Tchaikovsky’s fairytale ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, was first performed at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre on January 15, 1890. Among the audience members of this premiere production was the eight-year-old Igor Stravinsky, who later noted it as a formative musical experience. For the first time, the young Stravinsky was struck by the majesty of the orchestra, and well as the music of Tchaikovsky, a personal friend of Stravinsky’s father.
In January of 1941, Stravinsky received a commission from Lucia Chase, the founding director of the American Ballet Theatre, for an arrangement of the Pas de deux de l’Oiseau bleu et la Princesse Florine (No. 25) from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty. The four brief movements accompanied Chase’s ballet, The Bluebird. The Ballet Theatre’s orchestra had been depleted by the military draft, instituted a year earlier in anticipation of American entry into the Second World War. As a result, Stravinsky re-orchestrated the music for a chamber orchestra. He had adapted a similar fragment of Tchaikovsky’s score for Sergei Diaghilev in 1921.
The composer’s close friend and biographer, Robert Craft, wrote,
Stravinsky began not by reducing the orchestra, but by adding an instrument—a piano—which provided at least two new ideas as well as a welcome element of articulation and sonority. For only two examples, Stravinsky scrapped the original flute duet that begins the Second Variation and replaced it with a duet for flute and clarinet, thus creating a dialogue and enlivening the musical style. In the fourth piece, Tchaikovsky attaches appoggiaturas to each note of the woodwind parts while Stravinsky restricts the figure to flute and piano alone, which removes the thickness and clumsiness in exchange for elegance and clarity.
Bold, new music seems to emerge from the sharp, austere lines of Stravinsky’s rescoring:
- Variation I. Tempo di valse
- Variation II. Andantino
- Coda. Con moto
Now, let’s return to Tchaikovsky’s original music, in all of its full-bodied majesty. This 2017 performance at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre features Anastasia Denisova (Princess Florine) and Artemy Belyakov (Blue Bird). In earlier posts, I have pointed out the surprising rhythmic sophistication that emerges throughout Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores. Another example of this comes in the downbeat-defying passage that begins around the one minute mark in the clip below.
In a previous post, we explored additional excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s score for The Sleeping Beauty.
- Stravinsky/Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty, Pas de deux de l’Oiseau bleu et la Princesse Florine, Igor Stravinsky Columbia Symphony Orchestra Amazon
- Stravinsky in rehearsal
Featured Image: The original cast, photographed at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, January 15, 1890
2 thoughts on “Stravinsky Meets Tchaikovsky: Reimagining “The Sleeping Beauty””
The Tchaikowskavinsky is … I shall use a bourgeois term, “delightful”, since it is full of sublime musical delights. Transformed radically by the orchestration! Without the meaty, chunky blocks of rhythm I have grown accustomed to, I feel music that, if I were a dancer, I could dance very well to. I think I am hearing inner voices being brought out that in the original, singable melody reigns supreme.
It is a very natural thing for reorchestration to recreate even the core ethos of music (and, man, Stravinsky can orchestrate like few humans have ever orchestrated). My former church had developed a decent rock band, but there was classically trained me, and the only three lead-quality singers were middle-aged ladies; and we had a loyal member who played the euphonium. My memories of an acrimonious board meeting where one board member said “it sounds good, but it sounds different from what we hear on the radio.” We hear a lot of talk today about accepting the “other” (which I had become to their ears). Mr. Stravinsky was never afraid to be other, and this splendid work illustrates that beautifully, not pretending to clone a master’s work, but rather giving it his special touch with the instruments and performers on hand.
Robert Craft, in his overtly biased and unnecessary negative comments about the original scoring, forgot, or rather chose to ignore, that in the first production of the ballet the Second Variation was actually a duet for Blue Bird and Princess Florine, which explains why Tchaikovsky scored the passage for flute duet. It wasn’t a pas de deux when Tchaikovsky wrote this music and the First Variation was for Cinderella and her Prince! Also, Tchaikovsky did introduce a piano in this score… used to great effect in the final pas de deux and in other moments in the ballet’s score.
Stravinsky wasn’t trying to be “better” than the master that he adored and he wasn’t fixing any “clumsiness”. Craft, on the other hand, was a sycophant.