Tschaikovsky's Classic Troika

Classic Arts Features   Tschaikovsky's Classic Troika
The story of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.

Tsar Alexander III attended the final dress rehearsal of The Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theater 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 unhappy with The Nutcracker, which premiered at the Maryinksy on December 18, 1892. In a letter, the composer groused, "The ballet is much worse than The Sleeping Beauty. Of this there is no doubt."

Tschaikovsky's first ballet premiered in 1877 at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater; by most accounts, it 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 , and his solos are boons to ballerinas everywhere. Instead of being just a series of variously charming or colorful numbers‹an 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.

With a few notable exceptions, ballet music was in a parlous state before Tschaikovsky. Musical selections were shuffled like cards according to choreographic contingency and the whim of stars. Works by numerous composers were routinely interpolated into full-length ballets; celebrated dancers performed their most popular numbers no matter what ballet they happened to be in; and there was a lot of boom-chick-chick music going around. Marius Petipa, the great French ballet master who ruled Russian ballet for decades, was obliged to use the official Imperial Ballet composers Cesare Pugni and Léon Minkus, and while Minkus' scores were eminently serviceable, it is a matter of some doubt whether his music would be in wide circulation separate from Petipa's wondrous ballets. Sections of La Bayadère and Don Quixote are exciting, even exalted, but much of Minkus's work was composed to be aural wallpaper. Or take Pugni: his La Fille du Pharaon may be of interest as an historical curiosity, but it's unlikely the Philharmonic will be programming Pugni any time soon.

Two exceptions to the musical rule were Leo Délibes and Alexander Glazunov, both of whom Tschaikovsky admired. Based, like The Nutcracker, on tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Coppélia, which premiered in 1870 in Paris, has a lovely Délibes score, and it continues to delight on its own. Délibes' compositions for Sylvia (Paris, 1876) are played in ballet classrooms around the world, and versions of the Sylvia pas de deux are widely staged, though the complete ballet is unknown today. Glazunov's Raymonda premiered at the Maryinsky in 1898 with choreography by Petipa, and though the complete ballet resurfaces infrequently, variations and suites are standard repertoire. Years earlier, for Giselle (Paris, 1841), composer Adolphe Adam assigned musical leitmotifs to each principal character, lending dramatic integrity to an appealing score. Giselle lives on outside ballet performances: when it periodically wafts into the airwaves on WQXR, the music still casts a spell.

Still, these composers were not on the same level as Tschaikovsky: their compositions had neither the structural complexity nor the emotional power of his works. Tschaikovsky did not initiate his reforms in isolation. He composed on commission from the Imperial ballet companies, and in the case of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker he worked in collaboration with Petipa, who provided detailed directions spelling out his musical needs, sometimes bar by bar. Among many others for The Sleeping Beauty, Petipa wrote this direction, practically a haiku in its brevity and significance: "Aurora pricks her finger. Screams pain. Blood streams. Give eight measures, in four-four, wide."

Not only did Petipa give Tschaikovsky the specifics of dramatic events and their bar counts, he sometimes suggested scoring, for example telling Tschaikovsky that Aurora's first variation should be accompanied by violins, pizzicato cellos, and harps. Some of the music that strikes us as most magical today‹such as the transformation scenes in The Nutcracker during which a Christmas tree grows large, a cozy home vanishes, snow falls, and a glistening forest appears‹was written with a practical purpose: to cover the clanking machinery (and grunting stagehands) that made the onstage magic possible. It had to be played loudly. Tschaikovsky's prodigious gift was to transcend the pragmatic need and create a mysterious atmosphere that simmers and builds and explodes, and that thrums with an undercurrent of melancholy. Petipa, who knew about these things, considered Tschaikovsky "a composer of genius."

All the same, Tschaikovsky hewed to the conventions of his period, providing divertissements, pas d'action, pas de deux, and splashy finales as expected. His polkas and mazurkas and czardas cascade across the stage as frisky, vivid free-standing events; they are diverting and entertaining, but they do not disrupt the primary theme. Many of the Act Two dances in The Nutcracker originated as colloquial folk dances, but it took Tschaikovsky to bring them into the realm of art. The athletic hijinks of the Russian dance and the comic antics of Mother Ginger serve as foils for the stately romance of the pas de deux of the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier. The lighter music is the setting for the gem at the center. The results work within the form and yet surpass it.

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, 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 found Tschaikovsky "melancholic almost to the point of madness. He is a beautiful and good person, but an unhappy person."

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. 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, 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.

And since then we've had metaphysical Swan Lakes, hippie Swan Lakes, and a barefoot male Swan clad in shaggy pantaloons. We have Barbie in Swan Lake, partnered by the redoubtable Ken as "Prince Daniel." Other stagings are more substantial, and often revelatory.

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. The music sustains the mythos.

Robert Sandla writes frequently about the arts.

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