The Bransles of Stravinsky's Agon : A Transition to Serial Composition

By Bonnie S. Jacobi


This article originated as a paper for a graduate-level Post-Tonal Analysis course at the University of Houston Moores School of Music. The paper has been adapted for the Web as part of a Music Technology Seminar taught by Dr. Tim Koozin, which also took place at the Moores School of Music during Spring 2000. Bonnie S. Jacobi is a doctoral candidate in Music Education.


Stravinsky's ballet Agon reflects a major turning point, both within his compositional career and in the history of the dance world. For Stravinsky, this work represented the fusion of his previous diatonic writing style and a new experimentation with the twelve-tone composition learned through studying the music of Anton Webern. Despite the complexity of the music, the results of the teamwork of Stravinsky and Balanchine astonished dance audiences at the New York City Ballet's premiere of the first twelve-tone ballet, a combination thought by many to be an oxymoron up until this point. 1 Started by Stravinsky in 1953, he set Agon aside to write In Memoriam Dylan Thomas and Canticum Sacrum, and then resumed work on it in 1956. Agon was finally completed in 1957, with a few minor revisions to the earlier written parts. This break in the composing process may well explain why only the center portion of Agon is serial, yet the beginning and ending are both diatonic and modal.

Serial Portions of Stravinsky's Agon as listed in Eric White's book Stravinsky

Pas de Quatre prelude Saraband-Step interlude Bransle Simple interlude Pas de Deux
Double Pas de Quatre   Gailliarde   Bransle Gay   Four Duos
Triple Pas de Quatre   Coda   Bransle de Pointou (Double)   Four Trios

However, there is little doubt that Stravinsky had twelve-tone composition in mind even before he set the project aside. In his book Stravinsky, Roman Vlad points out that Stravinsky used twelve tones as early as the second movement, Double Pas de Quatre, which was written prior to the break.

Although the instruments do present a twelve-tone row, it is not yet used as a series in this movement but rather, as three chromatic tetrachords which neighbor one another. 2 Nonetheless, Stravinsky's concept of twelve-tone writing stretched further than just pitch order. Agon was originally conceived as a ballet depicting a contest between twelve dancers, four males and eight females. 3 The ballet lacks a plot, but consists of twelve movements: a series of four sections containing three dances each. 4 The dances are a mixture of both traditional ballet genres (such as Pas de Quatres and Pas de Deux) and old French court dances (such as the Saraband, Galliard and Bransles).

In studying the motivic construction of the dance movements, there are several unique characteristics which draw one's attention to the three Bransle dances. Not only do they proceed the Coda, which marks the first serial dance of the ballet, but they comprise a consecutive group, which suggests possible interrelationships. (See table, Serial Portions of Stravinsky's Agon) Furthermore, it was the Bransle which inspired Stravinsky to create the ballet in the first place. Upon seeing an engraving of two trumpeters playing a Bransle simple in De Lauze's Apologie de la danse, a French seventeenth-century dance manual, Stravinsky decided to write one of his own. 5

The choreography of the three Bransles in Agon, also referred to as "branles", is based only loosely on the seventeenth-century French court dance in which couples would dance in a circle or a row. Traditionally, the dance was accompanied by singing and involved some swaying movements of the body or hands. Balanchine acknowledged that detailed descriptions of branles existed in dance histories, yet referred to his versions as "improvisations" in which the female dancer is shown off by the male dancers. 6 This is consistent with many of Balanchine's ballets; Agon was supposedly choreographed around Diana Adams. 7

As Balanchine strayed from the traditional French court dance style in his choreography, Stravinsky also created new paths in his musical score. One example is Stravinsky's selection of meter for the Bransles. Traditionally, the Bransle simple and the Bransle double were written in duple meter, while the Bransle gay was written in triple meter. 8 In Agon,the Bransle simple is in duple meter as expected. However, the meter of the Bransle double fluctuates between triple and duple throughout the piece. Each time, the new meter is sustained for fewer measures.

It is the Bransle gay in which Stravinsky most successfully departs from tradition to achieve his own style. While retaining the expected triple meter in the castanets throughout (3/8), Stravinsky juxtaposes this 3/8 meter with irregular subdivisions such as 7/16 and 5/16 meters in the harp, flute, bassoon, clarinet and strings. Metrically, these instruments are treated as a group, moving together in time against the ostinato of the castanets. The subdivided rhythms seem to move around the steady beat of the castanets, creating jazz-like syncopations and an improvisatory sound. Oftentimes, the downbeat of the castanets does not fall at the same time as the downbeat of the instrumental group (such as m.323 and m.329). When the downbeats become misaligned, an agogic stress can often be heard on a weak beat of the measure. Also interesting to note is that Stravinsky's sketches show that during mm.315 and 320, where the castanets play alone, the ballerina is "supposed to turn her head towards each of the two male dancers in turn". 9

In addition to Stravinsky's creative, individual approach to meter in the Bransle movements, his choice of instrumentation also contributes greatly to the structure and sound of the work. The fact that Stravinsky features trumpets does not seem to be a coincidence; afterall, this was the instrument shown in the illustration which inspired him to write the work. The brass instruments are associated with the male dancers 10, which may explain why the Bransle simple begins with a trumpet canon and the Bransle double includes trumpets and trombones playing almost entirely throughout. These instruments can be heard in Sound Example 1, mm.278-287 of the Bransle Simple.
Click for Sound Example 1.

The woodwind instruments, on the other hand, seem to be associated with the female dancers. For example, the Bransle gay, which is a movement written for a solo female dancer, does not contain any brass instruments but rather flutes, clarinet and bassoon. Click for Sound Example 2. The string and percussion instruments (piano, harp and castanets) serve as background accompaniment to the solo group of instruments. By selecting instruments from different families to represent the male and female dancers, Stravinsky achieves contrast in timbre while at the same time maintaining balance.

There are very few occasions when the solo groups of instruments are not paired (see Bransle gay, m.329-bassoon and Bransle double, m.351-trombone, m.356-flute). It is not only the pairing, but the manner in which these instrument families alternate that creates an atmosphere of "contest" between them. For instance, in the Bransle simple, Stravinsky uses articulation to maximize the contrast. He has the trumpets play marcato eighth notes (mm.279-285) and then the clarinets play legato quarter notes (m.285-287). Click to hear Sound Example 1 again. One wonders if the contest could actually be between the male and female dancers in the work, or if it between couples.

In the Bransle double, Stravinsky manipulates the rhythm to differentiate the two instrument families. For example, the rhythm of the trumpet and trombone section (mm.336-351) is fairly regular; it is comprised of eighth notes and quarter notes. Some of the tied eighth-notes create a hemiola effect. When the flutes enter at m.352, there is a sudden meter change to duple time as well as a revival of the grace notes from the Bransle gay. Within less than five measures, the flutes play a triplet rhythm (along with the piano) and the clarinets enter with sixteenth-notes and another grace-note figure. This juxtaposition of rhythmic contrast helps to characterize two opposing sides in the music.

In many ways, the effect of Stravinsky's free use of the twelve-tone system within the Bransles is less striking than his manipulation of rhythm, meter and timbres. Movements such as the Coda utilize an entire twelve-tone row:

On the other hand, the Bransles depend upon hexachords for their pitch material.

Although the complements to the hexachords are at times present, it is only the Bransle double which contains a full presentation of a twelve-tone row:

At the outset, one might think that the Bransle hexachords are derived from permutations of the twelve-tone row of the Coda (which begins with pitch A=0,see figure 2). Although this row does seem to have several tetrachords which contain the same interval class as notes within the hexachord, the Bransles can be more clearly understood by observing the hexachord formed from the first six pitches of each movement. For example, the Bransle simple begins with the pitches D-E-F-G-F#-B (see figure 3). This hexachord (H1) can be traced throughout the movement, both as a whole unit and also in terms of subsets. Moreover, its complement (H2) can be deduced and traced as well. In the Bransle simple, hexachord H1 is heard five times in its entirety. The first and second occurences are at the canon in m.279, the third and fourth occurences are at the return of the canon in m.299 and the fifth occurence is a vertical presentation forming the last chord of the movement (m.308). Although the pitches of H1 suggest an E minor tonality in m.308, the G# member of the H2 creates an ambiguity between the major and minor modes.

Stravinsky permutates the hexachord in various ways. One permutation involves transposition. When the clarinets enter at the end of m.285, the hexachords are transposed when viewed horizontally. The first clarinet plays P9 while the second clarinet plays P5. Another permutation involves the use of subsets. Subsets of H1 in its retrograde form are used to form the tetrachords played by the harp in mm.286, 296 and 306. Stravinsky also presents subsets of H1 in free order such as the trichord (D-G-F#) played by the flutes and harp in m.289. In m.280, the hexachord H1 can be heard in inversion (I9); the pitches are (B-A-G#-F#-G-D).

Stravinsky appears to have been very selective in planning which permutations to use. It so happens that the P9 and P5 used horizontally in mm.285-287 also have a vertical relationship which coincides with H1 and H2. This time Stravinsky uses dyads from the two hexachords. For instance, two pitches from H1 (G and B) are heard simultaneously followed by two pitches from H2 (A and C#). After two alternations between H1 and H2, Stravinsky presents a vertical dyad containing one pitch from each of the two hexachords (D from H1 and C from H2). This happens again at the end of the phrase in m.287: the pitches E and B are from H1 while the G# is from H2. This verticality outlines the E major sonority rather clearly.

At first glance, the Bransle gay seems to be based on a different hexachord but it is really one which is closely related to H1 (see figure 4). The new hexachord (H3) contains the same pitch content as H2 of P7 from the Bransle simple. Therefore, in a sense, the hexachords used in the first two Bransles are combinatorial. Stravinsky's treatment of this hexachord (H3) is different from the Bransle simple in that the presentation is in vertical blocks. The pitches are paired in dyads and repeated several times before moving on to the next pitch. Stravinsky's mirror image positioning of the pitches is very much in the style of Webern (for example, see the flute pitches D-F which surround the pitch B in mm.311-319).

Like the Bransle simple, Stravinsky permutates H3 using transposition and retrograde inversion. In mm.321-325, the first hexachord of RI9 is stated in a linear fashion with few repetitions. In m.325-326, the second hexachord of P9 is also stated linearly with fewer repetitions. The movement ends in the same way as it began, using large vertical blocks of sound. Instead of using fragments of the complementary hexachord, Stravinsky is very thorough and deliberate this time. Directly prior to the final block statement of H3, he places a chordal, block statement of H4 (the complementary hexachord) in the strings. This ending simulates a full retrograde presentation of the row by hexachord, first H4 stated by the string accompaniment and then H3 stated by the solo woodwind group. Click for Sound Example 3. This enables a smooth transition into the Bransle double, since it too begins with a complete statement of this twelve-note series. Click for Sound Example 4.

Not only is the Bransle double the most complex of the three movements, but it can also be viewed as a culmination of the three. Its complexity stems from extensive use of counterpoint, greater interaction between the instruments and an increase in the length of the movement. It is summative in that it includes both the duple and triple meter of the previous Bransles, it includes all of the instruments used in the Bransles up until this point (except the castanets) and all of the various permutations of H1 as well as the complete twelve-tone row, not to mention several rhythmic motives which were heard previously (such as the grace-note rhythm from the Bransle gay).

The Bransle double is opposite the Bransle gay in that the first section presents the row in a linear fashion, rather than a vertical one. The two violins are paired and play the row P10 in octaves/unison (mm.336-339), followed by the row RI10 (mm.340-343). During these presentations of the complete row, the trumpet and trombone are playing the second hexachord of P1. Each instrument plays a trichord with repetitions. For example, the trombone plays Bb-B-Db and the trumpet plays D-E-A. Click for Sound Example 5.

The recurrence of repeated notes and ties unifies all three of the movements. Hearing a trichord or two trichords repeated so many times against a twelve-tone row is almost the same as having a castanet ostinato.

In the middle section of the Bransle double movement, beginning in m.352, Stravinsky juxtaposes subsets of both hexachords of the row. The positioning of the pitches is much more chordal than the opening. Through instrumental texture and layering, Stravinsky emphasizes the first hexachord (H1) more heavily than its complement (H2) (see figure 5). In one case, he uses mirror image to surround the H1 statement on either side with statements of H2 (see mm.356-360). The complementary hexachord (H2) is understated by the lower stringed instruments using single pitches. The statements of the first hexachord (H1), on the other hand, are quite dense in terms of sound. This is due partially to the abundance of instruments playing these pitches, but also because of Stravinsky's thicker voicing. The only instance in which H2 grabs the listener's attention is in mm.302-304, where it is stated by many instruments. This passage, which can be likened to a cadential six-four chord preceding a cadenza, heralds the return of the opening section (the linear statement of P10 follows in the next measure).

It is not surprising that Stravinsky's use of the twelve-tone system within the Bransles of Agon point toward his model, Anton Webern. His use of paired instruments, his propensity for miniature-sized movements, and his experimentation with permutations resulting in mirror image all illustrate that Stravinsky admired the work of Webern. Several years would pass before he would comfortably synthesize the technique of twelve-tone writing into his own personal composing style. However, even amidst this time of transition and compositional refinement, Stravinsky's music boasted a distinct sound of its own, particularly in terms of its rhythm and instrumentation.