How Tchaikovsky raised the bar for ballet music

When most of us think about Tchaikovsky, we think of his ballets — Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, the latter as ubiquitous at Christmastime as Handel’s Messiah. Between the 1877 premiere of Swan Lake in Moscow and the debut of The Nutcracker in St. Petersburg in 1892, Tchaikovsky raised the bar for Russian ballet music. He replaced the hackneyed tunes and predictable rhythms typically found on Russia’s ballet stages with music full of soaring, inventive melodies, daring harmonies and rhythmic vitality. His three ballets have become classics that endure to this day.

The Chicago Symphony plays selections from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty at concerts Jan. 20 and 23, conducted by Riccardo Muti.

We may think of them as symphonies, but Tchaikovsky’s purely orchestral pieces — among them his Serenade for Strings in C, Piano Concerto No. 2, Rococo Variations, Suite No. 3 and miscellaneous piano pieces — keep turning up on the ballet stage, along with his six symphonies. There’s something about his gift for soaring, lyric romanticism that draws choreographers like children to a cookie jar. And no choreographer was more inspired by Tchaikovsky than George Balanchine, the Russian-born founder of the New York City Ballet. In addition to an iconic Nutcracker, one of Balanchine’s most impressive works is Diamonds, created in 1967 and set to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 (Polish).

Born in St. Petersburg in 1904, 11 years after Tchaikovsky’s death, Balanchine spent his boyhood years at Russia’s most prestigious ballet school, the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. His first stage experience came as a child in a production of The Sleeping Beauty at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. “Thanks to Sleeping Beauty,” he would say years later, “I fell in love with ballet.”

Two years before his death in 1983, Balanchine sat down for a long series of interviews with Russian-born musicologist Solomon Volkov. Published in the book Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky (1985), the interviews focused on the choreographer’s relationship to the quintessentially Russian composer whose music he used for more than a dozen ballets in addition to The Nutcracker and a distilled version of Swan Lake.

“Imagine yourself in a church, and suddenly the organ starts playing overwhelmingly grand music in all its registers," he said. “And you stand there with mouth agape in astonishment. That’s how I always felt about Tchaikovsky. He was like a father to me.”

A rarity among choreographers, Balanchine was an accomplished musician. He was a talented pianist, able to sight-read piano reductions of orchestral scores. His father and brother were composers, and as a young man, he composed a little. Intensely musical, Balanchine was the kind of dancer who felt a composer’s rhythms and melodies in his very bones. He worked closely with Stravinsky for decades, and the New York City Ballet mounted festivals with ballets set to music of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Ravel over the years.

Choreographers often avoid setting ballets to instrumental pieces by renowned composers. What can they possibly add, they wonder, to a Mahler or a Beethoven symphony? Balanchine, best known for his abstract ballets that followed no story line, knew exactly how to bring an instrumental work to vivid, kinetic life.

“They say that Tchaikovsky is great at nothing but wonderful melodies,” he told Volkov. “That’s not true! He intertwines his melodies in complex ways, he practically builds Gothic cathedrals out of them, harmonizing inventively, bringing them through different tonalities in a masterful way.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, Balanchine considered Tchaikovsky to be a “modern” composer.

The two were alike in other ways as well. Both saw themselves as proud, meticulous craftsmen whose materials just happened to be musical notes and/or ballet steps rather than wood blocks or shoe leather. Tchaikovsky was famous for his disciplined routine. According to a famous quote attributed to him, ”I sit down to the piano regularly at 9 o’clock in the morning, and Mesdames les Muses have learned to be on time for that rendezvous.” Director of the large, bustling New York City Ballet, Balanchine liked to say, “My muse must come to me on union time.”

The muses definitely were on hand in Russia in summer 1875 as Tchaikovsky worked on his Third Symphony. Nearly 100 years later, they also showed up, presumably on union time, when Balanchine used Tchaikovsky’s symphony for a new ballet titled Diamonds. Set to four of the symphony’s five movements (the first is omitted), the ballet was a tribute to the elegant classicism of the vanished St. Petersburg of Balanchine’s youth. It was the final segment in one of Balanchine’s most innovative works, an evening-length, non-story ballet titled Jewels. The first segment, Emeralds, was set to selected pieces by Faure; the second, Rubies, to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.

Balanchine had a streak of the showman, and his choreography perfectly captured the grandeur of the Third Symphony’s finale. The music’s noble melodies are driven by the emphatic, high-spirited accents of the Polish polonaise. Balanchine deploys 16 couples — the women resplendent in stiff white tutus, the men elegant in white, jewel-incrusted tunics — across the stage in long, ever-shifting lines. Dancing with fleet precision and pride, often in unison, they form patterns that evoke images of glittering czarist-era balls. Kindred spirits — Tchaikovsky and Balanchine — evoking a world they both loved.

A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories, the predecessor site of Experience CSO.