's daughter bathes in the Nile, finds the Baby
|V. Pet of the court. Political intrigue
|VI. Moses among the workers
|VII. Moses buries Taskmaster In the sand
|VIII. Portrait of Moses
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 Miadian 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’étre 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, African American, 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 female dancers from the “African American 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.
For Wolpe’s new score, all sets and costumes had to be done de novo by Loring’s new company, although it is difficult to know—especially in view of Ballet Theatre’s retention of the choreographic rights—to what extent Loring relied on elements of his earlier choreographic ideas and movements in creating a work for entirely different music. New sets, designed by James Morcom, were based on paintings by Doris Rosenthal, who was also listed in the program booklet as artist consultant; and new costumes were created by Felipe Fiocca.
The premiere of Wolpe’s The Man From Midian in April 1942 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., coincided with Dance Players’ debut as a company. Wolpe’s unorchestrated score was performed in its two-piano version by Walter Hendle and Arthur Gold. Loring danced the role of Moses. Also on the program that evening was a revival of Loring’s Harlequin for President, with music by Domenico Scarlatti, and another new ballet, Prairie (cited in the press, as was The Man from Midian, as a “choreographed poem”), based on a poem by Carl Sandburg with a score by Norman Dello Joio. Later that same month, The Man from Midian was danced several times in New York, when Dance Players made its first appearance there—coincidentally at the National Theater on West Forty-first Street, in the Broadway theater district.
More than musical content differentiates Milhaud’s Moïse (previous in Volume 17) and Wolpe’s The Man from Midian. The structure and the choice of depictions differ as well. Whereas Moïse has two movements and a coda, the program booklet for The Man from Midian (from a 1942 New York performance) simply divides the ballet into seven scenes: 1) At the Wailing Wall; 2) Along the Nile; 3) Pharaoh’s Court; 4) A Work Field in Egypt; 5) The Fields of Midian; 6) On the Way to the Red Sea; and 7) The Camp in the Desert. No overture is listed. Wolpe’s published two-piano score, however, is divided into two movements, with seventeen scenes or numbers preceded by an overture, that are titled loosely after Loring’s preliminary dramatic outline from the original Milhaud collaboration, although Wolpe’s titles for numbers 12–14 are not identified as such in that outline. The individual numbers in Wolpe’s published two-piano score are, for the first movement (after the overture):
1. Serfdom—Lamentation (the same title used by Milhaud)
2. Mother Conceives [sic] Child
3. Pharaoh’s Daughter Bathes in the Nile, Finds the Baby
5. Pet of the Court—Political Intrigue
6. Moses Among the Workers
7. Moses Buries the Taskmaster in the Sand
And for the second movement (without recommencing the numbering): 8) Conversation with God; 9) Moses Meets Aaron; 10) March Through the Red Sea; 11) Restlessness; 12) Aaron’s Desperation; 13) Joshua’s Pleading; 14) Bacchanal; 15) Return of Moses; 16) Moses Walks Among the People; 17) Gathering of the People
Wolpe subsequently orchestrated the first movement as a concert suite—which could of course be used for dance should the opportunity arrive—under the title The Man from Midian, Ballet Suite no. 1, which received its world premiere in 1951 at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic (then known as the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York), conducted by its musical director, Dimitri Mitropoulos. Notwithstanding the complete recording of the two-piano score with Cameron Grant and James Winn for the Group for Contemporary Music, this Milken Archive release is the world premiere recording of the orchestrated suite. Seven of its eight movements (excluding the overture, which does not appear in the orchestral suite) correspond to those of the first movement in the actual ballet score. Wolpe added a new piece as a finale to this suite, The Portrait of Moses, which does not appear anywhere in the actual ballet. Although it draws on musical materials from the second movement, it appears to have been constructed expressly for this concert suite as a kind of programmatic summation of Moses’ persona as it developed in the balance of the ballet according to Loring’s dramatic outline.
Winthrop Palmer described this Portrait of Moses as a musical unfolding of Moses’ “huge stature,” an “epic incantation” in which “the music, in waves of motion, allows the air to reverberate with the voice of The Man from Midian.” (In her comments in the program notes for the world premiere of the suite, however, she referred to this piece as “originally the overture”—which it is not, at least not in the published two-piano version, unless it was played as an overture in a two-piano reduction for the danced production, without mention in the program.) The flow of the numbers in the present suite can be seen here in the track listing.
The entire ballet score can be understood as comprising sets of continuous variations—not on a single theme in the conventional sense of “theme and variations,” but on musical ideas and cells contained in the overture and the first danced number (“Serfdom—Lamentation”). The musical language throughout illustrates Wolpe’s idiosyncratic eclecticism—perhaps even a bit of his “transgression”—in its blurring of procedural boundaries and its reliance, to various degrees and at moments among the individual pieces, on octatonic, enriched diatonic, and nonserial but overtly chromatic components.
Although the dissonances and textural densities in certain passages and sections bespeak complexity, the music is actually infused in its overall arch with a straightforward and cohesive evocation of the progressive scenic action and its symbolism. And those evocations provide a quasi-folk character in many places, despite simultaneous technical and artistic sophistication. The tune of No. 4 (“Procession”), for example, has—apart from its meter—the modal flavor and general feeling of a typical ḥalutz (pioneer) marching song from 1920s or 1930s Palestine, artistically elevated here with ingenious imitative counterpoint (with an incipit even reminiscent of one such well-known tune, Na’ale l’artzenu b’rina [We Will Go Up to Our Land with Joy]). The drama inherent in the ballet’s episodes is achieved by correspondingly powerful, if sometimes appropriately momentary, motivic gestures; skillfully manipulated and compounded layers of juxtaposed sonorities; tone clusters that dissolve to thinned-out chords; and forceful motoric rhythms. Musical means range from long, unfolding, chromatically expansive melodic lines (No. 3, “Pharaoh’s Daughter”) to a double fugue (No. 5, “Pet of the Court”).
Some of Palmer’s scene labels, as well as the more detailed indications in the scenario and choreographic outline, can seem both a bit odd and dated—partly the result of historical Judaic and biblical naïveté, and partly a matter of period style. “Serfdom,” which has the connotation of a rather different feudal system, doesn’t quite convey the reality of slavery, which is the correct term for the Israelites’ bondage. “Lamentation” suggests sorrow, in the sense of mourning or grieving over some unalterable incident in the past (as in the biblical Book of Lamentations, which mourns the destruction of the Temple and the captivity) rather than over a current condition; “suffering,” or “groaning”—as the corresponding Hebrew word in Exodus (na’akatam) is conventionally rendered in English—would be more apt. “Pet,” to describe Moses being fawned over by the ladies at court (Palmer’s completely invented parameter with neither reference nor basis in the biblical account, although understandably useful for choreography under the doctrine of artistic license) may sound passé, but was probably not so in 1941 (the film Teacher’s Pet and the Joe Lubin song of the same title date to 1958), although Moses is a grown man during that scene. In any case, the scenario and choreographic documents reveal that the title is unintentionally misleading: it should at least have been “Pet of the Ladies at Court.” And the phrase “political intrigue” has nothing to do with Moses or the Israelites. Like the “pet of the court” element, it was invented simply as another choreographic opportunity to portray typically romanticized and “orientalized” moments of an imagined Egyptian palace scene—in this case, the pharaoh and his ministers (and/or magicians: references in the choreographic drafts vary). Fortunately, both Milhaud and Wolpe were astute enough to avoid the region-linked trap into which a Saint-Saëns would likely have fallen: there is no artificially romanticized Arabian snake charmer music in either composer’s score. If anything, Wolpe’s movement has fragmentary hints of a Hebrew Palestinian ḥalutz-type tune in the statements of the second subject of the fugue—in the initial semi-quaver phrase, before it gives way to chromatic extension.
“Workers” (in “Moses Among the Workers”) is also a strange, though perhaps deliberate, word choice—charged as it was with 19th/20th-century proletarian class connotations. The Israelites whom Moses witnessed suffering under brutal oppression were slaves, not merely disadvantaged workers at low wages; nor was their subjugation a matter of capitalist economic policy.
The scene label “Mother Conceives Child” presents a question of scenic, and therefore musical, intent. True, the verb “conceives” appears in the drafts of the scenario, the dramatic outline, and the choreographic synopses, although it is not clear from those documents whether what it really meant to signify was the birth of Moses. Milhaud and Wolpe and their publishers followed the terminology given them. It is nonetheless difficult to imagine just how conception, as an internal feminine physiological event, might have been choreographed, much less costumed. Alternatively, it is unlikely that the word was a euphemism for the related, necessary causal activity. Indeed, the title in question here is listed and then discussed (by Palmer) in the program of the Carnegie Hall world premiere of Wolpe’s suite as “Mother Conceals Child,” which makes more sense. That should most likely be the title of the movement; “conceives” should be considered a perpetuated error.
The selection, identification, and delineation of scenes, the unfolding of the story, the interpretation and free reworking of events and personalities in the biblical narrative, and the symbolism must all be considered the product of a collaboration between Palmer and Loring. (Milhaud’s and Wolpe’s participation appears to have been confined to composing music for the scenes and scenic moments that were stipulated and preassigned to them.) Apart from Loring’s exclusive role as choreographer, it is impossible to gauge the degree to which each one contributed to—and is responsible for—the final, jointly approved scenario and dramatic content for Wolpe’s The Man from Midian by the time it saw the footlights in 1942. It is clear, however, that Palmer’s involvement did not end with Loring’s and Ballet Theatre’s acceptance of her original scenario prior to the Milhaud commission, and she was even involved with the premiere of Wolpe’s concert suite.
Palmer’s scenario entitled The Man from Midian is preceded by her own unpublished sprawling poem—a highly fanciful and contemplative excursion, filled with amorphous odes to freedom of the human spirit, anthropomorphic assignments to nature, and modern, liberation-oriented societal sensibilities. Much of this serves as the inspiration for her scenario, which, together with the dramatic outline, the synopsis, and the program notes, are all perplexing and permeated by inconsistencies. Much of the content is sheer invention beyond poetic license; other aspects are confusions of particular characters, incidents, or locations in the biblical narrative; and other elements can only have been the result of biblical ignorance rather than legitimate reinterpretations. Many of the themes and sentiments have, and can have, nothing to do with Moses or the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage—whether from literary, theological, or historical viewpoints. Particularly absurd is the assertion in Palmer’s scenario—subsequently reflected in the choreography—that Moses’ mission and administration ended in failure and in his being deposed by the people because of his inability or unwillingness to “teach the people self-government” along the lines of modern Western democracy. Some of the ballet’s raw scenic invention might be acceptable as artistic imagination that expands or fills in missing details of the biblical account without countering or interfering with the substance (for example, No. 4, “Procession,” in Wolpe’s concert suite). But a host of other fabrications, although they offered both choreographic and musical opportunities, risked misleading an unsuspecting audience by convoluting themes and chronologies central to the narrative. What emerged was not a new interpretation of the story or its characters, but in essence an entirely new story, resting awkwardly against the purported backdrop of the Exodus narrative, with the imposition of a modern political-social agenda. These and other related matters are discussed and analyzed in detail by this writer elsewhere in a published Milken Archive article on this ballet.
It can be tempting to seek the source of Palmer and Loring’s departures in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion; 1939), in which a non-Israelite Moses is also rejected—murdered in this case, as a collective oedipal act—by the Israelites. In that speculative hypothesis, the biblical account of Moses’ life and of the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness, as enshrined in the Pentateuch, amounts to a cloak of prevarication devised by rabbinical tradition to eclipse the historical truth. Conscious monotheism, as espoused and propagated by the post-Mosaic biblical prophets, would have emerged only later from a collective Israelite unconscious. Certainly, there was some buzz of awareness about Freud’s work in New York intellectual-cultural circles of the time. His study, however, was rejected by the overwhelming majority of biblical scholars, as well as by objective anthropologists and historians, as unwarranted manipulation based on questionable fragments of information and superseded assumptions. Yet the possibility of the book’s influence on the spirit of revisionist musings concerning Moses in the ballet scenario need not be dismissed altogether, especially in the context of contemporaneous fascination in the New York artistic milieu with the novelty of Freud’s psychological discoveries—even though this book was not published in English until 1955.
The late 1930s and 1940s was a period in American cultural life, especially in the performing arts, that was witnessing an awakening to Jewish subjects and themes. In the musical sphere, that phenomenon was instigated in part by the many Jewish émigré composers of the time and reinforced by a number of native American composers who became open to addressing their Jewish heritage. Insofar as any work about Moses is inevitably and properly perceived as Judaically related, this ballet—despite the weaknesses and incongruities of its scenario—presented an opportunity for Milhaud and for Wolpe to engage with the New York arts culture and with the Jewish perspectives that it was embracing.
Far more so than Milhaud’s Moïse (which is also lesser known), Wolpe’s The Man from Midian has often been viewed as a product of a perceived if untenable 20th-century association between the Exodus story and universalistic liberation aspirations. By the end of the ballet, it is not Moses who is celebrated in Palmer and Loring’s creation. Rather, “the people,” having prevailed, have become the real collective hero in place of their unseated leader. However, whether by intention or not, Wolpe’s music may in some ways moderate that radical tilt, not only with the encoded musical refrences to his Palestine years and his balance of differing musical materials and types, but also by his decision to focus on the composite Moses—not “the people”—for the concluding movement of his concert suite. Portrait of Moses is the one label that he contributed on his own.
Publisher: McGinnis & Marx
Coproduction with DeutschlandRadio Kultur and the ROC Berlin GmbH
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