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FastNotes

  • Tchaikovsky wrote his first ballet, Swan Lake, in 1875. Some 13 years, two symphonies, and several operas later, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write The Sleeping Beauty for the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault.
  • At its first production in January 1890, the score was not considered to be entirely appropriate for the dance theater, though replete with melodies and symphonically rich.
  • However, The Sleeping Beauty has long since attained full status as a classic in the ballet repertory, known and loved in its full-evening version. Even quite on its own in the concert hall, the music casts its enchantment, for it is Tchaikovsky at his best.

Composed: 1888-1889
Length: c. 50 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 LA Phil performance: June 28, 1963, John Lanchbery conducting (complete ballet)

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 which 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.

Actually, the composer was somewhat wary of another bout with the world of ballet, for Swan Lake had been a difficult experience and its badly staged production at the Bolshoi Theater shrugged off by the public. At the time (1877), Tchaikovsky was not surprised at the relative failure of his first balletic child. He wrote in his diary: “Lately I have heard Delibes’ very clever music. Swan Lake is poor stuff compared to it. Nothing in the last few years has charmed me so greatly as this ballet of Delibes’.” (Probably referring to Sylvia of 1876...)

Delibes notwithstanding, the composer had enough faith in his abilities in the genre to accept the Beauty commission, and in addition he was to have the inestimable help of choreographer Marius Petipa, the founder of the school of Russian ballet. Tchaikovsky cooperated fully with Petipa, providing the ballet with music of incomparable richness and rightness — a score of true symphonic splendor. The last-named quality seems in fact to have proved a stumbling block to the complete success of the first production in January 1890. The audience was somewhat dismayed by the score, for although it contains melodies aplenty, it also has a scope and a grandeur not considered at that time to be entirely appropriate for the dance theater.

How times have changed. The Sleeping Beauty has long since attained full status as a classic in the ballet repertory, known and loved in its full-evening version. Even quite on its own in the concert hall, the music casts its enchantment, for it is Tchaikovsky at his best. No less a musician than the 20th-century master Igor Stravinsky went on record with that latter judgment. In a lengthy open letter to Ballets Russes director Serge Diaghilev, who presented The Sleeping Beauty in London for the first time in 1921, Stravinsky paid homage to Tchaikovsky and extended gratitude to Diaghilev for “producing that masterpiece by our great and beloved Tchaikovsky. The convincing example of Tchaikovsky’s great creative power is beyond all doubt the ballet The Sleeping Beauty. I have just read again the score of this ballet. I have orchestrated some numbers of it which had remained unorchestrated and unperformed. I have spent some days of intense pleasure in finding again and again the same feeling of freshness, inventiveness, ingenuity, and vigor.” Stravinsky closes this letter, which was printed in the London Times, October 18, 1921, “I warmly desire that your audiences of all countries may feel this work as it is felt by me, a Russian musician.” 

The late Orrin Howard served as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives for many years.