Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is rightly considered the maestro of ballet music. He defended it against contemporaries who classified it as mere incidental music, and found great freedom and serenity in writing Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. A love story.
His hair had become thinner and greyer, and the increasing depressive episodes were getting to him. His eyesight was failing, making it harder for him to read, especially in winter. It was the late 1880s, and Tchaikovsky was slowly approaching fifty. He had just completed his Fifth Symphony and was embarking on a European tour conducting his own works. Like his previous trip, this one would end in the fog of London.
In this literally and figuratively early autumnal phase of his life, Tchaikovsky returned to the world of ballet, which he had left behind years before. It was prompted by a commission from the director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, who asked for a new ballet score in May 1888: Sleeping Beauty, based the French version of the story by Charles Perrault. The director himself sketched the first outline of the plot. The composer was taken with it, worked out parts during his trip to Europe and in the end was very satisfied with his work: “Sleeping Beauty is perhaps my best work.” Absolute aesthetic judgements may be questionable, but there are good reasons for Tchaikovsky’s appraisal: refined harmonies with bold modulations, a dazzling abundance of melodies, flexible rhythms – all of these are woven together into a melange of colours all of its own.
Tchaikovsky had a fondness for dance music long before he wrote his ballet compositions. Even in his early years, he made use of waltzes, mazurkas, polonaises, and Russian dances. If you look at the piano works of this period, you come across titles such as Polka de salon, Valse-Caprice and Scherzo humoristique. In his ballets, dance finally became the driving force of the plot and part of the story. The stories in Tchaikovsky’s three most famous ballets, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, have a similar construction: like the literary genre of the folk tale, they deal with the themes of good against evil and of victory over darkness.
For Tchaikovsky, writing ballets meant freedom
In his ballets, Tchaikovsky succeeds in leading the audience away from the everyday into the world of dreams – in contrast to his symphonies, where life appears darker, more catastrophic. Music like in his Fifth or Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique”, would be inconceivable in Tchaikovsky’s ballets – and vice versa. The Fifth, for example: an enduring sadness pervades the first movements of this symphony, even the waltz in the third movement is inhabited by a latent melancholy, and the supposedly triumphant mood in the finale seems fragile. As a result, this final movement gives the impression that it is ultimately pointless to fight against fate. There is no such fragility in the ballets. Why is this the case?
Tchaikovsky once declared that it was “only through constant, persistent work” that he had managed to “complete forms that correspond to a certain degree to the content”. Composing in the symphonic form is especially challenging in this sense, because you are always operating in an abstract, ambiguous world. The shorter sections of a narrative ballet can be set to music more easily and with greater freedom. You can hear this freedom in Tchaikovsky’s music; there is even room for humour.
Composed from the perspective of a child
Tchaikovsky is also more experimental in the orchestration of his ballets. Just think of the pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in The Nutcracker. It features the celesta, an instrument that Tchaikovsky discovered in Paris. It is “something between a small piano and a glockenspiel, with a divinely beautiful sound. I want to use this instrument in the symphonic poem The Voyevoda and in the ballet”. Tchaikovsky hoped for a “colossal effect” from the celesta, which he indeed achieved. The music for The Nutcracker seems to be developed from the perspective of a child, with an immediately perceptible contrast between an eerie, nocturnal mouse war and the magical realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy. So here Tchaikovsky could compose from a light-hearted perspective that he could not adopt in the same way in his operas, chamber music and symphonies.
In March 1878, Tchaikovsky replied to an objection to the ballet genre by his former student and later friend Sergei Taneyev: “With the best will in the world I cannot understand [...] why you do not like such music. Do you understand ballet music to mean any cheerful melody that has a dance rhythm?
But then you must also be prejudiced against most of Beethoven’s symphonies, in which such melodies can be found at every turn. [...] In general, I cannot for the life of me understand how the word 'ballet' can be associated with anything negative.”
An advocate for ballet music
It is possible that Tchaikovsky was initially exposed to prejudice: ballet as a supposedly lesser art form, as a musical niche that is simply meant to provide the basis for dance movements. This wasn’t the case for Tchaikovsky. His works show in an almost exemplary fashion that the challenge of ballet music goes far beyond such a functional level. In his three major ballets, Tchaikovsky succeeds in portraying dramatic and psychological processes musically, developing them and making them comprehensible. Igor Stravinsky, the most famous composer of the ballet genre next to Tchaikovsky, aptly characterised the qualities of Sleeping Beauty: “Every entrance, every action on stage in general, is always treated individually according to the character of the respective person, and every number has its own face.”
Despite the close connection between the plot, dance and music in his ballets, Tchaikovsky was not opposed to the publication of orchestral suites for the concert hall, especially as this was more likely to ensure the survival of his music. Just how seriously he took such compilations is shown by the example of the Sleeping Beauty suite, which was under consideration from 1890 onwards. Tchaikovsky repeatedly struggled with the selection, saying that under no circumstances should this be a “potpourri”. Nor should the musical substance of the individual movements be touched: “It is not necessary to change a single note. What is true for a symphony is equally true for a ballet!”