Benjamin Britten’s Lost Score for ‘Les Sylphides’
A version of this article appears in print on August 28, 2013, on page C1 of The New York Times, the New York edition with the headline: ‘Mystery of the Missing Music’.
By MICHAEL COOPER
Benjamin Britten's lost 1941 arrangement of Chopin piano music for the ballet “Les Sylphides” may have been found. Photograph courtesy of Yana Paskova for The New York Times
SECAUCUS, N.J. — The quest for the lost Benjamin Britten score — an orchestration of Chopin piano music he made in 1941 for the ballet “Les Sylphides” — had moved to a warehouse here.
The composer Benjamin Britten. Photograph courtesy of Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images
The searchers combed through the cavernous building, where American Ballet Theater’s sets and boxed-up tutus hibernate between productions. A gryphon-headed boat from “The Sleeping Beauty” was rolled aside, revealing some old steamer trunks labeled “Agnes de Mille” and, perhaps less intriguingly, the minutes of long-concluded board meetings.
“I think it might be in here,” David LaMarche, Ballet Theater’s conductor and music administrator, said as he pulled a clear plastic box off a lower shelf. Soon he and David Carp, the orchestra’s librarian, were rummaging through pages of an uncredited orchestration of “Les Sylphides,” looking for the telltale signs suggesting that it could, indeed, be the instrumental parts of the lost Britten version.
The eureka moment came when they found the second trumpet part. There, right on the top of the page, a set of neat block letters proclaimed: “ARR. BY BENJAMIN BRITTEN.” The part, which matched an unlabeled conductor’s score discovered earlier this summer, suggested that Britten’s long-lost version might have been found.
Now Ballet Theater is waiting for Britten experts to weigh in on the rediscovered score. If it is deemed to be Britten’s — as some who have seen it say appears likely, though not every link in the chain of custody is strong — Ballet Theater plans to use it when the company brings “Les Sylphides” to the David H. Koch Theater this fall, reviving it just in time for Britten’s centenary season.
“We’re very excited,” said Richard Jarman, the general director of the Britten-Pears Foundation, which will examine the score and has offered to recreate any missing parts for Ballet Theater’s orchestra from the recently found conductor’s score. “We just published a catalog of Britten’s works, and ‘Sylphides’ is mentioned as missing. If we can restore this work, I think it would be great.”
The hunt for the lost Britten score, which disappeared a few decades ago, was set in motion by David Vaughan, the dance historian, who fondly recalled seeing Ballet Theater perform “Les Sylphides” to the Britten orchestration in London in the mid-1950s. Several years ago, after Ballet Theater danced “Sylphides” to an arrangement by Roy Douglas, Mr. Vaughan wrote Mr. LaMarche and asked what had become of the Britten version.
His query set off the chain of events that eventually led to Secaucus.
“It’s been an interesting sort of detective story,” said Mr. Vaughan, 89. “There were all these red herrings.”
“Les Sylphides” is an abstract, dreamlike, Romantic ballet set to orchestrations of Chopin piano music that was a basic part of the repertory for much of the 20th century.
It was called “Chopiniana” when Michel Fokine first choreographed it in St. Petersburg, to music orchestrated by Glazunov — a version that has lived on in Russia. Diaghilev renamed it “Les Sylphides” when the Ballets Russes performed it in Paris in 1909, using a new orchestration by several composers, including Stravinsky. Mr.Douglas, a British composer and arranger who once said he had been “disgusted and horrified by the many bad orchestrations of Chopin’s music for the ballet ‘Les Sylphides,’ ” made his own orchestration in 1936, which is now commonly used.
When the hunt for the Britten score began, even its origins were shrouded in mystery.
Some publications suggested, erroneously, that it had been commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein, who had founded the School of American Ballet, and who went on to found New York City Ballet, with George Balanchine. (Around that same time, Kirstein did commission some Rossini orchestrations from Britten for a Balanchine ballet, “Divertimento.”)
That theory was debunked this month when Daisy Pommer, a librarian at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, unearthed the original Jan. 29, 1941, contract, in which Ballet Presentations Inc., which presented Ballet Theater performances in those days, offered Britten $300 for a “Sylphides” orchestration, and all future rights to it.
“It is understood that Mr. Britten will reorchestrate this ballet in accordance with the instructions received at this office the other day and that he will deliver the score on February 8th at the latest,” the contract stated.
The work had its premiere a few days after Britten’s deadline, at a Thursday matinee on Feb. 13. “Specially orchestrated for Ballet Theater by Benjamin BRITTEN,” the program read. A program for the season said that “the sharp, incisive qualities of the music of Mr. Britten corresponded in our opinion to what the music of Chopin required.”
Tracking down the music was not easy. A listed publisher of the orchestration had no record of it when Mr. LaMarche called.“After that came to a dead end, David Vaughan said, ‘Well, would you like to listen to it anyway?’ ” Mr. LaMarche said. “We made a date to get together at the Lincoln Center library, went to the special collections room and we watched a ‘Dance in America’ special from 1978. ‘Les Sylphides,’ at that late date, was still being done with a Benjamin Britten orchestration.”David Carp, left, American Ballet Theater’s orchestra librarian, and the conductor David LaMarche looking for Britten’s version of “Les Sylphides” at the company’s warehouse.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times - Photographer
The library also had an LP of “Les Sylphides,” with the orchestration credited to Britten, recorded by Ballet Theater in the 1950s. The two men listened to it together this summer. “I liked it,” Mr. LaMarche said, noting that it was sparer than the Douglas version, and used less triangle and other percussion.
That afternoon, Mr. LaMarche searched through the company’s scores again. There, next to the Douglas version, he found something curious.
“I’d never noticed before, but next to it was a much smaller score, which I assumed was a Xeroxed copy of the Roy Douglas, just reduced,” he said. “So I opened it, and the engraving was completely different. But there was no credit — arranged by nobody. I opened it up, I looked at it, and since I just had heard the Britten at Lincoln Center, I recognized a few things. I looked at it and said: ‘Well, that’s different. I think that’s what I just heard.’ ”
Armed with the newly found conductor’s score, Mr. LaMarche made plans to search the Secaucus warehouse. There, he found the instrument parts. Only the trumpet part mentioned Britten.
The final chapter of the mystery — with the definitive answer to whodunit? — has yet to be written. Philip Reed, the editor in chief of Britten’s selected letters, said that the composer, who had expressed an interest in locating the lost score later in his life, listened to a copy of an LP that claimed to use his orchestration in the mid-1960s. His verdict raised doubts.
“I have played the record over, and although there are a few passages that might be mine, I am certain that, as it stands, it is not my responsibility,” Britten wrote in a 1966 letter, suggesting that someone else’s score might have been substituted, or substitute passages inserted.
Exactly when the Britten version fell out of use is not clear. Ballet Theater continued to employ a score attributed to him as late as 1978, the date of its televised “Sylphides.” Ormsby Wilkins, Ballet Theater’s music director, said that the company’s programs regularly attributed “Sylphides” to Britten as late as 1972, but credited no one beginning in 1973. Exactly when the troupe stopped using the score, and why, was unclear. But ballet companies are not always purists when it comes to scores, even for canonical ballets: when Mikhail Baryshnikov led Ballet Theater, his “Sylphides” changed one of the Mazurkas to correspond to the Kirov Ballet’s version.
Mr. Jarman, of the Britten-Pears Foundation, said that he enjoyed listening to a version credited to Britten, though it was not instantly recognizable as his work. “It’s very nice — gentle and quite dreamy, and appropriate,” he said. “It’s stylish.”
Mr. Vaughan said he hoped to see Ballet Theater dance again to the Britten version, which he has always preferred. He recalled mentioning it in a review of “Sylphides” in the 1950s.
“I remember that I wrote that it was a ‘tactful orchestration by Benjamin Britten,’ ” he said. “Which I think isn’t actually a bad word to describe it.”