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.

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