Summer and Smoke - Ballet in One Act | Michael Daugherty, composer

Summer and Smoke
Ballet in One Act (2023)

based on the 1948 play by Tennessee Williams

Music: Michael Daugherty
Choreography: Cathy Marston

Commissioned by Houston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre
World premiere by Houston Ballet on March 9, 2023
Duration: one hour

The music for Summer and Smoke was composed in 2022-23 for the ballet choreographed by Cathy Marston, inspired by the Tennessee Williams 1948 play of the same title.

Set in Mississippi at the turn of the century, the play revolves around an affair between two mismatched lovers. As a religious minister’s daughter, Alma is associated with a spiritual world of the soul, while John is a flirtatious young doctor associated with the physical world of the body. In the interaction with each other, their roles are eventually reversed and transformed.

To amplify these different worlds, I alternate between “tonal” and “atonal” musical landscapes throughout the ballet. While the music I have composed responds to a narrative, the characters and events are transformed through musical abstraction that expresses different emotions simultaneously.

I associate different leitmotifs (melodies or musical fragments) and timbres (instruments of the orchestra) with the various characters. Alma is associated with flute/piccolo, and John with the clarinet/trumpet. Rose, who seduces John, is characterized by percussion. Alma’s unhinged mother is depicted by the bass clarinet and bassoons in demented, “whole tone scale” waltzes. The tuba is associated with a traveling salesman, who has a rendezvous with Alma in the final scene. The stone angel, who observes and participates in the ballet, is heard as a harp.

In addition I incorporate turn-of-the-century American musical idioms, including carnival music, a march, and an old Baptist hymn. Entitled “Shall We Gather at the River,” the hymn is first played on the piano during a church meeting conducted by Alma’s father. I selected this hymn because it describes how water can purify the soul and because it includes the line, “where bright angel feet have trod,” as the story begins and ends near an outdoor fountain adorned by the stone angel.

The melody of the hymn and the musical leitmotifs I have composed are contrapuntally developed through various orchestrations and layering of melodies and polyrhythms, reflecting the transformative story of Summer and Smoke.

~Michael Daugherty

Choreographer Cathy Marston and composer Michael Daugherty in Chicago discussing Summer and Smoke ballet (2019)
Photo credit: Yopie Prins