Symphonic Ballets, Balletic Symphonies… Tchaikovsky and Dance Music

Take a look at the clip below, from a BBC Proms concert in 1981. Does anything seem wrong with it, to you?

Now try this ballet excerpt, from the Mariinsky Theatre: what’s wrong?

If your answer is “nothing at all,” congratulations, that’s quite right. But there is something unusual about them all the same. They are both examples of Tchaikovsky’s music being used for something for which it was not intended. The first clip is from The Nutcracker, which of course is a ballet score, but here Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform the entirety of Act II as the second half of their concert—as if it was a symphony. The second clip, meanwhile, is from choreographer George Balanchine’s Jewels, the abstract ballet whose third part, “Diamonds,” is set to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3—concert music, used for ballet.

Repurposing music like that isn’t enough to faze a modern concert or ballet audience, quite used to hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suites in the concert hall, or indeed watching ballets based on concert music, choreographed by everyone from Balanchine to Jerome Robbins to Jiří Kylián. But Tchaikovsky is a strange case: his music’s sheer adaptability, remarkable as it is, has not always worked in his favor.

“Far from suitable” for ballet

Tchaikovsky’s three ballet scores are all revered today, but they drew mixed—sometimes very negative—reviews when they were first performed. For maximum irony, let the video below accompany you as you peruse the critics’ reactions to Tchaikovsky’s ballet music.

The melody is too… how can I say it? Too confused, too capricious—in a word, it was not written “balletically.” (St Petersburg News, 1877)

That was a critic’s verdict after the premiere of—wait for it—Swan Lake.

Another Swan Lake critic (Tchaikovsky’s close friend Herman Laroche, in fact) was impressed by the “danced numbers”—meaning the set pieces rather than the storytelling music—and praised Tchaikovsky’s “melodic invention.” Yet, overall, the score was:

Too grandiloquent for ballet. 
(The Voice, St Petersburg, 1878)

Unlike Swan Lake, a failure at its premiere, Tchaikovsky’s second ballet, The Sleeping Beauty (1890), was a critical triumph… mostly. “Concerning Mr. Tchaikovsky’s music,” a critic wrote:

Its orchestration shines, it is always elegant and transparent… but… but… for the ballet, it is nonetheless far from suitable. (News and Commercial Gazette, St Petersburg, 1890)

Sleeping Beauty review from the time cuts to the quick. Tchaikovsky was writing in the wrong medium:

Minkus, Pugni, and Delibes couldn’t have arranged such an opera as Eugene Onegin. And Tchaikovsky couldn’t cope with the demands of ballet music.
Petersburg Leaflet, 1890)

What were those “demands”? Perhaps most importantly, they involved producing music that didn’t distract from the onstage action, and met the wishes of the choreographer and the dancers. So the critic’s implication isn’t that Tchaikovsky is a bad composer—rather, that he is just not a ballet specialist. Two years later, a 
Nutcracker critic likewise mixed praise with the idea that the composer somehow didn’t belong there.

Such a great composer should not have taken upon himself such a trifle and such nonsense as the story of this ballet. But if the nonsense which Tchaikovsky’s music illustrates is forgotten… then the music itself, it can be said, is beautiful, and astonishingly rich in inspiration. (The Petersburg Gazette, 1892)

Though by numerous different authors and spanning 15 years and three ballet scores, all the above reviews are remarkably consistent. Which raises an almost unthinkable question: did they somehow have a point? Was Tchaikovsky’s music unsuited to the ballet?

Breaking convention

These days, views have very clearly changed. But it’s true that Tchaikovsky broke a lot of the late 19th century’s balletic conventions. His scores were simply bigger in scope than those by the likes of Minkus and Delibes: they use a large orchestra (including, in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s famous celeste, a newly invented instrument); they are longer than was standard, and often longer than the choreographer asked for; and Tchaikovsky’s storytelling is informed by the work of one radical composer who was not then on the radar of many ballet companies: Richard Wagner.

Tchaikovsky had attended the premiere of the Ring cycle just the year before Swan Lake premiered, and although his own critical assessment was not so flattering, Tchaikovsky was clearly influenced by Wagner, and not just the Ring. You can hear it in the huge dramatic sweep of all the ballet music, and in the above clip from Swan Lake Wagner is also present via a musical reference point. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s famous “swan theme” again, and then try the below from Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which the title character warns Elsa never to ask his name:

Sound familiar? In fact, this was another problem those punishing Swan Lake critics had at the 1877 premiere: the main melody was a Wagner ripoff. More generously, Tchaikovsky’s near-quotation could be called a deliberate reference: he might well have intended to draw parallels with Lohengrin, which is after all another doomed love story ruined by a broken promise. Siegfried betrays Odette in Swan Lake, and in Lohengrin Elsa breaks her promise by asking Lohengrin who he is. What’s more, both stories concern enchanted swans: the swan that magically brings Lohengrin to Elsa’s land is in fact an enchanted nobleman.

Even that’s not the full extent of Wagner’s influence on Tchaikovsky. He was also drawn toward Wagner’s use of leitmotifs. The Lilac Fairy’s beautiful theme in The Sleeping Beauty, for instance, may be a melody of typically Tchaikovskian gracefulness, but it’s also Wagnerian in the way it helps to tell the story, recurring at key points to symbolize not only the Lilac Fairy’s physical presence, but also the influence of her character. Here’s its memorable appearance in Act I, as the Lilac Fairy explains that, thanks to the spell she has cast, Princess Aurora isn’t dead after all:

So: while Tchaikovsky clearly went out of his way to tell his stories with brilliant narrative power, it’s fair to say that his adoption of modern, even Wagnerian techniques and reference points was far away from what ballet audiences were expecting at his time.

Dancing in the concert hall

The thing is, in a very similar way, Tchaikovsky had a somewhat different conception of the symphony than his contemporaries were used to. In the Sixth Symphony, “Pathétique,” he changed the expected ordering of the movements—a subversion of expectations so strong that audiences today are still tricked into thinking the symphony is over after its rousing, finale-like third movement.

And in the Third Symphony, a similar adventurousness led him to experiment with dance forms. This unusual five-movement work is in some ways closer to an orchestral suite than a symphony, with two scherzos and a concluding polonaise. Even the third movement (below, set to Balanchine’s choreography in “Diamonds”) is somehow intensely dancelike. Musicologist Richard Taruskin called the whole symphony “thoroughly dominated by the dance”—and, as such, a typical Tchaikovsky work.

Is the Fourth Symphony similarly “dominated by the dance?” He denied it, but Sergey Taneyev—a composer and a pupil of Tchaikovsky’s—heard strange echoes of “ballet music” in this famous work, as he wrote to Tchaikovsky in a letter of 1878:

One shortcoming in this symphony to which I shall never be able to reconcile myself is the fact that in each movement there is something which reminds one of ballet music: the middle in the Andante, the trio in the Scherzo, the march-like music in the Finale.

Tchaikovsky was baffled by this criticism:

I really do not understand what you mean by ballet music and why you cannot reconcile yourself to it… Indeed, I simply cannot understand why there should be anything at all reprehensible in the expression ballet music! After all, ballet music is not always bad; there is also good ballet music…

It’s hard not to sympathize with Tchaikovsky—just a year after his 
Swan Lake score had been criticized as unballetic and “grandiloquent,” here he was, accused of writing exactly the opposite: a symphony that was too balletic. On the other hand, listen to an impassioned outburst like the central section of the slow movement (above) and you can hear exactly what Taneyev means—it could so easily have come from a ballet score. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with that, as Tchaikovsky sternly points out.

Balletic versatility

Is there something balletic about all Tchaikovsky’s music? Contrary to what those early critics thought—perhaps they were alarmed by the music’s Wagneristic tendencies—there’s a lot to be said for this theory. Countless choreographers have been drawn to Tchaikovsky’s music—and not just the ballet music, by any means. Balanchine used four of the Third Symphony’s five movements in “Diamonds,” the ballet in which he paid tribute to the great choreography of Imperial Russia, and set Tchaikovsky many more times too, including in Theme and Variations. And choreographers from Kenneth MacMillan (Anastasia, Winter Dreams) to Christopher Wheeldon (Rococo Variations) have used Tchaikovsky’s concert music on stage too.

But then again, there’s also something symphonic about Tchaikovsky’s ballet music… Perhaps part of the problem the critics had with him is that he was simply uncommonly versatile: able to switch from ballet to symphony to opera to piano music, all the while remaining unmistakably himself. How many composers are so comfortable in such a range of styles? Vanishingly few have been able to dance from one to the next with such amazing ease.


  1. I have become curious about the origin of the core story of Tchaikovskyś Nutcracker Ballet. Where can I find information about this? I have over the years seen many various renditions of the Nutcracker, both professional and amateur productions, including one beautifully staged and performed professional production in which the “Uncle” and the “Prince” were danced by the same young adult male dancer and Clara was danced by a 13-year-old (very gifted) local dancer. The romantic fantasy element dipped very decidedly into erotic, perhaps pedophiliac, fantasy in that particular production in which a good deal of Freudian symbolism sprang suddenly into evidence. (Who gives a pre-pubescent girl a phallic-shaped wooden doll of a male soldier for a Christmas gift? Hmmmm…and then takes her on a magical sleigh ride through a number of exotic pleasure kingdoms….in her nighty…hmmmmm, again….etc. up to and including the grandfather clock and the (ahem) enlarging Christmas tree…)? I have wondered ever since about the origin of the tale itself, and how it came to be the subject of one of our most beloved holiday traditions, but even more importantly, the inspiration for Tchaikovsky himself as the story of his ballet.

    I’ve not been able to decide whether I had accidentally stumbled upon the secret message purposely encoded in this ballet, whether the dance company had conspired to have us discover it, whether it was accidentally ‘encoded ´ or whether I imagined it all….it was, by the way, done as a one-act performance, very economically paced and ended with Clara curled up asleep beneath the Christmas tree embracing her beloved wooden soldier/nutcracker… Really.

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