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Composed: 1888-1889
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 25, 1928, Eugene Goossens conducting (Pas d’action)

Sleeping Beauty came at a critical cultural point in Russian history, during the relatively short reign of Tsar Alexander III (1881-1894). This Tsar intended to put to use the nonpareil wealth of the Romanov dynasty, dismantling the liberal policies of his predecessor, but also nurturing a less cosmopolitan, more Russian culture. His love of music and dance led to the appointment in 1881 of Ivan Vsevolozhsky to head the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg, overseeing both opera and ballet. This appointment included a specific request for Tchaikovsky’s already famous opera Eugene Onegin to be performed in St. Petersburg as a symbol of Tsar Alexander III’s new Russian culture.

After this and other notable successes (not all of them necessarily at the behest of the Tsar), Vsevolozhsky then came up with the idea of employing the Tsar’s favorite composer, Tchaikovsky, to provide music to a ballet, and chose for the story La belle au bois dormant or Sleeping Beauty, based on one of the famous fairy tales in Charles Perrault’s 17th-century collection. Vsevolozhsky himself wrote the libretto and designed original costumes. His idea most notably included pairing Tchaikovsky with the Imperial Ballet’s then 71-year-old choreographer Marius Petipa. Although the otherwise bloated production came together quickly, without any major catastrophes, the eager Tsar, who insisted on attending the dress rehearsal, expressed some disappointment at first, but eventually came around with tepid praise for the final production.

Meanwhile, an eight-year-old Stravinsky attended one of the first performances of this Sleeping Beauty première production and often mentioned it as his first insightful experience with an orchestra, as well as his first experience with the music of Tchaikovsky, who was a friend of young Igor’s father. Three decades later, in 1921, Sergei Diaghilev staged a famous production of Sleeping Beauty in Paris, reviving it substantially to fit into a completely different context — at that time, Parisians still thought of Russia as an exotic culture.

Until he received the call to write Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky incorporated nationalism in his music only on his own more conservative terms. He never completely bonded with his more ardently nationalistic compatriots such as Rimsky-Korsakov or Mussorgsky, as such nationalism at that time was considered something progressive. This reluctance also reflects Tchaikovsky’s very finicky musical tastes, which often found him openly despising the music of some of his famous contemporaries, such as Brahms, but also expressing indifference to masters of the past such as Bach and Beethoven. In this way, Tchaikovsky built his career as a maverick, although he did express high esteem for Mozart, Bizet, and ballet music, especially of Delibes. Clearly, something about writing for ballet inspired Tchaikovsky’s musical voice in a special way, making him one of the most important ballet composers of all time.

Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.