Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s name goes hand in hand with ballet music. Born in Russia in 1840, he showed musical talent at a young age and learned to play the piano and composed. However, there was not a Russian music conservatory for him to attend, so he originally studied to be a civil servant in St. Petersburg starting at age 10. By the time he finished his studies in 1859, the precursor to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the Russian Musical Society, was founded. There he studied music and composition and honed his craft.
The music in Russia up to that point was primarily imported from Europe and had a distinctive Western European sound. Russia has a rich folk music tradition which does not adhere to the standard Western European music that was being taught at the Russian Musical Society and later St. Petersburg Conservatory. There was a group known as The Five in Russia who advocated for a distinct Russian sound. The members included Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Cui. Tchaikovsky and his style did not quite fit in either group - he and his music lived in the liminal space between both those musical styles.
Tchaikovsky had a tumultuous personal life. At 37 he married a former student, Antonina Miliukova, but their marriage lasted only two and a months before irreconcilable differences forced them to separate. It is generally accepted by scholars that Tchaikovsky was homosexual, which considering the time, led to his difficult personal relationships. The Soviet Union tried to delete any homosexual references from the records, which has led to confusion in the past. Tchaikovsky also had an interesting arrangement with his main patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. They corresponded regularly and her money allowed him to focus solely on composition for the next 13 years, but they agreed to never meet in person. Despite never meeting, her patronage made it so Tchaikovsky was the first full time, professional Russian composer.
Tchaikovsky became famous for his ballets, operas, and orchestral works. One of his most famous pieces, 1812 Overture, can be heard every 4th of July during the fireworks, which are accentuated by the canons in the score. Eugene Onegin is one of his beloved and performed operas. And finally his ballets are what we hear every Christmas with The Nutcracker and live in popular culture through the sweeping themes of the Romeo and Juliet Love Theme and Swan Lake’s dark melodies.
We focused on Sleeping Beauty today, which tells the story from a slightly different source than the classic Disney animation we all know. However, the Disney version does reimagine the famous waltz as Princess Aurora’s song, Once Upon a Dream.
Below is a full version of the ballet to watch - it’s in three acts and you can go at whatever pace your little one wants. Each fairy has their own special dance and even the evil Carabosse isn’t too scary. I hope you enjoy and dance along!