Muses of the 20th Century: Greek Myth in Opera, Ballet, and Modern Dance

"Why does Greek mythology figure centrally into some of the most pivotally modern works in the performing arts? If we have lost a romantic, sentimental attachment to ancient Greece as a cultural ideal, what significance can Greek myth have for us?" asks Ledbetter. "In this lecture I discuss Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, Martha Graham's Night Journey, and Balanchine's Apollo and show that, in different ways, each of these works employs a kind of classicism that - somewhat paradoxically - evokes the ancient past specifically for purposes of modernizing its art form."


Audio Transcript

Speaker 1:  Good evening.

Group:  Good evening.

Speaker 1:   Our topic is muses of the 20th century. Greek myth in opera, ballet, and modern dance. Our speaker Grace Ledbetter holds a joint appointment at Swarthmore as associate professor of classics and Philosophy. She has an A.B. from Bryn Mawr College, an MA in philosophy from the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. in Classics from Cornell University, which she earned in 1996. She was a Townsend Traveling Fellow at Corpus Christi College in Oxford from 1994 to '95.

Grace specializes in ancient philosophy and Greek poetry. She regularly teaches courses at all levels on Greek and Latin languages, Plato, the history of ancient philosophy, Homer, Greek tragedy, Greek lyric poetry, and Greek religion. Her book, "Poetics Before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry," examines theories of poetry in the early Greek literary and philosophical traditions. She has also published articles on causation in Plato, on Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's "Iliad," on Sophocles's "Antigone," and on the stoic theory of emotion.

Some of her recent publications in classical review discussed current work on topics of Socratic philosophical method, performance, and authority in Greek poetry. Grace's current scholarly interests focus on ballet to explore themes and structures of Greek mythology in ancient art and contemporary dance. She is currently at work on a book-length study of Balanchine and Hellenism. Here on campus, Grace has founded, along with undergraduates, the Swarthmore Student Classics Journal, Hapax Legomenon.

Please welcome Professor Grace Ledbetter.

Grace Ledbetter:  Thank you for that kind introduction. Thank you all for coming. I am very pleased to be here and to be talking about this subject tonight and it is the first chance I've ever had to use a PowerPoint presentation in a lecture.

In 1822, Shelley could write in the preface to his poem "Hellas," that we are all Greeks. But in the modern age of the arts where romanticism has typically been viewed as a problem that must be overcome, how can this sentimental attachment to a eulogized foundational Greek culture have any significance for us? Shelley's yearning for an ancient Athenian ideal explicitly opposed what he viewed as modern in art as it took for granted that Greek ideals had become corrupted and degraded. This is number one on your handout.

"The human form and the human mind attained a perfection in Greece, which has impressed its image of those thoughtless productions, whose very fragments are the despair of modern art. If in many instances modern man is degraded by moral and political slavery to the practice of the basis vices it engenders and that below the level of ordinary degradation, let us reflect that the corruption of the best produces the worst."

Frederick Nietzsche, a classical philologist by training, articulated more fully and even more dramatically, the same romantic ideal in his own work of popular classicism, "The Birth of Tragedy." For Nietzsche, the corruption takes place already in Ancient Greece where the modernizing, rationalizing voices of Euripides and Socrates destroyed the sublime transformative power of original Dionysian art. In its primal form in Aeschylus and Sophocles, tragedy performed a sacred mystery rite allowing us to transcend our mortal condition with the promise of salvation. That's number two on your handout.

"Tragedy gives us the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent, the conception of individuation as the primal cause of evil, and of art as the joyous hope that the spell of individuation may be broken in augury of a restored oneness."

According to Nietzsche, tragedy's transformative power relied on the power of music and poetry to lend myth its most profound content, its most expressive form. Myth died under the violent hands of Euripides and Socrates, who in Nietzsche's view replaced the artistic impulse with a critical impulse, and brought the spectator onto the stage through the use of ordinary everyday language. The elevated tones of Sophocles, the archaizing enigmatic light motifs of Aeschylean drama were, according to Nietzsche, replaced by civic mediocrity on which Euripides built all his political hopes.

Both Shelley and Nietzsche find artistic ideals in their own views of Ancient Greece. If 20th century opera and dance have sought to move beyond 19th century romanticism, in what sense, if at all, can modern opera and dance be considered Greek? In what sense are we, as heirs to these modern traditions, Greek? Tonight I would like to argue that in a very different way than Shelley and Nietzsche imagined, modern opera, ballet and dance are indeed Greek. Shelley's and Nietzsche's backward look into nostalgic historicism is a flight from the modern, a flight from the world, and what I would like to call melancholic classicism.

I want to oppose this to the classicism I see at work in some of the most pivotally modern works in opera and dance in the 20th century. This classicism I will call modernizing classicism. Motivated not be a sense of wanting to flee from the present day world, this modernizing classicism somewhat paradoxically evokes the ancient past specifically for purposes of modernizing an art form.

In opera, Greek themes are represented consistently throughout the 20th century and by some of the most significant composers in works. Here is a list of 10 major works in the 20th century with Greek themes: Strauss's "Elektra", Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos", Fauré's "Pénélope", Boito's "Nerone", Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex", Benjamin Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia", Tippett's "King Priam"; Henze's "The Bassarids", based on Euripides's the "Bacchae", Dallapiccola's "Ulisses", and Birtwistle's "The Mask of Orpheus". It's on your handout too, number four.

There are many that I would like to talk about. For example, Hans Werner Henze's 1967 collaboration with W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman on The Bassarids, a version of Euripides' "Bacchae" or Stravinsky's 1927 opera-oratorio "Oedipus Rex", who's Latin Libretto was translated from Jean Cocteau's French original based on Sophocles. Stravinsky chose Latin he said, "Because it had the great advantage of giving me a medium, not dead, but turned to stone and monumentalized."

Instead though, I'm going to focus on one of the most well-known of the operas on my list and arguably also one of the best and most important for the history of 20th Century opera, Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos", which along with his "Elektra", can lay claim to being one of the greatest and most frequently performed operas on our list.

"Ariadne auf Naxos" is perhaps now less popular than Strauss's "Elektra" and it's curiously hybrid quality, which I will discuss in a moment, could perhaps give the impression that it is a difficult work or an acquired taste. In fact, however, "Ariadne" is arguably the masterpiece of the six Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaborations, which include the well known "Salome" and "Rosenkavalier." It is musically radiant and a pivotal work in the history of opera.

"Ariadne" was premiered in two quite different versions. The first in Stuttgart in 1912, the second in 1916. The circumstances of the failure of the initial version and a subsequent revision are fascinating and complex subjects. But, tonight, I will focus on the second version, which is the one that has become part of the standard repertoire.

There are several variations of the Greek myth of Ariadne but it begins basically when, Ariadne, the princes of Crete falls in love with Theseus, who has come to Crete to kill the Minotaur. She helps him find his way out of the Labyrinth by providing him with a string to trace his path. In exchange, Theseus promises to marry her Ariadne. He succeeds in killing the Minotaur and escaping from the Labyrinth. He sails off with Ariadne and they land for a time on the island of Naxos.

He abandons her there while she is sleeping. In some versions intentionally, in some unintentionally. And she awakens to the shock and the torment of having been abandoned. In some versions, she is at this point save by the God Dionysus, who marries her and takes her off to Lemnos, where they have four sons.

Strauss's "Ariadne" uses a kind of narrative complexity and the conceit of an opera within an opera, to mix comedy and tragedy more seamlessly than perhaps any other opera manages to do. The opera is set at the home of the richest man in Vienna, who has planned after dinner entertainment for his guests. The sublimely serious, Wagnerian Ariadne is to be performed followed by a comedy called "The fickle Zerbinetta and her four lovers."

The opera opens one half hour before the performances are to begin. The two casts spend the prologue bickering and having tantrums. Quite understandably, because it has been announced that because a firework display has bee planned for 9:00 p.m. there will not be time for both operas. They must therefore be performed simultaneously.

Furthermore, the host worries that Ariadne's setting will offend his guests, since as he says, "There is nothing more tasteless than a dessert island." The composer of "Ariadne" walks around distraught, muttering things like, "I have nothing in common with the world." When the coquette Zerbinetta, the leading lady of the comedy troop hears Ariadne's story of being abandoned by Theseus on a dessert island, she cheerfully replies, "These things rarely turn out well."

She urges Ariadne to wait patiently for the next God to come around and sweep her off her feet. Zerbinetta, after all, has just been through four lovers. Musically, the role of the composer is luxurious and Wagnerian, while the rest is [inaudible 00:11:56] by the coloratura, Zerbinetta, are Mozart like in their clarity, measure and the greater prominence, given to the verbal component.

The music of the opera as a whole, however, has been rightly described as, "Refined to a classical purity." In the second and final act, the tragedy and the comedy combine for a performance that is indescribably both satirical and musically transporting. Ariadne lay slumped over a rock, consumed by grief. The melodrama and poetry of here lament, no doubt, owes much to Ovid, who in his "Heroides" limits himself to the tragic component of his story.

Ovid shows us only the moment of Ariadne's abandonment and terrible suffering, not her salvation. She's says in Ovid, "Now I ponder over not only what I'm doomed to suffer and all that any woman left behind can suffer. There rush into my thoughts a thousand forms of perishing, and death holds less of a dole for me, then a delay of death."

At the end of Ovid's version, Ariadne envisions even Theseus's return as bleak, "If I have died before you come, it will yet be you who will bare away bones." Strauss and Hofmannsthal, however, appeal to the Greek version of the myth where Ariadne is saved.

After Zerbinetta and her fellow actors attempt in vain to cheer Ariadne up, which culminates in Zerbinetta's glorious coloratura aria, the gist of which is that there are plenty of other men, the God Bacchus, Dionysus, arrives. At first mistaking him for Theseus and then for Hermes, Ariadne's fantasies are soon overcome by reality, and her longing for death transformed into a longing for love.

Zerbinetta it seems was right all along. Off with the old, on with the new. Here's a short clip which takes place during the performance of the opera within the opera. Harlekin and Zerbinetta attempt to cheer up Ariadne. (singing).

[inaudible 00:16:56]. Before we can try to make sense of this opera and it's use of classical mythology, we need to ask about this point in the history of opera, what is modern about 20th century opera? In particular, what modern features mark the works of the earlier part of the century?

It turns out that one answer to this question has a lot to do with Greek origins and ideals. Opera had begun at the close of the 16th century in Florence, as an attempt to revive the spirit of Greek tragedy, in an age where low comedy ruled the Italian stage. The Greek ideal was at this point imagined as a sanctified ideal of simplicity and order.

In particular, the solo voice would take the place of the unnatural polyphony of Italian madrigal. The sanctity of poetry and the geometry of music would present an aspiration, a transporting aesthetic experience. Myth, of course, could and did provide both the means and the confirmation for such works. From the very beginning, however, these Greek operas found their counterpart in the vernacular ballad comedies, who's aesthetics of the coquette, the deceived husband, the screens and the ladders, where based on naturalism and the indignities of life.

Whereas opera was remote and escapist, these comedies put everyday life on the stage. A dichotomy was thus firmly put into place, and understanding it is crucial to the entire history of opera. On the one side, we have ideal imagined as Greek. Of Romance, tragedy, music, sensation, ceremony, the sublime and the sacred. On the other, satire, comedy, the prominence of the word the music, the intellect over sensation, naturalism, the ridiculous, the profane.

Of course, it's important to remember that ancient Greek tragic festivals had always themselves combined tragedy with comedy. After the three Greek tragedies, there was sadder play, a comedy involving themes loosely related to the themes of the tragedies. However, the point I want to stress, is that opera in it's origins can conceived of itself, as modeled after a Greek ideal, and it opposed this ideal to comedy and satire.

The history of opera is in one sense the history of the play and attention between these two poles. As you may know, in the 18th century, there was an attempt to purify and redeem opera, by pointing back to its conceptual Greek origins. More than anyone else, Gluck championed romanticism and the mythological sanctity of music in, for example, his "Orfeo" and his two operas based on the Iphigénie myth in Euripides.

Gluck's operas are good examples of operas aspiring to Greek ideal and shunning the satirical and the comic. Towards the end of the 19th century Elbrus Greek ideal reaches its absolute height and perhaps excess with Wagner. As it is put so well by one scholar, this is number six on your handout.

"With Wagner we come to the apogee of the sacred. For Wagner's music, drama is build out of a musical will. However thrilling the librettos and relies on myth to ignite the imagination, even as it suspends the mind's disbelief."

After the extremities of Wagner, opera in the 20th century in various ways begins the attempt to integrate or at least negotiate the two poles. The magisterial and the ridiculous fantasy and realism, the sacred and the profane, the Greek and the fall from that ideal. In the modern era, there has been a dual aesthetic. The modern era is the era of stereo comedy, where the universality of myth merges with the vernacular.

We can see why Strauss's "Ariadne" is such a pivotal modern work. When we describe the plot, that is the intrusion of comic into mythic grandeur, the opera may seem merely ridiculous. As a very recent production at the Metropolitan opera emphasized. But I hope that the clip you saw has given you in inkling of how powerful the music unifies the opposing forces.

In fact, when we turn now back to Hofmannsthal's treatment of myth, we can see how he adapts Ovid's version to express something very contemporary about opera itself. Ovid's "Ariadne" languishes in despair and she wonders whether death could be worse than living, but Strauss's Ariadne focuses on death, articulates the notion of death and yearns for death in a way that Ovid's does not.

"There is a realm where all is pure. Death. Here, nothing is pure. All is confused," and she goes on, "Oh, beautiful silent God of death, my heart must be purged of it's anguish." This yearning for the purity of death and its contrast between the confusion ans chaos of this world and the simplicity of death, no doubt contribute to the romanticism Hofmannsthal whished to exaggerate. And yet, Ariadne's own predicament as she articulates it, Parallels that of the opera itself in its contemporary context.

"Here, everything is confused," she says, which describes quite well the odd mix of genres we see colliding throughout this opera. "There is a realm where all is pure." I suppose that would be Wagnerian opera. But of course, that is not the solution offered here. Strauss's solution aims not to return to Wagnerian Greek ideal, but to merge the genres, the Greek with the comic, bye abstracting from myth its true universality.

It is as if Strauss is saying in the opera, "I don't want to go back to the Greek Wagnerian ideal. I want to incorporate it into a truer classicism that maintains the sanctity of music and the elevation of myth, that combines it with the vernacular." Perhaps this version of classicism is even truer to it's historical Greek origins.

If the Greek ideal, "The foundation of opera privileges music over the word," is dance in its absolute banishment of the word a pure expression of this ideal? In a general sense, the answer may be yes. At least as far as ballet is concerned. Adrian Stokes, the great critic of the visual arts, who's views where extremely influential for modernist conceptions of art, put it this way. Number seven on your hand out.

"Let me now express, again, an unqualified love for the classical ballet. There is something Hellenic about it. All the more noticeable, seeing that the classical ballet is the the form imposed upon romanticism. This Hellenism is deeply founded. Ballet tends to revert to the treatment of classical subjects with which it started. The open, physical and graceful attitudes of the marbled Greed Gods, in who emotion is shown as an outward turned body was dramatized by the classical technique."

We can see the parallels in this example, and in this one too. Notice that Stoke opposes Hellenism to romanticism. This is because for him Hellenism represents emotional restraint an indirection, clarity and purity of form. It is this sculptural aesthetic ideal that informs the work of two of the greatest innovators in 20th century dance.

Martha Graham's modernism and George Balanchine's classical ballet both, I would like to suggest appeal to Greek themes and structure for the express purpose of modernizing their art form. As part of what is often called, "The heroic age of modern dance," Martha Graham took, as one of her task, the portrayal of interior landscapes. In particular the elaboration of emotional struggle.

Developing a new vocabulary of movements, she believed that choreographic process transformed subconscious emotion into physical tangibility, that art condensed strong feeling. How does art portray psychological anteriority? One way to do it would be like this, but Graham did it differently.

Several of her best known and most developed works have Greek themes. Her 1946 "Errand in the Maze," based on the myth Theseus and the Minotaur, her 1947 "Cave of the heart" based on the myth of Medea. Her monumental "Clytemnestra" in 1958. It was described by the critic John Martin as, "A summation of all Grahams delving into psychological archaism, a timeless ritual in which the artist searches through the archaic mind, for the remote psychological roots of human savagery and its conquest."

A work of similar impact and character is Graham's "Night Journey". Her version of Sophocles's "Oedipus Rex." The spare-set is constructed from what look like old bones. The psychological content of Sophocles's "Oedipus Rex," is given a special scope on emphasis by Graham's narrative choices.

The entire piece takes place at the moment when Jocasta learns from the blind seer Tiresias of her transgression. Graham called it an instant of agony. Jocasta falls to floor in shame and despair as a chorus of women enters, replacing Sophocles's chorus of male citizens Thebes. The piece then develops into an extended flashback, further emphasizing its psychological focus.

She recalls her life as Oedipus's wife. Their mutual love conflicted between sexual pleasure and puritanical repression. At the end we return to the scene of Jocasta's suicide. Graham's interest in [Floridian and Jungian 00:27:00] psychology is well documented and discussed by many critics. Her father had been a specialist in nervous diseases. And although he had died when she was 20, she never forsook the psychoanalytic concept she learned from him.

How does the visual aesthetic of "Night Journey" portray the protracted psychological conflict that Graham has chosen as her subject matter? I would like to suggest that there is a particular sort of Greek aesthetic at work here. The primitive, or rather primal structures of the earliest geometric period in Greek vase-painting, notice how Graham's chorus on the right, all identical versions of Jocasta herself, convey the same angularity, geometry and repetition that we see on this geometric style vase. Which itself, interestingly depicts a funeral procession. And so, it's particularly apt for Graham's purposes.

We can see this intense repetitive stylization in the following clip from the beginning of "Night Journey". Why would Graham appeal to these structures for he purposes of psychological exploration? The answer must lie, I think, in the way that the geometric style combines an elegant simplicity with a primal aesthetic of repetition, which in Graham's time, can actually resonate with Floridian constellations of repetition compulsion and psychic trauma.

Like Strauss then, Graham does not appeal to Greek structures and themes nostalgically to recapture a lost ideal. But rather, she employs a classicism in order to evoke and crucially to universalize contemporary ideas. It is as though she finds the universal patterns of psychic structure in Greek art itself.

Modern dance was in its beginnings in large part independent American phenomenon, and not as you might imagine initially developed in reaction to the confines of ballet. To modernize ballet, however, from within that tradition and all the while remaining classical, was aim of what was arguably the most influential contribution to dance in the 20th century. George Balanchine's "Neoclassicism."

I'd like to conclude by talking a bit about how Balanchine somewhat paradoxically used Greek material to develop a radically modern form of ballet. When we refer to Balanchine's choreography as "Neoclassical," that term does not ordinarily refer to anything Greek, but rather to a renewed form of classical Russian ballet, which Balanchine knew very well, having been trained in it himself.

What I would like to suggest is that Balanchine's "Neoclassicism" can in fact be understood as a form of Hellenism. And so, as a form of Neoclassicism in the Greek sense of classicism. Balanchine is most well known for abstract ballet, although he himself disputed the aptness of that term.

For Balanchine, dance had it's own means of telling a story, and did not need to invade the fields of drama or the cinema. His three great Greek ballets are "Apollo" 1928, "Orpheus" 1958 and very abstract ballet "Agon" in 1957. All to music by Stravinsky.

"Apollo" is arguably his single most important ballet, and he himself called it ... On your handout number nine, "The turning point in my life. For the first time I dared not to use all of my ideas." Stravinsky had composed a "Apollon musagète," as a ballet with specific ideas about how it should be presented. And with the Homeric hymn to "Apollo" pinned to his notebook.

When Balanchine first presented the ballet in Paris in 1928, the costumes looked like this. This is Serge Lifar, very famous ballet dancer. But he eventually refined the look of the ballet, working with dancers like the famous Suzanne Farrell, to something more abstract, with the dancers in white leotards, a simple blue background to emphasize even more the sculptural poses integrated into the choreography. You can see that here. You can see it here.

From the Homeric hymn, Stravinsky takes the story of Apollo's birth and awkward youth. In the rest of the ballet three muses, Calliope, the muse of poetry, Polyhymnia, the muse of mime and Terpsichore, the muse of dance, each dance for Apollo. He makes his choice of Terpsichore, the muse of dance and then end they all ascend to Olympus. In the original version they actually ascended, but this is the now standard final pose of the ballet.

Although Apollo is traditionally associated in Greek mythology with the nine muses, Stravinsky's choice of three muses and the notion of a kind of contest among the three for Apollo's attention, perhaps owes more to the judgment of Paris ... Here's Ruben's version of it ... than to classical mythology involving Apollo. There's Ruben's and there's Balanchine.

This ballet was so significant and is still one of the most popular Balanchine ballets, because it defined the paradox of Balanchine's style so clearly. At the height of the Jazz age, Balanchine evolved a new classicism, which serenely embodied the classical virtues of clarity and grandeur. And yet, in spirit and style, was more up-to-date and adventurous than even the ultra modern ballets.

The aesthetic of this ballet is one of white marble sculptures come alive. When the sculpture comes alive, it loses some it's inhibitions, and yet the purity of form is never lost. A new playfulness and more direct femininity and expressiveness come into being in Balanchine's "Apollo." But these are made Legitimate, even ultra-classical by the paradoxically austere, abstract Greek sculptural aesthetic.

I would like to suggest then, that Balanchine's appeal to Greek form in "Apollo," is primarily  sculptural, and the security and elevation of these forms, allows him to take the risk of introducing wit, playfulness and non-balletic movement into the vocabulary of ballet. The following clip from "Apollo," shows Calliope's and then Polyhymnia's variations. The movements that don't look to you like classical ballet, probably are not. You should trust your instincts, and yet the classicism of this piece will, I think, be more than obvious. [inaudible 00:38:14] Patricia Barker.

Pay attention to her very final pose as it [inaudible 00:39:22]. This is a famous pose from "Apollo," and one that Balanchine claimed Micheal Angelo stole from him. I hope to have suggested tonight that Balanchine, Graham and Strauss, each invoke their own version of what is classical. Not in order to look backward longingly, but to move forward into distinctively modern forms of art. Thank you.