Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky – Sleeping Beauty
(b. Votkinsk, 7 May 1840 – d. St. Petersburg, 6 November 1893)
Ballet in a prologue and three acts, op.66
Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky‘s second ballet, is a superb creation in several respects at once. Not only is it the longest of his works altogether, at nearly three hour’s duration, it is also laid out on a grand scale with regard to the number of characters. Nearly fifty solo roles have to be cast, and even if the dancers take multiple roles there remain the huge requirements in stage décor (such as costumes), not to mention the size of the remaining ensemble and the large orchestral apparatus. In his lifetime, moreover, Sleeping Beauty was Tchaikovsky’s most successful ballet. After barely two years the composer could already attend the fiftieth performance in St. Petersburg – in sharp contrast to the reception accorded to Swan Lake! Further, musicians rank Sleeping Beauty among the paragons of musical craftsmanship: it exceeds both Swan Lake and The Nutcracker in its symphonic fabric and is more broadly conceived in its musical expression. It is also more highly sophisticated in its motivic delineation of character and especially striking for its congruence between music and plot, a feature it owes in particular to its gestation (see below). Even the sternly self-critical composer was aware of the high quality of his work and considered Sleeping Beauty one of his finest creations both during the act of composition and in later years.
Thanks to the voluminous correspondence and detailed sketch material we are well-informed of the genesis of Sleeping Beauty. In May 1888 the director of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, Ivan Vsevolozhky, told the composer of his aim to create a ballet scenario based on Charles Perrault’s well-known fairy tale La belle au bois dormant. At the same time he asked Tchaikovsky whether he would undertake to produce a score “in the spirit of Lully, Bach, Rameau etc.” A short while later, before Tchaikovsky had replied, the scenario was sent to him via the head of the theater’s school, only to be delayed in delivery. Responding to another inquiry from Vsevolozhky in August, Tchaikovsky expressed keen interest in the subject. But it was only at the end of the month that the scenario finally arrived. From then on he was thrilled at the idea of setting the material to music. Remembering his experiences with Swan Lake, this time he took the precaution of consulting the well-known choreographer Marius Petipa regarding the design of the musical numbers. As a result, between November 1888 and January 1889 he received exhaustive sets of written instructions from Petipa, each documenting the results of three intensive meetings between the two men.
The ballet sketches illuminate Tchaikovsky’s uncommon powers of imagination with regard to the work’s overall conception. The initial musical ideas already date from September 1888, when he jotted them down on the front page of a newspaper. On 26 May 1889 the composer noted that he had finished the composition. By this he was, however, referring only to the continuity draft: like many of his contemporaries Tchaikovsky did not consider the orchestration, no matter how brilliant it seems to us today, to be part of the creative process but merely a matter of “workmanship.” The chronology of the surviving sketch material from his notebooks and diaries reveals that rather than drafting adjoining musical numbers in succession he worked at several “construction sites” simultaneously. Moreover, thanks to his busy itinerary, the sketches are spread among myriad locations throughout Europe. If we further consider the “tight reins” that Tchaikovsky was made to work under through Petipa’s instructions, the results are dumbfounding: the sketched elements fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, producing a complete score that required practically no appreciable revision in its musical substance. …
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