Is this the first American Ballet to feature the saxophone?

Digging into American repertoire leads me to new and unique pieces. Skyscrapers (1926) by John Alden Carpenter is a ballet every saxophonist should acquaint themselves with. Here’s the unique story on how Skyscrapers: A Ballet of Modern American Life came to be.

John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) wrote Skyscrapers in 1923-24. His friendship with Sergey Prokofiev led him to reach out to Sergei Diaghilev, the influential choreographer who founded Ballet Russes to stage his ballet. Diaghilev and Prokofiev felt the music lacked the substance and disliked the subject matter. The ballet evokes “throw-back to negro plantation life,”[1] and Diaghilev requested the scenes to be cut. Carpenter refused and Diaghilev abandoned the project.

The Metropolitan Opera picked up the ballet to stage in their 1925-26 season. The Met was led by Otto H. Kahn, who commissioned works by American artists and composers. For this ballet, Kahn hired Frank H. Wilson to lead a choir of African American singers. Wilson was the first African American singer to be credited in the program in the Metropolitan Opera’s history. The New York Amsterdam News noted “This will be the first time, to our knowledge, that our people ever had the opportunity of appearing at the Metropolitan and it is natural that we should wish all hands luck in this new undertaking.”[2] Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Opera continued it’s legacy of ignoring African American talent and cast white singers to perform in blackface for Johnny Spielt Auf in 1929 and The Emperor Jones in 1933.[3] It wasn’t until 1955 the stage fulling integrated with the arrival of Marian Andersen in a principal role in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. It took another 70 years for the Metropolitan Opera to discontinue the use of blackface in all of their productions in 2015.

Robert Edmond Jones, set designs for Skyscrapers (1926)

Skyscrapers is representative of industrial age music, music that attempts to capture the energy and sound of the city. In this ballet, Carpenter uses three saxophones to evoke modernity. The sound of Skyscrapers is a mix of neo-classicist like Stravinsky, with the popular musical influences of Broadway. This is one of the first ballet that attempts to capture the sound of the city, but other composers like Gershwin, Chavez, and Copland follow in Carpenter’s footsteps. The set design for the ballet evokes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which premiered the following year in 1927.

The ballet received positive praise when it premiered, but the dated imagery of the plantation life fell out of favor and the ballet was dropped from the repertoire after it’s 1930 season. I can’t find any performances of the ballet, but the music still gets performed. For more listening, check out John Alden Carpenter’s 1921 jazz pantomine, Krazy Kat, based on the popular cartoon. Krazy Kat includes the alto saxophone in it’s score.

[1] Carolyn Guzski, “Harlem Renaissance Man: Frank Wilson at the Metropolitan Opera,” American Music Review, vol. 45, 1, (2015) Brooklyn, NY.

[2] “American Ballet by Negroes at Opera House,” New York Amsterdam News , 17 February (1926), pg. 5.

[3] https://www.metopera.org/discover/archives/black-voices-at-the-met/part-1-section-1/

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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