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The waltz is, of course, proudly claimed by the Viennese as their own, and Johann Strauss is deservedly its King. But Tchaikovsky raised the waltz to a higher level of sophistication thanks to his symphonic training and his devotion to ballet. His waltzes are not a mere string of bewitching tunes designed for the ballroom, they are thoroughly theatrical, accompanying dancing and action in ballet or opera. His tunes are bewitching too, and if you find them too familiar, bend the ear towards all the countermelodies and decorative figures with which he decks them, a supporting craft of which he was the absolute master.
Russian ballet was one of the glories of 19th-century civilization. Musicians might give the credit for this to Tchaikovsky; dancers would more likely say it was Marius Petipa, the French dancer and choreographer, who should have the accolade. Petipa became premier danseur at the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg in 1847, a move which symbolically passed the leadership in ballet from the country which had led the world of ballet in the 18th century, and had named the steps and positions, to the country that would inherit the tradition and pass it eventually into the hands of Diaghilev and Stravinsky.
The Sleeping Beauty was created by Petipa for St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. Tchaikovsky set to work in early 1889 with great energy. “It seems to me,” he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck, “that the music of this ballet will be one of my best creations. The subject is so poetic, so grateful for music, that I have worked on it with warmth and enthusiasm.” The story is based on La Belle au bois dormant, a nursery tale from Perrault’s famous collection of 1697. The well-known Waltz sets the scene for a festive gathering in the king’s palace in Act I.
The Waltz of the Flowers comes from the second act of the evergreen ballet The Nutcracker, which was first seen at the Mariinsky Theater two years later. Petipa was again the choreographer. The spotlight falls first on the harp, with a generous cadenza, then on the four horns that introduce the main tune, and then on the strings, whose sweeping melody is one of the most endearing elements in an eternally endearing score.
From the second act of the opera Eugene Onegin comes the third waltz in the group. This is Tchaikovsky’s most successful opera, based on Pushkin’s verse novel and first performed in 1879. The introductory build-up, so characteristic of Tchaikovsky’s skill, is played before the curtain rises, which is cued to happen at exactly the moment that the main tune begins. The impact of the great melody and the brilliant sight of the Larins’ ballroom full of spiraling dancers in the spectacular dresses and uniforms of 1820s Russia is unforgettable.
Finally we hear the earliest of the four Waltzes, from Swan Lake. In the summer of 1871 Tchaikovsky amused himself at his sister’s house in the Ukraine by writing a ballet for her children called Swan Lake. His brother Modest took the part of the Prince, but nothing else is known about this entertainment. In the next few years the plan for a ballet emerged from artistic circles in Moscow: Vladimir Begichev arranged for a commission for a full-length ballet in May 1875 and Tchaikovsky set to work at once. The subject of Swan Lake was a German folk tale that all Russian children knew.
“I accepted the work,” he told Rimsky-Korsakov, “partly because I need the money, but also because I have long wanted to try my hand at this kind of music.” The fee was not actually very great, so his second reason would have been the decisive factor. The Moscow ballet troupe was not (yet) very distinguished, and the production, which opened in March 1877, was far from ideal. Yet it continued in the repertoire for many years, gradually being defaced and rewritten in various ways. No one recognized it as a masterpiece until after Tchaikovsky’s death, when it had new choreography by Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with which it conquered the world.
The Waltz provides the setting for the entertainment given by Prince Siegfried to his friends at the beginning of Act I.
- Hugh Macdonald