Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky’s most beloved ballet score is The Nutcracker, but the composer is also renowned for two other story ballets—The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, both of which return to New York City Ballet this winter and spring. For NYCB’s 2013 Tschaikovsky Celebration, writer and critic Robert Sandla offered insight into these three works in the following essay, reprinted here.
Tsar Alexander III attended the final dress rehearsal of The Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 2, 1890, which was expected, since he paid for the whole thing. After nearly three hours of the sublimity and sparkle, the radiant transformations and plangent yearning of Tschaikovsky’s score, the tsar’s only comment to the composer—one can’t help imagining it accompanied by the vague wave of a bejeweled hand—was, “Very nice.”
Tschaikovsky was his usual depressive self concerning The Nutcracker, which premiered at the Maryinsky on December 18, 1892. In a letter, the composer painted himself as a doddering graybeard and groused, “The ballet is much worse than The Sleeping Beauty. Of this there is no doubt.”
Tschaikovsky’s first ballet, which premiered in 1877 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, was a bomb, hobbled by a mediocre choreographer, demanding dancers, cranky musicians, and a conductor who could not conduct a train. Tschaikovsky’s score was cut by a third, and Swan Lake sank like a stone.
Things are a little different now.
The dance scores that Tschaikovsky composed are ballet’s Big Three, a troika of works that virtually defined the art form. As choreographer George Balanchine once observed, “If it were not for Tschaikovsky, there wouldn’t be any dancing.” Tschaikovsky rewrote the rules on ballet music, and proved that music for dancing can be serious, densely organized, and wildly poetic. His radiant melodic gift, rhythmic sweep, and richly varied orchestrations provide immediate impetus for movement (just try to not get caught up in one of his waltzes), and his solos are boons to ballerinas everywhere. Instead of being just a series of variously charming or colorful numbers—the string-of-pearls approach standard in his era—Tschaikovsky’s scores are structurally and thematically integrated. He organized his ballets along symphonic principles, and for that reason the scores for The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty—the domestic fantasy, the soulful tragedy, and the courtly coming-of-age fairy tale—can to a large extent stand on their own as concert music, divorced from dance and the exigencies of narrative. Tschaikovsky’s music makes you want to move and encourages you to dream.
Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky was born to middle-class parents in 1840 in the Russian town of Kamsko-Votinsk. He started piano lessons at age seven and showed a love for music, but he was not especially encouraged. After his family moved to St. Petersburg, he enrolled at the School of Jurisprudence and then worked at the Ministry of Justice as a clerk, a civil-service position with a steady if uninspiring future. At age 21 he started studying music seriously, and eventually entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, where he was recognized as a talent. He landed a job teaching harmony at the Moscow Conservatory and began composing.
By all accounts, Tschaikovsky was a sweet guy, a pussycat, loved by all. He was also a bundle of nerves. His childhood tutor told Tschaikovsky’s brother Modest that Peter’s “sensitivity knew no bounds, and so one had to deal with him very carefully. Every little trifle could upset or wound him. He was a child of glass.” Composer Edvard Grieg, no stranger to melancholy, wrote in a letter that he thought Tschaikovsky “melancholic almost to the point of madness. He is a beautiful and good person, but an unhappy person. I did not think the latter when I met him in his time, but so it is: either one has others or oneself to fight.”
Tschaikovsky came to New York in 1891 to conduct the opening festivities of Andrew Carnegie’s Music Hall on 57th Street and Seventh Avenue. He was hailed as one of the greatest of living composers, lionized, lauded, draped in heroic laurel. His reaction? “I enjoy all this like a person sitting at a table set with marvels of gastronomy, devoid of appetite.” After the umpteenth triumphant reception for his work, he returned to his room, he reported, and “wept rather long.”
He was also something of a card. One day at the Conservatory, he and composer Camille Saint-Saëns clowned around in an improvised ballet of their own based loosely on the saga of Pygmalion and Galatea, and don’t you wish a hidden webcam captured that bit of frivolity While visiting his sister Alexandra Davydova during the summer of 1871, Tschaikovsky wrote a little ballet called The Lake of the Swans for the clan. The entire group took part in the homemade entertainment, and remembered it fondly for years.
It would be understandable if Tschaikovsky’s initial professional experience writing for ballet, that 1877 Swan Lake at the Bolshoi, turned him off dance forever. He had agreed to compose it, as he told Rimsky-Korsakov, “partly because I want the money, but also because I have long had the wish to try my hand at this kind of music.” Tschaikovsky did not live to see a successful Swan Lake. As a tribute to the late composer, who had died in 1893, Petipa and his choreographic associate Lev Ivanov gave the complete work a new production at the Maryinsky in 1895 that instantly set Swan Lake among the classics. Ironically, it took their dances to enable people to finally hear what was in Tschaikovsky’s music all along.
The Nutcracker, too, has been subject to reconsideration over the years. George Balanchine’s 1954 Nutcracker for New York City Ballet was not the first complete production in the U.S. (that honor went to Lew Christensen and San Francisco Ballet in 1944), but it is the country’s definitive staging. Balanchine danced the Nutcracker Prince and other roles as a student at the Maryinsky, so his perspective was unparalleled. Nevertheless, he made the changes and innovations he felt necessary to make the ballet work in contemporary terms. He understood that Tschaikovsky’s music supports multiple interpretations.
To this day, the music sustains the mythos.