MW 4: Swan Lake
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 7 in E-flat major, “Symphony of Life”

One year following the completion of his Symphony No. 5 in 1888, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky started contemplating a new symphony. “I literally cannot live without working.” He wrote to a Grand Duke of his acquaintances. But he did not begin work on the new symphony until hois return trip from America in May 1891. He started putting down themes and ideas while working on The Nutcracker and the opera Iolanta, but work on the symphony did not go well; by November 1892, it was fully sketched but he felt the new symphony was dead in the water, and it was only through the urging of his nephew Vladimir Davydov that he did not consign it to the fire. Clearly, productivity and creativity did not necessarily coincide in the composer’s own mind.

From there, the Symphony’s fate became murky. Being overextended in his commitments, Tchaikovsky reused some of the discarded symphony: The first movement became part of the one-movement Allegro Brilliante, now known as the Third Piano Concerto, edited and published posthumously as Op. 75 by pianist and composer Sergey Taneyev; The second and fourth movements became the posthumous Andante and Finale for Piano and Orchestra Op. 79, cobbled together, again by Taneyev in 1896; and the Scherzo became the Scherzo-Fantaisie, No. 10 of a set of 18 piano pieces Op. 72 dedicated to his friends and colleagues.

Finally, in 1951-55, Russian composer Semyon Bogatyrev put the pieces back together and orchestrated them. We do not know the exact state of the second and fourth movement sketches, but in any case, Bogatyrev found them essentially unusable. Instead, he revised the Andante and Finale Op. 79, rendering the final product a symphony by Tchaikovsky-Taneyev-Bogatyrev. Moreover, it’s odd that Tchaikovsky thought the music unsuitable for a symphony, yet used three of the movements for piano and orchestra pieces. The answer clearly lies in those sketches Bogatyrev found unusable, which would make an interesting study of the composer’s creative process – or his state of mind at a given phase of his life.

Bogatyrev’s orchestration is extremely close to Tchaikovsky’s instrumentation during this period of his life: lots of woodwind solos echoed by strings. Listeners familiar with Tchaikovsky’s ballet music will hear many passages – near quotes, in fact – from Sleeping Beauty (1890), which premiered just two years after the composer started working on his aborted Seventh Symphony. One might even go so far as to say that the succession of the central two movements suggests the dances of the fairies at Aurora’s christening. A prominent passage in Movement I, rhythmically and harmonically sounds like a first draft for the motive of the wicked fairy, Carabosse.

The first movement, which Tchaikovsky had actually nearly completed, consists of three themes and is constructed more like a symphony than like the piano concerto it ultimately became. It opens with a bassoon section solo, creating an immediately dark ambience. Example 1 The transition passage into the formal second theme is the sinister “Carabosse” motive. Example 2 But the mood turns romantic for the second theme, Example 3 and the third theme is a lively Russian trepak. Example 4

The second movement also consists of three themes, and arch that starts with a contemplative woodwind phrase Example 5 and response. Example 6 The central, and longest section is a passionate romantic affair, Example 7 after which the movement comes to a quiet close recapping the first two melodies.

Just as the lush Grand adagio in Sleeping Beauty is followed by the “Breadcrumb Fairy’s” dance, so the third movement of the symphony is a perky scherzo. Example 8 The slightly more subdued trio features the flute and harp. Example 9

The finale is a rondo, Example 10 interspersed with extended episodes. The first introduces a contrasting theme Example 11 that will later be expanded into a quasi-anthem, reminiscent of the hymn to the Tsar at the end of the 1812 Overture, the grand finale to Sleeping Beauty, or even the coda to the Fifth Symphony where Tchaikovsky changes the “big theme” from minor to major. Example 12

All that being said, while we are not always sure where Tchaikovsky ends and his re-composers begin, we must admit that their ability to capture the essence of Tchaikovsky’s overall stylistic language is extraordinary.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Suite from Swan Lake

In the summer of 1871 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky spent some time at his sister’s family home. For the entertainment of the children, he composed and staged a scena called Swan Lake, with a cast consisting of two children, his brother Modest and wooden toy swans. Nothing is known about the music, nor whether five years later any of it made its way into a commission from the Imperial Theaters to compose a ballet.

Tchaikovsky, short of money and still struggling for recognition in his own country – although rapidly gaining recognition abroad – settled on the story of Swan Lake which he had admired for years and in whose somber ending he saw a reflection of his own dark moods.

The source of the story and of the scenario is unknown, although it contains elements recognizable throughout European folk literature. It tells of Prince Siegfried, whose mother arranges a ball during which he is to choose a bride. Lured away from a hunt by a flock of swans, the prince discovers that they are actually the princess Odette and her maidens, enchanted by the evil sorcerer Rotbart so that they can take their human form only at night. Siegfried falls in love with Odette, who tells him that only constant and selfless love can break her spell. In an attempt to thwart the lovers, the sorcerer sends his daughter Odile to the ball. Odile, dressed entirely in black, is literally and figuratively a carbon copy of Odette, and Siegfried, of course, mistakes her for his beloved. He declares his love for the impostor, thereby losing his Odette forever and condemning her to the bonds of her enchantment. The original version of the ballet ends with the death of both Odette and Siegfried engulfed in the lake.

Tchaikovsky started work on the project in the spring of 1875, finishing it in April of the following year. Its premiere in March 1877 was an unmitigated disaster, partly the result of Bolshoy in-house political infighting, partly the inadequacy of the choreographer, conductor, dancers and orchestra.

Swan Lake was a revolutionary work. Its intensely dramatic score was so demanding for choreographer, dancers and orchestra that from its premier, music from other composers was increasingly substituted for Tchaikovsky’s original score; it was finally dropped from the Bolshoy repertoire after 1883. Tchaikovsky himself never saw a satisfactory performance of the complete work, although he saw a production of the second act in 1889 in Prague that gave him “one brief moment of unalloyed happiness.”

Its revival in 1895, two years after the composer’s death, was a resounding success, with lavish staging and new choreography by Marius Petipa. It restored Tchaikovsky’s music – with certain alterations of the musical sequence and a scenario modified by the composer’s brother Modest. It is this version that made it the world’s most popular ballet, and most of the later versions have stemmed from this production. Choreographers, however, frequently alter the ending, doing in Rotbart and mounting a grand apotheosis of the lovers.

During the summer of 1880, Tchaikovsky’s benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, wrote Tchaikovsky that she had engaged the services of a young French musician to tutor her daughters. That French musician was the 18-year-old Claude Debussy, who during the course of the summer made piano four hands arrangements of a number of dances from Swan Lake. These piano arrangements became Debussy’s first published work.

Tchaikovsky himself intended to arrange an orchestral suite from the ballet but apparently never got around to it. After his death, anonymous arrangers extracted suites from the long ballet with many combinations and permutations of the dances, some following the gist of the story line, others arranged on musical criteria alone. The first one, consisting of six dances and of unknown parentage, was published in 1900 and became known as Op. 20a.

A different Suite was compiled by the Muzgiz, the Soviet State Music Pulishing House, in 1954. It consists of the following movements:
1. Scène. The beginning of Act II introduces the iconic oboe solo and Leitmotif of the ballet. Example 1

2. Valse from Act I; Siegfried is entertained by a bevy of prospective brides. Example 2

3. Danse des petites cygnes (Dance of the Little Swans): This oboe duet is known for its choreography in which four swan maidens link hands across their bodies and perform rapid staccato steps in unison. Example 3

4. Scène. The Pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried features beautiful violin, harp and cello solos, supported by a pair of oboes for the swan maidens’ refrain. Example 4
The next four appear in sequence in Act III:
5. Danse Hongroise. (Czardas). Example 5

6. Danse éspagnole (Bolero) Example 6

7. Danse Napolitaine. Example 7

8. Mazurka Example 8

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018