Stravinsky’s name rightfully comes to mind in any conversation about composers who influenced George Balanchine. But Hershy Kay played an equally important role. Kay was one of the unsung heroes of Broadway's mid-century heyday, arranging scores from Once Upon a Mattress and On the 20th Century to Evita and A Chorus Line. He also carried some sterling credentials as Leonard Bernstein's arranger, collaborating with the celebrated composer on some of his most notable works, including Candide and On the Town.
But where Kay's work really shines is on the ballet stage, in the scores he arranged for several of Balanchine’s biggest spectacles, including the patriotic 1958 ballet Stars and Stripes and its 1976 follow-up Union Jack, as well as NYCB repertory mainstays like Western Symphony, Who Cares?, and Jerome Robbins' The Concert. “The work that Balanchine created with Stravinsky is of its kind and very high minded,” says NYCB Music Administrator Jeffrey Guimond. “This work is very different. It’s hard to find any music that’s so unabashedly showy.”
Showy — but never sloppy. “[This music] requires a deft hand because it could become overwhelming and huge,” says Guimond, “but it never is.” Kay’s work on Union Jack and on Balanchine’s other national-themed ballets involved arranging existing melodies into a cohesive score — a nuanced creative process as much about research as composition.
According to Kay, Balanchine approached him to write “a score based on British regimental music for a ballet that would be, in essence, a British Stars and Stripes.” The idea stemmed from NYCB Co-Founder and legendary Anglophile Lincoln Kirstein, who had the idea to celebrate America’s Bicentennial with a nod to its origins. Kay turned to the six-volume collection The Scottish Minstrel, Ancient and Modern, published in the 17th Century, for source material. It’s in that kind of research where his genius becomes evident. “For Kay to be able to weave the musical materials together and have it make some kind of sense, that takes a special kind of skill,” says Associate Music Director Andrews Sill.
Kay culled selections from Scottish folk tunes, such as “Caledonian Hunt’s Delight” and “Dance wi’ My Daddy,” pairing them with music hall songs, and culminating in a grand finale replete with “Rule Britannia.” With every piece, he could see its physical manifestation. Writing about the music hall number “The Sunshine of Your Smile,” he described it as “a very sentimental tune that would adapt itself for the adagio of the pas de deux.”
Once Kay found a selection to fit Balanchine’s request, he constructed a piano score for rehearsal, which allowed him to adjust the bits and pieces as needed. He wrote, “After the ballet is constructed choreographically, which establishes the needed number of bars or counts, I re-compose the sections with suitable key relationships and figurations that will match the choreography of this dance.”
“The orchestrations that Hershy Kay did are clear and bright and compelling,” Sill says. To keep things that way, NYCB’s Music Department has been working to re-engrave it. “It’s a big deal because the actual pages we’ve been using for decades are crumbling and falling apart,” says Guimond. “They were handwritten by the arranger back in the day.”
Re-engraving will create a clean copy of the entire score, free from errors. “It’s a combination of two different kinds of corrections,” explains Sill. “One kind are simply mistakes that have crept in through the handwriting. Once it got played, the musicians realized it needed to be corrected. Those are more like typos.”
The process is laborious, but promises a big payoff for orchestra members. Guimond says, “Part of what we’re endeavoring to do, year by year, is to take some of our standard repertory and digitize it, so that when we discover errors they can be changed, and when things actually change in the music — this has been especially important in premieres — we can change the materials for the musicians in a way that’s easy, so that speeds the process.”
As stewards of Balanchine’s legacy, NYCB also prides itself on overseeing the music that accompanies each repertory piece. “We basically hold all of the materials for [Union Jack],” says Guimond. “Even the publisher of this piece probably doesn’t have a set of music that’s accurate. We are the stewards of this music for the ballet world.”
With the re-engraving and the return of Union Jack to NYCB’s stage, Kay’s legacy as a Balanchine musical partner can’t help but come to the fore. “You could argue that Sousa [arranged in Stars and Stripes] and Gershwin [arranged in Who Cares?] don’t need Kay to stay alive,” says Sill. “Yet, [Kay’s arrangements are] strong enough statements of that music that they tell you something different than you might know if they didn’t exist.” Adds Guimond, “They’re quite sophisticated.”