Stephen PRESS

Jan-Erik Wikström, Sarah McIlroy and Francisco Bosch. Photo: Nigel Barklie

Sadler’s Wells, London,
Tuesday 8 April 2003

English National Ballet ‘Tour de Force’

Choreography: Christopher Hampson

Sarah McIlroy,
Jan-Erik Wikström,
Amy Hollins,
Francisco Bosch,
Joanne Clarke,
Laura Tong.

In the wake of the successful Paris première of his ballet Chout in May 1921, Prokofiev wrote to his friend Nina Koshetz, “Europe is smiling on me”. Indeed, conductors such as Ernest Ansermet and Albert Coates were soon asking the composer for a concert suite from the ballet, while over the next few years the likes of Ida Rubinstein, Mikhail Larionov, Inna Chernetskaya (a Moscow dancer and producer), Pierre Blois on behalf of the Ballets Suédois, as well as Diaghilev himself, approached Prokofiev about composing new dance-related works. During a period of estrangement from the impresario (who, under the influence of Cocteau, was featuring the music of Poulenc, Milhaud and Auric), Prokofiev was called upon by dancer-choreographer Boris Romanov to compose a ballet score for a small ensemble to be used by his company, The Russian Romantic Theatre. This was the same Romanov who was supposed to have collaborated with Gorodetsky and Prokofiev in the formation of Ala and Lolly, in St. Petersburg in 1914. The idea suited Prokofiev who had been thinking about composing a chamber-sized piece. On 22 June 1924 a contract was signed. The brief five-part scenario sketched out in Prokofiev’s hand suggests a rather surreal story about boors, Chinamen, tumblers and a ballerina who somehow dies in the end.
     However, it was a score in six movements that was completed in August 1924 during Prokofiev’s summer holiday at St. Gilles-sur-Vie on the French Atlantic coast. It was published as the Quintet, Op.39 for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass in 1927, thus serving two roles, abstract concert music and accompaniment for a ballet. Its composition came between the composer’s Fifth Piano Sonata, Op. 38 (which could be dubbed the “Classical” Sonata) and the Second Symphony, Op. 40, that bedazzling modernist work of “iron and steel” commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky. In July 1925 Romanov asked for two more movements; these, an Overture and one entitled “Matelote” were written after the disappointing première of Symphony No. 2 and just before the composer began his next ballet, Le Pas d’Acier. In reference to the latter work Prokofiev promoted a “new simplicity”, a move towards euphony and lyricism.
     Romanov’s company and the life of Trapèze foundered in Turin during March 1926, only four months after the ballet’s première. Trapèze had the second briefest run of any of Prokofiev’s ballets (that dubious distinction is held by Na Dnepre (Sur le Borysthène; premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1932). Both of these pieces lived on in truncated concert guises (Suite and Quintet, respectively). Revised and re-orchestrated versions of the Overture and “Matelote” from Trapèze became the first and third movements of Divertimento, Op. 43, but the full ballet lay dormant until it was revived on the stage of London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre by the English National Ballet on 8 April 2003, with a new choreography by Christopher Hampson. How that momentous event came to be is a fascinating story. To start, the complete ballet score used by Romanov’s company is not extant; it had to be recreated. Thus our story begins with Noëlle Mann, indefatigable curator of The Serge Prokofiev Archive in London.

     The Music

     One thing that caught Mann’s attention while examining the 4,400 frames of microfilm during her first years at the Archive was an incomplete, two-page musical manuscript, dated 1925 and entitled “Matelote”. Housed nearby was the aforementioned cryptic ballet outline in one of the Archive’s forty folders which hold letters and documents from Prokofiev’s Western career. The two were brought together one day as she came across an obscure footnote documenting a letter Prokofiev had written to Asafiev about composing an Overture and piece called “Matelote” for Romanov. Immediately, her mission was clear; she recalled, “We’ve got to recreate this, we can’t leave it, this is Prokofiev! We must have it complete!” She searched for the remaining pages of “Matelote” and found them on a different microfilm reel, part of a collection deposited in a different place. (Over the years many hands had gone through Prokofiev’s manuscripts and caused much disarray; when they were finally filmed many items were badly out of order).
     The Overture was more complicated – a nightmare, as she recalls – because the piano manuscript could not be found. By luck, Sotheby’s contacted her two years before to identify a manuscript entitled “Overture”, a nearly full score with many annotations and explanations referring back to an original score. This was the music from Trapèze used by Diaghilev for Le Pas d’Acier’s change of scenes, the markings on it were in preparation for inclusion in the Divertimento. The task then was to recreate the Overture from this holograph. After this had been done Samuel Becker was brought in to orchestrate the two pieces using the same instruments as in the Quintet. The danger lay in being too influenced by the 1929 orchestration of the Divertimento; Mann and Becker had to think in terms of 1925. About the composer’s change of style they could do nothing. Noëlle recalls, “I was really worried that these two movements would stand out in style, but now that the orchestration has been done, it’s absolutely brilliant – it just runs from one into the other. I hear a lot of correspondence between all these movements”.


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