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Britten's lost Les Sylphides ballet arrangement returns

(June 2014)

Benjamin Britten's orchestration of the classic ballet Les Sylphides, thought lost but recently rediscovered by American Ballet Theater, is now available again to ballet companies.

The lost score of Benjamin Britten’s orchestration of Les Sylphides was recently rediscovered and revived by American Ballet Theater, and is now available on hire from Boosey & Hawkes for other ballet companies.

Michel Fokine’s classic one-act ballet, with its orchestrations of music by Chopin, dates back to 1908 when it was premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre with scenery by Alexandre Benois. Following performances by the Ballets Russes in Paris it soon became a mainstay of the 20th century repertoire, yet was often disfigured because of its orchestrations.

Starting with orchestrations by Glazunov, and then by a selection of living composers including Stravinsky, it was not until 1936 that Roy Douglas made a stylistically coherent orchestration that is often still used today. American Ballet Theater brought the piece into its repertoire in 1940, supervised by Fokine, and the following year commissioned Britten to create a new orchestration for a fee of $300. This version was premiered in February 1941 and the season programme described how “the sharp, incisive qualities of the music of Mr. Britten corresponded in our opinion to what the music of Chopin required”.

The Britten orchestration was employed by American Ballet Theater until at least the 1970s but then attribution to the composer disappeared as alternative orchestrations were re-introduced. The hunt for the missing version was prompted by dance historian David Vaughan and he and ABT conductor David LaMarche were excited to discover an unmarked score that matched what could be heard on an historic archive recording. Then a set of parts, one of which was topped with “Arr. by Benjamin Britten”, was found at the ABT’s warehouse in New Jersey and verified by the scholars at the Britten-Pears Foundation.

ABT revived the Britten orchestration for the composer’s centenary last November when Les Sylphides returned to the company’s repertoire after a ten-year absence to open a triple bill of non-narrative pure dance works. The New York Times reviewer described the soundworld of the Britten scoring: “Beautifully varied in instrumental colour, it brings both fragrancy and muscle to Chopin’s familiar pieces.” ABT also toured Les Sylphides to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in April and plans to retain the Britten version going forward.



> Further information on Work: Les Sylphides

Photo: American Ballet Theater in Les Sylphides (image: Gene Schiavone)

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