TCHAIKOVSKY: The Nutcracker / Swan Lake / Sleeping Beauty

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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)

The Nutcracker

Swan Lake

The Sleeping Beauty

The music of Tchaikovsky, in spite of the reservations ofcontemporaries at home and abroad, must seem to us both essentially Russian and firmly inthe West European tradition. In Vienna the critic Eduard Hanslick was able to complain ofthe "trivial Cossack cheer" of the finale of the Violin Concerto, but in Russia Tchaikovsky never wentfar enough to please the self-appointed leader of musical nationalists, Balakirev. Whileby no means a miniaturist, he nevertheless excelled in his mastery of the smaller formsnecessary in ballet, writing music that displayed his remarkable gifts of melody and skillin orchestration.

Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, the son of a chief inspector ofmines in Government service in Votkinsk and educated at first at home by a belovedgoverness and later at the St Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, in preparation for acareer in the Ministry of Justice. This he was to abandon in 1863, when he entered thenewly established St Petersburg Conservatory, the first of its kind in Russia. Three yearslater he joined the staff of the new Conservatory in Moscow, directed by NikolayRubinstein, brother of the composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein, who had founded itscounterpart in St Petersburg.

Tchaikovsky, abnormally sensitive and diffident, and tormentedby his own homosexuality that seemed to isolate him from the society of the time, hadalready made a considerable impression as a composer, when an unwise, face-saving marriagein 1877 brought complete nervous collapse and immediate separation from his new wife. In1878 he was able to resign from the Conservatory, thanks to the assistance of a richwidow, Nadezhda von Meck, whom he was never to meet but who offered him both financial andmoral support. After the St Petersburg performance of his Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky died, it is thought byhis own hand, compelled to this step by a court of honour of his fellows from the Schoolof Jurisprudence, after threats of exposure and scandal resulting from a liaison with ayoung nobleman. His death was widely mourned both in Russia and abroad, where his musichad won considerable favour.

Tchaikovsky's compositions include three full-length ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beautyand The Nutcracker. The first of these had its earlyorigin in a home entertainment devised for the children of his sister Sasha, who hadsettled at Kamenka in the Ukraine. The adult ballet was completed in 1876 in response to acommission from the Imperial Theatre Directorate in Moscow and was first performed at theBolshoy Theatre there in March, 1876, with choreography by the Austrian, Wenzel Reisinger.

The work was unfavourably received, its music seeming unusually substantial for theoccasion, and the production inept. The ballet was to win success after the composersdeath, when it was mounted at the Maryinsky in St Petersburg in 1895, with choreography byIvanov and Marius Petipa. The score served to re-establish the importance of music inballet, after years in which it had been generally neglected in favour of the activity onstage.

The libretto of Swan Lake isbased on an old German fairy-story, printed in the collection by Johann Karl AugustMusaeus, at the height of Romantic interest in matters of this kind. Princess Odette hasbeen changed into a white swan by the wicked magician Rotbart. Prince Siegfried meetsOdette in human form by the lake and swears to marry her, but Rotbart attempts tofrustrate this planned breaking of his spell by substituting his own daughter, Odile, inthe form of a black swan, for Odette. Rotbart is nearly successful in his maliciousdesign, but is defeated in the end by the power of love, as Siegfried and Odette areunited, although in some versions of the ballet the pair are united not in life but indeath in a storm conjured up by Rotbart.

The ballet opens with a celebration of Siegfried's coming ofage, a time at which he should choose a bride. The appearance of a f1ight of swanssuggested the idea of a swan-hunt, on which the Prince and his friends set out. In thesecond act Siegfried, separated from his companions, meets Odette, who explains to him hersad fate, incurring the immediate wrath of Rotbart. Siegfried invites her to a ball at thecastle, the scene of the third act. There Siegfried is to choose a bride and is deceivedby the appearance of Rotbart and his daughter Odile, in the guise of Odette. He pledgeshis faith to Odile, a clap of thunder is heard and Rotbart and Odile disappear in triumph,while Siegfried falls senseless to the ground. In the final act, by the lake, Odettereproaches Siegfried and warns him of her coming death, but Siegfried defies Rotbart andthe lovers are united.

The present recording includes the famous music for the swans,bewitched by Rotbart, dances from the Ball at the Palace of Siegfried in Act III, withHungarian, Spanish and Neapolitan diversions, and the final scene.

Tchaikovsky's ballet TheSleeping Beauty was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1890, damned with thefaintest of praise by the Tsar, who remarked that it was "very nice" .Thecomposer himself was much less satisfied with his final score, for The Nutcracker, proposed by Marius Petipa and theImperial Theatre Directorate in 1891 and first performed at the Maryinsky in December,1892, again to a cool reception. The music itself, however, had already proved popularenough in a suite arranged by Tchaikovsky for a concert ear1ier in the year.

The story of the ballet is drawn from E. T .A. Hoffmann' stale, Der Nussknacker und derMauserkonig. Set in the eighteenth century, initially in the house of thePresident of one of the German states of the period, the ballet opens with a children'sChristmas party, at which Drosselmeyer, a slightly sinister adult, brings presents, a dollfor Clara, the daughter of the house, and a toy soldier for Franz, her brother. When thechildren are told not to open their presents, Drosselmeyer quietens them by giving the twoa pair of nutcrackers, promptly broken by Franz, who tries to crack the biggest nut he canfind.

At night Clara creeps down to see her broken Nutcracker, and isalarmed at the open warfare that breaks out between the Mouse-king and his army and theGinger-bread soldiers by the Christmas tree. With a well-aimed shoe, she routs the enemy,and is invited by the Nutcracker, now transformed into a handsome prince, to visit theKingdom of Sweets, an opportunity for welcome by the Snow-king and Snow-queen and a seriesof character dances, including the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, with its thennovel use of the celesta, and dances celebrating Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, Chinatea, the Russian trepak, andthe old woman who lived in a shoe.

Included on the present recording are the Overture, the Marchof the children, as they play, and some of the dances of the Second Actdivertissement, where we meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Russian Trepak, and other items of the entertainment offeredto Clara and her Prince by the Snow-king and Snow-queen.

The second of Tchaikovsky's fulllength ballets, The Sleeping Beauty, was, completedin 1889 and first performed in St Petersburg in January the following year, when CarlottaBrianza danced the role of Princess Aurora, with Pavel Gerdt as the Prince, Cecchetti asCarabosse and the choreographer Marius Petipa's daughter Maria as the Lilac Fairy. Theinitial response to the work w
Disc: 1
Sleeping Beauty (Highlights)
1 Ouverture
2 Marche
3 Danse de la fee
4 Danse russe
5 Danse arabe
6 Danse chinoise
7 Danse des mirlitons
8 VIII. Waltz of the Flowers (Valse des fleurs)
9 Scene
10 Valse
11 Allegro
12 Andante
13 Tempo de valse
14 Danse des couples
15 Danse hongroise (Czardas)
16 Danse espagnole
17 Danse napolitaine
18 Scene finale
19 Introduction - The Lilac Fairy
20 Adagio - Pas d'action
21 Characteristic Dance
22 Panorama
23 Waltz
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