Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Music and Ballet: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

Do I have any readers who enjoy attending the Cincinnati Ballet each season? My love for classical music began the first time I saw Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet on television as a child. The relationship between music and dance is a powerful and beautiful art form, and one that I would like to take a closer look at this month on Clef Notes.

Scholars believe that ballet was first developed during the late 15th century in the Italian Renaissance court as a dance form that was meant to depict the fencing sport. It was further developed in France under Louis XIV during the 17th century. Though ballet’s popularity declined during the late 19th century in France, it continued to thrive in countries such as Italy and Russia. You may have heard of the Ballets Russes. The company formed under Sergei Diaghilev and, during the early 20th century, helped to re-establish an interest in ballet in the west. Diaghilev brought Russian culture with him and his ballet company became quite popular, even giving collaborative opportunities to emerging talent of the time including Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Jean Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso. We will discuss several of these collaborations further later this month.

Sergei Diaghilev: Courtesy of wikimedia.org
Let’s start off by looking at a staple that is loved by ballet experts and novices alike—Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In 1875, Tchaikovsky received a commission from the director of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow to write what would become one of the most famous ballets of all time. He had wanted to attempt a ballet for some time and desperately needed the extra income, so he agreed. Conveniently, the composer was already quite familiar with the story line, as he had written music based on the subject to entertain his sister’s children only a few years earlier.

The famous tale begins with a Prince who discovers a woman who is under an evil spell. She exists as a swan by day and a woman by night. The spell can only be broken if a prince marries her and vows to remain faithful to her forever. The Prince falls in love and agrees to marry her. Not long after, he is tricked into proposing to the wrong woman, thus breaking the heart of his swan lover who throws herself into the lake. When he discovers his mistake, the Prince follows and they are joined in the afterlife.

Did you know that the premiere of Swan Lake was not successful? While Tchaikovsky’s music was spot-on, the staging and dance technique were lacking. It was not until after the composer’s death that the ballet received improved choreography and became the lasting success we know today.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Otto Nicolai and the Merry Wives of Windsor

Last time we looked at Verdi’s setting of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor in his comic opera Falstaff. Though Verdi’s setting is probably the most famous, there are other composers who wrote works based on the same story including Otto Nicolai, whom we will discuss today.

Otto Nicolai was a German composer who wrote in the Italian style. He is known for founding the Vienna Philharmonic. He might have been more famous if he had accepted a commission to write the opera Nabucco. Following his rejection, Verdi took the project and created the opera we know and love today.

The overture to Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849) is perhaps the best-known portion of his opera today. While it draws from the entire opera, it prominently highlights the scene at night in Windsor Park when Falstaff arrives as a fairy-tale character and encounters “fairies.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Verdi's Portrayal of Falstaff

This month, Clef Notes is exploring various musical settings of Shakespeare in honor of the 400th anniversary of his passing that took place this past Saturday, April 23. This week, let’s look at several famous settings of his comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Did you know that Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera, premiered in 1893 and completed just before the composer turned 80? With the success of Otello, Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, persuaded him to write a comic opera based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The hilarious plot follows the story of Sir John Falstaff, who desires to seduce the wives of two of Windsor’s wealthiest men. Shakespeare first introduced his Falstaff character in the Henry IV plays. Legend says that he then brought him back in Merry Wives at the queen’s request to witness Falstaff in love.

The opera is challenging for both the performers and audience as it’s quite fast paced, the plot beginning immediately without an overture or prelude! You can watch below.

Next time, we’ll continue looking at The Merry Wives of Windsor by exploring Otto Nicolai’s setting.