Do you play poker? I don’t. But I love to play a Luxembourg card game called “66”. You play it with the Nine, the Joker, the Dame, the King, the Ten and the Ace and the idea is to be the first to make 66 points. I learned it from my father when I was a boy and we would play until late at night to the despair of my mother who would have prefered me going to bed early. Nowadays I am teaching the game to my daughter and yes, she wins more and more often.
Igor Stravinsky was a card games’ enthusiast too and playing poker when he needed a break from composing. In 1936/37 he composed the “Jeu de Cartes” (Card Game) and quite appropriately he speaks about “deals” instead of acts. He wrote the libretto himself while George Balanchine took care of the libretto; the ballet was written upon a commission by Lincoln Kirstein and his newly formed American Ballet Company. Stravinsky’ noted that the idea for a “ballet in which dancers, dressed as playing cards” had come to him a long before the Kirstein commission, but it took the cooperation of the three to get the job done. The premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 27, 1937, the conductor was Stravinsky himself.
The music is weird, very rhythmic, full of energy and cruel in a certain way. I heard it yesterday night at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg performed by our local symphonic orchestra. The beginning of the new concert season, and yes, it was quite an experience. Refreshing, intriguing, disturbing at times, hilarious at others. Let me single out a few sections I liked: In the first deal the Dance of the Joker, in the second deal the March and the five Variations and in the third deal the Waltz and the highlight of the ballet, the Battle between Spades and Hearts with a direct quote from Gioachino Rossini’s “Barber of Sevilla”.
The more I listen to the ballet, the better I like it and I always face the choice between two recordings. The first recording is a historical one by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stravinsky himself. The second one is by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Neeme Järvi. Both are good and the latter has the advantage that you can listen at the different sections one by one while Stravinsky’s own recording features the three “deals” as three blocks.
The libretto centers on the Joker who, so proud of his ability to assume the identity of any card, wages battle with other hands over the course of three “deals.” After two victorious rounds he is vanquished in the third “deal” by a Royal Flush of Hearts. Jeff Counts of the Utah Symphony writes in a piece about the ballet: “Stravinsky regularly read [the French poet Jean de] La Fontaine during the creation of Jeu de cartes and included a quote in the score that was […] ‘a good sermon for the times.’ ‘We must wage continual war against the wicked. Peace in itself is a fine thing, I agree, but what use can it be with enemies who do not keep their word?'”
The background is obvious: Stravinsky had no sympathy for the government ruling his country of birth. Three years after the Bolshevik revolution, he had emigrated to Paris, in 1934 he had become a French citizen, and when World War II broke out he left for the United States where he would spend the rest of his life. Evil – that could be both the Soviet and the Nazi regime, the joker, albeit a cynic, cruel one, losing it all to the overwhelming power of love – that could be Stalin or Hitler. As for the contemporary parallels, I don’t have to look very far. Evil still has many faces, however it usually is fairly easy to identify.
© Charles Thibo