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Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty

Tchaikovsky wrote his first ballet, Swan Lake, in 1875 because - he was frank to admit - he needed the money. The project may have helped to fill his pockets, but it also served the even more important purpose of fully awakening that had already been manifest in many of his non-ballet scores, namely the gift to write music that is the essence of the dance. Some 13 years, two symphonies, and several operas later, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write another ballet, this one for the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, with the subject, The Sleeping Beauty, based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault.

The Sleeping Beauty, now a classic in the ballet repertory, is Tchaikovsky at his best. The Waltz, one of Tchaikovsky's best-known dances, comes from Act I of the ballet, and is danced by the corps holding garlands of flowers in celebration of Aurora's 16th birthday.

- Orrin Howard

Act I Pas de deux from Swan Lake

When Tchaikovsky was 35, before the appearance in his life of his financial life-line, Nadezhda von Meck, the need for ready cash was the chief, but not the only, reason, for his accepting a commission to compose the music for the ballet Swan Lake. Wrote Tchaikovsky to 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."

For many years, 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; and in a poignant ending in which the reunited lovers choose to die together.

- Orrin Howard

Dance of the Tumblers from The Snow Maiden

In 1873 Alexander Ostrovsky wrote a play, commissioned to employ the opera, drama, and ballet companies of Moscow at a time when only the Bolshoi Theater was open. Ostrovsky created a large pageant - four acts and a prologue - with many opportunities for music and dance. (Ostrovsky specified particular folksongs in many places.) The story is part myth and part allegory, about the daughter of Winter and Spring, who is adopted by a human family, learns to love, and dies, melted by the sun.

The commission for the music came to Tchaikovsky, who completed extensive incidental music - 19 numbers for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra - in three weeks. It was not a great success, and it fared little better when Rimsky-Korsakov set it as an opera for the Mariinsky Theater nine years later. The vividly kinetic Dance of the Tumblers (or Jesters, or Comedians, or Buffoons…) comes from the third act, when the tsar asks his court minstrels for a dance at the end of a village festival. (Rimsky also composed a similar dance, on a folk tune.)

- John Henken

08/07