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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY: Ballet Suites (Transcriptions for Piano 4 Hands)
It is astonishing to recall that five years after the première of Swan Lake, one of the greatest of all Russian ballets, and of Tchaikovsky’s three full-length ballets the one with the greatest number of memorable tunes, the composer wrote to his editor: “To save this music from sinking into oblivion, I would like to make it into a concert suite modelled on Delibes… published both as a symphonic score and as a transcription for four hands.” The original transcription by the pianist Eduard Langer is heard on this recording with piano duet versions of concert suites from The Sleeping Beauty, commissioned from Rachmaninov and Ziloti, though later corrected by the composer himself, and from The Nutcracker, transcribed by Stepan Esipoff.
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
By Frank Behrens
By David Denton
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Ballet Suites (Transcriptions for Piano Four Hands)
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk (Ural) in 1840, the son of a mining engineer, and received piano lessons from an early age. After studying law, he worked in the Ministry of Justice in St Petersburg until he was able to follow his inclination, and in 1862 began to take lessons in composition with Anton Rubinstein, the founder of the St Petersburg Conservatory. In 1866 he became a member of the teaching staff of the Moscow Conservatory, recently founded by Anton's brother Nikolay, and wrote his first successful compositions. While winning fame in Russia and abroad with his First Piano Concerto, which had its world première in Boston in 1875 with Hans von Bülow as soloist, Tchaikovsky underwent serious crises in his private life. After marrying Antonina Milyukova in 1877, he tried to commit suicide. Morally and financially he was generously supported by his patron Nadezhda von Meck. In 1887 he began to conduct, and in the following years he undertook concert tours throughout Europe and America, enjoying triumphant success. He died in 1893, perhaps committing suicide after a scandal in connection with his homosexuality.
Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky's first ballet, has come to be representative of all ballets. The libretto was probably inspired by the tale The Stolen Veil from Karl August Musäus's collection (1786) of German fairy tales. " … I have worked quite excessively and – besides the symphony – have composed two acts of a ballet", Tchaikovsky wrote to his friend and colleague Rimsky-Korsakov on 10 September 1875. "In response to a commission from the Russian Musical Society I am writing the music for the ballet The Lake of Swans. I have taken to doing this work partly because of the money I am in need of, partly because I have longed to try and compose in this genre for quite some time". On 24 March 1876, he told his brother Modest: "Yesterday was the first rehearsal of some of the numbers from my ballet. If you only knew how funny it was to watch the ballet-master create the choreography with the utmost seriousness and enthusiasm to the sound of a single violin! Besides, it was a pleasure to watch the dancers perform their jumps and turns with delight, smiling to an imaginary future audience… Everybody in the theatre is enthusiastic about my music".
Swan Lakehad its world première on 20 February 1877 at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. It won its greatest success, however, only after Tchaikovsky's death, in a new production at the St Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre in 1895, with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The idea of creating a suite from the ballet came from Tchaikovsky himself: "These days I have remembered Swan Lake", he writes to his editor Jurgenson on 20 September 1882. "To save this music from sinking into oblivion, I would like to make it into a concert suite modelled on Delibes. This suite could be published both as a symphonic score and as a transcription for four hands." Eduard Langer (1835-1908), a pianist and colleague of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, was engaged for the transcription. He wrote numerous transcriptions of Tchaikovsky's works, and Tchaikovsky dedicated to him his piano piece Capriccioso, Op. 19, No. 5. The Suite contains essential themes of the ballet: the Swan Lake theme in many different guises, for example as the power of the evil magician Rothbart (No. 1), Siegfried's celebration (No. 2), the dance of the little swans (No. 3), Siegfried's and Odette's love duet – pas de deux (No. 4), the ball with the Czárdás performance (No. 5), the storm on the lake at night and Siegfried's and Odette's reunion (No. 6).
The Sleeping Beauty, based on Charles Perrault's story La belle au bois dormant (1697), had its world première on 3 January 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg with choreography by Marius Petipa. Tchaikovsky had been engaged by the Imperial Theatres, and the director Vsevolozhsky himself had written the libretto. "…The subject is most agreeable and poetic", Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron Nadezhda von Meck on 8 January 1889. On 6 June 1889 he told his sister-in-law Praskovya Tchaikovskaya: "…I am working like an ox, literally sitting at my writing-desk all day. I must finish the ballet by September". On 25 July he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "It seems to me, my dear friend, that this ballet will be among my best compositions. The subject is musically so grateful that I have worked most enthusiastically and with that special warm dedication and pleasure which are always the prerequisites for the quality of a composition".
The overwhelming success of this ballet, however, again was not apparent immediately after the première even though "it was endlessly sold out" (Modest Tchaikovsky). At the recommendation of the pianist Alexander Ziloti, Tchaikovsky engaged the eighteen-year-old Sergey Rachmaninov to transcribe a suite for piano duet of his ballet. But Tchaikovsky did not leave it at that. Until October 1892 when the transcription was published, he asked Ziloti to correct it and see to it himself. On 14 June 1892 he wrote to Jurgenson: "I have struggled with the corrections of the Swan Lake Suite, but now I am glad that I have interested myself in due time in what Rachmaninov and Ziloti have produced… Not only have I corrected mistakes but I have also revised many passages." He asked Jurgenson to postpone the printing that had started already, and in the weeks to come he and Ziloti alternately revised the transcription. "I am very happy with your revision and convinced that the transcription will be very good. Thank you, my dove", he wrote to Ziloti on 7 July, and on 22 July: "The parts of the transcription I received from you today are magnificent, and I am terribly grateful to you, my dear, kind friend!"
The first piece of the suite (Introduction. La Fée des lilas) contains the themes of Cavaradosse and the lilac fairy, the second depicts Aurora and the four cavaliers, the third is a dance performance of fairy-tale characters at Aurora's wedding, in Panorama the boat with Prince Désiré and the Lilac Fairy glides towards Aurora's castle, and the waltz is taken from Aurora's birthday celebration.
The Nutcracker is based on Alexandre Dumas's version (Casse-noisette) of E.T.A. Hoffmann's fairytale and had its world première on 6 December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. The libretto was written by Vsevolozhsky and Petipa. This time Petipa gave Tchaikovsky exact instructions as to the music he imagined after Petipa had learned that Tchaikovsky, unlike most composers, had no objection to such a course. On the contrary: "The more precise the instructions, the more his hands, so to speak, were tied, the freer was his inspiration", his brother Modest recalls. "In the Nutcracker Petipa prescribed the character of the music of each scene and its duration in minutes and bars." The Nutcracker being about a little girl, Tchaikovsky additionally adds children's instruments. On 19 February 1891 he wrote to his publisher Jurgenson: "I absolutely need children's instruments (from Haydn's and Romberg's symphonies), as I want to introduce them in my future ballet. Please send them immediately to Frolovskoye, together with the scores".
The Nutcracker Suite composed by Tchaikovsky had its world première even before the ballet itself, on 7 March 1892, Tchaikovsky himself conducting in a concert of the Russian Musical Society in St Petersburg.
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