Choreographers using symphonies as ballet scores had long been controversial. The first was Leonide Massine who, in 1933, aroused considerable debate by his use of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony for Les Présages and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony for Choreartium. In 1939, he had used Shostakovich’s First Symphony for Rouge et noir, with a scenario about Man and his Destiny. Few followed in his footsteps and by 1963 the symphonic ballet was out of fashion. Whatever MacMillan may have felt about revisiting a defunct idiom, he was under pressure to produce a steady stream of work for the Covent Garden stage. He turned for advice to John Lanchbery, who suggested Shostakovich’s first symphony, written in 1926 when the composer was 19.
Unlike Massine’s version, MacMillan’s was - ostensibly - plotless and, unlike Massine, Macmillan did not seek to lay the score out on stage with a close equivalence between dancers and individual instruments of the orchestra. In some ways Symphony resembled MacMillan’s own 1961 ballet Diversions, the idiom similarly neo-classical. As in Diversions, there were two lead couples and a group of soloists (here, three subsidiary couples); however, Symphony had a full corps de ballet.
Despite the lack of stated plot, it was easy to imply relationships among the dancers. Sibley, lying sphinx-like on the floor was confronted first by MacLeary, then by Doyle. A pas de deux converted to a pas de trois, leaving the second woman outside the triangle. There were forceful traverses for the corps, in Clive Barnes’ words, “when Shostakovich says jump, they all jump”. Throughout, Barnes wrote for Dance and Dancers, “there is a feeling of lovers in innocence and lovers in experience. At times the ballet might well be about loss of virginity, at others loss of identification, at others still loss of human contact. This desolate undertow finds its final expression in the closing sculptural group. Here you find the two men locked in a sort of combat, with the ‘Sibley’ girl emerging from the group with her empty arms outstretched for contact, and the ‘Parkinson’ girl at the back, her arms raised aloft in despair or even horror”.
This last figure may even have stood for MacMillan himself. In an interview beforehand with the Covent Garden Friends’ magazine About the House, MacMillan had said “The more I look at my work, the more it seems that, unwittingly, I choose the lonely, outcast, rejected figure: The Invitation, Rite of Spring, Solitaire, Le Baiser de la Fée. I don’t set out to do it, but it always seems to happen unconsciously – as a sort of leitmotif. It will be interesting to see if it emerges in the new work.”
The designer Yolanda Sonnabend had been introduced to MacMillan by her mentor Nicholas Georgiadis; her designs for Symphony, vast painterly backdrops, had afterimages of Georgiadis’s previous designs for The Invitation (1961); “The soft floating backcloths are gorgeous splashes of colour”, wrote Mary Clarke in the 1964 Ballet Review, “but her costumes, although serviceable for dancing, are unattractive and unbecoming, robbing their wearers of character”. Peter Williams, writing for Dance and Dancers, thought the “lack of relation between costumes and settings curious from a talented painter.” (Sonnabend modified the designs when Symphony returned to the repertory in 1975).
There were illnesses among the cast; Antoinette Sibley was a last-minute replacement for Lynn Seymour, who had flu, while Donald MacLeary had a knee operation during rehearsals. Nonetheless, Clive Barnes was fulsome about the first night. “With its incandescent excitement contrasted with its sudden shafts of inexplicably desolate poetry, Symphony is a work of obvious distinction”, he wrote in The Times. Less warm was The Observer’s Alexander Bland. “The choreographic design is never clear. The principals don’t form, either as individuals or pairs, strongly characterised motifs.” The Guardian’s review (unsigned) was tepid; “neo-classical dance, laced admittedly with some MacMillanesque contortions but apparently unencumbered by any purpose save that of catching the mood and the rhythm of the music in apposite dance”.
Several years later, there was an intriguing back-reference by James Kennedy of The Guardian. When, eventually, Song of the Earth came to be staged at Covent Garden, he characterised MacMillan’s classic as ‘the marvellous fruition’ of such ‘half-baked experiments’ as Symphony.