George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s remarkably fruitful collaboration, which produced such monumental ballets as Apollo, Agon, and Symphony in Three Movements, lasted over fifty years. While uniquely successful when working on the creation of a new work directly with Stravinsky, Balanchine also choreographed a number of significant ballets to concert pieces from the composer’s catalog with relatively little to no input from Stravinsky. Both Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra are just such works. Following their respective premieres by New York City Ballet in 1960 and 1963, the two short ballets have almost always been performed as a pair, usually with the same principal couple cast in both.
Composed in 1960 for the quadricentennial of Don Carlo Gesualdo’s death, Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa orchestrates several of the so-called ‘Dark Prince’’s madrigals. Infamous in his lifetime for the murder of his wife and her lover, Don Gesualdo’s self-inflicted torment is evident in the poems he either wrote himself or commissioned for his madrigals; Stravinsky’s particular interest in the work of this contemporary of Shakespeare and Caravaggio lay in his equally famous musical compositions. As Alex Ross wrote for The New Yorker, “The works of [Gesualdo’s] mature period bend the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner.”
In concert with the relative fidelity of Stravinsky’s orchestrations, Balanchine’s ballet hearkens to the Renaissance with “...the sketch of a flourish, the hint of a gesture, to convey an impression that, while completely modern, offers, if only in its formal poses, the recollections of a civilization long past,” as noted by Clive Barnes in The New York Times, writing on its 1960 premiere. Though both Monumentum’s music and choreography were completed in the same year, and though both are recognizably of their makers, they are more homage to Gesualdo than the result of extensive transformation or reinvention. This becomes immediately apparent when followed by the performance of Movements for Piano and Orchestra.
Stravinsky considered Movements the “most intricately conceived serial composition he had undertaken to date.” The piece is aggressively atonal and features enough silence between rhythmic constructs to make for a challenging performance; from this complex architecture, Balanchine sculpted one of his most celebrated Black & White ballets—as critic P.W. Manchester wrote at the time, “He manipulates the dancers as though they were supremely malleable clay under his fingers. It is extraordinary and fascinating.”
The shared admiration underlying the two masters’ collaboration reaches a sort of apotheosis in their reactions to Movements, Balanchine writing that the music’s “complexity and compression are remarkable,” and Stravinsky declaiming after seeing the ballet that aspects of the piece became visible only as he saw them “through [Balanchine’s] eyes.”
An homage to a Renaissance innovator, and innovation made manifest: Monumentum and Movements seem wildly incongruent, so why have they always been programmed together? Balanchine writes, with characteristic insouciance, "Both have music by Stravinsky, both are short works, and it has been convenient for our audiences, and for us in the New York City Ballet, to see them combined." But perhaps the juxtaposition itself raises the two works to another level. In a short tribute to the Company, author Francine Prose wrote:
"Watching the New York City Ballet perform Monumentum Pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Balanchine dances set to the Stravinsky music that seems to have been written by the winds of modernism gusting through the chimes of the celestial, I'm reminded of how the ballet arranges the unlikely but happy marriage of opposites: the cultivation of muscle to give the illusion of weightlessness, the musical training of the body to create the impression of bodilessness."