The Music of Ballet – A New Series

Hello all,

This week’s music, the final scene from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, is part of a new series on ballet music. Over the next few weeks, we will be listening to (and watching 🙂 some of the greatest ballet music ever composed.

Ballet music is an interesting and unique sub-genre of classical music, primarily because it was not written to be performed on stage. Unlike most classical music, ballet music was meant to be heard and not seen. The musicians in a ballet sit in what is called “the pit,” a lowered enclosure that sits below the front of the stage. The conductor stands at the head of the orchestra on an elevated platform, where he can watch the ballet while also conducting the orchestra.

Ballet music is also unique because it involves physical movement in a way other classical music does not (with the rare exception of extremely athletic performers like Joshua Bell and Yuja Wang). It requires coordination between a choreographer and an orchestra, as well as constant vigilance on the part of the conductor to ensure the music and dance are fitting together properly.

Swan Lake is the tragic love story of Prince Siegfried and the swan Princess Odette, whose love must face sorcery, magic spells, evil magicians, betrayal, and more. Despite its fame, the ballet was not originally well received when it was premiered in 1877. It was not until the world-renowned Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg decided to showcase the ballet that it gained the kind of fame it enjoys today. Since then, it has been choreographed by ballet maestros like Lev Ivanov and performed by legendary dancers including Rudolf Nureyev.

Enjoy!

T

Sugar Plum

Hello all,

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Written as a two-act ballet in 1892, the story is based on T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 short story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Tchaikovsky’s evocative and colorful music, combined with the brilliant choreography of Lev Ivanov and others, have created a timeless Christmas classic.

Today we will hear (and watch) the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This dance was somewhat revolutionary in its time, for it introduced a new instrument to the world: the celeste. Since then, the celeste has been used by Frank Sinatra, Gustav Mahler, John Williams, Bela Bartok, and dozens of other famous musicians. The celeste operates like most of the other keyboard instruments: keys trigger hammers that strike metal plates suspended over wooden resonating blocks. Tchaikovsky used it to create a delicate, sparkling atmosphere that feels magical and childish at the same time.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #13 – Swan Lake

Hello all,

I hope you enjoyed a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s celebration! We are kicking off the new year with #13 in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite.

As with so many other composers, there are an endless number of options when it comes to Tchaikovsky. I could have chosen to highlight the Nutcracker ballet, his monumental piano concerto, or his soaring violin concerto. However, I felt that Swan Lake captured the range of Tchaikovsky’s style while also highlighting the genre for which he is most famous – ballet.

Swan Lake is a tragic story about the doomed love between Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette. While out hunting, Siegfried decides to follow a group of swans into the forest. One of them turns into a young woman (Odette), who tells him that she and her friends were turned into swans by an evil magician named Van Rothbart. The spell can only be broken with a promise of unfailing love, so the Prince pledges his love to Odette and promises to wed her at the palace. However, Van Rothbart sends his daughter, disguised as Odette, to the palace. Siegfried, thinking it is Odette, asks for her hand in marriage. When he and Odette discover that they have been tricked by Van Rothbart, they choose to die together by drowning themselves in Swan Lake rather than live under Van Rothbart’s spell.

But the ballet dancers who first tried to dance Swan Lake weren’t worried about the tragedy. They were worried about being able to dance the ballet at all. It was simply too difficult. Many ballet companies refused to even attempt it due to the complexity and physicality of the music.

Today, however, ballet companies around the world perform Swan Lake as one of the most popular ballets of all time. You will hear today a condensed orchestral version of the ballet.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 #7 – 1812

Hello all,

The seventh installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky wrote the overture in 1880 to commemorate the Russian army’s successful defense against Napoleon’s invading forces in 1812. Along with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, the 1812 Overture has become one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-loved and widely-performed compositions. As you will see from the video, it is often performed with much fanfare at Independence Day celebrations around the world.

Despite the fact that it rocketed him to international fame, Tchaikovsky disliked the 1812 Overture. He defined it as “very loud and noisy, but without artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love.” The success of the overture convinced him that the world cared more about theatrical fanfare than it did about the deep personal expression that he put into his other compositions. (I personally find it hard to believe he wrote it without love; some of the folk songs that he weaves into the earlier parts of the overture are stunningly beautiful).

The context for the overture (the 1812 defense of Russia) gives it an amazing storyline. Tchaikovsky introduces Russian folk songs through the piece, and they trade places with the French national anthem multiple times. At the 11-minute mark, the Russian folk songs, along with artillery fire and an ample dose of timpani, drown out the French national anthem at the close of the overture. The overture ends with the French anthem morphing into the Russian anthem “God Preserve the Tzar.” The symbolism is unmistakeable.

Buckle up!

T

Tchaikovsky Piano Trio

Hello all,

Our music for today is the Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky, performed by three of the greatest Russian musicians of all time: Oleg Kagan (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), and Natalia Gutman (cello). This performance was shortly after Kagan was diagnosed with cancer that would lead to his untimely death at only 44 years of age in 1990. I am one of the many who believe that he would have become “the next Oistrakh” or “the next Heifetz” had he lived a full life. 

Tchaikovsky wrote this trio as one long transition from A Major to A Minor. His hope was that the listener would be able to grasp the long (90 pages!) journey from one world to another.

The first movement is in sonata form. It opens with a soulful melody in the cello that is passed around the trio throughout the rest of the movement. Listen for the many different permutations of this theme that Tchaikovsky creates.

The second movement is a set of ten variations on a theme that is introduced by the piano in the opening bars. First, the violin takes the theme. Second, the cello tries its hand at the melody. Third, the strings play pizzicato while the piano accelerates into a Scherzo variation. Fourth, the three combine again for a rich, soulful variation. Fifth, the piano seems to imitate bells with its ringing version of the main theme. Sixth, the cello leads the trio in a waltz. Seventh, the piano brings us back to a nearly identical version of the original theme. Eighth, the three instruments power their way through a busy Fugue. Ninth, the cello carries the trio through a slow and pensive meditation. Finally, the three instruments race to the finish in a light-hearted Mazurka.

The final movement is actually another variation on the theme that begins the second movement, but this time it is more developed. Listen for the way that Tchaikovsky finishes the trio with a combination of the second movement’s main theme and the theme from the opening of the first movement.

Enjoy!

T

 

 

Tchaikovsky Nocturne

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Nocturne in F Major for solo piano by Tchaikovsky.

This composition is part of a set of two pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote while on vacation in Nice, France in 1872. The other piece is a Humoresque that has since been transcribed for violin and cello, among other instruments.  

It would be difficult to find a more charming piece of music than this Nocturne. Sensual melodic lines in the right hand flow seamlessly over tumbling waters in the left hand, creating an atmosphere of delicacy and relaxation.  Unlike much of Tchaikovsky’s music, there is no “moment of tension” in this piece that must be resolved; it is content to simply enjoy the ride. For an example of this, listen for the way that Tchaikovsky brings the melody back at around 2:20. Rather than create harmonic tension by entering the world of dissonance or dynamic pressure, he simply lets the development section drop off by itself. I think this creates a wonderful effect, since it enables the original melody to appear out of a moment of complete silence.

Enjoy!

T

P.S. Some of you may remember our recent series on the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. I would encourage you to check out his recording of this piece, which also includes its Humoresque companion.

Tchaikovsky in a Circle

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Finale of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony.

This symphony is somewhat of an odd-ball. It is the only one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies that was composed in a major key and the only one that contains five movements rather than four. The Finale that you will hear is particularly unique because it is composed in a “polonaise” form that earned the symphony the nickname “Polish.” This nickname was controversial at the time, however, because it carried a cultural connotation of Russian dominance over Poland. It is very possible that Tchaikovsky did this on purpose, since he knew that in order for his music to be popular, his music would need to appeal to the political and cultural tastes of the aristocracy that funded his musical endeavors.

The polonaise is a type of Polish dance that resembles a march or a processional. Perhaps in an effort to challenge himself, Tchaikovsky cleverly mixes this dance form with a fugue format. In other words, the dance is layered onto itself many times through different instrumentations. You will hear the opening theme of the movement repeated several times throughout; each time it is handled by different instrument and is played in a different key. As the piece progresses, Tchaikovsky creates even more complexity by having different instruments play this melody in a staggered progression, which gives listeners the impression that they are listening to a round.

Enjoy!

T

Souvenir de Florence

Our music for this week is the Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky.

This string sextet was composed during a time in Tchaikovsky’s life that was devoid of inspiration. Historians have found journal entries from this time in his life that evoke despair and depression. In several of them, Tchaikovsky doubts his ability to compose at all. It is therefore surprising that this cheerful and upbeat composition is the result of such a time in Tchaikovsky’s life.

The composition is structurally very easy to understand. As a rule of thumb, every theme is presented by a single instrument family. In other words, the exposition of a theme will begin in the two violins, progress to the two violas, and end in the two cellos. Although these voices will of course be independent of each other at times, they always resolve in their original pairs.

We are very fortunate to have some of Tchaikovsky’s letters to his colleagues about the piece. We know from these letters that the first movement needs to be played with “great fire and passion.” Similarly, we know that he wanted the slow second movement to reflect a summer thunderstorm with muted lightning in the distance. Tchaikovsky also ventured into relatively uncharted territory by incorporating a fugue format into the third movement. This is a structural and stylistic marker that was much more common 200 years before Tchaikovsky’s time. However, he bravely builds the entire third movement around a fugal system in which the pairs of instruments continuously add and subtract identical thematic material above and beneath each other.

Enjoy!

Tchaikovsky – String Quartet No. 1 in D Major

Our music for this week is the String Quartet No. 1 in D Major by Tchaikovsky, performed by the Borodin Quartet.

The Borodin Quartet was a product of the very influential Russian School of music. It was originally led by the renowned violinist Mikael Kopelman, who is now a professor at Eastman Conservatory. Although most of the original members are no longer part of the quartet, the group’s legacy is continued through the efforts of a younger generation of Russian musicians.

This quartet is the first of three quartets that Tchaikovsky wrote. It is by far the most popular work of chamber music by Tchaikovsky, due in large part to the unforgettable second movement. Tchaikovsky based the melody of this movement on a folk song that he heard while visiting his sister in the Russian countryside. It is said that Leo Tolstoy, upon first hearing this melody, immediately burst into tears. At its first performance, the quartet was warmly received by the public and became an immediate favorite of that era’s Russian nobility.

In the first movement, listen for the very rich and dense melody that the violins introduce in the first few bars. In the second movement, listen not only for the famous first melody but also the secondary melody that you will hear in the cello and first violin’s conversation later on in the piece. In the third movement, listen for the dance theme that is introduced in the Trio section about halfway through the movement. Finally, in the fourth movement, listen for a re-exploration of two themes from earlier in the quartet. Tchaikovsky places both themes in new and different tonalities, forcing the listener to hear these familiar melodies in a new light.

Enjoy!

Richter #2

Hello all,

Our music for this week is a performance by Sviatoslav Richter of the Nocturne in F Major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

This Nocturne comes from a set of two larger books of songs that Tchaikovsky wrote while on vacation in Nice, France in the summer of 1872. This particular song is paired with a Humoresque that Tchaikovsky dashed off after hearing an amusing French dance in the marketplace near his lodgings. We do not, however, know much about the Nocturne other than that it is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s good friend, Vladimir Shilovsky. Shilovsky was an amateur singer, songwriter, poet, composer, and artist who came to study at the Moscow Conservatory under Tchaikovsky’s guidance.

As we saw last week, Richter was particularly well known for his command of a vast repertoire and his incredible ability to create colors and emotions on the keyboard. In addition to these things, however, he was also renowned for his interpretations of specific composers’ music. For instance, his recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas is widely regarded as the best recording ever made of those works. (We’ll hear some of these sonatas in the weeks to come). Along with Beethoven, he was a specialist in the music of his fellow Russians – Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and others. This recording is therefore an excellent example of Richter’s on-stage interpretive capabilities at their fullest expression.

It is amazing that such a simple Nocturne can become such a captivating and powerful story in Richter’s hands. I think we underestimate how hard that is to do. As with anything in life, it is easy to go on “auto-pilot” when the task at hand is relatively easy. Musicians certainly do this, relaxing when playing easier Mozart tunes and pouring all their energy into the complicated romantic-era works. However, Richter’s ability to draw the listener in with even a simple melody is evidence of his incredible power of concentration and devotion to every single note. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that he puts emphases on certain notes that he wants the listener to remember, and more often than not, those notes are the key harmonic guideposts for the piece as a whole.

Enjoy!