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The bodily movements we call dance are as old as the history of man, but it was the Italians and French who – from the 15th century on – cultivated it as a high art form and introduced dance performances for the celebration of marriages, at state and festive occasions, and the like. The ballet in France reached a high point through the great interest in dance of Louis XIV (1643-1715). Being a dancer himself, the King participated in staged performances, and encouraged the highest quality in all aspects of a production. The composer Lully and the ballet master Beauchamp contributed greatly to the artistic significance of French ballet, and it was during this period that ballet was brought in to the regular framework of opera. During the 17th century, ballet was not restricted to France, for other countries joined in its cultivation; but the French fondness for the form was exceptionally strong and their efforts on its behalf zealous and very influential.

The 18th century saw the rise of many famous dancers, if not much great dance music. By the 19th century a single dancer stands en pointe, literally for the first time, and symbolically, at the doorway of romantic ballet: Marie Taglioni. Born in Stockholm in 1804 of an Italian father and a Swedish mother, Taglioni founded a new aesthetic of dance, both as to style and dress: to her is credited the development of the ballerina as a floating, soaring, visionary figure in a shortened, loose-fitted skirt, a dancer capable of dizzying athletic movement in her flexible sandal with the stiffened toe. With Taglioni, the fundamental impulse of the classical Greek ideal of dancing that had come down through the ages was being changed drastically to conform to the era’s emphasis on romanticism.

During the 19th century the evening-long, extravagantly staged dance spectacle was born and was welcomed, and it was then too that the importance of the choreographer took giant leaps. Well-hid from central Europe, August Bournonville created a classic dance repertoire for the Royal Danish Ballet. Clearly in view and exerting enormous influence, the Frenchman Marius Petipa emigrated to St. Petersburg in 1847 and developed a Russian school that flourished brilliantly under his direction. One of the most progressive trends of late 19th-century ballet was the desire for music that was not merely serviceable but of high artistic quality and an integral part of the scheme. Enter Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

Tchaikovsky’s natural affinity for music that dances is apparent in virtually everything he wrote. Many 20th-century choreographers have found in the Russian composer’s music a source of inspiration, the musical peg on which to create ballet, and the number of dance pieces using various Tchaikovsky pieces is large indeed. One of the most interesting in light of this evening’s program is Ballet Imperial, choreographed by George Balanchine to the composer’s Second Piano Concerto, the opening work of the concert.

Little could Tchaikovsky have known that, long after he had completed his third full-length ballet, some of his non-ballet music would do service for staged dance works. His first ballet was written as a matter of necessity. When he was 35, before Nadezhda von Meck came into his struggling life as bountiful benefactor, the need for ready cash was the chief impulse for his accepting a commission to compose the music for the ballet Swan Lake. Wrote Tchaikovsky to composer Rimsky-Korsakov in 1875: “I accepted the work partly because I need the money, and because I long cherished a desire to try my hand at this type of music.”

When the badly staged 1877 premiere production of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theatre was shrugged off and dismissed, the composer was not surprised. Shortly after the ballet’s failure, he wrote in his diary: “Lately I have heard the very clever music of [French composer Léo] Delibes. Swan Lake is poor stuff compared to it. Nothing during the last few years has charmed me so greatly as this ballet of Delibes.” (Was he referring to Coppelia of 1870, or Sylvia of 1876, one wonders?) Delibes notwithstanding, Tchaikovsky later had enough faith in his balletic abilities to compose Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. Unfortunately, he did not live to witness the success of Swan Lake in its revival in 1895, with new choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

For many years now, this stage piece has stood as possibly the best loved of all the “white” ballets, the ultimate romantic dance work that floats, shimmers, and whirls on Tchaikovsky’s wondrously inspired music. Any true balletomane is quite willing to suspend reality and believe in swans who are actually enchanted maidens free to resume human form only at night; in dashing Prince Siegfried, who loses his heart to Odette, the Queen of the Swans; in the evil magician Rothbart and his wicked daughter Odile, who trick the Prince and thereby victimize the Swan Queen (in most productions Odette and Odile is a dual role danced, one hopes, by a ballerina who is all lyricism and elegance and also a brilliant technician). And then one must be able to shed a tear at the poignant ending, in which the reunited lovers choose to die together. (Some productions opt for a happy ending, but that’s an unnecessary bromide for a fairy tale that is the ultimate romantic tragedy.)

In the time-honored tradition of evening-long ballet, Swan Lake includes several divertissements that have nothing to do with the story, and this suite boasts three dashing national dances – Hungarian, Spanish, and Neapolitan. It’s not surprising, considering his artistic range, that Tchaikovsky is as triumphant in writing “foreign” music as he is in creating romantic Russian ballet music of both poignancy and brilliance.

Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.

Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.