PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY: Born in Votkinsk, May 7, 1840; died in St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893
Charles Perrault’s fairy tale of the The Sleeping Beauty from his Mother Goose stories (1697) has captured the imagination of dozens of composers: operas by Humperdinck and Respighi, cantatas by Reinecke and Raff, ballets by Henze and Hérold, songs by Borodin and Debussy, a film score by Poulenc, and much more. But standing head and shoulders above all others is Tchaikovsky’s ballet score, which captures all the beauty, magic, and enchantment of Perrault’s tale to perfection. Tchaikovsky himself thought it to be one of his greatest creations. Stravinsky thought likewise, in an age (early twentieth century) when Tchaikovsky was generally dismissed by “serious” music lovers. Since its first performance in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1890, The Sleeping Beauty has been continuously in the repertory, and it remains one of the half dozen most beloved of all full-length ballets.
“Tchaikovsky was,” as biographer John Warrack explains, “as no other composer of his generation, ideally gifted to make a child’s fairy tale into a masterpiece of danced musical drama. His background and upbringing had given him a love of the French stories he associated with his own happy childhood and his beloved mother; in later years, he connected them with escape into this remembered bliss from the painful realities of his life, lonely and unhappy as he was.”
The music for The Sleeping Beauty can properly be described as “symphonic” in that, unlike most other ballet scores of the nineteenth century, it has an inner, organic unity achieved through the use of leading motifs and formal but flexible design (as opposed to a succession of unrelated short numbers. To Warrack, “no score of his possesses a finer flow of brilliant, attractive, memorable ideas; but it does so because of the strength of the design.”
In 1888, the French-born director of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Marius Petipa, decided to mount a full-length ballet production based on Perrault’s tale. He chose Tchaikovsky for the music and Director of Imperial Theaters Ivan Vsevolozhsky for the libretto, which the latter based on both Perrault and on a later version of the tale (Dornröschen) by the Brothers Grimm. Vsevolozhsky also designed the costumes. The 45-year-old Petipa, most improbably, danced the role of the Lilac Fairy. Collaboration between the choreographer Petipa and the composer Tchaikovsky closely resembled how film composers work today, with the composer following written instructions from the director and/or visual cues from the film itself. A typical example: “From 16 to 24 bars, leading to another tempo. At Aurora’s entrance, perky, coquettish 2/4 – 32 bars, ending with 16 bars 6/8 forte.” The first performance was given at the Mariinsky Theater on January 15, 1890.