After beginning his career as a very Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky became an international composer in at least two very different ways.
First, he decided never to return to Russia after the Revolution of 1917. Although he lived in France, he traveled a lot. By the time he moved to the United States in 1939, he had already made numerous contacts.
Second, he opened himself to influences from all over the world.
Despite the French title, Stravinsky wrote Jeu de cartes (Card Game) on commission from American choreographer George Balanchine and the newly formed American Ballet in 1936. By that time, he had been writing in his neoclassical style for more than fifteen years.
Critics notice a flagging of inspiration in his works of the 1930s. It may have resulted from ill health, family tragedies, anxiety over the rise of Hitler, and the feeling that the French no longer appreciated his music.
If Jeu de cartes is not among Stravinsky’s most profound works, it is certainly among his most fun. Even before Balanchine approached him with the commission, he had contemplated writing a piece based on poker, his favorite game. The work has the subtitle “a ballet in three deals.”
Each deal opens with the same music, which bears a not-coincidental resemblance to the “fate” motto from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
In the first two deals, the Joker, a card that certainly does not belong in poker, dominates the action. He can disguise himself as any other card, at one point becoming a fourth Ace to defeat a hand of four Queens. If he doesn’t win the hand, at least he causes a lot of confusion. In the last deal, however, he is promptly vanquished by a royal flush in hearts.
Given the ominous condition of international politics, perhaps the music has the subtext of good overcoming evil, as represented by the Joker. Stravinsky had earlier portrayed the same idea in L’histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale).
As Balanchine described the plot, the highest cards represent the most important people in society, who can at least occasionally suffer defeat at the hands of smaller cards.
Stravinsky lets none of these philosophical undertones get in the way of a good time. References to staples of the standard repertoire abound.
These include Beethoven’s Fifth and Eighth Symphonies, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, and snippets from Ravel, Delibes, Tchaikovsky. He also appropriates some of his own earlier works.
In most cases, Stravinsky subjects his appropriated music to the kinds of distortions typical of his neoclassical style.
On the other hand, he presents Beethoven’s “fate” motto not only rhythmically altered in the “dealing” music, but nearly unchanged at the end of the ballet. The third deal also contains a nearly verbatim quotation from the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
The American Ballet didn’t last very long, and Jeu de cartes never joined the repertoire of another company. If it hasn’t been seen often on stage, though, it has delighted concert audiences for more than sixty years.