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The Sleeping Beauty

Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty: Introduction

The two most important themes are played, first the violent chords of the wicked Fairy Carabosse, then the lulling melody of the Lilac Fairy.

Many of Tchaikovsky’s summers were spent on the estate of his sister Alexandra Davydova, at Kamenka in the Ukraine; and here he would divide his time between working, relaxing with friends in the countryside, and devising amusements for his nephews and nieces. On at least two occasions, these family entertainments took the form of little domestic ballets, in which the Davydov children played such part as their age and skill allowed. One was "Swan Lake," in 1871; and Yury (who lived on until 1965) always claimed that he recognised the "swan" theme when he first heard it in the mature ballet in 1875-76. Another was "The Sleeping Beauty," in 1867; and another of the children, Anna, remembered being cast as Cupid, aged three, entrusted with the task of standing protectively over the Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky would have known Charles Perrault’s fairy tale well, having grown up in the atmosphere of French culture which was fostered in the Russian country house classes and was particularly encouraged by his French governess.

He was, as no other composer of his generation, ideally gifted to make a child’s fairy tale into a masterpiece of danced musical drama. His background and upbringing had given him a love of the French stories he associated with his own happy childhood and his beloved mother, in later years, he connected them with escape into this remembered bliss form the painful realities of his life, lonely and unhappy as he was, often burdened by guilt over his homosexuality. Into his last three symphonies he put the drama of this fate which he always felt to be hanging over him, into his ballets he put his very French delight in prettiness, le joli, and in the expressive grace of dance. Among operas, he loved "Carmen" above all others for its demonstration that tragedy and a sense of fate could be expressed in music of unfailing elegance, among ballet composers, he admired above all Delibes, whose "Coppélia" and "Sylvia" were a never-failing delight and were to provide him with a vivid model. There was little enough to inspire him to contemporary Russian ballet; for though the art of dance had been brought to a high degree of virtuosity, the musical content was impoverished. Justly forgotten official ballet composers such as Gerber, Minkus and Pugni turned out empty-headed music for ballet masters who had no wish for there to be musical competition for their stage shows; and while Russian composers joined other artists in vigorous debate as they struggled to force an art worthy of their isolated and backward country, to develop Russian symphony, to settle the wrangles over nationalism in opera, ballet found itself in a musical cul-de-sac. "Swan Lake," in 1877, was the first major danced drama to take the Russian stage, and it was greeted with incomprehension as "monotonous", "interesting only to musicians," "dull." Few could see that Tchaikovsky had developed a new technique for reconciling the demands of a full-length ballet with those of a full-length musical score. "Too symphonic," was another reproach. In fact, by skilful use of a symphonically developed passages with lighter dances in the divertissments, Tchaikovsky had produced the first ballet in which a great composer’s full musical resources were used not merely to decorate a ballet, but to express it.

There was every reason, then, for Tchaikovsky to respond with enthusiasm to a letter he received in May 1888 from the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky:

It would be very nice, incidentally, to write a ballet. I’ve planned a libretto on "The Sleeping Beauty" to Perrault’s tale. I want the mis-en-scene to be in the style of Louis XIV…If you like the idea, why don’t you write the music? In the last act there would have to be a quadrille from all Perrault’s tales – here one could have Puss’in-boots, Hop-o’my-Thumb, Cinderella, Blue Bird, etc.

Tchaikovsky was the more enthusiastic because of the respect in which he held Vsevolozhsky. By profession a diplomat, the Director had taken his appointment to the Theatres with great seriousness, setting in hand a thorough reorganisation which included the insistence that the planning of ballets, composer, librettist, choreographer and stage designer should all work together as a panel. His tastes were strongly Francophile, and the choreographer for "The Sleeping Beauty" was to be the greatest talent France contributed to nineteenth-century Russian ballet, Marius Petipa. On receiving Vsevolozhsky’s synopsis, Tchaikovsky wrote back saying: "I want to tell you at once that it’s impossible to describe how charmed and captivated I am. It suites me perfectly, and I couldn’t want anything better than to write music for it."

True to his word, Tchaikovsky took up with eagerness the collaboration with Petipa, in the spirit fostered by Vsevolozhsky, Petipa worked out an elaborate plan, consisting of first a set of general instructions for Tchaikovsky, and then for himself an elaborate scenario in black ink, carrying with it musical proposals in red ink. Thus, for Aurora’s entrance in Act 1, Petipa sketched the following:

(9) Aurora’s entrance. She runs out accompanied by her attendants, who carry bouquets and garlands. The four princes are struck with her beauty. Each of them craves her favour and love. But Aurora dances among her suitors, showing no preference.
(9) From 16 to 24 bars, leading to another tempo. At Aurora’s entrance, perky, coquettish 2/4-32 bars, ending with 16 bars 6/8 forte.

Tchaikovsky did not in fact see this until after he had composed the music, which accords remarkably closely with Petipa’s ideas. He produced 18 introductory bars, then a new tempo and 31 bars of what could fairly be described as music that was piqué, Coquet, and finally 22 bars of 6/8, fortissimo. However, he frequently kept as close, so mush so as to suggest constant discussion between them. It is, for instance, unlikely that, for all his fondness for music in quintuple metre, he would have written the dance for the Sapphire Fairy in 5/4 had he not had the prompt of Petipa’s suggestion in the scenario that sapphires normally have five facets (""les cinq facettes – musique à 5 temps"). His departures were evidently accepted by Petipa without demur (or none that has been recorded). In turn, Petipa gave the costume designer, Vsevolozhsky himself, sketches in the margin of the scenario, and these were worked up into full-scale designs. As soon as agreement was reached, and Vsevolozhsky had approved the ideas, Tchaikosky set to work. "The music of this ballet will be one of my best creations ," he told his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. He spent about 40 working days on the sketches, so swiftly did his ideas flow. The orchestration gave him more trouble (even though he was accustomed to conceive his music complete with its orchestral colour in outline); but he finished the full score on 1 September 1889.

The first performance, on 15 January 1890, was as lavish as Vsevolozhsky could make it. In charge of the orchestra was Riccardo Drigo, a sorry composer of ballet music himself but an efficient conductor; the sets were shared out between several company designers (an abuse Vsevolozhsky had not yet wholly banished); and Vsevolozhsky himself designed the costumes, basing them on those used for the 1829 Paris production of Herold’s "La belle au bois dormant" as well as on Petipa’s suggestions. The dancers were led by Pavel Gerdt, then 45 but still the leading male dancer of the day, with the pretty young Carlota Brianza as Aurora. Newly arrived from Italy and aged only 22, she was said to be somewhat brittle in style. Smaller roles were taken by distinguished artists, among them Felix Kshesinsky (King Florestan), Enrico Cecchetti (Blue Bird and a "nighmarish" Carabosse) and Maria Petipa (Lilac Fairy).

Once again, public and critics alike generally found the work "too symphonic." One critic alone, Mikhail Ivanov, retorted that "this tendency is understandable, because Tchaikovsky cannot abandon the resources of his art for the sake of the prejudices of earlier choreographers. These are noticeable still more in "The Sleeping Beauty," where the subject demands an intense application of symphonic style." Away from the theatre, the listener can appreciate still more fully the skill with which Tchaikovsky has designed his drama. There is some use of motive, most prominently with themes for the wicked Fairy Carabosse and the good Lilac Fairy; and there is a sound and regular musical design. Each act opens and closes narratively (apart from the first Apotheosis); each includes scenes where dance is an essential part of the actual plot; each also includes, in lighter relief, scenes introducing a set of solo variation with only token connection to the plot. There is thus a coherent general structure, into which fit naturally solo and company dances both active and decorative by turns. Tchaikovsky had developed this scheme in "Swan Lake", with "The Sleeping Beauty" he felt freer to concentrate less on a large scale tonal plan or on tight thematic references and more on balance, contrast and colour. Feeling himself to be collaborating with colleagues whose professional ambitions and skill matched his own, he poured the best of his powers into an enterprise that delighted him. His touch was never more sure.

John Warrack ©Phillips


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