On 15 February 1956, NSW Premier Joseph Cahill launched the international competition to build “a National Opera House at Bennelong Point, Sydney”. The project had began in earnest in 1954 when Cahill brought together a committee to begin work on procuring “an edifice that will be a credit to the state not only today but also for hundreds of years.”
It would take 17-and-a-half years from that date to complete the winning entry by Danish designer Jørn Utzon, which put Sydney on the world map.
The competition guidelines, known as the brown book, allowed architects to enter any number of drawings, so long as they were in black and white. No limit was set on the budget available to build the winning entry. It was noted entrants would need to allow space for at least 100 cars to park on site, mostly to accommodate the vehicles for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra members.
The competition attracted 233 entries from around the globe.
Eero Saarinen, an American-Finnish architect, served on the jury for the Sydney Opera House commission and was crucial in the selection of the now internationally known design by Jørn Utzon. Saarinen arrived late, and a jury which did not include him had discarded Utzon’s design in the first round. Saarinen reviewed the discarded designs, recognised a quality in Utzon’s design which had eluded the rest of the jury and ultimately assured for him the winning entry. Under the influence of Saarinen, the jury were emboldened, some might say bullied, into reaching for an ambitious “concept of an opera house which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world”.
The story goes that Saarinen was so influenced by Utzon’s design that he went back to the US and finalised his design for the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Premier Cahill announced the Utzon design as the winner on January 29, 1957. The day after, The Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed his estimated £3,500,000 entry “the cheapest to build” in its front page headline.
That estimate – about $7 million in today’s currency – turned into a final cost of $102 million.
Construction began in August 1958 with the demolition of the Fort Macquarie Tram sheds, which stood on Bennelong point.
By the time the building was opened on October 20, 1973, the fervour of the project had taken several turns which marred the otherwise spectacular design and technical achievements of the project: the unexpected death of Cahill, a change in state government, concerns about time delays and the political football of the budget, all amplified by the constant savage media swirl around the project.
By 1966, disputes erupted between Utzon and David Hughes, a bitter philistine and the Minister for Public Works with responsibility for the completion of the Sydney Opera House, over progress, leading ultimately to Utzon’s public and difficult resignation under enormous pressure. For behaving like a Trump, and being proven a liar, Hughes was rewarded with a number of political appointments and a knighthood in 1975. Hughes told Sydney Opera House Trust chairman Joseph Skrzynski: ‘I did Utzon a favour. I put him out of his misery like you put down a dog.’
Utzon’s popular and professional support in Sydney and internationally was passionate. Rallies in support of Utzon’s return to the project saw over 1,000 people marching on Parliament house on one occasion. But not everyone was supportive. Some residents of Sydney Harbour’s lower north shore complained that the new opera house was ruining their view.
The state government was keen to show progress and moved quickly to appoint a panel led by Peter Hall. In early 1966, Peter Hall was one of many architects who’d signed a petition calling on the NSW government to reinstate Utzon to the Opera House project. He accepted the job only after speaking with Utzon and establishing in his own mind that Utzon was unlikely to return.
Hall’s most clear contribution was coming up with the solution to the large glass walls on the northern façade.
It wasn’t long after Utzon’s departure in 1966, and possibly as a consequence of it, that another major decision was made that would haunt the project.
In June 1966, the ABC submited its detailed requirements for the Opera House’s concert hall. It called for adequate recording environment and seating for 2,800 people in a non-proscenium hall acoustically suitable for symphonic concerts. Brilliant timing to get detailed requirements half way through the project. So the main hall, originally intended for opera, turned into a symphony concert hall, and the smaller venue originally intended for drama theatre became the primary opera venue.
This compromise in the middle of construction added complexity to the project, as installation of the last (2,194th) precast shell unit of the famous sails had already been completed. The change forever plagued opera performances in the smaller space, which remains too cramped for the staging of many opera productions. Not to mention the crappy acoustics that makes the Sydney Opera House possibly the worst performance venue in Australia. But hey, it looks good.
Peter Hall made radical changes to the interior design, and the debate continues to this day over the relative worth of the Utzon and Peter Hall designs for the interior of the iconic building. According to Willy Hall, his father remained a great fan of Utzon’s work and only made changes when Utzon’s preliminary designs proved to be impractical. Jørn Utzon’s son Jan says both architects deserve to be “put on a pedestal” for their contributions to the building. Peter Hall died in 1995 at the age of 64, destitute and an alcoholic. His family sees him as a tragic victim of “that incredible building”.
The Sydney Opera House was opened on 20 October 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II. The architect was not present at the grand opening. He had left Australia, never to return, in April 1966. He was invited back for the 21st anniversary of the Opera House opening, but he declined.
The reclusive architect did agree to an interview, with Eric Ellis. ‘Just this once and to nobody else. I have a story and I think now is the right time to say it.’
Many people say the design as inspired by the sailing yachts in the harbour or by seashells. This was not the case. Utzon had never seen Sydney Harbour when he made the design, although he had seen photographs of the site and naval charts. He was taken with the Sydney Heads and he saw the Opera House as another Head, giving people a lookout over the picture-perfect ocean views of Sydney Harbour.
In this he was influenced by the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itza in Mexico. The Mayans made these platforms exactly the same height as the roof of the jungle and then they lived in another world, eight metres above the other one. Utzon had the same vision in mind for the Opera House.
Construction was well under way before Utzon finalised the design of the roof. Indeed, the piers needed to support the roof were sunk in place before the roof design was resolved. In Utzon’s original design the curves in space were complex and geometrically undefined. The engineers at Ove Arup’s could not find a geometry to define them without destroying the initial intent. Prowling through a shipyard, the curved hulls gave Utzon an idea, that the roof shells could be parts of a single sphere. He explained his idea by using an orange.
‘You peel an orange and you get these segments, these similar shapes. It was like this in my models.’
In 2004 Utzon accepted an invitation to collaborate on the redesign of the interiors of much of the building, resulting in the dedication of the Utzon room, and the beginnings of a reconciliation with the project that was so central to his life.
On Jørn Utzon’s death at age 90 in 2008, Frank Gehry, who was a juror for the 2003 Pritzker Prize won by Utzon, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying:
“Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinarily malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country.”
When it was declared a World Heritage Site on 28 June 2007, Utzon became only the second person to have received such recognition for one of his works during his lifetime (the first was Oscar Niemeyer for Brasilia).
While Sydney-siders and Australia gained one of the world’s most remarkable examples of modern-art-as-architecture, thanks to a Danish architect’s design and an American-Finnish architect’s recognition of the vision of that design, thanks to Australians like David Hughes, a great deal more was lost. In the words of Jørn Utzon:
‘There was this feeling of a new epoch, a new school in architecture, not just among our group but from other learned people in Europe and America. We were doing things in our time, in our way as we might have been Romans in their era, or the pyramids in Egypt.
‘People talk about how the pyramids were built and how marvellous they were but this was exactly the same thing, with industrial techniques, with fantastic constructions that were being invented and it was happening there in Australia … and nobody seemed to care, nobody knew.
‘It always surprised me that there was no more interest in that fantastic construction that went on in front of all these people.
‘The fantastic site, its function, the scale of the project and the fact that it was in Australia, a new country, a young country with the potential for limitless imagination, made us all absolutely selective and perfect in what we did.
‘Sydney could have been an architectural laboratory; there would have been 10 or 15 buildings just as fabulous as this if we had stayed there.
‘Of this I feel sure.’
There could have been so many more beary adventures photos!
To Brisbane… again… as part of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s international ballet series initiated by Leo Schofield and Ian McRae. In 2013 they performed Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream. This year Spartacus and Jewels will be on show. And this time, little bears will be there to see the mighty ballet company perform Jewels!
The Bolshoi Ballet also toured Australia in 1994, with Spartacus and La Bayadere. We last saw them in 1987, when they toured Australia and New Zealand with a program of Giselle (Act II) and gala divertissements from Spartacus, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, La Sylphide and others.
We saw Nadezhda (Nadia) Pavlova in the role of Giselle, one of the finest Bolshoi ballerinas, gifted with superb technique. Pavlova was drafted by the Bolshoi in 1975, at the age of nineteen, where she soon became a big sensation. In four short years, she learnt and danced the leading female roles in Spartacus, The legend of Love, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Giselle, Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet, Love for Love, and These Charming Sounds – all major full-length ballets. She also danced in many divertissements from works which were no longer performed in their full-length forms. She resigned from the Bolshoi Theater in 1995, in protest to the change in the Bolshoi leadership.
Pavlova married Vyacheslav (Slava) Gordeyev in 1975 and they were the Bolshoi’s superstar husband-and-wife team of the 1970s. Artistic difference with the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director Yuri Grigorovich, meant Gordeyev was not included in the 1987 tour (he was still performing occasionally with the Bolshoi). By 1987 he had also divorced Pavlova and had taken over running the Moscow Ballet from former Bolshoi soloist Irina Tikhomirnova. Before Tikhomirnova died of cancer in 1984, she asked Gordeyev to take over the company. But Pavlova and Gordeyev dancing together, wow!
Widely considered as the premier ballet company in the world, the Bolshoi Ballet is one of the great names in performing arts. Around the world, the Bolshoi Ballet is synonymous with scale (Bolshoi means ‘big’ and the Bolshoi are good at big and brash), grandeur and the brilliant physicality of its dancers. A long way from its origins in an impoverished orphanage and the work of the Italian dancer Filippo Beccari, hired in 1773 to teach its foundling children.
Most people believe that ballet is Russian, but the Russians imported this French and Italian, urban and court art. The origins of ballet lie in the Renaissance and the rediscovery of ancient texts. Classical ballet grew up in Europe’s courts; at its origins it was an aristocratic etiquette and political event as much as it was an art. The history of ballet begins with the formal alliance of French and Italian culture when the French king Henri II wedded the Florentine Catherine de Medici in 1533. The Italians performed simple but elegant social dances known as balli and balletti, which consisted of graceful, rhythmic walking steps danced at formal balls and ceremonies, or on occasion stylised pantomime performances: the French called them ballets. But classical ballet would come of age in Russia and by the beginning of the 20th century classical ballet would become a quintessentially Russian art. To this day, ballet matters more in Russia than it ever has elsewhere, before or since.
Before Peter the Great there was no ballet at all in Russia. Today it is difficult to imagine just how isolated and culturally impoverished the country was before Peter came to power in 1689. For centuries, church and state had been inseparable: the Russian tsar was an Orthodox prince and Moscow was cast as a “third Rome”. Western Europe went through the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the scientific revolution, but Russia remained cut off and bound up in the timeless liturgies of the Orthodox faith. It had no universities and no secular literary tradition; its art and its music were almost exclusively confined to icons and sacred songs. Musical instruments were considered sinful, and dance was something peasants did. Court ballet did not exist.
In striking contrast to their west European counterparts, the Russian elite lived unadorned lives: they dwelt in wooden houses and slept on benches (or on top of the warm stove) and their clothing and manners resembled those of peasants: rough and indecorous. Men coveted long and bushy black beards, which they took to be a sign of godliness and masculinity (God was bearded and women couldn’t grow one). Only demons were depicted as clean-shaven. Fancy foreign dress was prohibited, and foreigners living in Moscow were quarantined in their own “German Suburb”, a ghetto of European culture coveted by a few and dismissed by most. Muscovite society was not society in any form recognisable in the West: it was rigidly segregated by sex and men and women mixed little in public; on those rare occasions when they did, ladies were expected to be quiet and bashful with downcast eyes. In the mid-17th century a trickle of Western theatre and fashion (mostly Polish) began to seep in, but nothing could have been further from the Russian cultural imagination than the refined artifice and etiquette of classical ballet.
With Peter the Great, however, all of this changed. Peter despised the claustrophobic rituals that governed life in old Muscovy: he gravitated to the German Suburb, learned Dutch and German, took fencing and dancing lessons, and wore Western clothes. He was clean-shaven. But this was only the beginning: what Peter wanted for himself he also wanted for Russia. In the early years of the 18th century he thus invented and planned an ambitious purpose-built and European-style city: St. Petersburg. Constructed from the ground up by sheer force of labour and at great human cost on a swampy, barren strip of land at the westernmost edge of the country, the city was a self-conscious metaphor for Peter’s Westernising project. The idea was not only to shift the country’s centre of gravity away from Moscow and “open a window” onto the West; it was to radically re-create Russian society in a European image — to make Russians into Europeans.
To this end Peter subordinated the Church, incorporating Orthodox institutions into his own vastly expanded bureaucratic apparatus and placing himself, as tsar and emperor (he was the first to take the title), at the apex of Russian society. Indeed, Peter the Great imagined himself as a Russian Louis XIV: the Peterhof Palace was modelled on Versailles, with gardens and vistas precisely measured to match the original. And although Peter himself never learned to speak French, his courtiers — corralled at his new court in his new city — were encouraged to do so. It was an extraordinary cultural transformation: by the end of his reign the Russian elite had relegated their native tongue to the backwoods of their imaginations. Decrees in the early years of the century forced the point home on other fronts too: Western dress was mandated and beards prohibited for all men, regardless of rank. State inspections were routinely conducted and fines — and eventually a beard tax — levied on those who failed to conform.
Peter controlled his courtiers through strict rules and hierarchies. The Table of Ranks, established in 1722, created fourteen civil ranks (based on German titles) each with its own special uniform; etiquette up and down the ladder was formally prescribed and carefully observed. To acquire proper comportment and manners, aristocratic children were taught to dance from an early age by French and Italian ballet masters, and courtiers were required to learn the latest dances for balls and ceremonial events. The rules were carefully laid out in The Honorable Mirror of Youth, a compilation of Western courtesy books designed to educate courtiers in the intricacies of refined behaviour, including dancing. And because foreignness conferred authority, Peter arranged marriages for his children to European nobility and made his own personal life a parable of Westernisation: he sent his first wife, who hated his modernising ideas, to a monastery and married a Lithuanian peasant girl who successfully recycled herself into a paragon of elegance and fashionable beauty. Peter crowned her empress of Russia.
Classical ballet thus came to Russia as etiquette and not as art. This mattered: ballet was not initially a theatrical “show” but a standard of physical comportment to be emulated and internalised — an idealised way of behaving. And even when it did become a dramatic art, the desire to imitate and absorb, to acquire the grace and elegance and cultural forms of the French aristocracy, remained a fundamental aspiration. Thus from the moment ballet entered Russia, it was inextricably bound up with the Westernising project that would shape the country’s history for generations to come. It was part of “making Russians European”, and its prestige owed everything to its foreign, and especially Parisian, stature.
Ballet’s formal artifice, however, like the manners and language of the court, did not come easily to the Russian elite. Indeed, Russian noblewomen were often initially reluctant to dance with foreign men or visiting dignitaries and found it difficult to overcome what one Western observer described as “their in-born Bashfulness and Awkwardness” — not to mention their gauche manners. A French visitor in the early days of Peter’s reign noted that when he greeted a Russian lady at court in the French custom, she downed a cup of vodka to his health. European etiquette and dance were deeply alien — a foreign language — and it was difficult for Russians to reproduce, as one historian has put it, a “convincing cultural accent”.
In private moments even the most accomplished courtiers often reverted to Russian ways. Many elegant homes built after a Western fashion had separate quarters with a stove and icons and warm comfortable carpets instead of cold marble floors. French observers were especially quick to note the split personality — the strange grafting of West onto East — in the minds and bodies of the Russian elite. In the early 19th century Alphonse de Custine commented on the “stiff and constrained” carriage and manners of Russian courtiers, who seemed to him at once uncannily Parisian and utterly contrived; and when Théophile Gautier attended a ball at the Winter Palace some years later he was amazed to see a grande dame of “Orthodox Petersburg” dancing a refined polonaise (a dance of Polish and, by then, Parisian vintage) with a Mohammedan prince: “under the white glove of civilisation”, he famously noted, “is concealed a little Asiatic hand.” But it was Tolstoy in War and Peace who perhaps best captured the divided life of the Russian aristocracy. In her truest moment, Natasha, the French-educated “little countess, reared in silk and velvet,” drops her Parisian airs and spontaneously breaks into an authentic Russian folk dance. She has never seen this dance before but intuitively knows its “inimitable, unteachable, Russian gestures”: she stands, arms to the side, and instinctively makes “the movements of her shoulder and waist” that reveal “all that was in … every Russian soul.”
Besides court etiquette, ballet had two other related points of entry into Russian culture. The first was military. The state ballet school in St. Petersburg (which would later become the world-renowned Imperial Theatre School) was established well before the Imperial Theatres themselves and had its origins not in the ballroom but with the Imperial Cadet Corps, itself modelled on German and French institutions. In 1734 the French ballet master Jean-Baptiste Landé took up a position there teaching young cadets, and Empress Anna was so impressed with the results that she agreed to establish a formal school of dance. Four years later Landé began with twenty-four children, all sons and daughters of palace servants. He was drawing on a long west European tradition: the connection between ballet and fencing, and between dance and military manoeuvres more generally, reached back at least to the Italian Renaissance, but nowhere was the connection more strongly established and sustained than in Russia. The training of dancers there (to this day) would be characterised by military-style discipline and regimentation, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, long after such practices had been abandoned in the West, Russian ballets featured full-scale battles, staged with the help of military experts (and hundreds of extras) with “troops” of dancers in rigid lines and arrayed in symmetrical formations.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Western ballet resonated with Eastern Orthodoxy. The Russian Church was (and remains) opulently theatrical: faith has less to do with doctrine than spectacle. It is best seen and heard, rather than read or talked about. Anyone who has attended a Russian Orthodox service will immediately sense the parallels with the theatrical arts: the crowd of worshippers gathered in attentive suspense awaiting the ritual opening of beautifully decorated gates and doors, the unveiling and revelation of sacred icons of great richness and splendour (gold, deep blues, inlay), and above all the power of music and visual beauty to draw the “audience” into a concrete but otherworldly life. Echoes of this kind of liturgy could also be found in the ceremonies enacted at court. The entrance of the tsar to a ball or formal function, for example, was an elaborate and highly staged affair in which a crowd of attentive courtiers, all with assigned roles, stood in awe as the magnificent ballroom doors were thrown open to reveal the Orthodox prince and his entourage in their dazzling splendour; a full procession with musical accompaniment followed. It was but a step from these religious and courtly rites to the lavish theatrical productions that would grace the Russian ballet stage.
In 1766 the empress Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796, created the Imperial Directorate, formally establishing three state theatres in the capital city of St. Petersburg: a Russian troupe (considered the least important because it was not foreign), a French drama company, and a Franco-Italian opera and ballet (which would later become the Maryinsky and then, in the Soviet period, the Kirov Ballet). At first, performances were held at a variety of imperial venues, but in 1783 the Bolshoi Stone Theatre was built to house opera and ballet (not to be confused with the later Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow). The new theatre rivalled any in Paris, Vienna, or Milan: it held some two thousand people, and by the early 19th century seating followed a strict social hierarchy. High officials, officers, and Imperial Guards occupied the front orchestra, while lesser officials were relegated to the tiers; ladies and families took up the loges; clerks, lackeys, servant girls, valets, and artisans packed themselves into the galleries. Thus the ballet was not (as is commonly assumed) performed exclusively for the benefit of a courtly aristocratic elite. To be sure, just as the king shaped public taste in France, so the tsar had supreme authority and audiences carefully followed his lead, but performers also played to this wider society.
Ballet masters were almost all foreign. It was a familiar cast of characters: in 1766 Gasparo Angiolini arrived from Vienna and stayed on and off for over ten years. Noverre’s student Charles LePicq was invited to stage his mentor’s Jason and Medea in 1789, and a steady flow of French-trained ballet masters followed throughout the 19th century, including Charles-Louis Didelot, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Léon, Pehr Christian Johansson (August Bournonville’s former student), and Marius Petipa. Dancers came too: Louis Duport, Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and dozens of other less well-known French, Italian, German, and Scandinavian performers. They came for the money: St. Petersburg was notoriously frozen and dirty, but as one ballet master explained, “the pay is really good”. Yet there was more to Russia’s allure than cold, hard cash: the Imperial Theatres had tremendous resources, and the simple fact of being foreign gave ballet masters a stature and degree of artistic authority few could hope for back home.
That was St. Petersburg. Moscow was an entirely different case. It faced resolutely east: the spiritual home of “Holy Rus”, it was dominated by its merchants and traders, many of them Old Believers who held fast to their Orthodox faith and stubbornly resisted change. Industrious and inbred, the Muscovite elite did not aspire to speak foreign languages nor did they evince much interest in French etiquette and dancing. It was thus fitting that in Moscow the Imperial Theatres were established later and had weak ties to the court. Indeed, the origins of what would eventually become the great Bolshoi Ballet lay in an impoverished orphanage and the work of the Italian dancer Filippo Beccari, hired in 1773 to teach its foundling children. Later a quirky Englishman, Michael (Menkol) Maddox — magician, mechanic, and set decorator — incorporated these orphans, along with unemployed actors and some serfs belonging to a friend, into a ragtag theatrical troupe. The enterprise limped along, barely able to foot its bills, until it was finally taken over in 1805 by the state and eventually brought under the umbrella of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg. For the rest of the 19th century, it would remain a poor relation to the more splendidly appointed St. Petersburg company; it had fewer resources and a less formal and more Russian and folk-dance-inspired character. Its moment would come later, in the 20th century, when Moscow reclaimed its place as the country’s political and cultural capital.
The Imperial Theatres were thus created by the empress: they were the stepchildren of the Russian state. But they also had other, far more modest origins in the “serf theatres” run by rich landowners on their country estates. Here we come to the properly Russian roots of the imperial ballet, the native aspect of this otherwise imported French and Italian, urban and court art. For unlikely as it may seem, the character and development of ballet in Russia — in spite of its Parisian airs — were also inextricably entwined with the country’s most entrenched and rural institution: serfdom. The Imperial Theatres of Moscow and St. Petersburg were both fed by serfs from serf theatres, and it was this strange social and political phenomenon that provided a blueprint for the art.
Serf theatre had its origins in 1762 when Catherine the Great broke the hold that Peter had exerted on the nobility, freeing them from their obligation to serve the state. Many noblemen took advantage of their newfound liberty to return to their country estates. Catherine, moreover, was generous: to her most loyal servants she awarded large tracts of land complete with the peasants who lived on them, and during her reign, some eight hundred thousand peasants were transferred from state service (a slightly better condition) into serfdom; her son and successor Paul added another six hundred thousand.
Russian country manors were often miniature replicas of the autocratic state, with the lord acting as tsar and presiding over his people with absolute and arbitrary authority. Although there was certainly nothing original in this repressive social arrangement (Russians liked to point out that Americans too had their slaves), there was something uniquely Russian in the theatricality of life on these estates. Indeed, the drama of “acting European” at court was ritually reenacted, at enormous cost, in manors across the countryside, and many noblemen went to great trouble to educate their house serfs in Western languages and literature, manners and dancing, in order that they might convincingly “play” the role of courtiers to the nobleman’s tsar — female serfs in particular were trained to attend balls and ceremonial functions. In this spirit, aristocrats also built and staffed imitation court theatres to entertain themselves and the local population. The productions they mounted were modelled on the French and Italian operas and ballets performed at court, and were often of high quality.
The extravagance of these country estates is hard to grasp today. By the late 1780s, Count Nikolai P. Sheremetev, one of the wealthiest men in Russia, owned as many as one million serfs. He had eight serf theatres. His modest estate at Fountain House, for example, had 340 servants, and almost everything in the manor — food, clothing, art, furniture — was imported from western Europe at staggering cost. Paintings by Raphael, Van Dyck, Correggio, Veronese, Rembrandt, and others decorated the galleries and there was a library of some twenty thousand books, mostly in French. At his estate at Kuskovo (similarly outfitted) there were two theatres, one indoor and another for fresh-air entertainments, along with a large lake on which sea battles could be staged for the pleasure of his guests, who sometimes numbered up to fifty thousand. At Ostankino, Sheremetev built an even more sophisticated theatre with state-of-the-art technology, designed by a French architect. His serf performers were beautifully trained by the best available teachers — many imported directly from Europe, including the French ballet master (and student of Noverre) Charles LePicq.
For the serfs it was a contradictory existence. Freed from their menial tasks and often well educated, many became genuinely cultivated artists and individuals. Yet their lives were also harshly constrained: women were especially burdened since they often doubled as concubines or staffed private harems. The line separating sex and dance was notoriously thin: to take just one example, Prince Nikolai Yusupov, an estate owner and director of the Imperial Theatres in the 1790s, liked his female serfs to undress onstage at the end of performances; whips and canes were favoured props.
Serf theatre was not exceptional: in the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were serf theatres on more than 170 estates, and armies of serfs were trained to man them. Far from being an eccentricity, they stood at the centre of Russian aristocratic life. Yet although serfdom would endure for some time, serf theatre did not last. Economic hardship in the wake of the 1812 war dealt the first blow, and by mid-century most country estates were empty or abandoned and their theatres dispersed. Many of the dancers were sold off: in 1806–7, A. L. Naryshkin, chief court steward and member of an old boyar family, folded his own serf theatre into the Imperial Theatres; Alexander Stolypin later sold his seventy-four-member group to the state, and others followed in a pattern that continued well into the 1830s. For the serfs, sale to the state theatres technically meant freedom, but in fact most serfs simply traded one master for another — like Prince Yusupov, the noblemen who owned serf theatres often also held important positions at court, and their authority remained largely intact. Indeed, Yusupov was succeeded in his position as director of the Imperial Theatres by Nikolai P. Sheremetev.
Despite its relatively short life, serf theatre cast a long shadow over ballet. For generations to come, dancers were generally serfs or children of serfs, orphans, or from other low backgrounds. They were “civilised” and “made European” at state expense: at the Imperial ballet school in St. Petersburg, dancing lessons took several hours a day and alternated with academic subjects and religious studies (in 1806 the authorities even built a small church next to the school). Students were ranked and uniformed according to merit, and perfect obedience was expected: visits from friends and family were strictly regulated, and the tsar and his authorities controlled almost every aspect of a performer’s life. Upon graduation, artists owed ten years of service to the state, which was free to deploy them as needed; even the most highly trained dancer could be assigned or transferred against his will to another profession. Like their serf forbears, dancers were subject to arbitrary incarceration, and sexual exploitation remained commonplace. Permission was required to leave the city, and marriages had to be approved from above.
Today it is easy to think of these Imperial dancers as repressed and unfree, and in many ways they were. But there was also a protective (if no less arbitrary) side to this paternalism: favoured dancers were rewarded with boxes of fancy chocolates, jewellery, and other expensive gifts, and although many were desperately poor, the authorities did on occasion grant loans and offer support. Some ballerinas married up, and others were richly kept, though still more were impoverished and perished forgotten and ill-fed. But whatever their fortune in the demimonde adjoining ballet, most dancers — like most peasants — accepted their position unconditionally, and their devotion to the tsar bordered on religious. Few thought to question authority, and even a glimpse of His Majesty, as one ballerina recalled, “was like being lifted to Paradise.” To this day Russian classical ballet bears the imprint of its roots: the way that Russian dancers submit to authority, their sense of duty, and the reverence and humility they bring to their tradition far surpass that of French or Italian dancers.
In 1801, the French-trained ballet master Charles-Louis Didelot (1767–1837) was appointed to direct the Imperial ballet in St. Petersburg. Didelot was an intense and quick-tempered man with steely eyes and a pockmarked face, noted for his sharp discipline and focused mind. He had been a modest success in the West, but in Russia he was an immediate sensation, and except for a brief interval he remained in the country for the rest of his life. His success was partly a matter of timing. The French Revolution of 1789 had terrified and alienated many aristocratic Russians, and Didelot was reassuringly old-fashioned. A student of Noverre, he had a solidly ancien régime artistic sensibility and trained his students on a strict diet of menuet à la reine. Eschewing fashionable polkas and waltzes, he railed against dancers who performed turns and high jumps (disparaging them as “steeplechasers”) or women who breached propriety by throwing their legs indecorously over their heads. His most famous ballet, Psyché et l’Amour (1809), was a rococco affair full of spectacular effects, including fifty real white doves outfitted in mini-corsets and attached to wires: they helped to fly Venus’s chariot into the clouds.
But as it turned out, Didelot was more than just a throwback to the ancien régime. He became close friends with Prince Alexander Shakhovskoi (1777–1846), an author and playwright who worked in various official capacities for the Imperial Theatres in the early decades of the century, and with Catterino Cavos (1775–1840), a Venetian-born composer and son of an Italian ballet master who was principal conductor of the Russian Opera for over thirty years, from 1806 until his death. Together Shakhovskoi, Cavos and Didelot stood at the forefront of an emerging movement to reorient Russian culture away from what Shakhovskoi called the “powder, embroidered coats and red heels from Paris” and to create a new kind of “national theatre”. “Even Russian bread,” he liked to say, “won’t grow in the foreign manner.”
This did not mean outright rejection of the West. Didelot never compromised his French training, and most of his early productions were imported directly from Paris. Cavos had been educated in Venice, and Shakhovskoi translated French vaudevilles and comic operas into Russian as well as writing his own. But it did mean pressing the forms of European art into a more Russian mould. Didelot invested his considerable talent in reinvigorating the school, which had stagnated since its founding. The idea was not just to produce a serviceable corps de ballet but to make Russian stars. Considering the expense of importing foreign celebrities, the Imperial authorities much appreciated this money-saving endeavour. Under Didelot’s leadership, the school grew and training for students (many of them former serfs) intensified, with dance classes lengthening from two hours to gruelling four-hour training sessions, Didelot presiding. Properly trained Russian dancers, it was hoped, would give French ballet a native pulse.
The year before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, Didelot left the country and went back to western Europe. After Russia’s victory in the war, however, the Imperial authorities implored him to return. In his absence, the ballet had fallen into disarray, and as an enticement they doubled his salary and gave him a private carriage with coachman and an ample supply of firewood for the winter. Didelot was not, however, returning to the same place. The war with Napoleon had radically transformed Russian politics and society: in the fighting, the aristocracy — Russia’s traditional military elite — had been miserably divided and conflicted, whereas armies of peasants had rallied to die in defence of the homeland and Holy Rus. To many, the lesson seemed clear: the Frenchified court was weak and corroding the country from within. It was the people, not the privileged and service nobility, that represented the real Russia.
Even Alexander I, whose sympathies with Western culture had heretofore been the defining feature of his reign, was a changed man. The violence and destruction of the war — and especially the burning of Moscow — undid him, and he turned increasingly away from the West and toward Orthodox mysticism and an almost missionary militarism. This had consequences for Russian ballet: when the tsar returned exhausted but victorious from Paris, where his forces had finally occupied the city, he staged vast martial spectacles with powerful religious overtones celebrating the victory of Russia’s Orthodox armies over the French. The Russian ballet master Ivan Valberg — who had taken over many of Didelot’s duties during the war — obliged with works such as The Russians in Paris and The Genius of Russia, with Alexander bent over a crushed and repentant France.
At court, where fashion was always beholden to politics, the Europeanised elite hastily set out to “Russianise” themselves, as the grand duchess Ekaterina Pavlovna put it. They threw sarafan tunics over their customary silk and zealously donned headdresses from old Muscovy; they set aside French ballroom dances and performed the native pliaska instead. The fashion for folkways turned out to be a boon for dancers, many of whom had already begun to capitalise on their lowly roots by giving private lessons to the aristocracy — not in classical ballet but in the traditional folk dances of their ancestors. Those who did not already know these dances sought out Gypsies and peasants who did, and so acquired secondhand the authenticity deprived them at birth. Upon his return in 1816, Didelot did not miss a beat: he immediately implored the empress, “I need Russian peasants, all Holy Rus. Let them do their folk dances…. Your guests have become enough like Parisians; let them again feel that they are Russians.”
In the early 1820s Didelot mounted a series of ballets on Russian themes, including The Fire-bird (1822), from a Russian folktale, and The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1823), after a poem by Alexander Pushkin — both with music by Cavos. Didelot, however, could not read Russian, and in the program notes for The Prisoner of the Caucasus he apologised to his audience for working from an excerpted translation. Indeed, the ballet bore little relation to Pushkin’s famous work. Didelot moved the action from the 16th century back to a wild and mountainous ur-Slavic world with romanticised tribal folk sharpening weapons on rocks and cradling babies in jackal skins. He also added a happy ending. In Pushkin’s story the Circassian girl drowns, but in Didelot’s ballet a prince (another obligatory addition) wins her love and the couple are married; the wicked khan, so the libretto says, “willingly becomes a Russian subject and kneels before his sovereign,” no doubt a dutiful nod to recent Russian military expansion into the region.
If the ballet had a distinctly French feel, however, the lead roles were performed by Russians. The hero was danced by Nikolai Golts, who had been trained by Didelot and was one of the first great male Russian dancers; and the Circassian girl was Avdotia Istomina (1799–1848), also trained by Didelot and by the ballerina Evgenia Kolosova, a dancer known for her subtle rendition of folk dances. Istomina’s dark beauty and impassioned dancing, which (according to an admirer) “breathed of the East,” were widely celebrated and attracted the attention of prominent writers and artists, including the playwright Alexander Griboyedov and Pushkin himself.
Griboyedov and Pushkin had a curious and revealing relationship to ballet. They were both drawn to St. Petersburg’s glamorous court milieu and for a short time attended the ballet regularly, but each also despised the court’s glittering dissipation and lingering subservience to Western ways. Griboyedov’s comic play Woe from Wit, published the same year that Didelot presented Prisoner of the Caucasus, struck a sharp blow at Russia’s “sick craving for abroad” and amounted, as the critic Vissarion Belinsky later put it, to an “outpouring of bilious thunderous indignation at a rotten society of worthless people.” And although the drama was situated in Moscow, it broadly targeted the whole corrupt structure of autocratic rule — and was seen as among the first examples of a truly Russian theatre. Officially banned, manuscript copies nonetheless circulated widely. Pushkin greatly admired the work and later expressed his own misgivings about Russia’s western excesses in Eugene Onegin, in which he described ballet as an entrancing entertainment and feckless pastime, emblematic of the seductive and superficial world that made Onegin a dissolute fop.
But Istomina was different: Pushkin wrote fondly of the “soulful flight and free” of “My fair Russian Terpsichore” and made rough, urgent sketches of her pointed feet in ribboned ballet shoes. By the time she performed Prisoner of the Caucasus, he was in exile (for political sedition) and wrote longingly to his brother asking for news of “the Circassian girl Istomina, whom I once courted, like the Prisoner of the Caucasus.” Griboyedov also knew and admired Istomina and wrote his own verses honouring the dance, though his were addressed to the ballerina Ekaterina Teleshova, another of Didelot’s Russians. Adding to Istomina’s romantic aura, she became the cause of a double duel (another Parisian fashion) that took the life of an admirer and cost Griboyedov his left hand. Pushkin later planned to write about the dramatic events, but before he could do so he was himself killed in a duel.
With Didelot and Istomina the idea that French ballet might “make Russians European” was turned on its head. For the rest of the century a new theme would dominate: “make ballet Russian.” This would not be easy. Griboyedov and Pushkin counted among the founders of the Russian literary tradition, but their achievements could not be easily harnessed to ballet: Russian poetry danced by Russians to Cavos’s tunes with Didelot’s steps did not necessarily add up to Russian ballet. Didelot’s ballets had an exotic perfume, but they were still incontrovertibly French. There was no real merging of folk and balletic forms, and in his ballets Russian dances were more like exotic colour — similar to the national dances so popular in contemporary French and Italian Romantic ballet. Tellingly, when Didelot staged Russian folk dances, he often sought the advice of a renowned expert in the field (and personal teacher to the tsarevitch): the French ballet master Auguste Poirot.
Yet we should not underestimate the importance of Didelot in the development of Russian ballet. In this period, and for the first time, dancers and ballet masters were part of a lively intellectual milieu galvanised by the War of 1812 and the circumstances of their own lives to discover and invent new forms of art; imitating the West was no longer enough. The overlap between court and literary circles that inspired so much of Didelot’s work and made Istomina a source of erotic and vaguely nationalist and poetic inspiration was new. Classical ballet is a deeply conservative and insular art that resists change; the Russians, more French than the French, had made it more conservative than ever. But for a brief moment in the early 19th century, Didelot unlocked the doors of French ballet and let the “other”, Slavic Russians in, opening the way for a rush of literary and folk influences on the art. To be sure, his own choreography was limited, but we should remember just how far he had travelled. Even the mere fact of training and promoting Russian dancers represented a radical reorientation and new possibilities.
But the moment was lost. In December 1825 a group of reform-minded noblemen and intellectuals, many of them former officers who had served in the 1812 war and who (like Pushkin and Griboyedov) admired the West but despaired of Russia’s subservience to it, staged a coup in St. Petersburg. The new tsar, Nicholas I, rashly ordered the Imperial guns turned on them: some were killed, others tried and executed or exiled to Siberia for life. The Decembrists, as they were known, became martyrs and a symbol of the lost opportunities and severe repression that followed. In the wake of their revolt, Nicholas tightened the reins: censorship, restrictions on travel, arbitrary arrests, and establishment of the notorious Third Section (secret police) made Russia, as Alexander Herzen later recalled, a “nastier and more servile” place. The nascent intelligentsia retreated into private clubs and societies and circulated their work in clandestine “thick journals”. In a general shake-up of the Imperial Theatres, Shakhovskoi was fired and Didelot was incessantly harassed by petty autocratic officials until, in 1829, the old ballet master was finally arrested on trumped-up charges and resigned his position.
In the years that followed, the Russian court became an isolated and rigidly ritualised arena. Nicolas even treated court quadrilles as disciplinary manoeuvres: the baton was raised and the dancers stood poised in ready position, and when the dance ended they returned to their places and stood in alert readiness. In this restrictive context, ballet reverted to mindless imitation of the French example, and contact with wider literary and artistic movements was curtailed. Foreigners returned to prominence and Parisian Romantic ballet arrived in full force: Marie Taglioni spent five years in St. Petersburg, from 1837 to 1842, and danced countless performances of La Sylphide. Giselle entered the repertory too, and when Jules Perrot arrived he staged the ballet with Théophile Gautier’s muse, Carlotta Grisi. To many observers, however, there was something stale and humiliating about this return to imitation-French dances: one critic lamented that ballet was “no longer ours”, and Alphonse de Custine, who recoiled at Nicholas’s repressive “empire of fear”, saw very clearly that Taglioni, who was not at her best (“Alas! For Mademoiselle Taglioni! … What a fall for La Sylphide!”), was being paraded around the city like a French poodle. He was disgusted at the way that the Russians slavishly followed her with “footmen in handsome cockades and gold lace,” showering her with “the most preposterous praises I have ever seen.” It was, he reported incredulously, “like a journey to olden times: I could imagine myself at Versailles a century ago.”
In 1836 the writer Peter Chaadaev, who had served in the 1812 war and was sympathetic to the Decembrists, published his First Philosophical Letter, which, in the words of Herzen, was like a “shot that rang out in the dark night … one had to wake up.” Russia, Chaadaev wrote (echoing Griboyedov), had no viable tradition or ideas of her own, only barbarism, superstition and foreign domination. The official reaction was swift: Chaadaev was placed under house arrest, declared insane, and carefully watched by doctors in Nicholas’s employ. His work was nonetheless widely distributed underground and set off a complicated and anguished debate between Slavophiles, who insisted that the country must return to “the people” and an idealised pre-Petrine past, and Westernizers, resigned to the fact that Russia must absorb and build on the cultural heritage of the West — as Herzen put it, “We have nothing to go back to. The political life of Russia before Peter was ugly, poor and savage.”
But ballet, like the court itself, did not “wake up” and after 1848 its slumber only deepened. As west Europe erupted in revolution and its monarchies weakened to the point of collapse, Nicholas appeared vindicated. The West, as his supporters saw it, had turned away from the path of stability and absolute rule: only Russia seemed to have the strength and will to resist revolution and uphold Europe’s aristocratic and monarchical traditions — including classical ballet. That year the director of the Imperial Theatres wrote to the Russian consul general in Paris: “The present situation in Europe means artists can only be thinking of our theatres…. consequently their demands must be less excessive than in the past.” He was not wrong. Paris was unstable: in the wake of the violence of 1848, audiences stayed home, and an outbreak of cholera made matters worse. The Paris Opera was increasingly entrenched. It had barely deigned to offer a position to Jules Perrot, among the most talented ballet masters of his generation, and when the offer did finally come Perrot turned it down and took a position at Nicholas’s court instead. He married a Russian woman and stayed in St. Petersburg for the next eleven years, producing lavish and spectacular ballets in a grand and melodramatic French Romantic style.
This façade of stability, however, was about to crack. In 1856 Russia was humiliatingly defeated by France and Britain in the Crimean War, which finally unhinged Nicholas I and deeply undermined the country’s confidence. “On the surface,” as one critic put it, “there is glitter, beneath rot.” Part of the rot, it was widely perceived, was the result of serfdom, which was thought to be weakening the country from within. When Nicholas died a few years later, the more reform-minded Alexander II assumed the throne, and in 1861 he made a dramatic concession: he emancipated the serfs. This would take years to fully achieve and many serfs were left destitute in the process, but it was nonetheless a momentous change that inspired flights of optimism and unleashed a storm of debate and – when the reforms fell short – bitter recrimination. The foundation of autocratic rule had weakened from within and the opposition was galvanised. This was the “era of proclamations,” when relaxed censorship allowed radical political groups to speak out brazenly on the peasant question and printed pamphlets were jammed into mailboxes and stuffed into theatre programs. In 1862 a rash of mysterious fires rumoured to have been started by groups hoping to bring down the Imperial system burned in St. Petersburg, and four years later Alexander narrowly escaped the first of several assassination attempts.
In this tense political environment even classical ballet was forced out of its gilded cage. In 1863 the writer M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826–1889) launched a scathing attack on the art, which seemed to him to exemplify what he called, in another context, the “bovine indifference” of the Russian elite:
I love ballet for its constancy. New Governments rise up; new people appear on the scene; new facts arise; whole ways of life change; science and art follow these occurrences anxiously, adding to or sometimes changing their very compositions—only the ballet knows and hears nothing…. Ballet is fundamentally conservative, conservative to the point of self-oblivion.
Shchedrin worked closely with the poet Nikolai Nekrasov (who published his own verse on the contemptible state of ballet three years later) and with the writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828–1889), whose novel What Is to Be Done? — written from prison in 1863 — became a seminal text for political radicalism. These men were angered and disappointed by the limited scope of Alexander’s reforms and sympathetic to the “new men” of their time — men the novelist Ivan Turgenev branded as “nihilists” for their dark cynicism and eagerness to break violently with the past. In search of other paths and a new morality, they invested their political fervour in the people: not Gallicised and balletic country folk but what they liked to think of as real, gritty Russian peasants.
Painters, writers, dramatists, and musicians were also turning “back to the people” and attempting, in a variety of ways, to break with Russia’s Imperial and aristocratic heritage. In 1862 a group of Russian musicians including Mussorgsky, Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Balakirev (a friend and follower of Chernyshevsky) established the Free Music School, which eschewed the rigour and rules of the European tradition and openly incorporated (and invented) Russian folk forms. As one of its leading supporters put it, the “hoop-skirts and tailcoats” of the past would finally have to face the “long Russian coats” of the new school. So it was with art: students at the Imperial Academy became increasingly dissatisfied with what they perceived as stodgy European training and an outmoded emphasis on antiquity and the old masters. In 1870 a group of self-described “Wanderers” broke away and dedicated themselves to a new realist art, socially and politically relevant. That year the painter Ilya Repin embarked on his trip down the Volga River, which resulted in The Volga Barge Haulers, a grim and starkly rendered depiction of the lives of the men he had met and come to know there. It was a momentous time: literature had Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and theatre was galvanised by Alexander Ostrovsky, a Muscovite who pioneered a sharply satirical and self-consciously realist and Russian dramatic art.
In a halfhearted effort to acknowledge the new directions in politics and art, the French ballet master Saint-Léon created The Little Humpbacked Horse in 1864, loosely based on a Russian fairy tale with music by Cesare Pugni (an Italian) and starring the Russian ballerina Marfa Muravieva. Costumed, we learn from the Russian critic André Levinson, in an “imitation Russian style” with tutu, satin shoes, and a Muscovite diadem, Muravieva danced a kamarinskaya on toe, accompanied by the bravura violinist Henryk Wieniawski with long black hair flying. Building to a crescendo, she ended (an admirer recalled) with “a broad sweep of one arm and a low bow from the waist, Russian style.” To fill out this going-to-the-people picture, Saint-Léon added numerous folk dances with plenty of knee squatting, and the ballet ended with a spectacular parade featuring Cossacks, Karelians, Tartars and Samoyeds. Audiences were thrilled; building on his success, Saint-Léon created The Golden Fish (1867), inspired by Pushkin’s poem.
Not everyone, however, was impressed. The Russian ballerina Ekaterina Vazem called The Little Humpbacked Horse a “propaganda weapon,” sardonically noting that it was made by a French choreographer to music by an Italian composer played by German musicians. The critic Sergei Nikolaevich Khudekov snidely dismissed Saint-Léon’s Russian dances as the manipulations of a “clever foreigner”. Shchedrin had the last word: he lashed out at Saint-Leon’s Golden Fish for its misty-eyed depiction of “a fairy-like population of peasants.” “Why do they dance? Because their fishing is going well, because their boat is ready; they dance because they are peasants, and that is what peasants in ballets must do.”
Shchedrin was only partly right. What he — like Saint-Léon and Didelot before him — did not realise was that ballet would not finally “wake up” or become Russian by going back to “the people” or by shaping itself to Russian folk tales or musical forms. Indeed, it was precisely ballet’s immobility and artifice, its foreignness and fundamental inability ever to be “real”, that would eventually make it a preeminently Russian classical art. Paradoxically, what Saltykov-Shchedrin saw as “self-oblivion” turned out to be ballet’s greatest asset: it was stuck, but that also meant that it marked a historical place and fiercely guarded the aristocratic principle that was its guiding force. Shchedrin wanted to throw ballet aside because it offended his desire for social and political justice, and we can understand the sentiment, but ballet in Russia would not be saved from “self-oblivion” by its critics — or Russia’s. To the contrary: the man who would pull ballet out of its complacency was an insider, a dancer and ballet master who had worn ballet’s movements and found beauty in them. He was not a Russian but a Frenchman and consummate courtier who spent his life in the enclave of the Imperial Theatres, an artist who would change ballet by making it more, not less, Imperial: Marius Petipa.
Marius Petipa arrived in St. Petersburg from Paris in 1847. He did not come as a foreign star. In fact, his early career in the West had been undistinguished. Born in 1818 in Marseilles to a large family of itinerant performers (his father was a ballet master), he learned to dance and play the violin and spent his childhood touring Europe. The family performed in Belgium and in Bordeaux and Nantes, and in 1839 Petipa and his father embarked on an ambitious but financially disastrous theatrical stint in America. Subsequently he studied with Auguste Vestris in Paris, danced at the Comédie-Française, and spent several years in Madrid, where he mounted ballets on Spanish themes and became embroiled in a love tangle that eventually forced him to flee the country. By 1847 he was back in Paris, where his more successful brother, the dancer Lucien Petipa (who had danced the lead role in the premiere of Giselle), helped arrange positions for him and their father at the Russian Imperial Theatres.
Petipa thus came with a low profile: he was paid considerably less than most foreign dancers and had to work his way up the Imperial hierarchy. He lived in the shadow of Jules Perrot, his older and more illustrious compatriot and then chief ballet master. In Russia, Perrot took his craft and enlarged its frame, expanding the Romantic ballet to a scale befitting the Imperial capital. Esmeralda (inspired by Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris and first performed in London) grew from its original skimpy five scenes to a full-evening work in three acts, sumptuously staged; Eoline, ou la Dryade (1858) was four acts and five hours in length, unheard of in Paris or Milan, where ballets generally shared a program with opera and were more modest in length. Perrot’s fantastical ballets, which included lavish spectacular effects (ships sinking, fireworks exploding) and comic scenes, were supported by an enormous company of dancers and vast resources. A report commissioned by the tsar in the 1850s noted that the St. Petersburg troupe had 261 more dancers than the Paris Opera, and that ballet (not opera) was the theatre’s single most costly item. Perrot’s productions were also of a piece with the fairy-tale aesthetic established at the Imperial court, where comic opera and vaudeville were especially in demand, and balls were sumptuous affairs featuring men in gold spangled uniforms and (as Théophile Gautier reported) “Byzantine madonnas” draped in robes of gold and silver brocade with bare shoulders and glittering jewels. Halls were illuminated with thousands of candles producing “constellations of fire,” and amid this splendour, courtiers danced.
It was an ironic situation: in western Europe ballet was already in decline, but inside the protected walls of the Russian Imperial Theatres Perrot quietly handed Petipa the French Romantic tradition, however grandiose and enlarged. Petipa inherited the Danish tradition too, via the Swedish-born dancer and teacher Johansson, who was a student of Bournonville. Johansson was one of Russia’s most exacting and skilled dance teachers, known for his intricate, difficult combinations (he liked to lay his fiddle across his knee and pluck pizzicato to emphasise precision). There were others to learn from too, among them Felix Kschessinsky, a Pole famous for his Polish, Hungarian and Gypsy dances. Russia thus acted as a cultural incubator, and the Imperial Theatres gave Petipa the time and resources to fully absorb the teachings of these dancers and ballet masters. For over a decade before he produced anything significant of his own, he dutifully applied himself to learning his craft: dancing, teaching, mounting ballets, conducting rehearsals, and learning to make his way through the labyrinthine Imperial bureaucracy. He would draw on Perrot’s work in particular for years to come, restaging many of the ballet master’s dances and carefully preserving and building on this very French past.
Indeed, in Russia Petipa became more French than the French. Although he lived in St. Petersburg for more than fifty years, until his death in 1910, and married twice, both times to Russian dancers (with whom he had nine children), he held tight to his Catholic faith and never learned the local language. His pidgin Russian was a source of embarrassment as he grew older, but for most of his career he lived hermetically at court and conducted all of his business in French. No fool, Petipa knew that his studied ignorance was also a mark of prestige, and he carefully preserved and cultivated his ties to the French capital: whenever possible he spent summers there, and he was in close touch with his brother Lucien, who rose to the position of ballet master at the Paris Opera in 1860, and who sent ballet scenarios and kept Marius abreast of the latest fashions.
Petipa’s early Russian ballets were self-consciously Parisian except that, following Perrot, they were bigger and more opulent. His first important success came in 1862 with The Pharaoh’s Daughter, to music by the theatre’s resident ballet composer, Cesare Pugni. It had a libretto by Vernoy de Saint-Georges drawn from the novel Le roman de la Momie by Théophile Gautier, the very same team that twenty-one years earlier had produced the scenario for Giselle. The Pharaoh’s Daughter was a sprawling five-hour-long grand-opera-style ballet, packed with pageantry and special effects. There was a dance for eighteen couples with baskets of flowers balanced on their heads: on the final chord thirty-six children popped out of the flowers. There were camels, monkeys, and a lion, and water sprayed up from an onstage fountain (later productions featured a waterfall, electrically lit from the top and sides). The ballet had an exotic Egyptian setting, inspired perhaps by the building of the Suez Canal, and drew on a trove of Romantic themes. It included an opium dream, mummies come to life, a suicide, an underwater Nile ballet, plentiful balleticised national dances, and an apotheosis with a three-tiered display of Egyptian gods. It was a fantastically extravagant affair — everything Saltykov-Shchedrin (who wrote his invective the following year) hated about ballet. Petipa was rewarded with promotion to the coveted position of ballet master to the Imperial Theatres, a position he shared with his rival Saint-Léon until 1869, when he took sole charge.
In the decades that followed, Petipa settled in and absorbed the feel and scale of St. Petersburg. He was an avid courtier (“December first,” he noted in the corner of a mise-en-scène he was working on, “is the fiftieth birthday of the prince. Must leave my visiting card or sign my name in the book”) and he “vigilantly” watched, as one Russian ballerina disapprovingly noted, “the impression his ballets made on the Imperial personages and court dignitaries.” His approach was eminently practical: he carefully plotted his choreography at home with figurines “like chess pawns” arranged on a large table and made elaborate notes of the most successful arrangements using X’s and O’s and other symbols to represent the movements of his dancers. Petipa also spent hours tracing pictures from books and magazines that might help him arrive at the right look for his ballets and he meticulously recorded instructions for the visual effects he hoped to achieve. In one ballet, for example, he noted four lines of twelve dancers, each in different coloured skirts and underskirts that flipped and changed in a kaleidoscopic pattern as the dancers paraded forward in successive lines, switching places with military precision.
None of this constituted great choreography, and what we know of Petipa’s early ballets shows a capable artist producing ballets according to a well-established formula. (These were the ballets that so upset Bournonville when he visited.) But as time passed, a change crept in. We can see it in La Bayadère (1877), a typically exotic (in this case Indian-themed) ballet about a beautiful Hindu temple dancer with a cumbersome plot derived from past Parisian operas and ballets to serviceable music by Ludwig Minkus. It was a Franco-Russe mélange and starred the Russian dancers Ekaterina Vazem and Lev Ivanov, with old Nikolai Golts (of Didelot fame) in the role of the Great Brahmin. Johansson and Kschessinsky also took supporting roles. Yet this unwieldy Romantic extravaganza — in one sketch Petipa envisaged a procession with thirty-six entrances and more than two hundred dancers — also contained a pristine classical dance, “The Kingdom of the Shades,” which (later revised by Petipa and still performed today) has since become an emblem of Petipa’s emerging formal style.
“The Kingdom of the Shades” was inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Paradiso from The Divine Comedy, and even now we can see Doré’s wispy, angelic figures in Petipa’s dance. The pretext is a vision scene, conjured in the mind of the warrior Solor, who loves the beautiful bayadère; when she dies, he takes solace in an opium dream and finds her in an underworld inhabited by the shades of dead women. His dream begins as a single shade, in white tulle and draped in gauzy veils, steps onto an empty and brightly lit stage from the far upper-right corner. In profile, she takes an elegant, forward-reaching arabesque with her leg lifted high behind her, followed by a deep reclining back bend and two steps forward. She repeats the sequence again as another shade emerges from the wings and follows in synchrony, then another, and another. One by one, as if to infinity, a long chain of shades (sixty-four, to be precise, later reduced to thirty-two) wind their way single file across the stage and back, tracing a serpentine path and advancing steadily to make room for the next row. The visual crescendo builds with each repetition until the stage is full and serried ranks of dancers pose in perfect formation.
It was a spectacular image that could only have been made in St. Petersburg. Petipa’s dance evoked the sense of individual frailty and the fascination with dreams typical of Gautier, Perrot, and others — that single dancer stepping out alone — but he transposed the fleeting Romanticism of wilis and spirits and women in white into a far grander and more formal Russian idiom — not by adding lavish sets and costumes (although he did that too) but by expanding the entire choreographic structure. The steps were French, but their arrangement — amplified through repetition — echoed the vast architectural proportions of the Hermitage and the Peterhof gardens and recalled court balls. Gautier’s description of a polonaise at the Winter Palace comes to mind: in a torchlit procession led by the tsar, courtiers arrayed in strict lines wound their way through the state rooms in a repetitive dance that lasted for hours, “the slightest awkwardness of gesture, the least misstep, the tiniest movement out-of-time … sharply noticed.” In another key, the dance of the shades (like the polonaise itself) also recalled a simple line dance, a folk ritual elevated to a formal court art.
La Bayadère was a marker, but it was not until Petipa was nearly seventy, with some forty years’ experience on the Russian stage, that he made his real breakthrough. He might never have done so had events — and the music of Piotr Tchaikovsky — not intervened. In 1881 Alexander II, the last of Russia’s Westernising, reforming tsars, was assassinated. His son and successor, Alexander III, belonged to an entirely different breed. Uncultivated and sentimental, with a large, muscular build and an awkward appearance, he hated the “endless cotillion” and ceremonial life at court and preferred instead the simple domesticity of his more reclusive suburban residences. He was deeply religious and sympathised with various strains of Slavophile thought. He saw himself as a “true Russian” — naturally soulful and blissfully lacking the false manners and etiquette of the St. Petersburg elite. For the first time in nearly two centuries, Russian and not French became the lingua franca at court, and the tsar turned his sights and sympathies away from St. Petersburg and toward Moscow.
The look of Russia changed. Uniforms were redesigned — epaulettes and sabres were out, replaced by kaftans and jackboots with religious crosses added to flagstaffs. Alexander himself grew a long, bushy beard (and encouraged his soldiers to do likewise), and he lavished support on the Church: dozens of new, 17th-century-style churches dotted the countryside, and it is to Alexander that we owe the impressive and garish onion-domed Savior on the Blood Cathedral in St. Petersburg, an aggressively Muscovite addition to the city’s predominantly European architectural landscape. Similarly, for his coronation in Moscow Alexander ordered a ballet, and Petipa — ear to the ground — devised an allegory entitled Night and Day featuring national dances and ending with the performers joined together in a Russian round dance, circling “the most beautiful and stoutest woman, that is, Rus.”
In March 1882 Alexander ordered a radical reform of the Imperial Theatres. The problem, as he had come to see it, was their monopoly: for several decades all private theatrical venues had been controlled by the Imperial Theatres and were required to relinquish to them a substantial portion of their earnings. There had been complaints about the perceived injustice of this system before, but that year Alexander had been especially impressed by a scathing critique written by the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. The Imperial Theatres, Ostrovsky argued, served the court and (in Moscow) the rich merchants who were “too European in dress, habits and customs,” thus leaving the public bereft of the indigenous “elegant spectacles” and theatre they so craved. The balance, he said, was unfairly tipped toward Western forms, and he called for a new people’s theatre that would be “national, all-Russian.” Alexander scrawled his enthusiastic approval in the margins of the text and followed through with a decree abruptly ending the monopoly.
His closest advisers were alarmed. Control of theatrical life was intrinsic to the autocratic system, and they worried that these new freedoms might inflame dangerous passions that could then be turned to radical political purpose. (When Parisian theatres were “freed” in 1791, hadn’t they turned into hotbeds of revolutionary thinking?) But this was to miss the point: Alexander’s reforms were no liberalising gesture. To the contrary, they were conservative and nationalist, a deliberate attempt to redirect culture away from Europe and onto a stronger and more self-consciously Russian path, embodied in the tsar’s person and rule. They were a defence of autocracy, in the name of the people. That said — and here his critics were right — this kind of nationalist thinking also had an inherently radical potential: “the people” might end up undermining the autocratic system the tsar claimed to uphold on their behalf.
The consequences of Alexander’s reforms for ballet were far-reaching. At the Maryinsky, salaries for Russian dancers rose dramatically (thus closing the gap with the higher fees customarily paid to foreigners) but ticket prices doubled, putting even the cheapest seats out of range for working people. Meanwhile, theatrical activity at the suburban edges of the city exploded. If anything, the reforms thus accentuated the gap between “high” Imperial culture and the “low” popular and fairground traditions. A real effort was nonetheless made to redress the perceived imbalance between Eastern and Western influences at the Imperial Theatres: a committee was formed to review repertory, and more Russian composers, most notably Piotr Tchaikovsky, were hired to collaborate on new works. Most important of all, Alexander appointed Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835–1909) to the directorship of the theatres.
At first glance, Vsevolozhsky seems an unlikely choice. A cultivated aristocrat and ardent Francophile, intelligent and with a keen sense of humour, he had worked at the Russian consulate in The Hague and in Paris and his tastes were distinctly European. His small office in the Winter Palace was crammed with paintings and sculptures from French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch masters. “Everything around Vsevolozhsky,” the Ballets Russes artist Alexander Benois later recalled, “breathed that high-born taste, that parfait goût” of the French 18th century. Even his bows “were marked by a special elegance and even complexity,” and to him “dance was not something frivolous or absurd” but a necessary and supremely cultivated art.
Yet Vsevolozhsky was also a strong advocate of Russian art. This did not mean that he sent Petipa “to the people” to create folk dances or make ballets drawn on Russian tales. Instead, he pried the ballet master away from Minkus and the predictable rhythms of made-to-order ballet music and pushed him toward the far more complex and Russian voices of Tchaikovsky and (later) Alexander Glazunov. Tchaikovsky, whose prominence in Russian musical life was by then well established, shared Vsevolozhsky’s interest in ballet and was a willing collaborator. When he was a child his mother had taken him to see Giselle with Carlotta Grisi in the title role, and as a young man he had attended the theatre frequently. His brother, Modest, later recalled how Tchaikovsky enjoyed demonstrating the proper balletic form, teasing Modest by likening him to the undistinguished Russian ballerina Savrenskaya — and himself to the elegant Amalia Ferraris “because of the fluidity and classicism of his movements.”
In 1888 Vsevolozhsky proposed a new ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. He wrote to Tchaikovsky: “I thought I would write a libretto to Perrault’s La belle au bois dormant [The Sleeping Beauty]. I want to do the mise-en-scène in Louis XIV style,” and he went on to suggest that Tchaikovsky might consider “melodies in the spirit of Lully, Bach, Rameau …” Responding in French, Tchaikovsky enthusiastically agreed. Indeed, this was not his first ballet, but it was his first, and only, sustained collaboration with Petipa and Vsevolozhsky. And it was a genuine and engaged collaboration: Vsevolozhsky and Tchaikovsky’s graceful and beautifully mannered correspondence reveals the respect and warmth they felt for each other, and the three men met frequently to exchange ideas (always in French). Tchaikovsky also often appeared at Petipa’s home (the ballet master’s daughter later recalled the excitement of these visits) and played what he had written on the piano while Petipa shifted his papier-mâché figurines around a large round table.
Today, we like to think of The Sleeping Beauty as an elevated artistic landmark, but at the time of its premiere in 1890 many critics and observers saw it as a sellout to low popular taste. They were not entirely wrong. As a consequence of Alexander III’s theatrical reforms and the explosion of popular musical theatres in and around the city, audiences were treated to a whole new array of performances — not just Russian fare, but lavish mime and dance spectacles mounted by Italians with (as one critic complained) “masses” of performers and fantastic effects. These were Manzotti’s Excelsior dancers, and the spectacles were known as ballets-féeries for their fairy-tale magic and emphasis on the merveilleuse. In 1885 Virginia Zucchi set the trend when she danced at the Sans Souci in St. Petersburg in a lavish six-hour-long féerie entitled An Extraordinary Journey to the Moon (after Jules Verne), which had already had successful runs at music halls in Paris, London, and Moscow. Shortly thereafter, the Italian dancer and mime Enrico Cecchetti mounted his abridged version of Excelsior, which played for over two years in the Russian capital.
This “Italian invasion” touched a sensitive political nerve. The suburban theatres catered to a burgeoning urban populace created by industrialisation and the movement of peasants and workers, fleeing crushing rural poverty, into towns and cities. Ostrovsky enthusiastically welcomed the change and saw the ballet-féerie as an “appealing” people’s art that might “replace” outmoded court ballets with a more modern and accessible form. Others, however, were mortified and complained that the féerie represented a decadent and democratising Western culture. It was nothing more than “ballet as circus” and its performers moved like “machines” with “steel points” and “sharp” gestures. Their flexibility, one critic bristled, was an affront to “correctness and beauty of line” and unfit for a “self-respecting stage.”
Partly this was a matter of technique. Italian dancers had developed an arsenal of remarkable stunts such as multiple turns and extended balances on pointe, whereas dancers at the Imperial Theatres still favoured the softer and more fleeting movements of the French Romantic school. One Russian dancer later recalled his shock at seeing the new Italian style: Russian men, he noted, generally confined themselves to a restrained three or four pirouettes, whereas the Italians brashly spun out eight or nine. More alarming still, the Italians seemed to throw themselves from step to step with anarchic abandon. Their school, one critic glumly concluded, represented “a confused nihilism in choreography.” Tchaikovsky, Vsevolozhsky and Petipa stood firmly with the sceptics: Tchaikovsky had seen Excelsior in Naples and thought its subject “inexpressibly stupid,” and Petipa and the “old titans” (as they were referred to) at the Imperial Theatres, including Vsevolozhsky, were equally unimpressed. One dancer recalled seeing Petipa at a féerie slumped in the stalls with his head hung in despair.
Yet The Sleeping Beauty was itself a ballet-féerie — not a “sellout” but an astute artistic counterattack designed to beat the Italians at their own game while at the same time affirming the aristocratic heritage of the Russian ballet. It marked a sharp departure from the exotic and Romantic ballets of the past and had none of the charming village boys or ghostly, spirit-like ballerinas coveted on the St. Petersburg ballet stage. Nor was Beauty a slavish reprise of Perrault’s fairy tale, for although Perrault had originally written it as a tribute to Louis XIV’s “modern” France, it was Vsevolozhsky who introduced the lavish grand siècle setting. The ballet opens in the 16th century with the birth of a young princess who is cursed by an evil fairy and condemned to death upon her coming of age. The good (Lilac) fairy, however, softens the sentence and when the princess pricks her finger on a spindle the entire French court falls into a deep sleep, only to be awakened one hundred years later to the glorious reign of the Sun King. As a story, it was thin (one disgruntled critic complained, “They dance, they fall asleep, they dance again”), but that was the point: The Sleeping Beauty was not a narrative pantomime ballet in the old sense at all. It was about the court and its formal ceremonies — a royal birth and coming of age, a wedding and celebration. It was a sympathetic ritual reenactment of the courtly principles of classical ballet and Imperial Russia alike.
Petipa took seriously the 17th century setting: he studied pictures of the Sun King and made careful notes about Apollo and the “fairies with long trains, as drawn on the about old court dances and pored over Perrault’s works, carefully cutting out and saving illustrations. Vsevolozhsky spared no cost in the sets and costumes (the ballet absorbed more than a quarter of the 1890 annual production budget for the Imperial Theatres) and brightly coloured silk, velvet, gold and silver embroidery, brocade, furs, and plumes were all in abundant display, giving the production a vibrant, candy-coated appeal. This impressive pomp and pageantry was never stuffy or bombastic, and the ballet had many entertaining fairy tale characters drawn from other Perrault stories, such as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Puss-in-Boots, whose whimsical dances lightened the last act. The apotheosis, however, struck a high note: against a backdrop of Versailles with terraces, fountains, and the grande pièce d’eau, audiences were given a vision of “Apollo in the costume of Louis XIV lit by the sun and surrounded by fairies.” The ballet ended triumphantly with a musical quotation from the French popular tune celebrating an earlier French king, “Vive Henri IV!”
Just as the fairies in the prologue endowed the baby princess with gifts of beauty, wit, grace, dance, song, and music, so The Sleeping Beauty civilised and refined the ballet-féerie, bringing it up to meet the elevated standards of a classical art. Tchaikovsky’s music set the tone, and its sophisticated, graceful classicism and eloquent Russian sweep presented Petipa with unprecedented choreographic challenges. Many critics found the music too operatic, and the dancers complained bitterly that it was difficult to move to. Accustomed to the predicable rhythms and simple, programmatic structure of Pugni and Minkus, Petipa pressed himself — and his dancers — to find newly suitable movements. Ironically, when searching for material he drew precisely on the Italian techniques he had so lamented. Indeed, the title role was performed by the Milanese dancer Carlotta Brianza (a veteran Excelsior performer), and Enrico Cecchetti was cast as the evil fairy Carabosse and in the difficult Bluebird Variation.
Petipa, however, did more than just repeat the tricks he learned from these Italians. He had a concrete, technical mind — he was interested in the mechanics of the steps and readily grasped the Italian innovations, particularly in pointe work — but he also had a deep appreciation of the architecture and physics of ballet, and he knew, or learned, how to refine and discipline their bombast and enthusiasm to give them a depth and dimension they lacked hitherto. In the Rose Adagio, for example, in which the princess is courted by four princes hoping to win her hand in marriage, the ballerina must balance on one leg as each of her suitors takes her hand and then leaves her to make way for the next. This kind of balance, in which the ballerina is left standing perilously alone on a single pointe, was a typical Italian stunt. But Petipa transformed it into a poetic metaphor. Sustained by the lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s music, the ballerina’s balance represents her independence and strength of character: it was no longer a trick but a test of free will.
So it was with the charming solo dances for each of the six fairies in the ballet’s prologue. These dances are all perfectly constructed models of classical principles. Again, Petipa did not shy away from virtuosity — the dances are full of difficult jumps on pointe, multiple turns, and fast footwork — but he tamed these bravura steps, ordered them, and pinned them into elegant, architectonic, and musically disciplined phrases. They look like scintillating aphorisms, the dance equivalent of La Bruyère’s sharp-tongued maxims or the conversational wit of les précieuses. Each dance works on many levels: it traces a symmetrical path across the floor (recalling Feuillet) with clear lines and sharp diagonals, for example, and these same lines and diagonals are then reflected and reproduced in the geometry of the steps themselves. But it was not just the construction of the dances that was so impressive; it was the way that dancers moved to Tchaikovsky’s music. It is difficult today to imagine just how different these dances must have been to perform. Tchaikovsky’s music brought out a whole new range and tone colour in the human body, a nuance and subtlety that Minkus or Pugni could never inspire.
Somebody has put together an interesting compilation of the Lilac Fairy solo with five different ballerinas: Eve Grinsztajn and Marie-Agnès Gillot from Paris Opera Ballet; Maria Allash and Nina Speranskaya from the Bolshoi and Daria Vasnetsova from Mariinsky (now with Finnish National Ballet). It would have been far more fascinating if the compilation also included an American, British, Italian and Danish ballerina as well. That would have been quite an insight into national variations of the ballet language. While the language and technique of ballet appear universal, the national ballet schools are quite distinct. The differences are not merely aesthetic (and noticeable in this compilation), they also feel different to dancers, and moving this way instead of that could make a dancer, for a moment, into a different kind of person. There are some hilarious YouTube videos of British dancers trying to learn the Bournonville method with Danish ballet masters. The experience is not funny at all to the dancers, I’m sure!
Even today’s most skilled performers find Petipa’s fairy variations a test of classical precision: the slightest false move or cheat — a leg straying off centre or a step out of line — immediately shows and throws the whole dance into disarray, as if a poem had been scanned poorly or a column in a Greek temple carelessly distorted. Performing these dances well is a matter of technical acuity and cast-iron discipline but also of style: a dancer cannot plausibly get through them without a modicum of charm. The steps and music — not to mention the luxurious costumes — make dancers move like courtiers, with chest open and a light, high centre of gravity. No acting was necessary: Beauty had very little “he said, she said” pantomime, and the mime and dance sequences were not musically distinct or set apart, as they had been customarily. The gestures and the dances flowed together seamlessly, and Petipa and Tchaikovsky thus quietly returned ballet to one of its original premises: mime and dance were a natural extension of the noble comportment that Russian courtiers had been practising and perfecting for nearly two centuries. They meshed so beautifully because they came from a single source, just as they had in the grand siècle: court etiquette.
Audiences, or at least critics, were disoriented: Beauty did not fit into any of the old categories, and many saw it as little more than an empty parade of “too luxurious” sets and costumes. “A ballet, as we understand it?” one indignantly squealed. “No! It is the complete decline of choreographic art!” If there was a reference point, it lay in the decorative rather than the performing arts. Beauty bore a striking resemblance to Fabergé’s exquisitely rendered objets de luxe. These ornamental pieces, including the famous Fabergé eggs, were enormously sought after by the tsar and the Russian elite at the time. Their superior craftsmanship, hyper-refinement, and meticulous, detailed re-creation of a world-in-a-shell had an intense appeal for an elite increasingly in retreat from the social and political problems facing their country. Fabergé reproduced the court in miniature; Beauty put it on the stage. The similarities were not lost on a younger generation of artists, including several who would later go on to create the Ballets Russes. They rightly saw that sealed within The Sleeping Beauty lay a whole way of life and “world of art.”
The Sleeping Beauty was thus the first truly Russian ballet. It was an impressive act of cultural absorption: this was no longer Russians imitating the French but instead a pitch-perfect summation of the rules and forms that had shaped the Russian court since Peter the Great. With Beauty, Petipa found a way to take out the seams of French ballet, to expand its technique and expressivity while paradoxically reinforcing its strict formal rules and proportions. And if the ballet’s grand scale seemed to some a capitulation to féerie and spectacle, it could also be read as an exaltation of the dignity and noble ideals of an aristocratic art. But Beauty also showed that high court ballet could meet popular theatre and assimilate that and the Italian techniques too, folding them both into a newly Russian style of dance. It is no accident that the ballet flowed from the imagination of a great Russian composer working in conjunction with a Francophile St. Petersburger and a Russified Frenchman, and that its cast was led by Italians with Russians filling the ranks.
The key to the ballet’s enduring appeal, however, was Tchaikovsky. It is a point worth emphasising: Tchaikovsky was the first composer of real stature to see ballet as a substantial art, and his music lifted dance onto a new plane. Before Tchaikovsky, music for ballet had been tied to dance forms and rhythms, and (later) to programmatic music or vaudeville tunes designed to illustrate and narrate pantomimed action. Well into the 19th century ballet composers across Europe had produced lovely and serviceable ballet scores, from Adolphe Adam’s Giselle and Léo Delibes’s Sylvia (a ballet Tchaikovsky himself greatly admired) in Paris to the melodic dances of the “big three” in St. Petersburg: Riccardo Drigo, Pugni (both Italians), and Ludwig Minkus (who was Austrian). However, these composers tended to follow rather than lead, and their music enhanced and illustrated but rarely challenged — much less upset — the way that dancers moved.
Not so with Tchaikovsky. It was not merely that Sleeping Beauty was a powerful symphonic score that stood on its own merits, without Petipa’s dances. What mattered was the way the music worked on the human body and spirit. Even today, Tchaikovsky’s music pushes dancers to move with a fullness and subtly that few other composers then or since have inspired. It is no accident that Tchaikovsky’s music was initially perceived by some as too operatic or big or difficult for the public, and especially the dancers, to fathom. Human bodies did not — never had — moved that way before. And yet the change was also perfectly natural, scaled to St. Petersburg and their own lives.
Petipa became a great choreographer because of Tchaikovsky, and he knew it: his memoirs pay touching tribute to the composer and he was well aware of the momentous opportunity Vsevolozhsky had afforded him. Tchaikovsky was pleased too, and Modest recalled the composer’s delight with “the miracles of elegance, luxury, originality in the costumes and scenery, and with the inexhaustible grace and variety of Petipa’s fantasy.” And if Alexander III failed to appreciate the ballet’s significance, commenting drily that it seemed to him “very nice,” the public was enchanted: The Sleeping Beauty was performed more than twenty times in 1890–91, accounting for more than half of the ballet performances that season. Modest wrote to the composer: “Your ballet has become a kind of obsession…. people have ceased saying to each other ‘How are you?’ Instead, they ask, ‘Have you seen The Sleeping Beauty?’”
The following year, the same team — Vsevolozhsky, Petipa, and Tchaikovsky — began work on another ballet-féerie, based this time on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann: The Nutcracker. Designed as an entertaining afterpiece to Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, it was to be a short, two-act affair. The Nutcracker was set in France during the Directory — the conservative reaction to the French Revolution with its notorious sartorial excesses and dandified aristocrats — but it was also a fond depiction, as one observer later recalled, of Christmas à la Russe drawn straight from “Russian children’s memories.” It sketched familiar drawing-room rituals and featured a sparkling decorated tree, delicious German candies, brave toy soldiers, and, as the scenario put it, a scrumptious “enchanted palace from the land of confectionery sweets.” There was a frosty, St. Petersburg–like snow scene spectacularly lit with electric light and a waltz of gilt sweetmeats (today’s flowers). In keeping with the precedent set by The Sleeping Beauty, the lead role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was danced by an Italian ballerina, Antonietta dell’Era, and the cast numbered over two hundred, including a platoon of students from the School of the Regiment of Finnish Guards (they played the mice).
Soon after the ballet went into rehearsal, however, Petipa fell ill and was forced to turn over his duties to his second-in-command, the ballet master Lev Ivanov. The end result was a patchwork of dances, probably mostly by Ivanov with additional contributions from the dancer Alexander Shiryaev. When the ballet premiered in 1892 prominent critics dismissed it as just another féerie, calling it “an insult” to the Imperial Theatres and “death for the company.” And indeed — ironically, in view of its iconic status today — the ballet had only limited public appeal and soon fell from the repertory.
The snow scene, however, was highly praised, and Ivanov’s extant sketches for this windblown dance open a small window onto his often forgotten talent. Dancers were flung together in complicated formations that then fractured and dissolved into new and equally intricate designs: stars and Russian round dances, zigzags, and a large rotating Orthodox cross with a smaller circle, like a bejewelled ornament, around its centre and rotating in the opposite direction. This dance was not like Petipa at all: the symmetries were there, but the formations were more tenuous and airy, less formal and ceremonial. They had an impressionistic urgency and spontaneity that never would have flowed from the French ballet master’s more controlled palette, even as a description of snow.
Lev Ivanov was different: he was the first significant Russian choreographer to emerge from the Imperial Theatres. Like so many dancers in Russia, he had modest social origins and had passed through a foundling home before his mother (who was probably Georgian) reclaimed him, and although the family circumstances improved, he was sent at age eleven to board at the Imperial Theatre School. He graduated into the ballet company in 1852 and immediately fell under the influence, and shadow, of Marius Petipa. After Petipa was promoted to the rank of ballet master, Ivanov took over his position as first dancer of mime and character dance and performed original roles in many of Petipa’s ballets, including the lead male in La Bayadère. Some twenty years later, Ivanov was promoted to régisseur and then second ballet master (still under Petipa), where he remained until his death in 1901.
A servant of the state and pure product of the Imperial Theatres and their school, Ivanov had been brought up to treat his foreign and aristocratic superiors with obedience and respect. He lacked Petipa’s confidence and highly placed connections and thought of himself as “a good soldier”: he liked to wear a staff uniform, and in his short autobiography he railed indignantly against dancers who would “sin against the service, against art and even against your self-worth.” Yet Ivanov was also dreamy and introspective and could seem “undisciplined and moody,” as the dancer Tamara Karsavina later recalled. Exceptionally musical, he could often be found in a studio at the keyboard improvising, so engrossed that he sometimes failed to notice the dancers expectantly awaiting his instruction. He was entirely self-taught: the authorities had designated him to dance, and he never received formal musical training. He could not even read music, although he had the kind of memory that enabled him to reproduce whole compositions upon a single hearing.
Ivanov’s fellow Russian dancers had a special sympathy for him — he was more like them than Petipa ever had been; he spoke their language and had none of the aloof and arrogant manners typical of the elite. And if Petipa always had one foot in Paris, it is significant that Ivanov never left his native Russia and was often dispatched to mount dances in Moscow or for the military encampments at Krasnoe Selo — where the royal box, in keeping with the tsar’s Russianizing tastes, was shaped like a peasant cottage. All of this gave him a uniquely Russian perspective, and although Ivanov was fully versed in the technique and style of west European ballet, his dances also had, as one observer memorably put it, “periodic undercurrents of Slavic melancholy and introspection.”
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Swan Lake, perhaps the most imperfect but powerful of all Russian ballets. The version we know today derives from the production choreographed by Petipa and Ivanov to Tchaikovsky’s music and premiered in St. Petersburg in 1895. But Swan Lake also had another, earlier history. Tchaikovsky had originally been commissioned to compose the score in Moscow in the mid-1870s by one Vladimir Begichev, who was in charge of repertory at the city’s Bolshoi Theatre. Begichev’s wife ran an influential Moscow literary salon frequented by Tchaikovsky, who also tutored the couple’s son in music. Discussions at their home and at Ostrovsky’s Artists’ Circle, another literary and artistic club founded in the 1860s, had already inspired a new, self-consciously Russian ballet entitled The Fern based on a folktale recorded by Gogol: Moscow’s back-to-the-people version of Saint-Léon’s Humpbacked Horse, but apparently undistinguished.
We don’t know who wrote the libretto for Swan Lake, although it may have been Begichev and it was probably drawn from German folk and fairy-tale sources and perhaps influenced by Wagner’s Lohengrin. But the ballet also had roots in Tchaikovsky’s family life: some years earlier he had composed music for a children’s ballet about “The Lake of Swans”, which he and his extended family liked to perform in “house performances” later warmly remembered by his niece and nephew and featuring large wooden rocking swans. It was a fitting backdrop for a new Russian ballet recalling, however faintly, the domestic and estate settings of old serf ballets. The Moscow production had choreography by Julius Reisinger, a second-rate ballet master imported from Europe, but the lead role was not performed (as was now customary in St. Petersburg) by a foreign star: Odette was first danced by the ballerina Pelagia Karpakova and then by Anna Sobeshchanskaya.
This Moscow Swan Lake, moreover, bore only a passing resemblance to Petipa and Ivanov’s later St. Petersburg production. The outline of the ballet is familiar, but the Moscow original was more complicated: dark, violent, and tragic. Steeped in Romanticism, the ballet tells the story of a beautiful girl, Odette, trapped in the form of a swan. Tormented and pursued by an evil stepmother in the guise of an owl and demon sorcerer, she lives with a flock of similarly bewitched young maidens in a lake of tears. By day they are swans but by night they are set free to dance in the nearby ruins. Only marriage can break the spell that binds Odette to her watery fate, but when Prince Siegfried falls in love with her, the stepmother tricks him: an impostor in black seduces the prince, who swears his undying devotion to this glamorous fake, thus betraying the real Odette and dooming her to eternal captivity. Realising his mistake, Siegfried begs her forgiveness but — and this is the crux of the difference from later productions — it is too late. A crashing storm and terrible flood signal doom, with great undulating (canvas) waves and “an unimaginable din and uproar” that resembled “the explosion of a powder magazine” (and here a strong whiff of gunpowder filled the theatre). In desperation the prince tears off Odette’s crown, which is her only protection from the evil owl, and, consumed in guilt and grief, the erstwhile lovers are swept into the waters and drowned. There is no redemptive apotheosis, as there later would be, but instead a vision of a cruel and indifferent fate: the lovers perish and the moon shines through the clouds “and on the calm lake appears a band of white swans.”
This ballet had its premiere in 1877 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. The music was well received (although some grumbled it was too lush and operatic and thus ill-suited for ballet), but the choreography was roundly panned and went through several versions and many hands before the ballet was finally retired from the repertory in 1883, a victim of drastic cutbacks in the theatre’s budget. It disappeared for nearly ten years. Indeed, Tchaikovsky never saw it again: he and Vsevolozhsky had discussed a revival, but in 1893, before it could be produced, the composer died unexpectedly. The following year Lev Ivanov fashioned brand-new choreography for the second lakeside act for a memorial concert in St. Petersburg produced by Vsevolozhsky in honour of Tchaikovsky. Plans for a new production of the entire work proceeded, and Vsevolozhsky wrote to Modest asking him to work on a new libretto: “I hope you will succeed in avoiding the flood of the last act. It is trite and would go badly on our stage.”
Thus began a series of far-reaching revisions. Modest kept the flood but modified the ending, introducing a melodramatic double suicide: Odette throws herself into the lake and Siegfried stabs himself. In subsequent revisions things got softer and sweeter. Vsevolozhsky and Petipa excised the storm and flood and — building on Modest’s ending — had the lovers jump into the lake together and capped the ballet with the now-familiar heavenly apotheosis: “in the clouds, seated on huge swans, appear Siegfried and Odette.” The music was reworked by the Italian composer Riccardo Drigo (he had conducted the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty), who was asked to alter and shorten the score: as the scholar Roland John Wiley has shown, he lightened the orchestration, cut certain passages and added others, and (perhaps inadvertently) dismantled the tonal structure of Tchaikovsky’s original, giving the ballet an easier and less discordant feel. The music for the storm scene was simply deleted. The choreography was no less cobbled: Petipa, whose poor health had been exacerbated by the death of his daughter and other family difficulties, took responsibility for the court scenes but delegated the more lyrical and introspective lakeside dances to his Russian colleague Ivanov. This division of labour, however, turned out to be fortuitous: the enduring success of the ballet owes much to the tension between Petipa and Ivanov’s contrasting choreographic styles.
Consider Ivanov’s dances for the moonlit lakeside scene when the swans first appear as women, freed by the night and led by Odette, whose position is marked by her bejewelled crown. Siegfried and Odette meet; she tells her story and they confront the threatening sorcerer von Rothbart. The floor then clears for the entrance of the swans. Recalling Petipa’s shades in La Bayadère, they come one by one, single file, from the upstage corner in a series of simple repetitive steps and weave a serpentine pattern until they are ranked across the stage in straight, symmetrical lines. From this moment, however, a different mood takes hold: Ivanov sends the swans into a series of sculptural patterns that carve through the space, break apart, and recombine. The vocabulary is simple and clear — no more than a few plain-verse steps — with none of the wit or decorative embellishments that might draw the eye to a particular dancer.
This scene is often held up as the greatest possible achievement for a corps de ballet: properly performed, the dancers seem to move as one, and audiences today still marvel at how “together” they are. It is often assumed, moreover, that they are so together because each dancer has been trained meticulously to calibrate her movements to those of her neighbour. But this is not really how it works. Ivanov’s swans are not an assembly line or human machine, nor even a closely integrated community: they are an ensemble created by music. His steps do not so much fit the music as allow a dancer to find the phrase and sustain it in movement, making her way into the sound rather than moving smoothly across its surface. The unity is not “out” to one’s neighbours, but paradoxically a turning “in” and away; it is a togetherness based on musical and physical introspection, the polar opposite of show or ceremony. This is why the dance has such a silent, self-reflective feel.
It is not that the stage is quiet or the choreography sparse: Ivanov’s initial twenty-four swans are soon joined by twelve cygnets (children, usually left out of today’s productions) and by soloists until as many as forty dancers fill the stage. Yet no matter the crowds and the choreography’s increasing demands and complexity, the dancers never break order or rank; nor do they lose their discipline and inner focus. Moreover, they never lose their spatial and physical — or musical — relationship to Odette, their queen. They are her likeness, and their movements and patterns mirror and reflect her own: as they shadow her, they become an outward manifestation of her inner life.
This is even true in the pas de deux. Today we often think of this dance as a love story, but in 1895 it was more of a first-person soliloquy: Odette’s story. At the beginning of the scene Odette relates her sad tale in mime; she then repeats it here, abstracted in movement, in her dance with Prince Siegfried. This pas de deux was not an impassioned Romeo-and-Juliet-style duet — in fact, it was not a pas de deux at all, but instead a ménage à trios: Siegfried was originally performed by Pavel Gerdt, who was apparently too old to manage the partnering alone, so Benno (Siegfried’s friend) danced with Odette too. Any love interest was thus diluted: Siegfried and Benno were there to lift and support Odette and to allow her feelings to fully emerge. This was a kind of love, to be sure, but more courtly than romantic, an idealisation of woman rather than of feelings.
The dance begins as Odette descends gracefully to the ground in an arpeggio of movement (to a delicate harp cadenza), her body folded over on itself and her face hidden beneath her long, wing-like arms. As the first notes of the violin solo begin, her partner lifts her arm and literally unfolds her body as she rises up to full pointe. As she moves, he seems to disappear: it is just her and the long legato phrases of the violin. If audiences experience this dance as love, it is the harmony between Odette and the music, not her relationship with Siegfried, that inspires the feeling. Fittingly, the dance ends not in embrace but instead with Odette plunged into a deep supported arabesque or fallen with arms folded over on herself, head down, and the corps de ballet arrayed behind her, similarly draped.
Even as the dance opens out again — with solos, the arm-plaited “four little swans”, and a rushing coda — Odette’s self-absorption intensifies. No matter how bravura the demands (and there are some very difficult passages), the steps are designed as a kind of inverse showing off: small, quick movements requiring steely discipline and restraint — steps that force a ballerina to pull into herself and the music, rather than flashing out to the audience. The ballerina role was danced by the Italian Pierina Legnani, whose thick legs and fluid, strong technique — not to mention the ropes of pearls she liked to wear over her costume — made her an unlikely interpreter for Ivanov’s pure and lucid choreography. But in fact her impressive range and flexibility and (as many observers put it) the “plastique” of her dancing were crucial to the ballet’s success. As one critic noted: “It was as if Legnani were actually experiencing these moments, filled with poetic melancholy.”
The contrast between Ivanov’s “white” lakeside scenes and Petipa’s own architectonic and fiercely difficult dances for the court scenes could not have been sharper (it is Petipa’s black swan who executes the famous thirty-two fouettés — another Italian trick). It was a difference of style but also of ideas. In Petipa’s lexicon the individual is ennobled through fine taste and eloquence, grace and manners; the flamboyant, black Odile appears evil because she corrupts classical technique with her stylishly exaggerated bravura and false eloquence. Her movements are too skilled and alluring, lacking discernment and bordering on crass. Petipa’s choreography enshrined hierarchy and order, refinement and elegance — not as a set of repressive or stifling rules but as a necessary condition for beauty and art. Ivanov submitted to this aesthetic but also undercut it: there was a solvent in his dances, a yearning to break patterns and discard ornament in favour of a simpler grammar that might, in its most concentrated and lyrical forms, capture something more intimate and interior. He was interested in the inner sanctuaries — the private Russian chambers — of Petipa’s grand and marble-faced aesthetic.
Swan Lake had no successor: it stood alone in the repertory, not only for what it was but for where it came from. It was a product of Moscow and St. Petersburg, of the 1870s and the 1890s. Its fractured history and truncated, rearranged text, choreographed in fits and starts by Ivanov and Petipa after Tchaikovsky’s death, captures something of the competing forces and extraordinary invention shaping ballet at the time. Swan Lake, moreover, was no féerie but instead a full-blown Romantic tragedy, even in its gentler St. Petersburg form. It was not Petipa’s greatest work; that distinction rests firmly with The Sleeping Beauty. But if Beauty summoned forth an idealised classical and courtly past and was itself an exemplary monument to Imperial style, Ivanov’s lakeside dances in Swan Lake conjured the possibility of a perfect future in which love exists out of time and dancers are joined in a pure, plastic, and musical art. Together these two ballets stand as pillars marking ballet’s place as an Imperial Russian art.
By century’s end, however, the Russian moment in ballet was over. Petipa and Ivanov’s generation passed abruptly from the scene. In 1899 Vsevolozhsky left the Imperial Theatres to take up a position at the Hermitage Theatre, and Petipa went with him. Petipa was thus withdrawn deeper into the court, his ballets performed in ever-smaller venues for a restricted and elite audience. The Imperial Theatres, by contrast, turned increasingly toward Moscow: Vsevolozhsky was replaced briefly by the thoughtful but politically inept Prince Volkonsky (grandson of the Decembrist), whose efforts to discipline the extravagant behaviour of the tsar’s former lover, the ballerina Matilda Kschessinska, cost him his job; and then by V. A. Teliakovsky, a Muscovite and military man who cared little for Petipa and worked instead to promote a new generation of self-consciously Russian artists. Petipa lasted at the Hermitage for a few years but was finally forced into retirement in 1903. His ballets continued to be mounted at the Maryinsky, but he himself was rudely sidelined and those in charge treated him with thinly veiled contempt.
Distraught and frustrated, Petipa retired to the Crimea and wrote his autobiography, an exercise that served him poorly. He was too disenchanted to reflect on his life, and instead documented his rage — rage at the fraying of the social order and the decline of proper manners, rage at the new generation’s rampant and careless disregard for the past (“I’m not quite yet dead, M. Teliakovsky!”), and at the mangled state of his own dances. He dedicated the book to Vsevolozhsky. It was translated from the French and published in St. Petersburg in 1906, but by then Petipa’s closest colleagues were gone: Ivanov had died in 1901 and Johansson in 1903, Vsevolozhsky would go in 1909, and Legnani had long since shifted her sights back to western Europe. Petipa himself died in 1910, and an official at the Imperial Theatres stiffly recorded the event: “The maître de ballet Petipa died on July 1st/13th, 1910, in the town of Gurzuf, and I have therefore removed his name from the list of directors.”
Petipa’s legacy, however, was enormous. His early ballets were largely forgotten, but the later years of his reign at the Imperial Theatres saw the creation of nearly all of the ballets that would form the base of the classical tradition for the century to come. Not just La Bayadère and The Sleeping Beauty and — with Ivanov — The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, but also Giselle, which was rechoreographed by Petipa in the 1880s (in the version from which most modern productions derive), Paquita and Le Corsaire (both from earlier French ballets), Don Quixote, and perhaps most significantly Raymonda (1898) to gorgeously Russian-inflected music by Glazunov, which contained a wealth of jewel-like dances that choreographers would mine well into the 20th century. Elevated to mythic status, these ballets — and none more than The Sleeping Beauty — would become the root and source of classical ballet not just in Russia but also in France, Italy, and – especially — America and Britain.
Under Petipa’s stewardship, the entire axis of classical ballet had shifted. For two centuries, the art form had been quintessentially French. No more: from this point forth, classical ballet would be Russian. It is often said, rather flatly, that Russian ballet was a mix of French, Scandinavian (through the teacher Johansson), and Italian sources — that Russia, through Petipa, absorbed all of these and made them her own. This is certainly true; but what really changed ballet was the way it became entwined with Imperial Russia herself. Serfdom and autocracy, St. Petersburg and the prestige of foreign culture, hierarchy, order, aristocratic ideals and their ongoing tension with more eastern folk forms: all of these things ran into ballet and made it a quintessentially Russian art. Moreover, because classical ballet sat at the intersection of Russia and the West, it took on an unprecedented symbolic importance: to this day, ballet matters more in Russia than it ever has elsewhere, before or since.
Marius Petipa was Russia’s last foreign ballet master, Lev Ivanov its first native voice. In their wake came a new — and newly confident — generation of Russian dancers and ballet masters, including Alexander Gorsky and Agrippina Vaganova; Mikhail Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, all of whom graduated from the Imperial Theatre School at or near the turn of the century. These dancers did not shy from authority: Gorsky took charge of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and Fokine would eventually assume the mantle of the St. Petersburg company. Henceforth ballet’s greatest stars would be Russian.
But this new Russian generation faced a daunting challenge: classical ballet was in Russian hands, but Russia itself was on the brink of collapse. Everything that had made ballet important since Peter the Great was about to come to a violent end. These dancers had been trained under the old order: Imperial Russia was all they knew. Many had worked with Petipa and Ivanov, performed at the Maryinsky and been given chocolates by the tsar. But in the coming years, building on Petipa and Ivanov’s legacy would prove difficult and contentious. Their ballets — indeed, ballet itself — stood for the past and a dying aristocratic principle, for a way of life that was rotting from within and under attack from without. Ballet would have to change. A new and defiantly Russian century in dance was about to begin.
And that is another story.
From “Apollo’s Angels: A History Of Ballet” by Jennifer Homans
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.
Little bears went to Carriageworks to see Nick Cave: UNTIL – the most ambitious project to date by the influential American artist.
“I view this work as a theatre set, or an elaborate community forum, as much as a work of sculpture,” explains Nick Cave.
The centrepiece of NICK CAVE: UNTIL is Crystal Cloudscape, a 12 metre long and 6 metre wide sculpture, weighing over five tonnes, and suspended within the Carriageworks public space. Made primarily from thousands of crystals, beads, and found objects, visitors are invited to climb one of four ladders to view the top surface of the work where an uncanny bricolage of objects that reference an American vernacular past and present populate a landscape simultaneously alluring as it is menacing.
Amidst the porcelain birds, money-boxes, ceramic salt and pepper shakers, candelabras, gramophone speakers, soft toys, glass fruit, gold-gilded pigs, life-sized crocodile, holy water receptacles, dandelions, flowers and Beams Trophy Whiskey Decanters are 17 cast-iron ‘Jocko’-style lawn jockeys whose historic roots date to the Jim Crow era of legislated segregation that operated in parts of the United States from 1877-1965. Replacing the lanterns that the lawn jockeys once held, Cave’s ‘Jockos’ hold dreamcatchers that have been fashioned from vintage tennis rackets and beads.
Visitors are able to view the Crystal Cloudscape from above, climbing one of the four ladders up to the surface of the work, or observing the entirety of the constructed landscape from a viewing platform.
Nick Cave has created an exhibition experience where kinetics and sumptuous materials are interrupted with stark images of guns, bullets and targets. Other works within UNTIL include the Kinetic Spinner Forest, Hy-Dyve, Beaded Cliff Wall, Flow/Blow and Wallwork.
Kinetic Spinner Forest consists of 16,000 hanging mobiles made from metallic spinning garden ornaments. On close inspection these seemingly playful objects have at their centre the shape of a teardrop, bullet or hand-gun. The initial enchantment of the forest is ruptured by the pointed reminder of the omnipresent and polarising position that guns occupy in American culture.
Hy-Dyve is an immersive 14 channel video installation and exploration into states of anxiety and agitation fuelled by the pervasive notions of surveillance and racial profiling. The floor component of the work is site-specific for Sydney; the footage of waves crashing against the rocks filmed by drone at Little Bay. The pull and swell of the ocean projected onto the floor creates a tidal momentum within the room.
Beaded Cliff Wall is an extraordinary installation constructed with millions of plastic hair pony beads. This site-specific installation and has been completely redesigned and reconceived for Carriageworks. The beaded curtains are displayed in their entirety, running the lengths of the gallery walls and creating a room within a room. Visitors can walk between the curtains that read as both luscious textiles and powerful protest flags.
Flow/Blow is a fan propelled wall of shimmering party streamers. The life-giving, cleansing and healing properties of water and oxygen are writ large, inviting viewers to take breath.
Wallwork is a kaleidoscopic collage of images mostly adapted from Crystal Cloudscape. The image of ‘Jocko’, the eternal gatekeeper and messenger, is interwoven with flowers that represent renewal, and birds who both surveil and bring news.
Artist Nick Cave has made a career out of this kind of maximalist diversion, which captivates and delights the viewer before they know what is happening — most famously with his Soundsuits, wearable sculptures that generate sound as the wearer moves.
The Soundsuits featured in Cave’s work HEARD, which was performed at Carriageworks and at GOMA in 2016, were made from raffia and reclaimed materials.
Cave’s talent for “play” allows him to sneak complex questions and ideas under the radar of passers-by. His Soundsuits, many of which look like a cross between a Muppet and a Mardi Gras costume, disguise all aspects of the wearer’s identity — and were a response to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by the LA Police (the first one was made of twigs he gathered in a park in Chicago, where he is based).
In Until, Cave’s largest and most complex work to date, he is talking about racism — but dazzling you as he does it. The spinning “baubles”, hanging in strings from the Carriageworks ceiling, depict bullets, guns and tears.
A play on the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’, or in this case ‘guilty until proven innocent’, UNTIL began with a question Cave asked himself: ‘Is there racism in heaven?’ Rather than providing a direct answer, Cave offers us an experience, an immersive exhibition that addresses issues of race relations, gender politics and gun violence in America, and the resonance of these matters in communities around the world.
The catalyst for Until was the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old African American man Michael Brown by a white police officer in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
Until is Cave’s most immersive experiment to date, allowing him to create a whole experience for the viewer. He thinks of the exhibition and its various spaces as a choreographer might (and not for nothing — he trained at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre as a young man), imagining how viewers might move through the environment and experience it.
“Creating the work in the studio is one thing. The other half is executing it,” he said. And it is nothing until the people arrive. And it’s really something when little bears arrive 🙂
NICK CAVE: UNTIL is the result of a partnership between Carriageworks, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, with the three organisations co-commissioning and co-presenting the project following four years development with the artist. In Australia the exhibition will be seen exclusively at Carriageworks.
The Berlin Staatskapelle is an opera orchestra, the resident orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, that also plays concerts.
Over the ‘wall’ from the Berlin Philharmonie, the 500 year old Staatskapelle has weathered tyrants and kings, and worst, GDR bureaucrats. But its cultured sound remains — the history lives on. Much of the later, Cinderella part of the story belongs to Daniel Barenboim, one of the greatest musicians of the past 50 years. When shunned by the Berlin Philharmoniker for directorship after Claudio Abaddo, he focused on his other Berlin orchestra and has thrust them into international prominence.
The Berlin State Opera originated with the establishment by Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg of his “Kurfurstliche Hofkapelle” (Electoral Court Ensemble), formally organised in 1570. That makes Staatskapelle one of the oldest orchestras in the world. By the early 17th century the orchestra numbered 37 players, becoming one of the largest in Europe, but during the Thirty Years War it shrank to just seven players. It slowly recovered, now as an ensemble mostly of strings. In 1696, Elector Friedrich III established the first regular opera in Berlin, using the Hofkapelle as its orchestra.
In 1701, Brandenburg became the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Elector became King Friedrich I. Its musical establishment was enlarged and named “Königliche Kapelle” (Royal Ensemble), but with the accession of King Friedrich Wilhelm I in 1713 the group dwindled to a small brass band used for hunting and parades. During this period, the orchestra served as Kur Brandenburg court chapel, exclusively for musical engagements at court.
The next king, Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), known as a military genius, was also a music lover, good flute player, and adequate composer who wrote over 120 flute concertos. He brought in excellent musicians to serve as his Kapellmeister, including Johann Joachim Quantz and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His lovely Royal Opera House on Unter den Linden, built in 1742, was strictly for the court and military officers. After the Royal Opera House was founded by Frederick the Great, the court chapel became an intrinsic part of the Opera House unter den Linden. By the 1850’s, individual members were already extending their Kapelle activities and contributing significantly to the Berlin concert scene. The Opera House has been destroyed by fire and war more than once, but rebuilt each time, and it still serves as the home of the opera and the orchestra.
Frederick II died in 1786, and in 1789 the Unter den Linden opera opened to the public for the first time. The first public symphony concert featuring the Kapelle was a 1796 benefit concert for Constanze Mozart of her late husband’s music. From the beginning of the 19th century the orchestra began giving public concerts which, from 1821, were played at the Gendarmenmarkt Theater.
The greatest conductors in their time left their indelible marks on the orchestra´s culture of instrumentalisation and interpretation. Great figures in music have shaped its instrumental and interpretational culture. Gaspare Spontini, the first to hold the title of Prussian General Music Director, was succeeded by illustrious names, such as: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
There were only sporadic concerts until 1842 when Kapellmeister, Giacomo Meyerbeer, organised regular subscription concert series. The orchestra’s series remained limited and highly conservative by comparison with those of the Berlin Philharmonic Society (founded 1826 and organised as a professional orchestra in 1882) until conductor Felix Weingartner, appointed to head the Königliche Kapelle in 1892, made it a leading part of the city’s musical life. Richard Strauss was its music director from 1908 to 1920. The works of Richard Wagner, who conducted the “königlich preussische Hofkapelle” (royal Prussian court orchestra) himself in 1844 at the Berlin première of The flying Dutchman and in 1876 during the preparations for the Berlin première of Tristan und Isolde, have been a key part of the repertoire of the Staatsoper and the Staatskapelle ever since.
The post-War Revolution toppling the monarchy (known as the German Empire since 1871) resulted in the “Royal Kapelle” being renamed the Kapelle der Staatsoper (State Opera Orchestra). As part of the lively musical scene in Berlin in the 1920’s it now became associated with modern music. Its great conductors during the period included Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Zemlinsky, and Bruno Walter. Many of them left after the 1933 accession of the Nazis to power.
In 1934, the opera orchestra was named the Staatskapelle (State Orchestra), and from 1938 to 1945 was led by the young Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. Another political reorganization in 1944 renamed the orchestra the Preussiche Staatskapelle (Prussian State Orchestra), which ceased giving concerts on April 19, 1945 when Allied troops began to enter the city. But it soon reopened (June 16, 1945) as the “Staatskapelle Berlin”. Two long-serving music directors, Franz Konwitschny (1955-1962) and Othmar Suitner (1964 to 1990), saw the Staatskapelle Berlin through its years as the leading orchestra in East Berlin, firmly under German Democratic Republic government rule.
In 1989, the members of the orchestra presented to the government a petition demanding the reorganization of the Staatskapelle as an independent, democratically run organisation. This became part of the widespread public pressure that within months caused the collapse of the German communist state and the reunification of Germany.
Daniel Barenboim is responsible for the Berlin Staatskapelle in his capacity as Staatskapellmeister (General Music Director) since 1992, between 1992 and 2002 he also held the post of the State Opera’s artistic director. Barenboim, unlike most present-day conductors, believes in long-term musical relationships. While it was not unusual for icons such as Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam, Georg Szell in Cleveland, and Herbert von Karajan in Berlin to create a strong bond and recognisable musical identity with their orchestras over decades of training collaboration, this is seldom the case today. Eugene Ormandy helped his orchestra develop the legendary ‘Philadelphia sound’ over forty years. How many orchestras would be able to boast of similar achievement today? The Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim might be one of the few and the fruits of this relationship were clearly demonstrated in the three concerts at Sydney Opera House.
When Barenboim took over this former East German ensemble, he described it as ‘as little bit like encountering a wonderful collection of antique furniture; the workmanship was superb but there was a thick layer of dust over everything’. Such has been his painstaking work these past years that what we now have are sounds the like of which have probably not been heard in Berlin since the Furtwängler years. Their playing is marked by a golden tone, rich strings, deep powerful timpani, characterful winds and solid brass.
The first two concerts presented Brahms as it should be. Bold, grand, shamelessly romantic.
The fact that Barenboim divides his violin decks antiphonally adds to the purpose of this music (a practice that is unfortunately carried out by few conductors nowadays) and creates some nice effects especially in the last two symphonies. The tempi are slow overall, slower than most performances, but so gorgeous is the playing that it is a pleasure to indulge in such fine music-making. Plus, Barenboim’s definitely not your standard conductor when it comes to these pieces: he gently shapes, nearly caresses, each phrase as if he were sculpting a fine statue of antiquity.
Performing the Brahms symphonies as an anthology within twenty-six hours offers all kinds of experiences for an audience. It can listen to the cycle as an opulent wash of Romantic orchestral music; take this rare chance to observe the differences between the four works, resulting from chronology and the increasing maturity of the composer; or attend to the minutiae of interpretations in the various movements. There was a unity to musical concept, playing style, and the quality of both, from the first powerful unisono orchestral tutti of the cycle on a single, resonant C to its last, full E minor chord. It was not the differences between tempi and moods, dynamics and emotions, that appealed the most, but the unbroken attention to the flow of musical energy and its changes throughout the two evenings.
One feature was the way in which Barenboim and his supremely disciplined orchestra allowed the music to breathe. A certain freedom of the tempo, which musicians call rubato, became a self-evident part of the performance, as for example in the deliciously slight hesitation of the opening bar of the Symphony No.4.
The collective tone of the woodwind players was mesmerising. Individual solos, such as the oboe theme in the first half of the Andante sostenuto movement of the Symphony No.1 stood out not only for its outstanding musicality but also for an exquisite and highly individual tone colour. Of the numerous horn solos throughout the cycle, the stentorian Alphorn solo impressed particularly with its resonance and impeccable control in the same symphony’s final movement.
Barenboim also inspired his musicians to produce unique sounds, when two or more instruments or groups played in unison. Seldom do cellos and horns blend so well, creating not two different tones but a joint new one, as they did in the final movement’s triplet theme in the Symphony No.3.
The string section – the backbone of most Romantic orchestral compositions – played with perfect unison. Their excellent balance was helped by a long row formed by the eight double basses in the back behind the winds and brass. Thus they directly faced the audience, and their well-controlled sound came through without the hindrance of being seated on the side. The clarity of sound was nothing short of amazing within the string sections; the middle voices remained light, never cluttering the velvety texture of the melodies. This was particularly obvious in the Allegro con brio movement of the Symphony No.2.
Their always warm and unified sound notwithstanding, a rare achievement of the Staatskapelle Berlin is that individual players are constantly audible – not only the wind instruments but also the strings. While orchestras around the world often aim to achieve a homogeneous sound within sections, there was a pleasing flexibility in a collective sound that was composed of recognisably individual elements.
Barenboim appeared to have counted on that flexibility. While he gave his musicians latitude, he maintained supreme control over the flow of the music. With his left arm often stretched out, he indicated long musical lines or delicately adjusted the balance between the various sections. He often focused on a melody while also accentuating an accompanying voice, only to emphasise another one a few notes later, drawing the listener’s attention to different voices. In this densely written, highly contrapuntal music, where several voices are playing most of the time, this became an intellectual exercise for the discerning audience, for many secondary melodies (always there, but rarely noticeable) gained much welcome importance. The feeling was akin to looking at an old, dusty painting after a thorough cleaning.
Barenboims’s holistic reading of these compositions, based on meticulous observation of all the instructions in the score, revealed them in a new light. It was a less dramatic approach than even Barenboim’s own first recording of the set from 1993. The myriad alterations distinguishing it from the traditional perception of these symphonies were mostly minute, but they altered the sound of the symphonies and rewarded the capacity audience of the Concert Hall with an unusually rich performance of all four Brahms symphonies.
You say you enjoyed the Brahms beary much? That’s beary good news 🙂
And now you can listen to more Brahms with Staatskapelle at home.
Brahms left his native Hamburg in the early summer of 1853, aged just 20, returning later that year, a doted-upon composer, known to Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz and, of course, Clara and Robert Schumann, who declared him a genius. He had achieved fame and presented in his first few works a solid foundation from which that celebrity would grow. Very few people who crossed his path were unaffected by his obvious and abundant talent.
When he died, in April 1897, aged 63, he was the German-speaking world’s foremost composer; indeed he was probably the most famous composer in the entire world. His music was played across the USA as his disciples took up posts in the musical capitals of the New World. He had amassed a considerable fortune almost entirely from the royalties to his music with occasional supplements from performing. He was a composer who did not rely on financial patronage but who truly lived off his talent and was beholden to no one. Today, Brahms’s music — particularly his orchestral music — has a grip on the repertoire like few others, his god Beethoven apart. No other composer offers a symphonic legacy that is so well balanced, so concentrated and at such an equally high level: four works, like the four sides of a square, that comprise a unit of great strength and integrity. Barely a week (hardly even a day) goes by without a performance of one of his symphonies somewhere in the world.
To talk of Johannes Brahms is to enter a world where fantasy, melancholy and the contradiction of bluff appearances and unfathomable depths are crucial prerequisites. Few symphonic composers have done so much with so few works, but Brahms four symphonies have lasted through the centuries thanks to their verve, their freedom and their complexity.
But it didn’t start off quite like that…
If any one composer in history was hyped to breaking point, it has to be Brahms. For a variety of reasons, he was seen as the natural successor to Beethoven, whose legacy cast a long shadow over the 19th century. Basically, everyone was expecting Brahms to pull out the big guns and follow Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
A total of fourteen years were to pass between 1862 , when the then 29-year-old Brahms noted down his earliest ideas for his First Symphony, and the first performance of the work in Karlsruhe in 1876. Expectations were high. The conductor for the symphony’s premiere, Hans von Bülow, even referred to it as ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’, a term which has stuck. It’s true that there are quotes and references to Beethoven work within the symphony, but it’s more of a homage than a case of plagiarism. As Brahms himself commented, “any ass can see that”.
According to a famous remark that he made to his friend, the conductor Hermann Levi, before he had started working on his First Symphony, Brahms regarded his situation as a composer desperate: “I shall never write a symphony. You have no idea who people like us feel when all we can hear is a giant marching along behind us.”
Brahms was clearly aware that he belonged to a generation of epigones and could look back only with anxious wonderment on the age of classical heroes. Although he worshipped Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, as a symphonist he was reacting first and foremost to his father’s generation of Romantic composers, above all to his mentor Robert Schumann and to Menderlssohn. By approaching the symphony from the direction of the serenade and variation, Brahms was able to develop a concept of the medium whose ingenious unity of comprehensibility and complexity is unmatched in the output of any other 19th century composer.
After the nightmare of expectation and hype that surrounded Brahms’ first symphony, you might expect the second to contain some of the composer’s most melancholic work. In fact, it’s surprisingly light and airy, some say with a similar character to Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the ‘Pastoral’. It’s a breeze to listen to, with the first movement especially full of sweeping melodies to whistle along with.
In a show of brilliant self-awareness, Brahms wrote to his publisher in 1877 upon delivery of the second symphony, describing the work with his tongue firmly in his cheek as, “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it.”
By 1883, Brahms was on a roll. He’d had major successes with his violin concerto, his piano concertos and his Academic Overture, but the third symphony was something else. It’s a brave monster of a work, with rapidly changing character and some more of those huge, sweeping melodies.
Nine years after the premiere of his first symphony, Brahms conducted the premiere of his fourth symphony in Meiningen, bringing to an end his engagement with the symphony as a genre. With his final symphony, Brahms again nods to Beethoven on several occasions. As the likes of Liszt and Wagner (who by this time had passed away) set about decrying the old guard of older composers, Brahms ignored most of the developments around him and shamelessly, confidently looked backwards for inspiration. That’s why the fourth symphony has such a strongly classical symphonic feel. There are adventures and experiments within it, but there’s also a huge amount of Bach and more Beethoven.
Little bears are in Sydney to see, and hear, Daniel Barenboim and his legendary orchestra, Staatskapelle. The renowned maestro and his orchestra will celebrate the Romantic greats in three Australian exclusive performances at Sydney Opera House. We have tickets to two performances, having decided that one night of Brahms was enough. Besides, Brahms is no competition for a cherry jam lamington!
On the night of the first performance, little bears were under the same roof as the legendary orchestra, but at Bennelong restaurant to eat Peter Gilmore’s famous cherry jam lamington.
It was four years ago that Peter Gilmore took over the Bennelong site at Sydney Opera House. Apparently it was a Hollywood-style happy ending to what had been a drama-packed 12 months for Bennelong and Sydney Opera House. The controversy began with former tenant Guillaume’s Brahimi’s decision not to re-bid for the tender at the end of his lease in January 2014 following a Sydney Opera House decree for a more casual operation in the space.
The the three-level space was given a multi-million dollar makeover, and it opened mid 2015 with a signature Peter Gilmore dining room on the lower level, quick bites and drinks in the middle, and a casual restaurant/bar on the upper level.
Little bears couldn’t be happier with the change! The result is a beary friendly restaurant! 🙂
Peter Gilmore is famous for his desserts. Quay’s snow egg was a bucket list dining item for everyone in Sydney, and the lamington at Bennelong is starting to reach equal heights. When he took over Bennelong, Gilmore was inspired to create something as iconic as his new venue.
This is the Rolls Royce of lamingtons. Peter Gilmore’s take on the classic lamington is an ode to Australian nostalgia, elevated to the point of cult-dish status. On the plate: a square of cherry jam coconut ice-cream and sponge cake, coated in a glossy chocolate ganache, all surrounded by a halo of liquid nitrogen coconut milk parfait that acts as desiccated coconut. Amazing!
If you feel brave enough to tackle the nearly 50 separate steps needed to create the dessert, here is the recipe.