Little Honey and Isabelle have seen three of Tchaikovsky’s ballets this year!
They would have seen more, but Tchaikovsky only composed three! 🙂
Swan Lake is the most performed piece in the classical ballet repertoire and during the course of its 141-year history it has been reinvented, reappropriated, made-over, dumbed-down and spruced-up more than any other work in the canon of the art form.
One of the outstanding composers of the late 19th century and the best known of all Russian composers, Tchaikovsky had a genius for creating melodies, a mastery of musical structure, and a highly developed sense of musical drama that enabled him to reach directly into the hearts of his listeners.
Almost all of Tchaikovsky’s music, not just his three ballets, is imbued with theatricality and the qualities of dance, especially in its rhythmic energy, vivid melody and emotional clarity. His symphonies, concertos, tone poems, orchestral suites, chamber music, and even songs have all made fine ballet scores. While there are reinterpretations aplenty, there is one constant that binds them all together: the heart-wrenchingly romantic music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
The Russian musical giant wrote just three ballet scores, and the indestructible popularity of Swan Lake is matched only by the success of its two siblings, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. With just this trio of works, Tchaikovsky is immovably cemented as the most influential and popular composer of ballet music who ever lived.
These three 19th century masterpieces have virtually no rivals among other choreographic works for enduring popularity, and as perpetual crowd pleasers they are a no-brainer for programmers. But while they may be a box office certainty today, guaranteed to fill the house, the global demand for Tchaikovsky’s unanimously adored ballets is a 20th century phenomenon. The premieres of both Swan Lake and The Nutcracker were abysmally received, and while The Sleeping Beauty faired better, reviews for its first performance were decidedly mixed. The notion that the world’s most loved ballets could ever be panned might seem preposterous today, but Tchaikovsky’s music, now so evocative of all things ballet, was a radical departure from the accepted norms of the period.
Pre-Tchaikovsky, composers specialising almost exclusively in ballet music, such as the official composer of the St Petersburg Imperial Ballet, Ludwig Minkus, had set the expectations of 19th century audiences at a far more modest level than the sumptuously orchestrated scores we are familiar with today. Ballet was intended to be a visual spectacle of technical prowess, with compelling drama taking a back seat to the public demand for impressively executed divertissements. As such, the accompanying score was required to have a distinct functionality, allowing the dancers to move from one display of balletic virtuosity to the next, sometimes with little consideration for narrative relevance. Light, decorative and rhythmically unambiguous music was the status quo for the ballet stage.
However, while ballet composers had clung to the notion that the music should serve a specific choreographic criteria, the emotional hyperbole and ambitious scope of Romanticism had allowed concert music to wrestle free of traditional conformity in order to explore the extremities of human feeling in bold and innovative new ways. Tchaikovsky, a composer on the front line of this Romantic revolution, had worked hard to build his musical reputation, and while by 1875 his love of writing opera had yet to be rewarded with any significant acclaim, his instrumental and orchestral works, such as the Piano Concerto No 1 in B Flat Minor, and his first three symphonies had attracted the attention of the Russian cultural elite.
Tchaikovsky is one of the greatest melody writers who ever lived and a genius of orchestration. Through his wealth of symphonic writing and his understanding of the orchestra as an instrument of colour, he took the telling of the story in a full length ballet to a whole new level. With Swan Lake he changed the course of ballet music history.
Tchaikovsky used every musical device (major keys, minor keys, rhythm, instruments, orchestration, etc) to reflect the inner emotion and psychology of the character. He understood that there are places where the dancers need to show off, and that the focus needs to be on them, so the music doesn’t detract from that. Then there are really symphonic moments where the music, through use of keys and rhythm and orchestration and complexity, takes over the storytelling.
From the moment the curtain goes up in Swan Lake, even the overture encapsulates the kind of story it will be. Up until then, overtures had been happy little dancy numbers which were about getting the audience settled. Swan Lake starts with a really dramatic theme, firstly in an oboe. It is actually an inversion of the famous swan theme that comes at the end of Act I in the Flight of the Swans and at the start of Act II, and which comes to its final tragic resolution at the end of Act IV. It already sets the scene for something really sad, really mournful. You immediately know we’re not in for a happy little ballet, just from the way Tchaikovsky uses every musical device, from tempo to melody to harmonic changes.
The score of Swan Lake is totally miraculous in the context of ballet music of that period. That a ballet score should warrant the same artistic reverence as the choreography was a radical notion in itself, and perhaps because of this fractious relationship between Julius Reisinger (the first choreographer of Swan Lake) and Tchaikovsky, the original presentation of Swan Lake, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, was viewed as unimaginative, poorly conceived and badly executed by both the dancers and the pit-orchestra. Some accounts of that first performance recognise the calibre of the music, but largely it was branded overly complicated and unnecessarily symphonic for ballet. Thus, unquestionably a pivotal moment in the history of ballet and the first public hearing of Tchaikovsky’s remarkable score was an unmitigated debacle.
Luckily, far from abandoning the genre and leaving it in the hands of specialist composers, Tchaikovsky became convinced that a marriage between great choreography and great music was possible. A year later in 1878 Tchaikovsky engaged in a heated exchanged with Sergei Taneyev, his protégé, in defence of ballet music. “I absolutely do not understand why you cannot reconcile yourself to what you call ballet music. Do you imply that in ballet music there are only happy and rhythmic dancing melodies? I do not understand what it is in ballet music that could make you conclude that it should be censured. Ballet music is not always banal – sometimes it is good.” This passionate rebuke is a clear indication of Tchaikovsky’s growing reverence for dance, but it would be a decade before one of his most important collaborations would yield The Sleeping Beauty, in 1888.
Approached by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky eagerly accepted the commission to create a new ballet based on Charles Perrault’s fable, La Belle au Bois Dormant. For this work Tchaikovsky would find the guidance and support he lacked during the creation of Swan Lake from the ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet, the father of classical narrative choreography, Marius Petipa.
Frustratingly for the composer, the production was the focus of some unfavourable reviews, and although it wasn’t as harshly judged as Swan Lake, criticisms of The Sleeping Beauty’s premiere in 1890 ranged from objections to the juvenile, fairy-tale plot, to the over the top decadence of the lavish sets, and, as had been the case for its predecessor, the “symphonic” nature of the score.
Still, in 1891, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the music for The Nutcracker. The premiere season of Tchaikovsky’s third ballet was another dreadful flop. His three ballets had been three failures, and while an orchestral suite from The Nutcracker, and concert performances of the score for The Sleeping Beauty were both highly lauded during his lifetime, Tchaikovsky would not live to see his balletic works become the global smash-hits they are today.
Despite their inauspicious beginnings, however, it is hard to overstate the seismic influence of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, not only on the development of the art form in Russia, but across the world. In the decade following Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, popularity for The Sleeping Beauty grew steadily, until it became the most performed piece in the repertory of the Mariinsky Ballet. However it wasn’t until the great ballet pioneer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes championed Swan Lake in 1911 and The Sleeping Beauty in 1921 in Europe that Tchaikovsky’s visionary approach to composing for dance would be truly recognised on a global scale.
It is impossible now to think of ballet without thinking about Tchaikovsky, and the reason why these ballets are so popular today is because of Tchaikovsky’s scores.
His genius is in the drama and the story telling, which is so clear in the music. The instruments of an orchestra are like the paints on an artist’s palette: which colours are chosen and how they are combined is vital to the mood and character of the finished work. The drama of the stories and the characters that inhabit them in Tchaikovsky’s ballets are ideal for description through instrumental colour as much as through harmony, rhythm and melody. And Tchaikovsky’s use of orchestral ‘colours’ plays a big part in making these scores so exciting and engaging.
Swan Lake’s iconic theme “Flight of the Swans” first appears at the end of Act I. As the harp springs to life, Tchaikovsky writes a particularly challenging stage direction in the manuscript score: “A flock of swans appears in the air.” According to the libretto, Siegfried spots the swans with his friend Benno and decides to hunt them. On his midnight expedition he finds Odette and the flock of swans as they momentarily regain their human forms. Tchaikovsky’s use of melodic contour and the light and shade of his harmonies are powerfully evocative of the cursed flock. The melody unfolds and rises with increasing bursts of effort, like a swan struggling to rise into the air. At first, the melody could hardly be simpler. Based around a melancholy minor chord, it starts at the top, then jumps down to the first note and climbs back up. The phrase is repeated while the strings collapse in shuddering, chromatic tremolos (rapid scrubbing of the bow on the strings).
The second phrase unfurls a little higher. The brighter second phrase has three ascents, each reaching a little higher. But Tchaikovsky uses the rest of the orchestra to send a contrasting message. As the oboe rises, the cellos and double basses gradually descend in a lamenting bass line. If your stomach isn’t churning at the quivering strings, yearning oboe, and dying basses, the strings end the second phrase by scrubbing out two strongly dissonant chords that are resolved by the diabolically triumphant brass.
The Arabian Dance in The Nutcracker is a perfect example of how instrumentation makes musical ideas clear. Its Orientalist fantasy is conjured up through several elements that each have their own tonal quality. A repeating, rhythmic bass begins with low strings of cellos and violas, later with muted double basses. A first melody twists its way up like rising smoke. This is played by muted violins with ‘much expression’ to sound smooth and sensuous. A second languorous melody, written for a solo oboe, floats down through a series of gracious curves. A little punctuating phrase for predominantly low woodwind sound of clarinets with cor anglais decorates the changes of section. Flute chords and a tambourine rhythm add more decoration around these central elements. The contrast of timbres and pitches makes each part of the music stand out on its own while still complementing the others.
Different timbres can also evoke specific characters. In Act III of The Sleeping Beauty, Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat are two of the fairytale guests. They dance a pas de deux in which their identity is described in sound. The opening phrase is a musical version of a cats ‘miaow’, with the reedy quality of oboes and bassoons imitating the penetrating animal tone. Tremolo strings that follow (with a little pizzicato explosion at the start of the sound) tell us that nervous suspense is in the air. In fact, the pas de deux is a stylized chase by one cat of another, with feline jumps, twitching whiskers and ears in the choreography synchronized with the music.
A more sustained quality of motion is conveyed in the Dance of the Snowflakes in The Nutcracker. At the start, the orchestration depicts lightness and flurry: swift breaths of flutes and piccolo are echoed by a shimmer of cellos, intensifying in frequency and length as the snowflakes appears in greater quantities. With the waltz fully under way, a sustained melody is made distinctive through unexpected children’s voices, not singing as characters but as another quality of sound in its own right.
The use of the full orchestra is one of the thrills of both these ballet scores, and even here Tchaikovsky’s lets us hear individuality too. The Overture to The Nutcracker is a big effect on a small scale. Upper strings are used and woodwind are pitched high in their ranges – no cellos or double basses, and no blaring trombones. A ringing triangle emphasizes the high frequencies. It’s a full orchestra – but a toy one to match the theme and scale of this Christmas Eve adventure.
The Prelude to The Sleeping Beauty is of an entirely different order. It’s as full as you like from the start: a dramatic attention-grabbing theme, interspersed with strident brass. The harps are the only instruments not playing in the opening bars – the sound is too loud and aggressive for their delicate, ringing quality. Yet in the second section, harp arpeggios sweep magically over the repeating low notes of the strings to introduce the flowing Lilac Fairy theme on flutes and clarinets. As this section builds, all of the violins, cellos and violas play the main theme together – a glorious, soaring sound where Tchaikovsky uses as a whole orchestral group as though it was just one big solo. You’d think nothing could top that, but Tchaikovsky finds a way: trumpets! And the Prelude concludes with a glorious fanfare over shimmering chords of strings, woodwind and harps. It’s another huge orchestral sound – and so different from the one that began the Prelude.
Whether on the scale of just a single instrumental line, a small group or the entire orchestra, Tchaikovsky knew how to use all the potential of orchestral sounds to animate the drama, direct our ears and – with these great ballet scores – complement our eyes.