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Pas de Doute
Composing Beauty & the Beast

by Paul Winston

I was very gratified by the audience reception for two excerpts from Beauty & the Beast, the 'Parasol Dance' and the 'Variation for Beauty and the Prince,' which premiered, with choreography by Ginger Thatcher, at Lyric Recovery Festival™ at Carnegie's Weill Hall in March. In response to several requests made then and since, I offer some more detailed background on its creation.

Genesis in Revelations

I believe my need to write the work—and the need of Jean Cocteau and the Disney company to do their treatments as well—stemmed from the collective's unconscious fear of the punishments threatened in the Bible's Book of Revelations. I say "unconscious" because the notion only became evident to me in the early 90's when the story of "Beauty and the Beast" and a work I believe related to it, The Lion King, became industries. (Such mystical theories on the geneses of artistic creation—and of history too—are commonplace in my conversation and in that of my most free-associative companions.) On the other hand, the origin of my carezzovole Introduction to Act Two, Scene Three was a remark made by Berg to Stravinsky in the 30's: "I wish I could write music as lighthearted as yours."

The work's postmodern elements bear some mention. In about 1964, a translator friend of mine at Dover Publications, Mr. Stanley Appelbaum, sold me his classical LP collection for a dollar a record. He had an exceptionally refined taste, so the collection included discs from Chant du Monde, Barenreiter, CBS France and Cantate, among others. At that time I was also listening to jazz and rock—a circumstance which I will address in future as part of my ongoing series for this magazine on the role of consciousness as a carrier of artistic ideas.

All that listening produced scant audible effect on my compositions, however, until 1975, when Zena Rommett hired me to accompany her barre classes in Greenwich Village. Soon after, I happened to see a film on television that I had not seen since childhood: Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946). These three circumstances were, together, the sum and substance of the affair, for all that listening produced, quite unconsciously, a notion of who I was musically—a separate entity apart from the composers I had been studying all those years.

Improvising to a Resolution

Certain pieces from Beauty & the Beast were improvised directly at the piano during Zena's classes: the 'Tarantella,' the 'Parasol Dance,' and sections of the wedding sequence. Others were written at home—the storm sequence, for example. The whole process was so close-knit, though, that I can't remember which came first, my improvisation of the 'Tarantella' or the decision to write the ballet.

I do think that stylistic individuation, as exemplified by the pieces I have just mentioned, was the first characteristic to emerge. My expansion of the piece into a full-evening work eventually threw me into a postmodern world which I mirrored instinctively. By my count, twenty-four composers are reflected in the score (though not always literally): Poulenc, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bártók, Palestrina, Mozart, Verdi, Beethoven, Bach, Copland, Schubert, Schoenberg, Messaien, Boulez, Debussy, Khatchaturian, Brahms, Berg, Puccini, Mahler, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin and Tschaikovsky. I am open to the suggestion that there are others.

Once I had resolved to write the work, it became apparent to me almost immediately that I lacked the skill to compete with the great short ballets of the past. Even if I had the talent, I did not have the experience to equal, for example, the revolutionary originality of L'Après-midi d'un Faune or Agon. I was confident, though, that I could write a standard full-evening ballet, an ambition which put my goals within reach of, say, an Adam or a Minkus (though they did not write their own scenarios). Then too, as there are probably no more than a dozen full-length ballets which are universally accepted by the most prominent classical dance cultures, I was, as I saw it, filling a need.

Parameters and Approach

I had spent all of my musical creative life to that point as a songwriter of one kind or another. I was used to writing musical comedy, popular songs and jazz tunes which are, by their nature, abbreviated, and so, although I was trained in classical composition, I viewed as my forté the physical exhilaration of pianistic improvisation, not notational drudgery (as I perceived it then). It was only natural therefore, in this electronic age, that my approach to writing a full-evening ballet involve a tape recorder.

I already had some themes that I liked, so I improvised developments of them at the piano and recorded them. As the pile of 90-minute tapes grew to over a hundred, they became a conversation piece, not always kind, for my friends. I got some sketchbooks and set about transcribing those ideas I thought had promise. In this way, I was able to sort out which themes were similar, which were different, which could be combined, and so forth.

Once I had gone through as many tapes as I could, I reverted to type and improvised on my transcriptions at the piano once more, recording and writing down the sketches again. I went through this process several times, and was still at it when Kevin McKenzie heard the piano suite, at Flo Pettan's behest, from a tape I had sent Gelsey Kirkland and ordered up a full-evening ballet.

I also read scores. I had just founded a Music Department at Touro College, and was teaching at distant sites an hour and more by subway from Manhattan, so I used the time to go through my sketchbooks and also to read scores of the masters. I went through the quartets of Beethoven twice, most of the symphonies, a lot of Bártók and Ravel, Debussy, Verdi, Prokofiev, Mozart and Stravinsky.

Small Beauty for Large

After American Ballet Theatre asked for a complete ballet, I began cataloguing which sketches seemed most applicable to which scenes. In this way, I prepared myself for those decisions without which no artist can reach his potential: the need to cut, to sacrifice temporary beauty to the needs of the whole. As Tschaikovsky said: "The hardest thing is to eliminate that which was conceived in love."

In 1996, I took a year off and wrote the whole ballet from start to finish. I relied daily on the rationale that Anthony Trollope had turned out his entire oeuvre by writing five thousand words a day and then stopping, sometimes in the middle of a phrase. This rather double-edged interpretation of the word "compulsion" suited me. I would write 36 staves of pencil manuscript and stop.

Some might think this was too easy a demand to make on myself, but I had compiled close to twenty thousand sketches. Since I obviously couldn't go through all of them every day, I became inured to the fact that, whatever I did, I would sometimes miss "the perfect idea for the perfect moment" and got used to crafting each idea so that a sublime (to me) melody might have to be used between two outside voices, or even be changed so it could function as, say, the response to another, less glamorous, phrase.

I also learned a good deal about the ambiguity of music in general, that is: a musical idea's propensity for being changed by some single stroke of pitch, expression, tempo or harmony into a completely different entity with a completely different function. I spent the rest of my day studying Rimsky-Korsakov's Treatise on Orchestration (two or three times through), and Donald Francis Tovey's analyses of the Beethoven Symphonies and the Bach Preludes and Fugues. I also got around to some of Schmitz's work on Debussy's piano music.

'A Good Melody is a Gift from God' —Haydn

Beauty & the Beast is in many ways a paean to two elements—Melody and The Piano—just as Staggerlee, my current (and last) ballet, is a paean to Jazz and The Blues Guitar. The whole of Beauty & the Beast is written in one continuous melody line. When I was writing pop songs a collaborator of mine once said: "The more hooks the better." I found this advice works well in classical music too: It is a worthy ideal to make the most insignificant elements of one's score as attractive as possible.

My orchestration follows the piano score completely. As of this moment, there is not a note in the latter that is not in the former. I don't think I would change the orchestration much except, perhaps, to add a bit of octave doubling in the basses and a little swatch of color in the very high treble. Both details would have needed a third hand to play while I was writing the piano score. It may be that I am a little overcautious on this subject of orchestration, but I felt as I went through the ballet scores of the composers who preceded me that some masterpieces considered to be ballets were not really ballets at all. The Rite of Spring belongs in this category.

Musical and Dramatic Transparency

Stravinsky's Rite is so densely textured that it ends up defeating the reason for its being, though it is still a great piece of music. I took great pains to avoid making what I perceived as balletic mistakes. Now, considering what a smart fellow Stravinsky was, the better explanation may be that he simply indulged the compulsion to write a purely symphonic work. Did not the composer say: "I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed"? I sought to make both the original piano score and its instrumentation as transparent as possible, except for some preludes and interludes and the like or when, as in the storm sequence, only pantomime is required.

With regard to the scenario, my first instinct was to slavishly follow Cocteau's story line. My files show musical attempts to even describe some of the scenes in the film, such as the hall with the flowing curtains or the statue in the garden. I was able to get past such attempts—I think I am a little too lighthearted to be so thoroughly surrealistic—and began to try different ways of treating the story. Thus, a scene originally titled, 'By the Pool' became 'Beauty's Dream;' the first, romantic, the second, bleak, yet the music is the same in each.

My playwright friend Howard Pflanzer, author of The Rabbi (an extraordinary stagework I would like to use for an opera), had helpful suggestions about the plot line. He convinced me to cut from Act One a scene depicting Father in town, in the interest of a clear dramatic line, and to retain the 'Dance of the Disembodied Limbs' in Act One, Scene Two.

Tone and Characterization

These problems were exceeded by new ones when the Disney Company came out with their cartoon, as I had considered using the idea of the dancing teacups, a touch which may be in the original version by Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont. (Or if not, then someone had certainly used the idea very shortly after.) Next came a new Kirov production of Cinderella, which featured dancing cutlery. I consequently focused more seriously on a later concept in the piece's historical development and treated the story's themes in a more adult manner—as demonstrated in scenes like 'Beauty's Dream'. The ballet, as completed then, is more Swan Lake than Nutcracker.

Beauty's character evolved from my acquaintance with three women: my first wife (the youngest of three sisters), a piano student of mine, and, later, the prima ballerina assoluta, Gelsey Kirkland (who responded in such a breathlessly excited voice to the tape I sent her that the memory of it still thrills me). My former wife's oldest sister became Beauty's oldest sister, Simone, and their father became Father (along with a dash of Robert Helpmann). Beast was modeled on Nureyev. I used my cousin Joan as a template for Sydèle, the middle sister. The political climate of the 70's influenced the names and whatever dimension I was able to lend Beauty and her sisters. Prokofiev, in a very different time, called them "Skinny" and "Dumpy."

A friend played a tape of piano selections from my Beauty & The Beast the other night. When it finished, I was astonished at how this music, once so familiar, had refreshed me. May first and repeated hearings have a similar effect on ballet audiences.