• John Harbison
  • Ulysses (1983)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 3(pic).3(ca)3(ssx,Ebcl,bcl).3(cbn)/
  • 1 hr 25 min

Programme Note

Composer note:
The full-length ballet Ulysses consists of two acts, entitled "Ulysses' Raft" and "Ulysses' Bow." Each act is composed of five scenes, preceded by interludes. The interludes are intended to be rendered as friezes or shadow plays.


Prelude: Ulysses' voyage begins. The music introduces two prominent strands, associated later with the travels of Ulysses and his crew, and with Penelope waiting at Ithaca.

Scene I: Polyphemus. Ulysses' sailors explore Polyphemus' cave. The monster appears (characterized by the tuba) and rolls a stone in front of the cave entrance, trapping the sailors. When the monster finally subsides, having devoured some of Ulysses’ crew, they get him drunk. Then they blind him with a huge stake, and he rages helplessly. Hanging upside down beneath Polyphemus' sheep, the sailors escape (the monster releases the sheep, feeling their backs as they pass). Realizing the deception, he flings a giant boulder into the sea (final chord).

Interlude I: Aeolus' winds released. The overly curious sailors open a leather bag contining winds confined there by the god Aeolus. They are blown off course, then becalmed.

Scene II: Circe. The enchantress Circe is discovered among her animals. Her song (ondes martinot and tuned percussion) attracts the sailors, who are transformed into animals by her spell. The men-beasts languish in confusion until Ulysses appears. Her charms are pitted against his will. The men are translated back, but Ulysses becomes enchanted with Circe.

Interlude II: Penelope at her weaving. Penolope weaves, and secretly unweaves a shroud for Ulysses' father as a way of putting off her suitors. Superimposed, Ulysses continuing his voyage.

Scene III: The Land of Shades. To communicate with Ulysses the departed must drink the sacrificial blood. This ritual preceds each of four encounters. Tiresias, the seer, predicts Ulysses' fate and that of his followers. Then follows the procession of great women (violins and contrabasses) and the procession of heroes (brass dominating). Finally Agammemnon enacts his homecoming--his murder by his wife and her lover (long viola-cello melody).

Interlude III. Sea perils and shipwreck. The sailors continue their journey, passing the Sirens and their seductive song (saxophone and andes), the swallowing and regurgitating monster Chaybdis (horns) and the six headed yelping Scylla (trumpets and trombones), but are finally destroyed by Zeus’ thunderbolt, Ulysses alone surviving.

Scene IV. Calypso. Ulysses has been long on Calypso's island, and wishes to travel on. She is unable to fascinate him any more (high strings, oboe solo). Hermes, the messenger God, brings his release (violins with flutes) and all three build the raft for his departure.

Interlude IV. Ulysses' raft. Ulysses embarks alone and begins his struggle with the sea-god Neptune. Neptune finally destroys the raft and Ulysses is washed up on a beach on the island of the Phaiakians.

Scene V. Nausicaa. Nausicaa, the Phaiakian princess, plays ball on the beach with her friends. Their errant toss rolls to the sleeping Ulysses, all flee but the princess. Ulysses and Nausicaa get acquainted, she reticent, he less so. She summons her friends, they bathe and clothe the stranger. The king and his court appear. Ritual games begin (percussion) culminating in a race. Then the Harper brings the chronicle of the Trojan War (woodwinds and harp) which so moves Ulysses (cello) that he reveals himself. All consecrate his final voyage. offering a hymn to Zeus.

(NB Scene V. has been heavily revised and cut since the 1984 score and tape)


Prelude: The curtain is down, the music is premonitious of things to come, left to be completed.

Scene I: Ulysses Returns to Ithaca. The long, despondent, English-horn solo suggests that Ulysses' return, after such a struggle, still opens a long road ahead. To better carry toward his purposes, he disguises himself as a beggar (in a passage dominated by oboes and bassoons).

An eventual choreographer may wish to test this disguise on the Shepherd, who has not seen his master for twenty years, and whose bucolic accents are also present in the music. Finally, Ulysses' son, Telemachus, his crucial ally in his struggle to reclaim his own, joins his father. This string music may suggest the sea voyages from which both have just returned.

The conclusion of the scene is their oath (woodwind concertino with dark final punctuations).

Interlude I. Ulysses and Argos. Ulysses' old hunting dog, Argos, recognizes his master with his last breath.

Scene II. The Suitors. In the absence of their king, the suitors have made free with everything belonging to Ulysses, except, so far, his wife, Penelope, who holds them off. They have taken over his great hall. They dance an off-center tarantella, which is a dance of death, though they don't know that yet. Ulysses, in his beggar disguise, is among them. Midway through their revels, Penelope appears to show herself to them apparently promising some resolution. They are momentarily subdued, but gradually their mania rebuilds, and with it, mockery of the beggar represented by music from Scene I.

Interlude II. The Suitors Sleep. While the suitors sleep, Ulysses and Telemachus bear their arms out of the hall.

Scene III. Penelope. Penelope, alone, weaves and unweaves the shroud of Ulysses' father. The upper strings are shadowed by sustaining woodwinds. Her delaying tactic is ending, she must complete the shroud and decide on a suitor. She has summoned the Beggar. Does she know it is Ulysses? The music of this meeting, a long violin melody, suggests that beneath the surface she does, but the form must be observed; she must first furnish him the means for his revenge. While she departs for this purpose, Ulysses' old nurse Erakleia recognizes him (a sudden scherzo) and must be quelled and sworn to secrecy. Penelope returns with Ulysses' longbow (solo trumpet). The solution is ready.

Interlude III. Penelope's Dream. Penelope dreams of an avenging eagle.

Scene IV. The Trial of the Bow. The suitors again dominate the great hall. With great solemnity, Penelope and Telemachus bring in Ulysses' bow. He that strings it will marry her. Three of the leading suitors try and fail.
Slowly Ulysses-beggar emerges from the crowd. Telemachus bolts the doors. The pace of the action stretches (like a bow?) as he takes it, strings it, and measures his next move. His first shot kills the principal suitor (the suitor's opening music is here more violent). With Telemachus he takes vengeance on all.

Interlude IV. The Ritual of Purification. Ulysses and Te1emachus wash off the suitors' blood and are invested with new robes.

Scene V. Reunion. Ulysses and Penelope are brought together by Erakleia and Telemachus. In the final sequence they are alone.

— John Harbison