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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

The hidden subtext to this exchange was the fact that “la Sobiechtchanskaya” (that is, Anna Iosifovna Sobeshchanskaya [1842–1918], lead dancer of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow) had indeed been dancing of late to the music of Chaikovsky, and that was news. (It was in the wake of Chaikovsky’s balletic successes that the critic had elicited from Rimsky-Korsakov his irritated condemnation of the genre.) Chaikovsky was the one leading Russian composer to be powerfully attracted to ballet; perhaps more to the point, or at least to the point of this book, he was surely the only major composer of the nineteenth century to be equally known for his symphonies and his ballets—oil and water, as far as most musicians (Taneyev, for one) were concerned—and to be adjudged an outstanding producer of both.

So where Taneyev had feared that Chaikovsky’s involvement with ballet would tarnish his reputation as a “symphonist,” the historical outcome was just the opposite: the participation of a recognized symphonist like Chaikovsky was among the factors that succeeded (Rimsky-Korsakov notwithstanding) in raising the artistic standing of ballet in late-nineteenth-century Russia, eventually turning it, in a gloriously ironic and unexpected twist, into one of the most prestigious media for early-twentieth-century modernist music. For that to happen, however, ballet had to undergo its own process of “maximalization.” Chaikovsky’s first ballet, composed in 1875–76 (that is, more or less simultaneously with Delibes’s Sylvia) and first performed at the Bolshoi Theater in 1877, was called Lebedinoye ozero (Swan Lake). Both in its scenario (worked out by the composer in collaboration with members of the theater staff) and in its music, it was modeled quite noticeably in several respects on Adam’s Giselle: enchanted swan-maidens in place of wilis, a tragic mortal lover (Prince Siegfried in place of Prince Albrecht), a moonlit set against which a pas de deux is danced to the accompaniment of obbligato string solos and harp, a wealth of reminiscence motifs.

Like most nonspecialists, Chaikovsky was unprepared for the rigors that the conventions of the genre imposed on composers. Not knowing that “the balletmaster fixes the number of bars in each pas, or that the rhythm, the tempo and everything is strictly assigned in advance,” he recalled years later with amusement, “I leapt before I looked, began to write, like an opera, a symphony, and it came out such that not one danseur or danseuse could dance to my music, all the numbers were too long, no one could last them out.”10 Instead of disgusting him (as, we have seen, they disgusted Rimsky-Korsakov), these requirements fascinated Chaikovsky. Once having been through the choreographic mill, he prided himself on his métier, his hardboiled professional skill, scorned those who in their ignorance scorned the ballet specialists, and itched to submit again to the ballet discipline, delighted that he was able to come up, like a specialist, with music that sounded spontaneous despite the extreme degree of calculation that had to go into its manufacture.

These attitudes, it is only too obvious, are the very opposite of “Romantic.” That, too, was a source of contrarian pleasure to Chaikovsky, whose confessional symphonies have given him an arch-Romantic reputation not only with the public but with critics and historians as well. But in fact no nineteenth-century composer retained a more thoroughly eighteenth-century outlook on his craft than Chaikovsky. It would be wrong to call this paradoxical fact the direct result of his brush with ballet, however. Rather, his involvement with ballet was one contributory factor out of many.

Like an eighteenth-century composer, Chaikovsky was the lucky recipient of patronage: first from a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, later from the treasury of Tsar Alexander III. Like an eighteenth-century composer, he composed for immediate consumption, often on commission from the imperial theaters. Finally, and most important, his status as a member of the first class to graduate from Russia’s first conservatory made him highly conscious of his novel professional status— he was in effect Russia’s first full-time “pro” composer—and extremely proud of it.

In all of these ways, it was membership in what could justly be regarded as the last surviving eighteenth-century (hierarchical, aristocratic) society in Europe that shaped Chaikovsky’s creative attitudes and made him into not just a successful ballet composer but an avid one. Very sincerely, and of course very unusually for his time, Chaikovsky rated Delibes as a composer far higher than Wagner or Brahms. The reasons, as he expressed them, were that Delibes’s music unlike Brahms’s or Wagner’s (but like Mozart’s) remained beautiful (rather than “great”) and pleased its hearers (rather than raising them up to its exalted level). Upon witnessing the first Bayreuth Ring in 1876, right after finishing Swan Lake, Chaikovsky wrote to his brother in disgust, “Formerly, music strove to delight people; now they are tormented and exhausted.” Notice that Chaikovsky’s reasons for preferring Delibes over Wagner and Brahms were as much social as esthetic ones. That, too, bespoke an antiromantic, “eighteenth-century” attitude.

Stylistically, however, Chaikovsky’s music was as “Romantic” as could be, ideally suited to the mysterious moods and magical transformations that suffused the Swan Lake scenario. A pair of examples, both based on the evocative “swan theme” that accompanies the first sight of the enchanted maidens, will serve both to point a parallel with Adam’s reminiscence technique in Giselle and to demonstrate Chaikovsky’s more potent powers of transformation, capable of intensifying the dramatic import at the dénouement (the death of Odette, the doomed heroine) to a tragic pitch—or (as ballet purists might object) to fully “operatic” blatancy (Ex. 3-4).

Chaikovsky’s BalletsChaikovsky’s Ballets

ex. 3-4a Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Swan Lake, beginning of Act II

Chaikovsky’s Ballets

ex. 3-4b Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Swan Lake, climax of Act IV

By the time Chaikovsky returned to the genre of full-length ballet d’action he had achieved world fame. Although he still lived near Moscow, he was now composing on eager commission from the Mariyinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, the imperial capital, working in close collaboration with Petipa and with Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835–1909), the “Intendant” or imperial theater director himself. A former diplomat, Vsevolozhsky was a powerful bureaucrat, an impresario, an expert ballet scenarist, and a stage designer all in one. In full control of the tsar’s unlimited theatrical budget, he created—in the words of the modern choreographer George Balanchine (1904–83), who had his start in the Imperial Theaters School shortly after Vsevolozhsky’s time—a Russian “Imperial Style”11 that surpassed in its lavishness anything previously seen in the nineteenth century, not excluding even the Paris Opéra in its own imperial heyday some sixty years before.

The two ballets Chaikovsky created with Petipa and Vsevolozhsky—La belle au bois dormant (The Sleeping Beauty, 1889) and Casse-noisette (The Nutcracker, 1892)—brought the ballet d’action to its zenith of development. They are quite different, in fact. The Sleeping Beauty, after a famous folk tale found both in the Grimm brothers’ collection and earlier in the tales of the French fabulist Charles Perrault, is a ballet à grand spectacle, Petipa’s specialty—a ballet that mixed a strong plot line with a wealth of exotic divertissement and “apotheoses,” spectacular climaxes that summoned a huge and brilliantly costumed corps de ballet onstage.

The shorter and sparer Nutcracker, after a tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann, contains some choreography by Petipa, but most of it was the work of Lev Ivanov, who became the first Russian choreographer to create one of the masterpieces of the genre. Nevertheless, Nutcracker is of an equally distinctive (and equally French) type, called ballet-féerie. The term designates both a ballet that has fantasy creatures—fairies, genies, and the like—in its cast of characters (but Sleeping Beauty already had those), and one that aims lavishly for a special marvelous lightness of effect. A féerie is a procession of wonders, each there for no other purpose than to be admired: art (or artifice) for art’s sake with a vengeance. Nutcracker, consequently, has almost no plot. Past the opening scene of a Christmas party at which Clara, a little girl, receives a nutcracker as a gift from her Uncle Drosselmeyer, the whole action consists of dream visions and a final transport to Confiturembourg (Candyland) from which—but this could be scary!—no return is made to round things off.

These culminating ballets of Chaikovsky are masterpieces of what the composer called the vkusnoye—the “tasty,” or sensuously delectable. Nothing could be further removed from the spiritual or expressive tasks that German composers assigned their art; nor was there (yet) anything much in Chaikovsky’s or Petipa’s art of the Symbolist ideal of sensuous thrills as a gateway to the au-delà, the great suprasensory “beyond.” Its special quality is better captured by the less portentous English expression “out of this world.” From both the romantic and the symbolist perspectives, such an art was suspiciously hedonistic (another codeword for “aristocratic”).

There was of course a long tradition in the nineteenth century for harmonic and timbral exploration, allied with the romantic tendency to value everything unique and exquisite. But in Chaikovsky’s “Imperial” ballets, and especially in Nutcracker, the recondite harmonies and rarefied timbres have seemingly lost their connection with “expression.” Transcending the language of emotion, they have become wonders in their own right—objets de féerie—designed to elicit a special “esthetic” emotion found nowhere else but in the experience of art.

That, at any rate, was the theory they prompted. Called “estheticism,” it may remind us in some respects of the “impressionism” encountered in Chapter 2. It was a powerful stimulus for a brand of maximalistic thought and action in early-twentieth-century art that flourished first, and quite unexpectedly, in Russia. We will get to it presently, but in preparation let us first inspect a couple of objets de féerie from Chaikovsky’s “Imperial” ballets, both of them famous for their exquisiteness—one timbral, the other harmonic.

A measure of the importance Chaikovsky accorded tone color in his scale of musical values was the urgency—and the secrecy!—that surrounded the great timbral sensation in Nutcracker. On a trip to Paris in the late spring of 1891, Chaikovsky discovered “a new orchestral instrument, something between a small piano and a glockenspiel with a divinely marvellous sound,”12 as the composer put it in a letter to his publisher. “It is called the ‘Celesta Mustel,’” he went on, “and it costs 1200 francs. It can be purchased in Paris only at the inventor’s shop. I would like to ask you to order this instrument, … but I would also ask you not to show it to anybody, for I am afraid that Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov will get wind of it and use its unusual effects sooner than I.”

This instrument—now it is simply called the celesta—had been invented by Auguste Mustel, a manufacturer of harmoniums and other keyboard instruments, five years before. Chaikovsky’s description was basically accurate: it is like a glockenspiel in that the sound it makes is produced by a row of steel bars; and it is like a piano in that the bars (suspended over resonating chambers) are struck not by a mallet but by hammers activated by a keyboard. When the composer heard it he must immediately have thought of Petipa’s description of the “voice” of the Sugarplum Fairy in Nutcracker: “the sound of the sprays of a fountain.”13 Chaikovsky successfully scooped the competition. (Alexander Glazunov was a prodigy pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, then all of twenty-five years old, who unlike his stiff-necked teacher had begun flirting with ballet.) The “variation” (solo turn) for the Sugarplum Fairy in the Candyland sequence (Ex. 3-5) was indeed the first important solo ever written for the celesta as an orchestral instrument. The slithery chromatic harmony was of course another touch of féerie—something “out of this world.”

Chaikovsky’s Ballets

ex. 3-5 Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky Nutcracker, Sugarplum Fairy Variation, mm. 1–12

More dramatic but still exquisite was the fairy music in The Sleeping Beauty, especially that assigned to the role of the wicked fairy Carabosse, the villain of the piece. It is derived from a colorful sequential extension of the way in which an augmented sixth chord resolves, observable in embryo as early as Mozart, in which pairs of voices move in contrary motion through an octave or unison. In its most extended version, often called the “omnibus progression” (on the basis of a widely cited but never published study by the American musicologist Victor Fell Yellin), complete ascending or descending chromatic scales can be harmonized by replicating the semitonal motion as a sequence along a cycle of minor thirds that returns to its starting point, whence it could be repeated ad infinitum (Ex. 3-6).

The “omnibus” is thus a sort of harmonic pinwheel, displaying a dazzling array of “remote” harmonic centers in quick succession but without “going” anywhere. As pure harmonic “color” without functional progression it is the epitome of what Henri de Régnier, quoted by Ravel in Chapter 2, called “the delightful and ever-renewed pleasure of a useless occupation”—aristocratic sensuous play at its proudest. Chaikovsky’s leitmotivic use of segments from the omnibus progression was the most extensive—and extended—as of its date (Ex. 3-7).


(10) Memoir by Alina Bryullova; Vospominaniya o P. I. Chaikovskom (2nd ed., Moscow: Muzïka, 1973), p. 132.

(11) Solomon Volkov, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), p. 127.

(12) Chaikovsky to Pyotr Jurgenson, 3 June 1891; P. I. Chaikovsky, Perepiska s P. I. Yurgensonom, Vol. II (Moscow and Leningrad: Muzgiz, 1952), p. 212.

(13) Roland John Wiley, Tchaikovsky’s Ballets (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 376.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003004.xml