Modernist Mysteries: Perséphone

"Stunningly erudite, beautifully written, sensitive to musical, discursive and human detail, Levitz' Modernist Mysteries is cultural history at its very best, rewriting completely what we think we know about 'neoclassical' modernism–in mid-20th-century Europe."

—Suzanne G Cusick
Professor of Music, NYU

The myth of Perséphone tells a story of death and rebirth. Hades, abducts Perséphone, goddess of spring, into the underworld, where she succumbs to his charms by biting the pomegranate seeds he offers her. Zeus, heeding the pleas of Perséphone's grieving mother Demeter, sends Hermes to fetch Perséphone back. She returns to the earth for one-third of the year, remaining queen of the dead for the remaining two thirds. As a mature goddess, she thus possesses a rare dual knowledge of life and death, her regenerative power metaphorically linked to the image of the grain, the seasons, and the invention of agriculture. In Modernist Mysteries: Perséphone, Levitz presents a microhistorical analysis of the premiere of the melodrama Perséphone (a hybrid stage work based on the myth of Perséphone) at the Paris Opéra on 30 April 1934. This work spectacularly failed in spite of its illustrious roster of celebrity collaborators: the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, the exotic Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, the eminent French writer André Gide, the renowned French stage director Jacques Copeau, and exiled German choreographer Kurt Jooss. Through their collaboration, these artists articulated their most deeply held beliefs about religion, sexuality, death, and cultures of grief and historical memory in art. The aesthetic and intent each of them brought to the collaboration was often at complete variance, even fundamentally conflicting, with the aesthetic and intent of the others. In the course of investigating the aesthetic and political consequences of their diverging perspectives, and the fall-out of their titanic clash on the theater stage, Levitz dismantles myths about neoclassicism as a musical style. The end result of her in-depth engagement with this collaborative work is a revisionary account of modernism in music in the 1930s.