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- Ballet in the Letters of Tchaikovsky
- In the huge literary heritage
of the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - which includes articles
on music and musical criticism, a vast amount of correspondence
and detailed diary entries - the ballet theme occupies a rather
modest place compared to, for example, opera.
But, in spite of the laconicism
and restraint which distinguish Tchaikovsky's opinions about
music of his own ballets, a brevity of communication about work
on them and even silence, during the period of a premiere, the
letters of Tchaikovsky present an unusual interest from the standpoint
of the evolution of the composer's view on this art. These letters
give us the possibility of observing how, gradually - from «Lake
of the Swans» («Lake of the Swans» was the
original title of «Swan Lake») to «The Nutcracker»,
Tchaikovsky's skeptical attitude towards (what he considered)
a «lowly» genre is ousted by an attentive interest
in its unused creative possibilities. Little by little, ballet
begins to take a steady position, finding an equally right place
- not only in the artistic life at the end of the 19th century,
but in the composer's consciousness. Ballet met Tchaikovsky halfway,
and Tchaikovsky met ballet halfway. Given Tchaikovsky's unusual
thinking which created dancing poetry, his tendency to portray
action in musical-scenic works, a desire to embody real and eternal
feelings in the world of art this could not but find an outlet
in the genre of ballet music.
We would like to present extracts
of the composer's letters.
- Material prepared by Olga Gerdt
- 10 September, 1875, Moscow,
to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
- «I passed the summer
in various provinces with friends and relatives. Worked rather
assiduously, and besides a symphony, wrote two acts of a ballet
as a project. By invitation of the Moscow Theatre Directorate
I am writing music for the ballet «Swan Lake». I
took on this work partly for the sake of money, of which I am
in need, partly, because, for a long time I have wanted to try
myself in that genre of music».
- 24 March, 1876, Moscow,
to Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky (his brother).
- «...Yesterday, in the
school's theatre studio, the first rehearsal of some pieces from
the First Act of that ballet took place. You should have seen
how amusing it was to watch the choreographer creating dances
to the sound of solo violin and trying to look profound and inspired.
Together with this, it was enviable to watch the female and male
dancers, arraying smiles for a supposed public and enjoying their
aptitude to dance and fly easily while performing, their sacred
duty. With my music, everyone at the theatre was delighted».
- 7 December, 1877,
to Sergei Taneyev (composer)
- «Listened to the Leo
Delibes' ballet «Sylvia». In fact, I actually listened,
because it is the first ballet, where the music constitutes not
only the main, but the only interest. What charm, what elegance,
what richness of melody, rhythm, harmony. I was ashamed. If I
had known this music early then, of course, I would not have
written «Swan Lake».
- 27 March, 1878, Vienna,
to Sergei Taneyev.
- «I absolutely do not
understand, what you call ballet music...and why you cannot reconcile
yourself to it. Do you imply that in ballet music there are only
happy and rhythmic dancing melodies...? In general, I absolutely
do not understand, what it is in ballet music that could make
you conclude that it should be censured.
You see ballet music is not always
banal - sometimes it is good (I point out Leo Delibes' «Sylvia»).
And when the music is good, then is it not all the same, whether
Sobeschanskaya dances to it or not?»
- 20 September, 1882,
to Peter Ivanovich Jurgenson (music publisher)
- «You know that the French
composer Leo Delibes wrote ballets. These ballets never had a
stage existence, so he prepared suites from them for concert
performance. Consequently I remembered my Swan Lake, and decided
that I very much wanted to preserve this music, (in which there
are some decent things), from oblivion. And so I decided, like
Delibes, to make a suite from it».
- 4 December, 1885, Maydanovo near Klin,
to F. Makkar.
- In answer to an invitation
to stage «Swan Lake» in Brussels:
- «I do not relate negatively to the music of my ballet
Swan Lake; it seems to me that it is not so bad, but the subject
is boring and I fear for its success».
- 4 April, 1886,
to Peter Jurgenson
- On the request to choose one
of the acts from Swan Lake for staging at Krasnoye Selo for the
arrival of Alexander III (request from Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky):
- «...From the four acts
it is necessary to choose the second, and not the fourth, as
you suggested. It is the best from all aspects. And so, don't
forget: The Second».
- In the autumn and winter of
1888-1889, Tchaikovsky met with Ivan Vsevolozhsky and Marius
Petipa several times, carefully discussing the libretto of «The
- 8 January, 1889, Frolovskoye,
to Nadezhda von Meck.
- «The subject of the ballet,
which I am writing, has been re-worked by the Director of the
Imperial Theatres himself, Vsevolozhsky. He has taken it from
Perrault's famous tale «La Belle au Bois Dormant».
The subject is extraordinarily charming and poetic».
- Letters of Tchaikovsky's regarding
the instrumentation, orchestration and ballet rehearsals of «The
Sleeping Beauty» allow us to follow all steps of his work
on the ballet. Excusing himself before correspondents on his
tardy answer or long silence, the composer explains that the
whole time his thoughts are completely absorbed with the new
composition which, despite the hard work (the ballet was supposed
to be ready for the beginning of the 1889-90 season) gave him
much pleasure. He used any opportunity to praise Vsevolozhsky's
libretto. Apparently, he valued both his collaboration and that
of Marius Petipa ( to whom he referred to as «his much
respected collaborator»), and the ballet «The Sleeping
Beauty», which he calls «our ballet». Working
on «The Sleeping Beauty» he found peace and balance
for his soul, which he often lacked during the period in which
he wrote «Swan Lake».
- 22 May, 1889, Frolovskoye,
to H.P. Shpazhinskaya.
- «Now I am completing
the sketches of the last acts of the ballet.(...) Work will be
interminable! I have already seen the theatre director in St.
Petersburg, and the model for the stage scenery and costume designs.
The production will be unprecedented for its magnificence».
- 25 July, 1889, Frolovskoye Estate,
to Nadezhda von Meck.
- «It seems to me, my dear
friend, that the music for this ballet will be one of the best
of my works. The subject is so poetic, so perfect for music,
that while I was creating, I was very carried away and wrote
with the warmth and desire which always determines the worth
of a work. The instrumentation is ... harder for me than in the
past and the work is progressing much more slowly, but perhaps
this is good. Many of my former works are exemplified by haste
and insufficient deliberation».
- 13 August, 1889, Frolovskoye,
to Nadezhda von Meck.
- «With particular care
and love I worked on the instrumentation and found some absolutely
new orchestral combinations which I hope will be very beautiful
- 28 February, 1890, Florence,
to Peter Jurgenson.
- (in connection with the compilation
for a suite of «The Sleeping Beauty»).
«It is not necessary to change
one note. You see the ballet is (also) a symphony! (...) In any
case, its difficult to be satisfied with one suite because it
is not as if all were astonishingly good - but the ballet as
a whole has a certain dignity».
Unlike «The Sleeping Beauty»,
the libretto for «The Nutcracker» summoned many objections
from the composer. In his words, only diligent work «reconciled»
him to the subject. In any case, the composer's dissatisfaction
and a heavy aftertaste of failure are reflected in this letter
- 2 June, 1891, to N. Nikolayev.
- «The procedure for creating
ballet music is the following. A subject is selected. The libretto
is then worked out by the Administration of the Theatre, according
to their financial means. The choreographer then works out a
detailed project of scenes and dances, and indicates as well,
not only the exact rhythm and character of the music but even
the number of bars. Only then can composer begin writing the
music... No, it is not impossible that in the case they accept
your libretto they may propose I write the music for it. However,
I find that the subject of «The Tempest» by William
Shakespeare is too grandiose and profound for ballet. I cannot
imagine Miranda and Ferdinand doing battements, entrechats, etc.».
- Tchaikovsky accepted with enthusiasm
the invitation of the head stage machinist and decorator of the
Bolshoi Theatre, Carl F. Waltz, to stage the opera-ballet «Watanabe».
- Summer, 1891, to Carl F. Waltz.
- «...Read through «Watanabe»
with great pleasure. This subject is wonderful, poetic in the
highest degree and at the same time effective. I am ready to
compose the music (...), but under the following conditions...
«Watanabe» will be a ballet faerie, and not an opera-ballet.
I absolutely do not allow and do not understand that vague and
unsympathetic type of art, called opera-ballet. Choose one: either
my characters will sing or they will mime. Mixing one and the
other is absolutely inconceivable for me. As an opera, the subject
of «Watanabe» is unsuitable to me, since I allow
fantastic elements in opera, only in so far as they do not disturb
the action of genuine, common people, with their simple human
passions and feelings...»
- This plan never fulfilled.
However, Tchaikovsky's reflections on the subject are very interesting.
Apparently, it is the first time the composer allowed himself
to comment openly on the ballet idea that interested him, and
to formulate clearly his taste and his demands in relation to
this art. For the first time he gave a concrete explanation of
the fact that for him ballet music is symphonic music. The composer's
viewpoint on ballet took shape and his thoughts and ideas continued
to emerge, but within two years his life was cut enough time
to express oneself fully and completely.
- This article first appeared in Sovietsky
Ballet, Issue No. 6, 1990