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 Sleeping Beauty».
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 and interesting».
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 to N.Nikolayev.
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

home | balet magazin | top |