Roland John Wiley’s Tchaikovsky’s Ballets is an anomaly: an authoritative, important, useful book on dance, based on primary source materials, meticulously researched, and intelligently presented. It is all the more impressive an achievement considering that the author’s field is musicology. As its title indicates, the book is meant primarily as a study of the three works Tchaikovsky wrote for the ballet—Swan Lake (both the original Moscow and posthumous St. Petersburg productions), The Sleeping Beauty, and Nutcracker—from their commissioning through the first performances. But more than that, it is an examination of a seminal period in the history of the classical dance, a period of transition that saw the demise of the Romantic era and the emergence of a new age of classicism which would restore to the ballet its prestige and reveal its artistic possibilities.
In many ways Wiley’s book is a revisionist history. The traditional view, especially prevalent among musicians, holds that ballet music prior to Tchaikovsky was feeble because of the tyranny of the ballet master. John Warrack, for example, in Tchaikovsky Ballet Music, writes of composers such as Pugni and Minkus: “Not only was their talent negligible: it was required to be negligible. [Their scores] were expected to do no more than furnish unobtrusive aural decor and rhythmic support as a background against which the dancers could be put through their paces .... Few composers had the talent or the resolve to stand up to ballet masters whose interest was principally in the decorative.” Mr. Wiley, on the other hand, recognizes the necessity in the nineteenth-century ballet for the authority of the ballet master over the composer; and rather than labeling as hacks those whose talents and temperaments suited them to compose under these conditions, he chooses to call the official ballet composers “specialists.” Tchaikovsky was the first nonspecialist composer to, as it were, “cross over”—an event that was to have far-reaching consequences for the future not only of ballet music but of the very nature of the genre.
Tchaikovsky’s innovation can be appreciated only against a background of the conventions of his time. Thus Mr. Wiley sensibly begins with an introduction, entitled “Some Traditions,” in which he examines what qualities were then considered desirable in music composed specifically for the ballet. Contemporary sources are remarkably in accord, he notes, in citing melodiousness as the primary measure of what was called the dansante quality of music. Other requirements were clearly perceptible meters; regular phrases, generally in multiples of four; and, owing to the inherent physical limitations of the dancers, periodic breaks in continuity. Mime scenes allowed the composer greater freedom in both rhythm and orchestration but were even more strictly subject to timing.
Beyond this, the composer had to acknowledge that purely musical interest which would be considered laudable in the concert hall could actually detract from choreography; that, in fact, an inverse relationship tended to exist between musical interest and dance interest. Indeed, Swan Lake received from one critic following the first production in 1877 the left-handed compliment of containing “so many purely musical virtues that the listener sitting in the theatre was drawn away in spite of himself by Mr. Tchaikovsky’s music from what was happening on stage.”
Present-day readers may smile at the ingenuousness of such a statement; but it must be kept in mind that ballet at the time was above all else meant to be dramatic, and for this element to be overwhelmed or absent was considered a fatal flaw. So essential was drama in ballet that Nutcracker was criticized as not being a ballet at all: “Ballet, as a basic genre of art, is mimed drama and consequently must contain all the elements of normal drama .... There is nothing of this in Nutcracker. There is not even a subject.” The Sleeping Beauty was considered by one critic to be an insult to the intelligence of the audience: “If, indeed, the ballet will be only spectacle, then no magnificence of production will redeem its emptiness, lack of content, and that tedium which, toward the end, inevitably possesses every ‘grown-up,’ not to mention an aesthetically developed audience.” The Sleeping Beauty was criticized also because its dances were not felt to be dramatically motivated. One of the conditions of ballet, a critic wrote, was that the dances be “a direct consequence of the programme-libretto,” whereas in The Sleeping Beauty “the course of the action is not at all illustrated by the dances, which are dragged in for no reason at all.”
As is often the case, these comments tell us more about the persons who wrote them than about the works themselves. The Imperial Russian balletomane critics had their roots in the Romantic ballet and were intensely conservative. In this they were no different from the long-lived Petipa himself, who had made his debut as a dancer in 1831, a year before Marie Taglioni’s Sylphide, and had danced with Carlotta Grisi and Fanny Elssler. With his first major success as a choreographer, The Daughter of the Pharaoh, in 1862, Petipa established the late-Romantic formula of the ballet à grand spectacle. Sylphs and peris might be replaced by an ancient Egyptian mummy come to life or the ghost of an Indian temple dancer, but the essence remained the same, and particularly the dramatic tension that imbued all the dancing with emotional implications. This was an approach especially suited to the talents of the Russian dancers of the time, who were long on temperament (“Russian soul”) and rather short on technique.
The changes that were to lead to the production of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890 were instigated not by the ballet master but by a new Director of Imperial Theatres. Ivan Vsevolozhsky, a cultured francophile, was appointed in 1883 by Alexander III and charged with the task of reforming the ballet, which had been degenerating steadily despite the continuing enthusiasm of a small group of hardcore balletomanes—a point Mr. Wiley neglects to make in his otherwise informative analysis of the ballet audience. Prince Peter Lieven, in The Birth of Ballets-Russes, put it succinctly: “Although the balletomanes were rather mocked at and ridiculed, they still persisted in their loyalty to the art.” On ballet days at the Maryinsky, “the half-empty auditorium contained a special public—a mixture of children accompanied by their mothers or governesses, and old gentlemen with binoculars.” Alexandre Benois, in Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet, similarly notes that the balletomanes “were looked upon as somewhat eccentric and slightly depraved,” and the ballet itself “was considered unworthy of the attention of serious people.”
Vsevolozhsky set about instituting reforms with the intent of reviving the artistry and prestige of the ballet in St. Petersburg. His two most significant actions in this direction were to repeal the state monopoly on commercial theatre, which led to the presence in St. Petersburg of Italian virtuoso ballerinas beginning with Virginia Zucchi in 1885; and, having abolished the position of official ballet composer, to commission from Tchaikovsky toward the end of 1886 a ballet.
But Vsevolozhsky’s influence extended even further, for it was he who was responsible for selecting the subject of this new ballet. It was not at first The Sleeping Beauty he suggested but La Motte Fouqué’s Undine, that typically early-Romantic story, which had already been made into a ballet at least twice, by Paul Taglioni in 1836 and Jules Perrot in 1843. Nor was it new to Tchaikovsky: he had composed an opera on the subject in 1869, which he subsequently destroyed. (A fragment from one of its love duets found its way into the second act of Swan Lake.)
For Wiley, the question of why Tchaikovsky eventually rejected Undine has never been satisfactorily answered. But it seems clear that the composer was seeking to produce in his second ballet something completely new and fresh, and the old-fashioned Romantic story of Undine and Huldbrand was unsuited to inspire or support it. While struggling with Undine Tchaikovsky had written to Vsevolozhsky: “This is not simply a matter of confecting some kind of ordinary ballet music; I have an ambition to write a chef-d’oeuvre in this genre.” Vsevolozhsky, evidently sensing the source of Tchaikovsky’s difficulties, then proposed a very different sort of story: La Belle au bois dormant, based on Perrault’s fairy tale. This time the composer was “charmed, delighted beyond all description. It suits me perfectly,” he wrote.
The Sleeping Beauty presented Tchaikovsky with a program that differed significantly from the usual ballet of the time in an essential respect: it was singularly free of dramatic tension. That this was a quality he found attractive may be inferred from his taste in ballerinas. According to his friend Nikolai Kashkin, Tchaikovsky “could not abide” the immensely popular Zucchi, “whose fame was based on the expressiveness of her mime"; rather, he admired technically accomplished but emotionally restrained dancers like Cariotta Brianza, who was to create the role of Aurora. The critic Pleshcheyev reported that Tchaikovsky praised Brianza’s performance in The Sleeping Beauty by claiming it “yielded nothing to the finest watch mechanism.”
The Sleeping Beauty held another attraction for Tchaikovsky. Because the first act is meant to take place during the reign of Louis XIV, the courtly dances of the fête champêtre of the second act, one hundred years later, presented the composer with an opportunity to express his predilection for the music of the classical period, and especially of Mozart. A year earlier, about the time he was abandoning Undine, Tchaikovsky had composed Mozartiana, which was intended as both homage to and propaganda in behalf of the then-neglected classical master. Vsevolozhsky’s proposal could not have come at a better time.
Though Tchaikovsky’s music for The Sleeping Beauty obviously differs greatly from that of the specialist composers in the quality of its art, the first act, at least, does not in any way break radically with tradition. The music for the ballerina, especially, stays well within the conventions of the time: Aurora’s Act I variation is accompanied by solo violin; the Rose Adagio, by legato strings and harp glissandos. In the first instance, it should be noted, the composer was constrained by Petipa’s request for specific instrumentation.
But in the third act Tchaikovsky introduced an extraordinary effect, here heard for the first time in a ballet orchestra: the piano. It may be difficult today, when a ballet studio conjures up images of a tinkling upright, and the “piano ballet” has become a cliche, to appreciate what an innovation this was. But in fact the instrument of choice for dancing up to the first years of the twentieth century was the violin. For classes ballet masters either played the violin themselves or employed an accompanist. Rehearsals were conducted to a two-violin reduction of the score called a repetiteur. If a piano reduction was made, it was for publication, aimed at the home market in this era before sound recording and reproduction.
That the violin was inextricably linked to the Romantic ballet was related to the position of supreme authority enjoyed by the ballerina. The legato quality of bowed strings reflected the Romantic conception of grace as embodied by the danseuse, who often portrayed creatures whose domain was the air or the sea. The supported adagio, in which she displayed her grace to its fullest, was a response to the introduction of pointe work around 1830. And the single-line voice of the violin reflected the relatively simple nature of ballet music of the time, as well as the ballerina’s status as the cynosure of choreographic interest: the first violin of the répétiteur represented the ballerina; the second, the corps de ballet, which danced or posed around her to form a decorative frame.
The piano in The Sleeping Beauty is initially heard in the pas de quatre of jewels and precious metals, the first of the Act III wedding divertissements. It enters immediately in the introduction of the pas de quatre as an accompaniment to the principal melody played by strings. It returns in the Silver Fairy’s variation, where this time it is assigned the principal melody, with bell accompaniment. The Sapphire Fairy’s variation, cut before the first performance, also contains piano accompaniment, to the principal melody played by pizzicato violins. For the Silver Fairy, Petipa had written in his instructions to the composer: “On doit entendre sonner l’argent”—“The ringing of silver [coins] should be heard”; so in this context the choice of instrumentation might seem merely Klangfarbe. But the piano returns later in the act, this time in the adagio of the grand pas de deux, the choreographic high point of the third act, and of the entire ballet.
In his musical analysis of The Sleeping Beauty, Wiley recognizes the significance of the piano but finds it “odd” that the instrument is introduced so late in the work. This leads him to a speculative digression on the allegorical implications of the ballet and their significance for the composer.
Wiley sees “an almost Aesopean double meaning” in The Sleeping Beauty. On the surface it is “positive in its outlook,” representing “an apostrophe to the reigning monarch, expressed through the analogy of Florestan/Louis XIV”—the conventional view. But the third act, he claims, raises the possibility of “a second level of interpretation.” The replacement of the Act I fairies representing Aurora’s future attributes by the Act III fairies representing her future prosperity, though logical, implies to him “the relegation of personal virtues to material values.”
Since for Wiley the sonority of the piano has “non-ethereal, material connotations,” it is significant for him—and acceptable—that the instrument first appears in the jewel pas de quatre. But the implications of replacing the harp glissandos of the Rose Adagio with piano glissandos in Aurora’s third-act adagio he finds disturbing, and he suggests that this was Tchaikovsky’s response to the “disparities between exterior and interior interpretation” of the libretto. The return of the piano in the apotheosis leads him to ask the rhetorical question: “After the over-loud final cadence dies away, do one’s thoughts return to Aurora’s majestic [third-act] adagio, does one hear in the valedictory accents of its epilogue a reminder of a better time?” Earlier he had noted connotations of “sadness and nostalgia” in the closing of the adagio and quoted a contemporary reviewer who complained of an unwonted “inclination toward melancholy” in the third act as a whole.
There are several problems with such an interpretation. First, the society that came up with the Fabergé Easter egg did not seem to take such a sinister view of “material values.” Second, Tchaikovsky’s undeniable tendency toward melancholy amounted almost to a personal style; to assign conventional meanings to the notes of sadness in his music seems ill-advised. (As we will see, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation in Nutcracker is permeated with this sense of melancholy.) But most of all, Wiley’s account disappoints because it does not provide a musical explanation for a musical phenomenon.
The piano was a striking new voice in the ballet orchestra, which presented a stark contrast to the conventional legato strings of the Romantic ballet. But it also looked back to an age before Romanticism, to the eighteenth century. Its precedents were the harpsichord continuo of the opera ballets of Handel and his contemporaries, and it reflected the more percussive quality of eighteenth-century dance, with its focus on footwork and petite batterie. The piano thus presented Tchaikovsky with a means simultaneously of looking back to the last great classical period in music and of being thoroughly modern. Far from embodying crass materialism and making us look back with nostalgia to a “better time,” the piano in the third act of The Sleeping Beauty can be seen as a glorification of the present as a new Age of Enlightenment.
It is the received wisdom that Nutcracker betrays a lower level of melodic invention than The Sleeping Beauty. Wiley attributes what he calls this “default of inspiration” to a possible expression of the composer’s dissatisfaction with the libretto. But Tchaikovsky’s de-emphasis of melody in Nutcracker could also be seen as a conscious choice, a further distancing of his music from the conventions of the Romantic ballet. For if there is less melodic interest in Nutcracker, there is a correspondingly greater emphasis on articulation, evident from the first notes of the overture (which Balanchine called Mozartean), with their staccato dots and eighth and sixteenth rests, and brought to its furthest development yet in the ballerina’s single variation, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Whereas in The Sleeping Beauty the piano glissandos in the adagio of the grand pas de deux were largely ornamental, in Nutcracker Tchaikovsky composed an entire solo to the articulated, percussive sound of the celesta.
In his instructions to the composer for the Sugar Plum Fairy, Petipa had requested thirty-two bars of staccato in 2/4, and there is no reason to believe he expected anything other than conventional pizzicato violins, to which he would compose a taquete variation. (In this he was no doubt guided by a knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the ballerina who would dance the role, Antonietta Dell’Era, a technically precise terre-à-terre dancer.) Tchaikovsky had been searching for a way to depict musically the dream world of Confiturembourg, and in Paris he discovered the recently invented celesta, a keyboard instrument with a belllike sound. That it was not only the timbre that attracted him, however, is attested by the fact that the score allows for the substitution of a piano.
More than just the percussive nature of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s music distinguishes it from conventional accompaniments for the ballerina. Extraordinarily, her dance is in a minor key. Benois is one of the few to point out that this pas de deux is “not ordinary ballet music.” He goes so far as to claim a “tragic character” for the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance and notes that Nutcracker was composed only a year before the Pathétique Symphony, which, like the pas de deux, is “permeated with a sense of approaching death, alternating with moments full of a passionate thirst for life.” To accept this interpretation is not necessarily to assume that Tchaikovsky had advance knowledge of his impending death; it is enough to know that his correspondence of this period indicates that the fifty-year-old composer had begun to think of himself as a deteriorating old man. Rather than tragic, though, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s music seems bittersweet—a skillful response by the composer in avoiding what could easily have ended up as saccharine.
The vehemence of the critical response to Nutcracker from the balletomanes went beyond a mere reaction to the ballet itself. As Yuri Slonimsky points out, “Never before had the press devoted so much attention to a ballet production and especially to its music. Never before had it. . . theorized about the roads of development of the ballet theatre and its music.” Tchaikovsky’s score, he continues, and therefore the entire production, sounded like “a challenge to the prejudices and whims of the habitués of the ballet of the Imperial Theatres.” It did not help matters that a suite from the ballet had enjoyed a tremendous success at a concert given nine months earlier by the Russian Music Society—something that would have been unimaginable with the music of the specialist composers. Ballet music that could stand on its own with a discerning concert public clearly presented a threat to the art of ballet as the balletomanes had known it.
In such an art, a talent like Petipa’s was not entirely appropriate; and, in fact, he dropped out of Nutcracker before the actual choreographing began, which was subsequently entrusted to Lev Ivanov, his longtime assistant ballet master. Petipa claimed illness, but Balanchine’s suggestion to Volkov, that he might have “suddenly got scared,” seems likely. It was not that, as is often claimed, Petipa was musically ignorant. According to Slonimsky, he had studied music theory in Paris with the famous pedagogue Fétis and had had several years of violin. Ivanov, however, was renowned for his pianistic abilities, which points to an essential difference between his and Petipa’s musicality: Petipa thought in terms of single-line melody, as on a violin, whereas Ivanov was able to hear music polyphonically, as on a piano. Petipa recognized the superiority of Tchaikovsky’s music but seems to have preferred choreographing the conventional music of the specialist composers, which could easily be reduced to the two voices of the répétiteur, melody and accompaniment.
A répétiteur was prepared for The Sleeping Beauty; in fact, Tchaikovsky, apparently anticipating difficulties, took upon himself the responsibility of preparing it. In the end, he did not do so, and, indeed, as Wiley points out, corrections entered in the score indicate that the anonymous musician to whom this task was entrusted had problems in places determining the principal melody. In any event, it was not always used: Pleshcheyev reports Brianza recollecting that “rehearsals took place to piano accompaniment, played by Drigo [the conductor] himself.” Lieven recounts that Glazunov, the only other nonspecialist composer of the Imperial period to write for the ballet, protested when he found Petipa rehearsing Raymonda to violin, claiming this distorted the music, and Petipa replied that “he could not help it because he could not pick out music played on the piano.” That Petipa had difficulties with the music of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov is confirmed by Alexander Shirayev, an assistant ballet master, not only because of the inherently greater difficulty of their music but because he was hesitant to request of them the sorts of changes he would normally demand of a Minkus or a Pugni.
If Tchaikovsky’s reputation as a composer has fluctuated according to the dictates of musical fashion, the quality of his ballet music has never been in question. Few, however, have recognized the extent of its innovation. The 1877 Swan Lake was the last avatar of the Romantic ballet. In The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky produced both a metaphor for and the fulfillment of the new classical ballet, exploiting the time lapse oft the story to introduce into its second half qualities that recalled the previous age of classicism in music yet were strikingly modern. In Nutcracker he incorporated these qualities into his music without recourse to programmatic implications.
Tchaikovsky’s Ballets, by presenting a more complete picture than had heretofore been available, inevitably forces us to reassess our views. In the triumvirate of librettist, ballet master, and composer, the balance seems to shift: Vsevolozhsky as instigator deserves new appreciation; the prominent role traditionally assigned Petipa must be called into question, without in any way denigrating his actual contribution; and Tchaikovsky must be recognized as the virtual creator of the classical ballet.
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