First Edition of the Complete Ballet Suite for Orchestra
by Antony Beaumont (Peermusic)
Wolpe composed “The Man from Midian” for two pianos on a scenario by the poet and playwright Winthrop Palmer for Eugene Loring’s Dance Players. Wope set the First Suite for orchestra, which was performed by Dmitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic in 1951. On commission by the Stefan Wolpe Society, the celebrated conductor, editor and author Antony Beaumont orchestrated the Second Suite. On the basis of the original materials, Mr. Beaumont corrected and revised the score and prepared a new set of parts.
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“The Man From Midian” 1942
Soon after Stefan Wolpe arrived from Palestine in 1938, he became involved with the New York dance community. He composed a suite of dances for solo piano for the Russian dancer Benjamin Zemach (1939) and a score for two pianos for the German dancer Marthe Krueger (1940). Eugene Loring, who choreographed for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Theater, founded his own comipany in 1941 and commissioned Wolpe to set a scenario on the story of Moses by the poet and playwright Winthrop Bushnell Palmer. Wolpe composed “The Man from Midian” for two pianos in January and February of 1942 and orchestrated the First Suite later the same year.
The New York debut of the Loring Players was keenly anticipated. John Martin wrote that, “Mr. Loring has established himself as one of the most interesting artists in the American field, and the formation of a company of his own is accordingly an event of genuine moment” (The New York Times, April 19, 1942). The opening night program, April 21, began with the revival of “Billy the Kid” (1938) to music by Aaron Copland, followed by “The Man from Midian.” It closed with “Harlequin for President (1936)” on music by Scarlatti, arranged by Trudi Rittmann. According to Martin, “The Man from Midian” was “the most interesting work of the evening, if not the most entertaining.” Wolpe’s score was “rich and impassioned,” and Loring “worked out a prodigiously complex choreographic setting” that at least in two scenes “is of extraordinary power and style and achieves a genuine emotional communication” (April 22, 1942).
Winthrop Palmer (1900-1988) had a remarkable career as a poet, playwright and author of books on the dance. She was an ardent socialist and ran for Democratic senator in the Connecticut State legislature. In 1938, on the strength of her writings for a labor magazine, John L. Lewis invited her to Pittsburgh to attend the first convention of the C.I.O., after which she spoke to mine workers in Florence, Pennsylvania, where they had their first vacation with pay. Her sympathies as a New Dealer seem to have colored her scenario on the figure of Moses.
The cast lists Moses, Aaron (brother of Moses), Miriam (his sister), Jocheved (his mother), Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s daughter, Ladies in Waiting, Magicians of the Court, Israelites, and Taskmasters.
- Scene 1, “At the Wailing Wall”: The Israelites suffer under Egyptian tyranny. Jocheved is distraught by Pharaoh’s decree that all newborn sons be killed.
- Scene 2, “Along the Nile”: Jocheved hides Moses and flees with Aaron, Miriam stays to watch over the infant. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the child and asks Miriam to find a wet nurse for him. Miriam appoints Jocheved, who cares for Moses until he comes of age.
- Scene 3, “Pharaoh’s Court”: Pharaoh accepts Moses at court. The boy hates the fawning courtiers and dishonest soothsayers and runs away.
- Scene 4, “A Work Field in Egypt”: Moses comes upon a slave camp of Israelites and is moved by their suffering. He quarrels with a Taskmaster and kills him. The Israelites turn on Moses, as they will have to pay for his actions.
- Scene 5, “The Fields of Midian”: Moses flees to Midian and turns to God, who orders him to return to Egypt and become a leader of his people.
- Scene 6, “On the Way to the Red Sea”: Aaron assembles the Israelites, who accept Moses as their leader. Moses leads them through the Red Sea.
- Scene 7: “The Camp in the Desert”: The Israelites await the return of Moses, who has withdrawn to the mountain to contemplate. He returns with the tablets of the law to find the Israelites have regressed to idolatry and orgies. Moses breaks the tablets and orders the ringleaders be executed. He realizes that he failed as a leader, as he resorted to dictatorial power rather than teach the people self-government. Moses gives over leadership to Joshua. The Israelites depart for the Promised Land, leaving Moses to die alone in the wilderness. As Neil Levin points out, Palmer’s scenario takes motifs from the accounts in Exodus and Deuteronomy of the life of Moses and combines them with “fanciful aspects concerning his final hours” to depict Moses as the liberator of the Israelites according to a “modern political-social agenda.” The title of a musical item in Scene 4, “Moses Among the Workers,” suggests that the people were more indentured workers than slaves.
Schoenberg’s Moses was the philosopher-priest, while Palmer’s was a visionary autocrat who freed the people from oppression only to oppress them further. Was Palmer addressing the current political situation in the United States, or Germany, or Russia? Her scenario seems to illustrate the principle that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Loring’s choreographic outline divides the scenario into short scenes of between 1.5 and 4 minutes each. Wolpe’s score is a set of developing variations on two types of material: Moses (dodecaphonic) and the People (diatonic). Wolpe looked on diatonicism and dodecaphony not as mutually exclusive systems but as nodes on a continuous spectrum of resources. Diatonic, octatonic and twelve-tone materials characterize the various protagonists and provide a dramatic ebb and flow.
Wolpe had just spent four years in Palestine and was interested in developing a modern repertoire suitable for the emerging state of Israel. Theodor Adorno, who opposed folklorism in the music of Bartók and others, admired Wolpe’s achievement in combining progressive European ideas with music of the Middle East. In a radio broadcast over WNYC in 1941 Adorno said that Wolpe’s music seems extreme because it speaks with the passionate qualities of Arabic music. John Martin agreed: “Stefan Wolpe provided a passionate and vigorous musical setting for ‘The Man from Midian’” (New York Times, May 3, 1942)