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Length: c. 23 minutes

About this Piece

Tchaikovsky wrote his first ballet, Swan Lake, in 1875 because—he was frank to admit—he needed the money. The project may have helped fill his pockets, but it also fully awakened what had been manifest in many of his non-ballet scores: the gift to write music that captures the essence of dance. Some 13 years, two symphonies, and several operas later, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write another ballet, this one for the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, based on The Sleeping Beauty, the fairy tale by Charles Perrault.

The composer was somewhat wary of another bout with the world of ballet, for Swan Lake had been a difficult experience, and the public shrugged off its badly staged 1877 premiere at the Bolshoi Theater. At the time, Tchaikovsky was not surprised at the relative failure of his first balletic child. He wrote in his diary: “Lately I have heard Delibes’ very clever music. Swan Lake is poor stuff compared to it. Nothing in the last few years has charmed me so greatly as this ballet of Delibes’.”

Delibes notwithstanding, the composer had enough faith in his abilities in the genre to accept The Sleeping Beauty commission, and in addition he had the inestimable help of choreographer Marius Petipa, the founder of the Russian school of classical ballet. Tchaikovsky cooperated fully with Petipa, providing the ballet with music of incomparable richness and rightness—a score of symphonic splendor. Yet at the first production in January 1890 the audience was somewhat dismayed by the score. Although it contains melodies aplenty, it has a scope and a grandeur that were not considered appropriate for the dance theater at the time.

How times have changed. The Sleeping Beauty has long since attained the status of a classic in the ballet repertory, known and loved in its full-evening version. Even on its own in the concert hall, the music casts its enchantment, for it is Tchaikovsky at his best. No less a musician than the 20th-century master Igor Stravinsky went on record with that latter judgment. In a lengthy open letter to Ballets Russes director Serge Diaghilev, who presented the London premiere of The Sleeping Beauty in 1921, Stravinsky pays homage to Tchaikovsky and extends gratitude to Diaghilev for “producing that masterpiece by our great and beloved Tchaikovsky. The convincing example of Tchaikovsky’s great creative power is beyond all doubt the ballet The Sleeping Beauty. I have just read again the score of this ballet. I have orchestrated some numbers of it which had remained unorchestrated and unperformed. I have spent some days of intense pleasure in finding again and again the same feeling of freshness, inventiveness, ingenuity, and vigor.” He closed the letter, which was printed in The Times, with “I warmly desire that your audiences of all countries may feel this work as it is felt by me, a Russian musician.”

This suite opens with the music that is heard before the curtain rises. Rather than beginning the ballet with the kind of graceful dance music one might expect in a fairy-tale ballet, Tchaikovsky sounds a vital, muscular tone with the aggressive motif associated with the wicked fairy Carabosse, who casts the evil spell on Princess Aurora. This is followed in short order by the flowing, shimmering strains of Carabosse’s counterpart, the Lilac Fairy, who devotes her magical powers to the happiness of the Princess. We then encounter the procession of Aurora’s suitors as they each present her a rose, the delightful dance of Puss in Boots from the Act III wedding, and the shimmering Panorama at the start of Act II. The Suite concludes with one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known waltzes, danced by the corps holding garlands of flowers in celebration of Aurora’s 16th birthday.

—Orrin Howard