Myth, representation, and the politics of reception in Elliott Carter's ballet Pocahontas (1939)
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Among other American compositions based on the myth of Pocahontas, Elliott Carter's ballet Pocahontas (1936-9) is an outlier. Commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for the Ballet Caravan, Pocahontas is one of only a few settings of the myth as a tragedy; in fact, it is one of the only works that interprets Pocahontas' death as representative of the "tragedy ofthe original Americans." This thesis explores the precedents for this reading of the Pocahontas myth by other American composers and writers. The Pocahontas myth, as national, historical subject matter for ballet, was an important aspect of Kirstein's vision in the establishment of an American ballet tradition. I therefore consider the history of dance in the United States in order to illuminate the significance of the Ballet Caravan's creative endeavors. In addition, I utilize primary documents, including Lincoln Kirstein's papers, Ballet Caravan souvenir programs, and a reproduction manuscript of Carter's Pocahontas in order to illuminate Kirstein's and Carter's tragic retelling of the Pocahontas myth. This thesis concludes with an analysis of the reception of Pocahontas, at its premiere. The reviews were highly negative and critics pitted it against another work on the program that critiques similar American values, Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid. Ultimately, this thesis is structured so as to better understand not only Kirstein's and Carter's tragic interpretation of the Pocahontas myth, but also the social, political, and musical context of the negative reception of Pocahontas.
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