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  Founder: Len Mullenger

Ballet in the Blood

We’re told often enough that the Ballet influenced Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. Yet, surveying his music as a whole, isn’t the entire shooting match bubbling with “ballet”? Did the Ballet therefore influence all his music? If I suggested that, you’d rightly file it under “When does he think I was born?” However, if I suggested that Tchaikovsky’s innate style happened to fit ballet like a glove, your likely file would be “Not yesterday, at least”. If ballet hadn’t existed before Tchaikovsky came along, somebody would have had to invent it. 

Considering that the man had ballet oozing out of every pore, it’s curious that he wrote only three full ballet scores. Maybe it had something to do with his congenital insecurity: the difficult birth of Swan Lake frazzled him to a degree that perhaps wasn’t entirely overcome by the unqualified success of The Sleeping Beauty, and certainly he harboured doubts about The Nutcracker. His second ballet, though, is undoubtedly a strange beast: huge swathes of the first two acts and the entire third act are divertimenti. I’m not complaining, though, because the entire score - including this exemplary Entr’Acte - fires and fuels your imagination all on its own, plot or no plot. 

The Capriccio Italien is the product of a rare period of contentment - a long holiday in Rome in 1879/80 with brother Modeste. Cheerfully, Tchaikovsky cherry-picked some local tunes from anthologies and what he heard on the streets, then by all accounts had a whale of a time concocting this 15-minute extravaganza. Having enjoyed - if that’s the right word - a daily wake-up call from the barracks across from his hotel, he used it for the identical purpose in his music: “nessun dorma”, indeed! The subsequent saturnine “serenata” twice acts as prelude, its very gloom cunningly casting a bright spotlight on the two eminently balletic street parties. 

The balletic element is irrepressible even in the unlikely confines of the “1812" Festival Overture. Commissioned by Nicholas Rubenstein primarily to celebrate the consecration of the Moscow Cathedral, itself built to commemorate the vanquishing of Napoleon, Tchaikovsky was in no doubts about this work - he hated it! The projected al fresco performance didn’t happen, so it seems the spectacular sounds of real cannon-fire and a cacophony of Kremlin bells only materialised 77 years later when Mercury made their legendary recording. But cannon and bells are just “special effects”: what of the music? Whatever his opinion, Tchaikovsky nevertheless exercised all his considerable craftsmanship. Sure, it’s episodic, but what episodes! Perhaps most impressive is his even-handedness - the Russian tunes may win the day but, where lesser composers might have been tempted to lambast it, Tchaikovsky treats the Marseillaise with equal respect. The French were, after all, a fearful foe. Where’s the “ballet”? Well, listen to the lyrical interludes, with their niftily tweaked tail ends. Now, don’t they just conjure the image of a tutu or two? 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 18 October 2003


© Paul Serotsky 
37, Mayfield Grove, 
West Yorkshire HD6 4EE 


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