The following is a guest post from Music Division scholar-volunteer K. Mitchell “Mitch” Snow, with an introduction from Dance Archivist Libby Smigel.
Readers of the Music Division’s In the Muse blog will have already met Mitch Snow through his posting on the Maxine Glorsky Papers. His scholarly pursuits have made him invaluable in many quarters during his time with us. In this case, he used his knowledge of Latin American music and dance to help identify a holograph score, and used Music Division correspondence from the 1940s to put together the story of how these scores came to us. In a few months, the collection now accurately titled American Ballet Caravan Music Scores will be available for research in the Performing Arts Reading Room. Meanwhile, we hope you’ll enjoy the back story of a very special score, Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia.
As Lincoln Kirstein’s American Ballet Caravan performed its way across South America on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour, he sent a letter from Buenos Aires to Harold Spivacke, then Chief of the Library of Congress Music Division, complaining about having to stay in fancy hotels for appearance sake (Music Division Old Correspondence, July 15, 1941). It was eating into his “pin money” for commissioning ballet scores from the composers he was meeting on his travels. Kirstein added that he had just commissioned a ballet in Argentina, “but the money business is tough.”
Kirstein also reported that Nelson Rockefeller, who had arranged the Ballet Caravan tour as the Department of State’s Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, had promised him “ ’money’ for commissions ‘soon.’ You know, soon.” Before he departed, Kirstein met with Spivacke to propose that he pass such funds through the Library’s Coolidge Foundation and commission them in its name to enhance the prestige of his offer (MDOC, June 14, 1941). Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge telegrammed her agreement to the proposal in hopes that it would generate future gifts for chamber music commissions (MDOC, June 16, 1941). It seems, however, that the Rockefeller funds never appeared.
Kirstein had arranged another link to the Library for his journey. The Music Division lent him equipment so company members could record the popular and folk music of the nations they visited. The results of this effort are available in the American Folklife Center’s Seamus Doyle South American Recordings. An unidentified clipping from a Buenos Aires newspaper in the Music Division’s Old Correspondence files reported on a recording session in a theater dressing room while the Caravan’s “boisterous” rehearsals were underway on stage. Its journalist thought the company’s folk-music efforts a “truly Pan-American” gesture, “warm and spontaneous, as all of them should be.”
One of the pieces that Ballet Caravan brought to Argentina was Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, which the composer had based on cowboy tunes. The score Kirstein commissioned there turned out to be a kind of Argentine relation to his Wild West ballet. It was Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia, which focused on Argentina’s horsemen, the gauchos. Copland would soon travel to Argentina on his own State Department-funded tour where he met Ginastera and the two became lifelong friends, influencing each other’s music.
Estancia was the 25-year-old composer’s second ballet. His first was Panambi, loosely based on a legend of the Guaraní people, which had received a full staging at the Teatro Colon in 1940. Both Panambi and Estancia were from what Ginastera called his “objective nationalism” phase, in which he made extensive use of Argentine folk materials. His inspiration for Estancia was the epic poem Martin Fierro by José Hernández, which borrowed its rhythmic structure from traditional balladry. The poem’s unromanticized take on Argentine frontier life converted Hernández’s poem into Argentina’s national poem within a generation of its publication, making it a touchstone for the nation’s modernist artists.
In lines both spoken and sung, Ginastera quoted directly from Martin Fierro in his composition. One of the most intriguing aspects of the original score in the Library’s collection is its incorporation of the closing stanzas of Martin Fierro at the end of the score. Judging from a recent recording, the ballet score’s vocal texts still start with Hernández’s opening lines, but the composer seems to have abandoned his original close in the orchestral version.
Kirstein had intended to produce Estancia as soon as he could do so – and had suggested to Spivacke that the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium provide one possible venue (MDOC, June 14, 1941). U.S. entry into World War II obviated that plan. The American Ballet Caravan lost its male members, Kirstein included, to the war effort. Nonetheless, under the company’s letterhead, the Caravan’s secretary Doris Levine sent the commissions Kirstein made in South America to the Library in 1944, in response to a request from Nelson Rockefeller (MDOC, March 29, 1944).
Ginastera, in the meantime, prepared a suite version of his ballet score that premiered in the Teatro Colon in 1943. The suite concluded with the ballet’s rolicking, propulsive malambo – a competitive all male folk dance from the Argentine pampas – with the orchestra’s woodwinds shouting dissonant cries of encouragement to the dancers. The well-received suite proved to be Ginastera’s “break out” moment.
Estancia would finally be choreographed for the Colon Theatre Ballet by Russian émigré Michel Borovsky in 1952. Enrique Lommi, the Argentine dancer who performed the lead role recalled that, although he knew the fancy footwork involved in the actual malambo, he simplified it in his performance because the audience would have been unable to hear his step work over the roar of the orchestra. When the New York City Ballet, grandchild to Kirstein’s American Ballet Caravan, offered its version of the ballet in 2010, the closing malambo was still capable of bringing a cheering audience to its feet. Ginastera’s success with the climactic malambo in his suite may have shown him that the quieter close he originally composed would have been lost in the audience reaction to the dance that preceded it.