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Commentary

Cinderella and the Waltz King
Summer 1998
by George Jackson

In 1898, the waltz king—Johann Strauss II—was approaching his 74th birthday without having composed a ballet score. This seemed wrong to his admirers and one of them, Rudolf Lothar, conceived the idea of holding a contest for a scenario. With the composer’s consent, a jury was chosen to judge entries. It consisted of Eduard Hanslick, the feared music and dance critic; Gustav Mahler, the controversial conductor and composer who at the time also directed the Vienna Court Opera (including its ballet company); maecenas Nikolaus Dumba; Strauss himself; and Lothar, who was editor of the influential magazine Die Wage (The Weighing Scales), in the 5 March 1898 issue in which the contest was announced.

About 700 entries had been received by the deadline in May 1898. The winning text was a contemporary telling of the Cinderella (Aschenbrödel) story, submitted by one A. Kollmann from Salzburg. This personage did not appear in person to collect the prize money, but sent his lawyer instead. Vienna, indeed all Austria Hungary, suspected that Kollman was a pseudonym and the rumor circulated that the real author was one of the grand dukes of Emperor Franz Josef’s court.

Strauss, although he didn’t particularly care for the scenario, set about composing the score. In the late autumn of 1898 he had finished a piano version, which was given its salon premiere at a musical soiree in his house. The pianist was a young star of the concert stage, Toni Wolff (wife of Carl Colbert, whose Society for Industrial Graphics would become the score’s publisher).

Lack of a scenario wasn’t the principal reason why Strauss hadn’t written a ballet score before. In those days, only a handful of composers worked on ballet music. It was almost as if there’d been a closed-shop union for that purpose. Several of these composers were musicians in orchestras that accompanied ballet performances or were even ballet conductors. Such a situation was common during the latter 19th century and not only in Vienna. The exceptions were ballet scenes in operas and operettas, the music for which was usually (but not always) by the composer of the rest of the work. Strauss tended to use waltzes he had already composed for his operettas. For his only opera, Ritter Pasman (Knight Pasman), he composed new ballet music which Hanslick, in his review, had praised more than the vocal portions. At the last turn of the century, Vienna’s leading ballet composers were Josef Bayer, Josef Hellmesberger II and Franz Skofitz.

At gatherings during the winter of 1898/99, Strauss himself sometimes played excerpts from the Cinderella piano score, and he began orchestrating the music. He had almost finished Act 1, and made sketches for some additional portions when he died of pneumonia on 3 June 1899. His biographer (and author of the libretto for his Gipsy Baron), Ignatz Schnitzer, speculates that on a visit to Russia, Strauss may have been the Ballet of the Imperial Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg dance its version of Cinderella with music by Ludwig Minkus, and that Strauss must have met Minkus. The latter conjecture is likely because Minkus had been born in Vienna and had begun his musical career there. Also, Strauss knew Minkus’s brother, a Viennese bank director. However, the 1893 Maryinsky Cinderella (with choreography by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti) had music by Baron Schell; possibly Minkus conducted it. Cinderella ballets were not rare and Strauss, who toured widely, might have seen one of them. His own, however, seems to have been the only "modern" version.

Following Strauss’s death, it was hoped that another musician would complete the orchestration. Colbert approached operetta conductor Karl Millöcker first, but he was ill and died later in 1899. It was Bayer who accepted the assignment. Meanwhile, in 1900, a copy of the piano score was submitted to Mahler for future production at the Vienna Opera. Mahler’s appraisal of the score was negative; he even doubted that it had been composed by Strauss. Although he conceded that point when shown the original manuscript, he still didn’t care for the music. Reportedly, Mahler’s response was that he just didn’t like any and all ballet. That probably wasn’t the case, even if he said so. It was known that Mahler was eager to obtain, from St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty for Vienna. Also, in Vienna, he supported the ideas of his principal designer, Alfred Roller, and dancer Grete Wiesenthal to reform ballet. The official reason Mahler gave for rejecting Cinderella was his budget: a full production as envisioned in the scenario would have been extremely expensive.

In 1901, Berlin’s Royal Opera heard of the Strauss score and asked Wolff-Colbert to come and play it on the piano. The directors and their choreographer, Emil Graeb, liked the music but not the prize-winning scenario. Probably at Herr Colbert’s suggestion, the Viennese ballet scenario writer, Henrich Regel, was asked to do a revision. Berlin also rejected the idea of making the production art nouveau because the Kaiser, who was eager to see the ballet, had taken a dislike to that new style.

The stage premiere of Strauss’s Cinderella was on 2 May 1901 with Regel’s revised but still contemporary story, Bayer’s orchestration and Graeb’s choreography. Schnitzer, who attended, commented that it lacked "Vienna’s light touch" and was "too puritanical," partly because ballet skirts were replaced by flowing gowns—which some of the press found revolutionary. Schnitzer also had reservations about Bayer’s orchestration, though he thought the orchestra and dancers competent. Karl Muck conducted the premiere and Antonietta dell’Era (the first Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker) headed the cast. Supposedly she took the Cinderella role, although the ballet’s classical ballerina (at least in Vienna) was not supposed to become involved in the narrative and appeared only in a divertissement of flowers meant as keepsakes. The production was "munificent" and a hit.

Mahler left the Vienna Opera at the end of 1907, and the new director, conductor Felix Weingartner, was made aware of the score. He not only accepted it for his first season, but conducted the premiere himself on 4 October 1908 using Bayer’s orchestration and adjustments for Regel’s revised scenario. The choreography was credited to Berlin’s Emil Graeb and the Vienna Opera’s balletmaster, Josef Hassreiter. Supposedly, Hassreiter based his staging on Graeb’s written notes. According to some sources the fourth scene (Act 3, Scene 2) was all-Hassreiter. With the participation of Bayer, Regel, Hassreiter and scenery designer Anton Brioschi, this was a typical Vienna ballet-team event.

The action takes place in a department store, The Four Seasons. The leading characters are Gustav, owner of the store, and Franz, his younger brother and rival for the love of Grete (Cinderella), who works in the women’s fashions department. Grete’s stepmother, Mme. Leontine, is the department’s supervisor. She has, of course, two daughters who lord it over Grete and don’t seem to work though they are often in the store. Another key character, Piccolo, Gustav’s valet, is a travesty role. As mentioned, the ballerina (the part is referred to as "Floral") appears only in the ballroom (Act 2) for the floral divertissement.

Typically, the printed program for Cinderella lists all the dances. From this inventory one gets an inkling how Viennese ballets at the time differed from those of St. Petersburg, which we know at least a little. There are four dances in Act 1. The first, called Franz’s Self-portrait, introduces the ballet’s junior male lead (probably demicaractere) to the female cast of characters and to the audience. In this solo, Franz (Ferdinand Rathner) proclaims who he is and what he does. One of the things he masters is driving an automobile—dancemiming this topic seems very Leonide Massine. The stepsisters (danced by real sisters, Lydia and Olga Berger) have a Promenade Adventure and Piccolo (Luise Wopalenski) does a Love Letter Delivery to Grete (Marie Kohler) who, with her trained birds, dances the Waltz of the Doves.

Apparently there are no ensemble dances in Act 1, though there are several in Act 2, at the party thrown by Gustav. First comes the Marveilleusen Quadrille for Franz and the female corps. A pas de trois, Masked Game, is for the stepsisters and Gustav (Karl Godlewski, one of Hassreiter’s deputy choreographers). Grete dances a solo named the Blue Domino after the costume she wears (probably as covering as she arrives at the party). The Confections Waltz (which may have something to do with the refreshments being served) features nine female soloists and the female corps; this is followed by a Salon Quadrille for four couples, a mazurka for the stepsisters, and Grete’s big solo: the Cinderella Waltz. The ballerina (Cäcilie Cerri, Vienna’s last Italian prima, was "Flora") enters in a Welcome with Flowers, which leads into the biggest dance number, the Flowertorch Polonaise with "Flora," Grete, thirteen female soloists, Gustav, four male soloists, the adult female corps and the group of female students.

An Amoretten polka is the first dance in Act 3, followed by the Bridaltreasure Waltz for Grete, a female soloist (?), Piccolo, Gustav, and the female students. The next dance, Old Vienna Porcelain, for Piccolo plus four solo women and four solo men, may represent a wedding present, and the final Jewels Waltz for Piccolo, nine female soloists and the female corps, is perhaps, the setting for the bridegroom’s gift to his bride. There is no male corps in the ballet, although male soloists don’t seem in short supply. All told, there appears to be an attempt to attain something new based on traditional models; would the term "neoconventionalism" be apt?

Ashenbrödel remained in the repertory for seven years, into 1914 (when World War I began). It earned forty-six performances, plus an additional one for the Vienna Operahouse’s 50th anniversary season, 1919/1920. Schnitzer liked the Vienna production more than the Berlin. It was, though, as Mahler had predicted, very costly.

For a number of years, the Strauss/Bayer score was neglected. In 1975, it accompanied a version on Austrian television entitled The Rose Red Prince and in 1979, due to the efforts of Peter Kemp of London’s Johann Strauss Society, Britain’s Manchester-based Northern Ballet Theatre staged it in Robert de Warren’s choreography wit Sui Kan Chiang as Grete and Ross Stretton as Gustav. Early this year (1998), Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba brought a version with Pedro Consuegra choreography to New York. The Cubans cleansed the story of its updating and set it again as a fairytale. Was this because Fidel Castro is even more retrograde than Kaiser Wilhelm II?

Richard Bonynge’s 1980 recording with the National Philharmonic on London (LDR 72005) credits Strauss principally, Bayer’s "musical arrangement" plus Douglas Gamley who "revised and edited." Despite moments, the score sounds choppy (due perhaps to Regel’s reworking of the scenario) and the orchestration strained (Perhaps because Bayer tried too hard not to deviate from what Strauss had started). Bayer’s own Fairy Doll (Die Puppenfee) of 1888 is more gemütlich and piquant.

Principal Sources:

Master Johann by Ignatz Schnitzer (Halm & Goldmann, 1920).

History of the Ballet of the Vienna Court Opera, 1869-1918 by Ruth Matzinger (dissertation, U. Vienna, 1982).

The Vienna Operahouse, 1869-1945 by Wilhelm Beetz (Panorama, 1949).

Album notes by Peter Kemp (London records LDR 72005, 1980).

 

 

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