Nicolette Fraillon talks to Rose Mulready about the profound meaning and vivid colour in Tchaikovsky’s landmark score for The Sleeping Beauty.
08 May 2017
Why is the Beauty score so celebrated?
In the depth of its politics and philosophy, The Sleeping Beauty is a really strong statement about the directions in which ballet, and musical theatre in general, can go. That’s why it’s revered by musicologists, and by people who analyse all that is in it and why. As well as being just glorious music, it shows how you can explore philosophical concepts without words, and that was unprecedented in ballet. What was happening through the 19th century – in literature, theatre, opera and then ballet – was that the emphasis moved from the story to the intellectual and emotional development of the characters. The focus moved inwards, and on to philosophical concepts like good and evil, and how they relate to humans. The Sleeping Beauty represents not only growth in Tchaikovsky himself as a ballet composer (it had been twelve years since he wrote Swan Lake, which in the life of a composer is like a century), but a reflection of what was happening in music theatre in the age of Romanticism.
The Sleeping Beauty was incredibly influential. The artists of the Ballets Russes – Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Fokine, Prokofiev, Bakst – all of them talked about it as the ballet that totally changed their understanding of what music theatre, but particularly ballet, could do. So you could say that everything that happened in 20th-century ballet stems back to The Sleeping Beauty.
What had Tchaikovsky learnt between writing Swan Lake, his first ballet score, and The Sleeping Beauty, his second?
Swan Lake is fiery and Romantic, reflecting the violent emotion of its story in every note. The Sleeping Beauty is a different kind of story, and its techniques are much more refined. Musical devices like leitmotifs (melodies that represent a character or idea) are used with even greater sophistication than they are in Swan Lake. The harmonic language is more complex, and Tchaikovsky uses inventive combinations of instruments. The piccolo, which is used as an effect in Swan Lake (it’s the lightning in the storm) becomes its own independent voice, as does the tuba. He liberates traditional sets of instruments from each other. At the time this was quite unique.
Orchestration is very important in Swan Lake, but it’s taken to new heights in The Sleeping Beauty. Take, for instance, the Silver Fairy variation. Besides a costume, how do you signal that this is the Silver Fairy? Tchaikovsky uses the silvery colours of the piano; he introduces glockenspiel, like silver coins falling. In the Sapphire Fairy Variation, he uses the time signature 5/4, which is a really unusual meter, particularly for anyone to dance to. He did that because the standard cut of a sapphire at that time was five-sided.
How does the ballet’s orchestration illustrate the journey of Aurora?
Aurora goes from a rebellious teenager who doesn’t want to listen to her parents (moral of the story – listen to your parents or get poisoned by a spindle?) to a woman who takes on the mantle of responsibility. There’s a love element to the story,
of course, but what you end up with in the third act is not a glorious, happy, fairy-tale version of a court – it’s a serious, grown-up business. Tchaikovsky and Petipa actually got into trouble with the monarchy because they didn’t represent the court as happy-ever-after. They were sanctioned by the Czar, told to watch their step. The last processional is in G minor, a very slow, sombre piece, and that was intentional – Aurora isn’t heading off into twinkly starlight, she’s a grown-up now.
The orchestration in Act III changes, and from that you really feel the surreal, glittery fairy-tale land disappear. For instance, the harp, which is used in the Prologue and Acts I and II, is not used in Act III. Tchaikovsky’s ballets often associate the harp with magic, and in The Sleeping Beauty it’s particularly associated with the Lilac Fairy, and wonderfully romantic moments. In Act III it’s replaced with the piano. In the 19th century, the piano became the instrument in every household, it was the human, family instrument. The piano colour tells us that we are squarely back in the human realm, it gives an earthy, everyday feel.
How does Tchaikovsky illustrate the deeper levels of the story?
Major keys are associated with happiness and goodness, the minor keys with evil and sadness. What Tchaikovsky did was to take that idea even further. The major and minor keys that represent the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse, good and evil, are related to the same note: when the themes are first introduced it’s E Major for the Lilac Fairy’s theme, and E Minor for Carabosse’s. They’re two sides of the same coin. All the music that represents human nature is in the key of E flat. So Tchaikovsky has taken the three most closely related keys to underline the fact that good and evil are both part of human nature. As an audience member, you don’t have to understand that consciously, but subliminally you do. There isn’t a single note in The Sleeping Beauty that isn’t thought out in relationship to the story, the philosophy behind the story and the character development. It’s really tight, and that’s why you have to be so careful when you’re cutting the music (as almost everyone does – there are hours of music). You can’t treat it like background music, you have to understand the transitions between keys. David and I went through this in great detail when we were making cuts.
So how did you go about the process of editing the score?
There is some music that is partly in there because the theatre needed time to change the scenes, without the benefit of modern technology! The genius of Tchaikovsky makes them much more than interludes, they’re incredible stand-alone pieces, so we agonised about them; but they’re quite long, that’s why most people cut them, and so did we. Also, because Tchaikovsky was such an experienced ballet composer, he made the score quite flexible. There are lots and lots of repeats – so you can just take out them out and it doesn’t affect the storytelling. The biggest cuts we did were in Act III, because David left out most of the character dances. The music for those isn’t bound up with the storytelling – they’re divertissements, a nod to the traditions of Louis XIV and a chance for more of the dancers to show off. Also, this was a time when ballets and operas went for a really long time. They could start in the afternoon and go on till one in the morning. They were designed for you to come in and out, meet and greet, eat picnics! There were originally endless divertissements, many more than are performed today, so people have always cut some of them out.