Shaken by Reimann? So am I. Longing for something with beautiful melodies? Here we go. When it comes to beautiful melodies, there is no one like Tchaikovsky. And where are we going to find the most charming of all beautiful melodies that Tchaikovsky has written? Right, in his ballets. I have rhapsodized already about the beauty of “Swan Lake“, but there is another one that you should not miss: “The Sleeping Beauty”, op. 66.
Tchaikovsky’s lame excuses
Isn’t it curious that Tchaikovsky has shown utmost talent in composing ballet music despite the fact that he – as he frequently stated – rarely felt inspired by fantasy subjects? He declined more than once an opera libretto on the argument that he could not describe feelings of characters from fantasy tales in the language of music. He claimed he needed real persons in real situations. Well, whenever I listen to his ballets, that argument sounds like a lame excuse to me. But he may be forgiven, great composers even get away with lame excuses!
So, this ballet… Since (almost) everybody knows the plot, there is no need to go into the details. The facts in one single sentence: Aurora, a beautiful princess, gets bewitched by Carabosse, an evil fairy, and falls asleep for many, many years until Désiré, the young and brave knight, comes to rescue her and awakens her with a kiss. Hmmmmmmh…
The introduction starts with a lovely contrast: a forceful, vibrant prelude for strings, percussion and brass, followed by the gentle, delightful, most delicate main theme (flute, strings) – you hear the melody once and you will never forget it again. Then the Pas de six Adagio (IIIb) – pay attention to the balance between the clarinet and the harp! Finally the Pas de six Variation VI, a wonderful valse, and the Pas de six Coda that follows it immediately.
The Danse des duchesses (XIIb.) takes the form of a minuet, while the following Danse des baronnes (XIIc.) is composed in the style of an old French dance, a gavotte. And here, the Farandole – Danse Tempo di Mazurka (13b.), that concludes Act I – how can you possibly sit still when you hear this music? I can’t! Invariably, I start to sway when I sit in my chair or to hop when I’m walking – to the embarrassment of people surrounding me.
Unquestionably, in Act II the description of the Aurora’s sleep in Entr’acte symphonique and the Breaking of spell testify of Tchaikovsky talent to stir up emotions. Act III consists mainly of dances illustrating that after the awakening of Aurora, the court is celebrating the princess wedding to Prince Désiré with a bal masqué. Different groupsof dancers appear in costumes related to other fairy tales (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood…), which gave Tchaikovsky the option to come up with a variations of melodies, whose entertaining character partly hide that Act III actually sees no action – it’s just one long celebration, but to relive this music is always a delight!
Working with Marius Petipa
Tchaikovsky wrote “The Sleeping Beauty” between 1888 and 1889 upon the novel by the French writer Charles Perrault and in close cooperation with the Russian balletmaster Marius Petipa. Tchaikovsky had always dreamed to compose the perfect ballet and finally he succeeded: “The Sleeping Beauty” is his ballet masterpiece and it is unsurpassed in its diversity and rhythmical complexity. But working together with Petipa, a recognized authority, required Tchaikovsky to harness his ambitions and respect Petipa’s advice on theatrical issues.
I recommend the recording by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev.
© Charles Thibo