BRIEF PROGRAMME NOTE
The ballet, on the theme of a warlike game of chess, never fails to capture the imagination with its struggle between the opposing forces of Love and Death. It was originally choreographed by Ninette de Valois.
Checkmate was written at the request of the Sadler's Wells Ballet for their visit to Paris in 1937. Bliss chose the game of Chess as the subject for his ballet and wrote his own scenario. It was choreographed by Dame Ninette de Valois who knew nothing about chess so Bliss had to explain the rules and show the characteristic moves of the pieces. In the original castlist it is interesting to note such names as Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn. The conductor was Constant Lambert.
1. Prologue - The Players. The mood of the ballet is set by the sombre opening prelude. As the curtain rises we see two players sitting motionless on a raised dais with a chessboard between them. The Golden Player removes his visor disclosing the features of Love. The Black Player slowly strips his gauntlet disclosing the skeleton arm of Death. They turn the board three times to see who makes the first move; Love wins and raises a red pawn to his heart. The lights dim and the curtains slowly close.
2. Dance of the Red Pawns. The curtain rises again and the stage is now set up as a giant chessboard. The Red Pawns enter in this predominantly buoyant and cheerful movement which contrasts strongly with the ominous threats of the prologue.
3. Dance of the Four Knights. The two Red Knights enter to a wide-leaping angular theme with prominent syncopated rhythms followed by the two Black Knights where a rushing semiquaver figure with prominent triplets are the main feature. The Red Knights challenge the Black Knights to a display of daring and the tension is brilliantly built up until a boldly defiant climax is reached and the Black Queen enters.
4. Entry of the Black Queen. Bliss shows a wide range of expression throughout the ballet, and contrasting with the hectic climax of the Knights' dance is the music of seductive beauty for the Black Queen played by the clarinet. The first Red Knight is hypnotised by her beauty and as she leaves the stage with her escort, she throws him a black rose.
5. The Red Knight's Mazurka. This is the only section of the ballet which bears the name of a formal dance as the Red Knight dances an exuberant solo. After a dramatic figure is played on the timpani three Red pawns enter carrying the banners of the Red Knights and then take up ceremonial positions to receive the two Red Bishops.
6. Ceremony of the Red Bishops. This follows without a break as a church bell anticipates the stately entry of the Bishops. It is a lyrical interlude well placed before the tension of the ballet begins to rise.
7. Entry of the Red Castles. The two Red Castles burst upon the stage with long strides. They represent the machinery of war and convey the impression that Force must be the final arbiter. During the final bars the Red Knights, Bishops and Pawns prepare for the arrival of the Red King and Queen whose approach is signalled by a fanfare figure on the brass.
8. Entry of the Red King and Queen. Without a break in the music the weak and feeble King enters accompanied by the Queen. They are the inadequate centrepieces of the Red line-up and make their way slowly to the throne at the back of the stage to music of wistful character and rhythmic instability. All the pieces have now assembled and the game may begin.
9. The Attack. begins in an exultant mood with brass fanfares and the sound of castanets giving an indication of the bustle at this early stage of the contest. The stage is alive with the intricate manoeuvres of the chess battle until a forceful climax is reached (brass figure over tremulo strings) as the Black Queen puts the Red King into Check. Helplessly, the King looks for assistance and summons up the Red Bishops (return of their stately theme) but are waved angrily aside by the Black Queen. The Red Queen implores the Black Queen to spare the King (plaintive oboe solo), but the Black Queen summons her Knights who carry the Red Queen away (return of the Knights' theme). The only piece who can now save the King is the Red Knight who (after a long pause held by timpani, cellos and basses) enters without a break on
10. The Duel. His heroic entrance is presented by the full orchestra. Red Knight and Black Queen circle round each other fighting, though the Knight is torn between his love for the Queen and a desire to destroy her. After a fierce duel the Knight's greater strength and mobility enables him to overcome her, she lies at his feet and at his mercy. But therein lies her strength and certainty of survival. She is apparently his helpless victim (return of the Black Queen's clarinet theme) and as the Knight hesitates to kill her, the sword slowly drops from his hands. He turns his back to the Queen and kneels before the Red King confessing that he could not kill her. As he kneels, the music becomes more violent. The Queen rises, follows him stealthily and plunges her knife into his back. The two players of the Prologue, Love and Death reappear as all the pieces except the Black Queen gather round the dead Knight and raise him on to their shoulders, accompanied only by the Cor Anglais cadenza of mourning. Death then leads the funeral procession with Love bringing up the rear. The Red King and Black Queen are now left alone.
11. The Black Queen Dances. The Queen dances a sinister tango-like movement while the Red King, in terror for his life, looks on with fascination. The Queen despises the old King's helplessness and leaves the stage with a gesture of savage triumph.
12. Finale - Checkmate. The Red King is now alone. A scurrying cello and bass pizzicato supporting a static woodwind line portrays the King's nervousness and terror of what is to come. He moves forward slowly to escape but suddenly a few black pieces enter and force him back. He tries another way but more black pieces appear. He prays and makes one last piteous attempt to gain safety but the stage is now flooded with black pieces and the final, unstoppable onslaught begins. This exciting climax to the ballet is full of bite and driving energy as the Red King now stands on the steps of his throne surrounded by his enemies, but as the moment of death approaches he has a vision of himself as a young and strong ruler (heroic brass fanfares and pounding drums). However the Black Queen enters and strikes the King with a spear. She lifts the crown from his head as the King falls dead into the circle of enemy lances and swords - CHECKMATE.
© Michael Bell