twentieth-century music


Jazzing a Classic: Hylton and Stravinsky's Mavra at the Paris Opéra



This article focuses upon an arrangement of part of Stravinsky's Mavra made for the British dance-band leader Jack Hylton (1892–1965), which, on its presentation at the Paris Opéra in 1931, marked a notable, yet ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at ‘jazzing a classic’. For the French critic Pierre Leroi the failure was a direct consequence of combining different musics (‘La confusion de genres aboutit toujours à un résultat mauvais’). But while the ‘contest’ of style and genre undoubtedly played its part in the negative critical reception of the transcription, the reasons for its failure were not entirely straightforward.

Drawing on Fauconnier and Turner's models of ‘conceptual blending’ and their recent applications in theories of musical ‘multimedia’, I compare Stravinsky's source and the Hylton band's jazz translation in terms of their intrinsic musical ‘attributes’, their relationship, and their potential emergent meanings. The exercise identifies commonalities and discrepancies, revealing problems with the original, the reworkings, and the resulting performances. The main issue is, however, not so much one of mixture (‘confusion’) as of imbalance between the elements invoked: ultimately, it is argued, Hylton's reading was insufficiently ‘jazzique’.

Deborah Mawer is Professor of Music at Lancaster University. She works on twentieth-century French music, especially music–dance and classical–jazz interactions. She is the author of Darius Milhaud: Modality and Structure in Music of the 1920s (Scolar Press, 1997) and The Ballets of Maurice Ravel: Creation and Interpretation (Ashgate, 2006) and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Ravel and Ravel Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2000 and 2010). Her articles and reviews have appeared in a wide range of journals, including the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Music & Letters, Music Analysis, Music Theory Online, Opera Quarterly, and the British Journal of Music Education.

This article was presented in an earlier version as an invited seminar at the Institute of Musical Research, University of London, October 2007, and has benefited from feedback from Katharine Ellis, Nigel Simeone, Andy Fry, and others. The article emerges from a research project, ‘Jack Hylton and France’, undertaken in spring 2007 at the Jack Hylton Archive (JHA), Lancaster University. It is a sister article to Deborah Mawer, ‘“Parisomania”? Jack Hylton and the French Connection’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 133/2 (2008), 270–317, which identifies the discrete topic of ‘Hylton, Stravinsky and the Opéra’ (293–8) and makes mention of this complementary and more detailed study (295n). I am grateful for funding from Lancaster University and PALATINE, for the support of Helen Clish at Lancaster's Rare Books Archive (which houses the Hylton collection), and for the excellent contribution of my research assistant, Adam Greig. I am also appreciative of Peter Faint's groundwork in his 1998 dissertation ‘Jack Hylton: His Life in Music’.