Tchaikovsky gets a good deal of scorn from the really extreme Classical snobs, who sneer at him as a ‘Pop composer’ because of his accessible melodies and open emotional appeal. And maybe that’s true in some sense, but if he’s a Pop composer, he’s the greatest Pop composer who ever lived, with the possible exception of Verdi, and I’d say there’s no shame in that.
This was the first of his three ballets, and thus by far the most groundbreaking of his works for the theater. The importance of Tchaikovsky’s influence on the ballet form cannot really be overstated. The truth is that ballet music wasn’t really an art form in itself before Tchaikovsky’s three landmark ballets. Most ‘Classical’ ballet music before that was just serviceable background noise for the dancing, basically the Classical equivalent of bad Disco; the idea that someone would want to listen to a ballet score on its own, without the dancing, was almost unheard-of. Note that the only ballet scores from before Tchaikovsky that anyone actually still listens to are a few pieces by French composer Delibes (particularly Coppelia), one of Tchaikovsky’s main influences.
Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, wrote ballet in much the same way as he wrote symphonic music, and while, unbelievably, critics at the time dismissed his score as ‘too complicated’ for a ballet production, it proved to be the ultimate game-changer for the format, inspiring such later giants as Stravinsky and Ravel to write dance music that was as much at home in a symphonic concert hall as a ballet theater.
Tchaikovsky’s music has always been the music of the tortured manic-depressive he was in real life, swinging wildly between deep sadness and wild, almost insane joy, but his ballets generally tended toward the ‘manic’ side of the equation, for perhaps obvious reasons. That said, this is easily the most melancholy and emotional of the three ballets—the majority of the score is still uptempo dance music, but there’s a good bit of haunting, plaintive, sorrowful melody as well, and it’s the only one where the plot ends in tragedy.
The plot, by the way, has varied a great deal in the various productions the work has received over the years. After all, even classic operas are constantly being reset in bizarre contemporary or futuristic locations, and the lack of actual words makes the scenario of a ballet much more flexible than that of an opera. We’ve seen an acclaimed version that played Broadway where the Swans are male and the Prince a closeted gay man, and there was even a questionable Australian production that tried to make it an analogue for the Prince Charles adultery scandal.
Still, one thing that has kept the scenarios from straying too far from the original outline is the fact that virtually every respectable production tries to use as much as they can of the famous choreography traditionally associated with the piece. Of that choreography, all that can be said is that it is some of the most exquisitely delicate and romantic dance that has ever been conceived for the stage, and totally worthy of being wedded to Tchaikovsky score.
It’s really quite amazing how well the score and choreography compliment each other, perfectly matching in tone and creating an atmospheric beauty that has made this the second most popular ballet in the world, beaten only by another Tchaikovsky composition, The Nutcracker. But while that work is unquestionably a delightful and sparkling piece, it doesn’t really approach the depth or elegance of this piece, which is less the Classical version of a Christmas extravaganza like The Nutcracker, and more of the ballet equivalent of a tragic opera. Like many operas of the time, especially in Russia, Germany and Eastern Europe, it is an atmospheric fantasy that taps into deep psychological truths.
This is very arguably the single greatest ballet of all time, with its only conceivable competitors being the other Tchaikovsky works and perhaps Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, so it’s not surprising that it has wound up becoming the image that most people immediately associate with ballet as a whole, the definitive archetype of the form.