English National Ballet’s Wednesday Watch Party this evening features Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 ballet Song of the Earth. Set to Gustav Mahler’s symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, this online performance stars Tamara Rojo – ENB’s Artistic Director and Lead Principal – and Lead Principals Joseph Caley and Jeffrey Cirio, in the roles of a Woman, a Man and an enigmatic Messenger.
Song of the Earth is different from any other ballet which MacMillan had created. He blended the combination of Mahler’s music with Chinese poetry and his own unique style of choreography to create a modern classic of love, loss and death. The choreographer himself described it thus: ‘A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of the ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal’.
When The Royal Ballet declined MacMillan’s concept for the ballet, he turned to his friend John Cranko, director of the Stuttgart Ballet, who had extended an invitation to MacMillan to choreograph whatever he wanted. Thus it was that the Stuttgart Ballet premiered Song of the Earth in 1965 as part of a triple bill which also included MacMillan’s Danses Concertantes and a new Cranko work, Opus 1.
Mahler composed the work in 1908, after one of the worst periods in his life, in which he was forced to resign as Director of Vienna Court Opera, he lost his daughter, Maria, and he was diagnosed with a terminal heart defect. Having been sent a book of T’ang dynasty poems – “bitter-sweet reflections on human joys, concluding with a farewell to the world” – and loosely translated into German, Mahler was inspired to set them to music. The work is scored for two voices and orchestra, and in the words of ENB Music Director, Gavin Sutherland, combined the composer’s two great loves – the human voice and the song, and symphonic form.
This performance by English National Ballet was filmed at the Palace Theatre Manchester in October 2017 – the 25th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s death – with vocalists Rhonda Browne and Samuel Sakker and the English National Ballet Philharmonic, conducted by Gavin Sutherland.