Fjord Review #3 out now!
National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson in Sir Frederick Ashton's “A Month in the Country.” Photograph by Christopher Wahl

A Month in the Country

Following Sir Fred's Steps - Ashton's Legacy

In the following essay, Stephanie Jordan elucidates the method and meaning of the music selected for Frederick Ashton’s “A Month in the Country” It comes from Following Sir Fred’s Steps – Ashton’s Legacy, the published proceedings of the conference on the choreographer and his work, held at Roehampton University in 1994, and edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau. This essay is expanded upon in Stephanie Jordan’s 2000 publication, Moving Music: Dialogues with Music in Twentieth-Century Ballet (London: Dance Books), pages 245-64.

By Stephanie Jordan

In building the score for A Month in the Country (1976), and to the alarm of some purists, Frederick Ashton and John Lanchbery, who arranged the Chopin music, used their by now familiar ‘welding’ approach: arranging, reordering, editing and orchestrating existing music to suit the ballet’s action (Vaughan, 1977, p. 394). Robert Irving, Lanchbery’s predecessor at the Royal Ballet and later musical director of New York City Ballet, denigrated this cutting and pasting approach as ‘mutilation’; the ‘snip-snip’ version of The Dream he considered like a ‘film travelogue’ (Irving, 1976). Yet, in A Month in the Country, what results is an integrated musical/choreographic work with an immensely rich and varied resonance between what is seen and what is heard, from both the detail of individual moments and the new large structure. Here is a multilayered interaction and a celebration of the duality between external appearance and internal feeling. Whether all these resonances were ever intended, or indeed recognized, whether my readings are all shared by Ashton, Lanchbery and others, is unlikely. Ashton himself spoke very little about what he made and the process of making it. Yet, this dance text, now self-standing, presents a wealth of possibilities.

Perhaps too it was simply fortuitous that the Claudio Arrau recording of the three Chopin pieces that Ashton used determined the right order for the ballet—although it also happens to be the chronological order of composition. Possibly fortuitous too, is that one of the pieces is a set of variations on the ‘La ci darem la mano’ melody from Mozart’s Don Giovanni; ‘Give me your hand’—the Don’s song of seduction to Zerlina. There is a certain irony here as we are asked to compare two men who share the capacity for devastating impact on the women whom they meet. But Ashton, we know, enjoyed connections between the different facets of a work—that Turgenev was friendly with Chopin and George Sand, whom Beliaev mentions admiringly in the play; the dance set in 1850, when the play was written and only shortly after they were likely to have met; that the Russian upper classes looked West for cultural inspiration, commonly speaking French amongst themselves; and that Turgenev and Chopin both lived and probably met in Paris. Yet Ashton also liked to think that the household of Month could have been near the Polish border (Seymour, 1976)—nearer, in other words, to Chopin’s homeland. Vera, Natalia’s ward, plays Chopin offstage, according to a number of stage directions in Emlyn Williams’ translation of the play that Ashton used (a copy is in the Ashton library at the Royal Ballet School—ironically not in the translation by Isaiah Berlin, who persuaded Ashton to use Chopin in the first place). Neither are these directions in the original Turgenev. The designer Julia Trevelyan Oman told me that it was her idea to have the piano on stage for Vera to play at the beginning (personal communication, 14 July 1994).

Prompted by this kind of information, some of which has after all been fed to us in programme notes, I am teased by the connections with Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Scenes from the opera decorate the walls of the set—another connection—as in the fashion of certain genre pictures and engravings of the mid-nineteenth century. That again was Oman’s idea, but it encourages us to see connections between the Don and Beliaev. After all, the Don has been variously interpreted as quarry or victim as much as pursuer, liberator of women and idealist rather than straightforward vile seducer. Arlene Croce compares Beliaev interestingly to the Kierkegaard figure of an unconscious Don, object of love rather than lover (1976, p. 221). In his 1843 essay ‘The Immediate Stages of The Erotic or The Musical Erotic’, Kierkegaard considers the abstraction of sensuality rather than the Don himself as the true seducer, epitomised, it happens, for him, in the musical Don Giovanni, not a speaking individual, but a voice,  ‘the voice of sensuousness, and we hear it through the longing of womanhood’ (1959, p. 95). The erotic force of Beliaev is focal within Month, and it is interesting—though again I am not trying to argue unduly from the point of view of Ashton’s intentions—that Ashton once toyed with the idea of calling his ballet The Student, after Turgenev’s original title for Month (Kerensky, 1976). Ashton, who created a Don Juan ballet in1948 (using Richard Strauss’s score), was aware of at least one less conventional, more open, nineteenth-century, post-E. T. A. Hoffmann reading of this character. In an undated letter to the critic Edwin Evans, Ashton begged for more information about the epic poem by Lenau upon which the Strauss tone poem is based (Ashton, n.d.). The use of the ” La ci darem la mano’ theme can therefore promote a fascinating range of imagery to enrich our view of the ballet.

Ashton tells us that the Mozart theme also suggested the operatic recitative/aria structure of the ballet to him, but the same contrasts are embedded within the Chopin score, quasi-recitative passages choreographed as silent acting. At any rate, Ashton and Lanchbery (and, in the early stages of the working process, Ashton’s friend Martyn Thomas) used their opportunities, reshaping and repointing the score to enhance the action (see Jordan, 1978-79, and Jordan, 2000).

The musical selection for Month is as follows:

  • Variations in B-flat major on a theme from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (‘La ci darem la mano’) for piano and orchestra, op. 2 (1827).
  • Grand Fantasy in A major on Polish Airs for piano and orchestra, op. 13 (1828).
  • Grand Polonaise in E-flat major for piano and orchestra (1830-31) preceded by Andante Spianato in G major for piano solo (1834), which contains the longest section of uninterrupted piano solo music in the work (published together as op. 22).

The first two of the pieces are suitably sectional, conveniently marking off scenes in the action, and in the Fantasy, rapid, abrupt changes of mood serve the developing drama well. We hear that both Lanchbery and Ashton were constantly surprised and delighted at how well the music and dramatic structure fitted together. However, much of the ‘fitting’ was the result of considerable manipulation—even, at one point to the extent of taking two bars out of one section and using them to link two other sections. But the joins are convincing and, perhaps most surprising, very little music had either to be composed or even transposed in key. Chopin’s orchestration, which Lanchbery has described as ‘at best slender and at times sketchy’ (programme note, 1976), was considerably modified, often to point up the quality of recitative or conversation or to reinforce the dance structure. For instance, in the Andante Spianato for piano only, which is the music for the major love duet between Natalia and Beliaev, Lanchbery transfers the Semplice section (a sort of interruption during the coda) to strings. Now this is even more of an interruption as a contrast with the intimate qualities of the piano, given too that the piano, to Chopin more than to any other Romantic composer, is a specific world closed off from the rest of music. The device works well dramatically, because Natalia, reminded of the social problems that their relationship will cause, stops dancing when the orchestra returns her to harsh reality. Then we return to the piano, to dancing, and to the abandonment to feeling.

The most significant alteration to the original Chopin structure occurs with the curtailment of the Polonaise and the ensuing return to material from the Variations and Fantasy; this material covers the official departure of Beliaev, Natalia’s final solo and Beliaev’s brief re-appearance to return the rose that Natalia has given him. Two separate sections of music from the introduction to the Variations are heard (the ‘La ci darem’ theme is clearly alluded to again, though we have not heard this actual section of the score before), and, finally, the part of the Fantasy entitled ‘Thème de Charles Kurpinski’ returns, the theme to which Beliaev dances and during which Natalia returns to see him before their duet. It is therefore already associated with Beliaev and Natalia. That theme is an obvious reminiscence motif, introduced for dramatic point, as is the other musical reference. It is as if early memories flood back, and we and the main protagonists are called upon to summarise a recent past that is rapidly disappearing before our eyes (and ears). There are also the matching sketch references back in time in the briefest of solos for Natalia – she bursts in, with references back to both her duets with Beliaev, the early Polacca and the later Andante Spianato—and then her husband interrupts her privacy. Thus Lanchbery and Ashton both devise a ‘whole’ structure out of three originally distinct pieces, and suit the dramatic development at the same time.

The ballet starts with the Variations, introducing the characters of the household amusing themselves together before any dangerous emotional entanglements have developed. Formality is emphasised: strict three-part form in individual Variations dictated by the Mozart theme. The ternary form comprises eight bars (theme A), which is repeated with minor variation, an alternative theme B for eight bars, and then the original theme A, eight bars returned for the last time: AA1-BA1. Form is further simplified in that each eight-bar unit already contains repetition, in a classical eighteenth-century antecedent-consequent structure and there is tonal imperative for full closure at the end of the theme (a ‘classical’ self-contained system). The family atmosphere is informal, the music speaks of controlled emotion, learnt manners, socially acceptable behaviour, even if there is something of a pent-up excitement on stage. Mozart and the eighteenth century have a deeper meaning in relation to the narrative. It is interesting that the original Chopin starts with an extended turbulent introduction (which Lanchbery introduces at the end of Month) and then settles into these formal and conventionally-arranged variations. It is significant that Lanchbery and Ashton choose to start the action with formalism and tonal stability.

Also underlining stability—and this probably just happened rather than being intentional—Ashton and Lanchbery iron out the tempo shifts that Chopin stipulated between the early variations: = 76,   = 92,   = 63,   = 92 becomes   = 76 throughout. And the first two dance variations regularly mark aspects of this formal structure, the immediate repetitions after every four bars, confirming choreographically the musical formality.

Of course, everything rapidly opens up from Variation V—Beliaev’s entry, appropriately—where the old three-part form starts to shatter (Lanchbery adds to the point by cutting the first written musical repeat), and the Variation ends ‘open’, in a different key from that in which it started. From then on, structures are rhapsodic, episodic, with plenty of tempo fluctuation.

The piano itself plays a number of different roles in the work. At the outset, it is the domestic instrument, the Mozart theme mimed by Vera on a piano onstage, before the dance variations begin. Soon, however, it becomes very much the personal voice—allusions to the actual role that it played in nineteenth-century music, as the voice of Romanticism. Liszt describes the piano as ‘my eye, my speech, my life’ (Newman, 1972, p. 87). And Romantic music is often described as having a speaking quality, with listeners in the nineteenth century known to respond concretely rather than abstractly; Roland Barthes, in our own times, observes that Schumann’s music is always a quasi parlando (see Lippman, 1964; Barthes, 1985, p. 115). We are keyed into the nineteenth-century view of Chopin by the very thorough periodisation of the ballet: we hear music through those characters. And there is too the emphatic notion of the composer developing an individual style and expression, Chopin’s, one of yearning, restlessness, and drawing-room intimacy.  If the piano is like a voice, directly expressing feeling, Ashton goes further in making us feel that piano and dancer are one, and that dancer/piano sing as in an aria. As an instance of the piano indicating the highly personal, there is the duet for Natalia and Beliaev to the Andante Spianato. It is in this duet too that we see excellent examples of piano ornamentation, so easily read as musical gesture, become personal, become dance gesture. Indeed the ornamented Chopin style becomes the dance style of much of Month, which is correspondingly more florid, lacy, here than in many of Ashton’s works; at the beginning of this duet, Natalia’s style is immediately ornamented, even at a point when the music is still quite plain.

Earlier, the form of the Variations was discussed, and how music and dance forms together create meaning. Contrast the large form of the two most important duets, each of them so different from each other and so different from the earlier representations of formal symmetry. Vera’s duet with Beliaev, she in love with him, demonstrates a continuity: Ashton masks repetition, varied repetition or recapitulation in the music. The ballet has now opened out emotionally. The form of the music too is open, moving from A major to an unresolved dominant of F-sharp minor; the narrative of the duet is consequently unresolved, emotionally unfinished.

On the other hand, Natalia’s duet with Beliaev, however mutually passionate, stresses the timeless, the reverie; more than half the duet is musical coda (after a simple ABA form), a long, sensuous shimmer over the tonic chord, with a deviation in the Semplice section, only to emphasise the return of the shimmer. Interestingly, the music is taken at slower speed for the ballet than is indicated in the score. To the shimmer, Ashton choreographs gentle swaying lifts, side to side, and side to side again, and endless bourrées, seamlessly linking into lifts. The transient lurks, but the characters of this romance clearly want it to go on for ever. Of course, this static time sense makes the interruption of Vera and the ensuing dénouement seem startlingly abrupt and the consequences alarmingly rapid by contrast.

Looking at this duet in more detail from the television recording involves a certain degree of generalisation. Obviously there are differences between one performance and the next, and there is also the major contribution of Lynn Seymour and Anthony Dowell in the creation of this duet. Before this shimmering coda, the choreography demonstrates several points of independence from the music. The broader contours of the music are reflected, two lifts at the two climaxes in the middle section B and in the final section A, but it is interesting to note how florid, passionate the movement seems to be at the outset (when the musical theme is plain); how the movement quietens of its own accord; and how, when the opening musical theme returns, the movement to it starts much more peacefully than before, a simple, continuous turn in arabesque with changing standing leg and arms. For the recapitulation of section A, the movement is new, but the dynamic procedure—hasty and then quieter—is the same as before, again independent of any change in the music. Often, too, the choreography shoots its own accents across the music. Sometimes musical ornament has a counterpart in the dance, sometimes the dance uses the musical idea, reflects it and carries it further—as in the flourish of linked hands with arching of the back. It is as if the dance has its own shape of turbulence and quiet that is more extreme than the music; it pulls against the music to create energy, added passion, from conflict until resolution in the coda with the music—the image of ‘for ever’—in the coda. Likewise, in Natalia’s variation there are independent dance rhythms and accents creating lively conversation with the music. This independence of dynamic and rhythm between music and dance is a feature of Ashton’s musical/choreographic style, the dance at times matching, at times counterpointing the music. However, A Month in the Country is one of Ashton’s most sophisticated and complex examples of this kind of dialogue. As explained earlier, the work is one in a series that forges narrative to specially arranged, existing music, and purists have worried about this technique. Yet these Chopin pieces are not among his best known, and I have tried to show how the musical score, as it has been masterfully arranged, acts both in dialogue with and in enhancement of the choreography. In terms of both form and meaning, it is one of the richest integrations of music and narrative choreography in the repertoire.

NOTES:

Ashton, F. (n.d.), Letter to Edwin Evans, New York Public Library Dance Collection.
Barthes, R. (1985), ‘Day by Day with Roland Barthes’, in M. Blonsky (ed.) On Signs, Oxford, Blackwell.
Croce, A. (1976), ‘The Royal Line’, in After Images, New York, Vintage.
Irving, R. (n.d.), unpublished autobiographical material.
Irving, R. (1976), interview with Tobi Tobias, Oral History Project, New York Public Library Dance Collection, July-December 1976
Jordan, S. (1978-79), ‘A Month in the Country: the Organisation of a Score’, Dance Research Journal, Vol. 11 Nos. 1& 2, pp. 20-4.
Jordan, S. (2000), Moving Music: Dialogues with Music in Twentieth-Century Ballet, London, Dance Books.
Kerensky, 0. (1976), ‘Frederick Ashton Meets Ivan Turgenev’, New York Times, 25 April 1976.
Kierkegaard, S. (1959), Either/Or (1943), Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Lippman, E. A. (1964), ‘Theory and Practice in Schumann’s Aesthetics’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 17, pp. 310-45.
Newman.W. S. (1972), The Sonata since Beethoven, New York, W.W. Norton.
Seymour, L. (1976), interview with John Gruen, ‘The Sound of Dance’, WNCN-FM, New York City, 26 April.
Vaughan, D. (1977), Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, London, A & C Black.

L.A. Dance Project Ace Hotel
Previous
Reflections
More Stories
Bartabas' “Golgota.” Photograph by Nabil Boutros
The Road to Golgota