The Kennedy Center

"Bluebird" Pas de Deux from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard Freed

Tchaikovsky composed The Sleeping Beauty , the second of his three great ballets, between December 1888 and September 1889; the premiere was given at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1890. As detailed below, Stravinsky orchestrated portions of the score on two occasions; this excerpt represents the later one (1941), and this week's performances are the National Symphony Orchestra's first ones of this piece. The score calls for flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, piano, and reduced strings. Duration, 5 minutes.

Even among those who have thought little of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, concertos and tone poems?and great popularity, no matter how well justified, always seems to inspire resentment in some quarters?there has generally been nothing but respect and admiration for his three great ballet scores. For a composer who accomplished what Tchaikovsky did in this realm, it may appear strange that he wrote only three ballets?as compared with no fewer than ten operas, for instance, few of which were successful on a meaningful level?and that he allowed more than a dozen years to pass between the first two.

The travails Tchaikovsky experienced in getting Swan Lake performed (in 1877) might well have made him leery of trying his hand at a dance work again?though, of course, dances in various forms, and waltzes in particular, are to be found in his concert works and operas. It was his unhappiness over his Fifth Symphony (whose third movement is one of his characteristic waltzes), following its premiere in November 1888, that led him to yield at last to the entreaties of Ivan Vsevolozshsky, director of the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg, to compose a full-evening ballet on the familiar Perrault fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty, to have décor in the style of Louis XIV and music ?in the spirit of Lully, Bach, Rameau, etc.? Tchaikovsky was enchanted by this idea, and responded with what is probably the finest of his three very substantial ballet scores. His choreographer was Marius Petipa, who devised the scenario together with Vsevolozhsky and subsequently collaborated with Tchaikovsky again in creating The Nutcracker in 1892 before undertaking his revision of Swan Lake after the composer's death.

Although the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty was a splendid production, the public, in 1890, was apparently too stunned by the symphonic grandeur of the score to respond to it. Even now this work has yet to achieve the popularity won by Tchaikovsky's two other ballets, despite the celebrated production by England's Royal Ballet, and it is sometimes encountered in fragmented or abridged form under the title Aurora's Wedding.

It was an earlier production in London, by the legendary Serge Diaghilev's visiting Ballets Russes in 1921, that first established The Sleeping Beauty outside of Russia, and that was when Stravinsky entered the picture. Because portions of the score were at that time available only in piano reduction, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate Princess Aurora's very brief solo variation of Aurora near the end of Act II, Scene 1 (No. 15b in the ballet score), and the Entr'acte that opens the following scene (No. 18 in the score), which is being performed in the second half of the present concerts. Twenty years later Stravinsky had another, somewhat better-known encounter with The Sleeping Beauty, when he was asked by Richard Pleasant, one of the founders of Ballet Theatre (subsequently known as American Ballet Theatre?the ABT), to make an arrangement for small orchestra of the ?Bluebird? pas de deux in Act III, as the company's orchestra had been depleted by the military draft in the months just prior to our country's involvement in World War II. Stravinsky pointed out ?the prominent piano part which helps to conceal the small number of strings? in this piece, which opens this week's concerts.

The ballet's final act is Aurora's Wedding. Here, with not only the Princess herself but all the members of her father's court brought back to life, her wedding to Prince Désiré is celebrated on a very grand scale. Among the festivities is an extended divertissement representing characters from other fairy tales: in this four-part pas de quatre (No. 25 in the score), an Entrée (Adagio) is followed by a variation for Cinderella and Prince Fortuné ( Allegro ), then one for the Bluebird and Princess Florine (Andantino), and finally an exuberant coda for both couples ( Presto ).