The Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the ugly duckling of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets. It was the second in the trilogy, completed in 1889, but has neither the dramatic thrust of Swan Lake nor the calorific sugar-coated charm of The Nutcracker in terms of popular appeal. This is a pity as it has a grand symphonic score and French courtly grandeur in its storybook setting.

© Wikicommons

The original scenario was by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, based on Charles Perrault's La Belle au bois dormant. The choreographer of the original production was Marius Petipa, ballet master of the Imperial Ballet, who wrote a very detailed list of instructions as to the musical requirements. It was conceived on the grandest of scales and the score is truly symphonic in nature. Igor Stravinsky described it as “the most convincing example of Tchaikovsky's great creative power” and yet it doesn't always receive the acclaim now afforded to his other ballets, criticised for being too symphonic – “for the concert hall, serious and heavy” – which is ironic as some of his symphonic music was dismissed as too balletic. Listen to his Symphony no. 3 (the 'Polish') in the clip below, which contains many dance rhythms and was used by George Balanchine (minus the first movement) for “Diamonds”, the conclusion to his ballet Jewels. Waltzes feature in both his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, albeit a waltz in 5/4 time in the Pathétique.

Vsevolozhsky pitched the idea to Tchaikovsky, writing “I want the mise en scène to be in the style of Louis XIV and in this setting one could stage a magical fantasy and compose melodies in the style of Lully, Bach, Rameau etc... If you like the idea, why don't you write the music?”

Tchaikovsky, brought up in an atmosphere of French culture, was much taken with the idea, replying, “I want to tell you at once that it's impossible to describe how charmed and captivated I am. It suits me perfectly, and I couldn't want anything better than to write music for it.”

The original cast of The Sleeping Beauty, Mariinsky Theater, 1890, Carlotta Brianza (Aurora)
© Wikicommons

Composition started, working closely with the choreographer Marius Petipa, then 70, who had been St Petersburg's ballet master for 26 years. Petipa mapped out precisely the sequence of dances required, a detailed scenario in black ink, with instructions to the composer in red. For example, Petipa points out that sapphires have five facets, so Tchaikovsky's variation for the Sapphire Fairy is in 5/4 time. It's a rare insight into composer/choreographer collaboration. The manuscript is preserved in Moscow's Bakrushin State Central Theatre Museum.

Tchaikovsky used musical motifs in his ballet. The wicked fairy Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy, in particular, have their own themes and they are the two characters represented in the Prologue – a dramatic good versus evil conflict. Carabosse's music is spiky and violent, while the Lilac Fairy is associated with a flowing cor anglais solo. The two themes are linked, however (Carabosse is one of the fairies, after all) and at the end of Act 1, as the Lilac Fairy wafts the entire court to sleep, her music becomes a transformation of Carabosse's theme.

The Lilac Fairy, incidentally, is aptly titled. Lilacs, according to Russian tradition, symbolize wisdom and it is she who averts disaster by turning Carabosse's curse into something less fatal. The Lilac Fairy was originally danced by Petipa's daughter, Marie.

The Rose Adagio is one of the ballet’s great set pieces, where Aurora is presented to her four prospective suitors including a series of unsupported balances as she leaves hold from each of her four princes in turn. After courtly horns and a harp cadenza, Tchaikovsky gives the strings a noble melody which graudally reaches higher and higher, building to a triumphant climax.

Tchaikovsky includes a whole host of storybook characters as guests at Aurora’s Wedding, including Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Bluebird and Princess Florina and a slinky pas de deux for  Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat, purring and hissing in turn.  

In the apotheosis, a grand tableau, Tchaikovsky quotes the Marche Henri IV also used in the finale of Rossini's opera Il viaggio a Reims. However, Tsar Alexander III was distinctly underwhelmed at the gala rehearsal. Summoned to the royal box, Tchaikovsky related how “Very nice!” was the royal response. Tchaikovsky noted in his diary “His Majesty treated me very haughtily, God bless him.” The main criticism was directed towards the lavishness of the staging which, it was claimed, overshadowed both Tchaikovsky's music and Petipa's choreography, but by 1914, it had been given 200 times by the Imperial Ballet, second only in popularity to Pugni's The Pharaoh's Daughter.