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Benjamin Britten

Pas de Six from Prince of the Pagodas

Benjamin Britten, an original and prolific composer throughout his sixty-three years, was born in 1913 in Lowestoft, East Anglia and died in 1976 in Aldeburgh. He remains one of the most well-known and popular of all mid-twentieth century English composers. In addition to his operas, several of which have become fixtures in modern opera houses, Britten wrote a large body of orchestral music, chamber music, songs and song arrangements, secular and church cantatas and non-operatic music dramas, concertos for violin and piano, works for solo instruments, and incidental music for films, radio dramas, and plays. In the year of his death, Queen Elizabeth II gave Britten a life peerage in recognition of his service to British music.

In 1952 Britten met dancer/choreographer John Cranko, who choreographed the dances for Britten's 1953 coronation opera Gloriana. By this time, London's Sadler's Wells Ballet had scheduled a new full-length ballet to be performed in October 1955. Cranko had devised a scenario and the decor was under way, but no composer had yet been chosen when Cranko asked Britten for some suggestions. By mid-September 1954 Britten became interested in the project and started to devote his attention to the ballet, beginning work on the music by the following spring. Uncharacteristically, he found himself having difficulties with the composing and fell behind schedule, requesting and receiving two extensions before he embarked on a previously planned world tour in November 1955. In Bali, where he arrived early in 1956 for a brief rest from his heavy recital schedule, the island's gamelan music inspired him to return to the score. He had gained some earlier familiarity with gamelan music, and left Bali with manuscript sketches for thematic material for The Prince of the Pagodas. He wrote of Balinese music, "It is a remarkable culture… At last I'm beginning to catch on to the technique, but it's about as complicated as Schoenberg." After the completion of the tour he continued work on the ballet, but once again the deadline had to be postponed because of Britten's heavy workload and illness. However, it was finally finished and the ballet went into rehearsal while the composer continued work on the orchestration.

Britten conducted the first performance of The Prince of the Pagodas on New Year's Day 1957 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It ran for twenty-three performances and was tentatively received in the Royal Opera House during the next three years, but in spite of favorable notices in New York, Munich, and La Scala, it was dropped from the repertoire. London's mixed reception to the ballet stemmed from criticism of Cranko's choreography, and he later declared himself ready to remedy the defects in his part of the work. By this time, however, Britten had developed an aversion to the work, and his negative attitude contributed to the lack of performances after 1960. Interest in the ballet revived in 1980 when the London Sinfonietta presented large sections of the score at Aldeburgh under Oliver Knussen, after the deaths of both Britten and Cranko. More than thirty years after the first performance, the ballet was staged at Covent Garden in December 1989, with new choreography by Kenneth MacMillan.

John Cranko described the ballet as a "mythological fairy-tale" from diverse sources. The plot itself derived from a late seventeenth-century fairy-tale by French writer Madame D'Aulnoy, titled Serpentin vert, and was expanded with elements borrowed from King Lear, Beauty and the Beast, and other oriental fairy tales. The energetic "Pas de six" appears in Act III, shortly after the opening of Scene 2, and is followed by variations, solos, and ensemble dances which lead to the happy finale.

The action begins as the Emperor arrives at his court in the Middle Kingdom. Four Kings enter, each of whom hopes to marry whichever of the King's daughters is chosen as heiress. The two daughters, Belle Epine and Belle Rose, appear to distinctive music and Belle Rose has a premonition of the Prince of the Pagodas, with whose apparition she dances. The Kings favor Belle Rose, but the Emperor chooses Belle Epine. After a celebration which turns into an altercation, slithering music heralds the entrance of four huge green winged frogs who enter bearing a casket. Belle Rose is swept away to Pagoda Land as panic and confusion ensue. Act II depicts Belle Rose's journey through natural elements to Pagoda Land, and in Scene 2 she tentatively explores her surroundings in the jeweled palace where she is held captive. The pagodas dance to the gamelan music inspired by Britten's stay in Bali, while a green salamander approaches the blindfolded Belle Rose. As the salamander draws near he is revealed to the audience as a human Prince who dances with the curious Belle Rose. As she tears off the blindfold he resumes his salamander form and pursues the terrified girl from the stage. Act III is once again in the Middle Kingdom where Belle Epine has become the tyrannical empress of a corrupt court. Belle Rose rushes in, clothes in tatters, still pursued by the green salamander. She chides Belle Epine for her savage treatment of their father and is about to be killed by the guards when the salamander comes to her rescue. The guards rush to attack, but with a huge clap of thunder the salamander regains the human form of the Prince. Scene 2 is a celebration of the happy outcome which combines music of the Prince, Belle Rose, the salamander, and ends with an exuberant waltz for the entire company.

Copyright © 1997 by Jane Erb