As his swan song on leaving his position as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski chose for the orchestra to play the entire score of Swan Lake. An odd choice? Less odd when you consider that his father was a ballet conductor at the Stanislavsky Theatre and so he grew up with this music. He chose to perform the 54 numbers in the same order in which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote them in 1877, and with the indicated tempos.
Swan Lake was the first of the Tchaikovsky ballets (The Sleeping Beauty came in 1890 and The Nutcracker in 1892), and its first choreographer, in Moscow, was Julius Reisinger. The opening was not a success and the music was considered by some critics too symphonic for ballet. However, it had a certain popularity with the public and remained in the repertoire for six years. Tinkering with the score began almost immediately. On opening night in March 1877, Pelageya Karpakova danced, but in April, Anna Sobeshchanskaya was due to dance Odette/Odile and, not impressed with the ballet, asked Marius Petipa in St Petersburg if he would choreograph a pas de deux for her, which he did, using music by Ludwig Minkus. Tchaikovsky was infuriated and insisted that he should compose the new piece, and he wrote what is now known as the Tchaikovsky pas de deux; he also wrote a new variation for Sobeshchanskaya. Famously, the pas de deux was thought lost until discovered in the Bolshoi's archives in 1953 and seven years later George Balanchine turned it into one of the most popular pieces ever choreographed. Swan Lake‘s score was already evolving.
In an interview with The Times, Jurowski says,
My revelation came when my father conducted a production brought to Moscow by the Komische Oper of what was then East Berlin. That used a version by the choreographer Tom Schilling based entirely on Tchaikovsky's original score. The order of the music was different and the ballet's meaning was transformed as well. Of course, it caused a scandal back then in 1980s Moscow, but it completely changed my attitude to Swan Lake. Once I heard the score as Tchaikovsky conceived it I realised that it is a masterpiece, looking forward to Mahler, Shostakovich and Stravinsky.
Jurowski says that he hasn't conducted the ballet with dancers because he “couldn't bear the thought of conducting it at the wrong speeds” but now, as he takes up the position as Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera, he says,
I hope to prove to the world that what Tchaikovsky originally composed is far better than what Petipa made of it, which was sometimes musically and dramatically nonsensical. My dream now is to find a choreographer who will listen to our new recording and invent a completely new ballet that will be danceable at the right tempos and with the music in the right order.
Most versions used by ballet companies are based on the 1895 revival by Lev Ivanov and Petipa when Riccardo Drigo cut and rearranged the score considerably, also orchestrating three piano pieces by Tchaikovsky to insert into the ballet (Nos. 11, 12 and 15 from the Eighteen Piano Pieces, Op. 72). Tchaikovsky had died in 1893 and his brother Modest gave his authorisation to alter the original and, indeed, Modest assisted with changes to the libretto. Not that the mutation was complete here, being that in the numerous productions over the subsequent century other choreographers did their own cut and paste versions of the score.
One of the intriguing backstories to the original ballet was that Tchaikovsky was enjoying an infatuation with a young violinist at the time. Tchaikovsky had the sound of the violin filling his heart and pouring out onto the page.
The violinist Iosif Kotek was his pupil at the Moscow Conservatory until 1876. In January 1877, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest, who was also homosexual:
I can't hide my feelings for him, although I tried hard to do so at first. I saw that he noticed everything and understood me. But then can you imagine how artful I am in hiding my feelings? My habit of eating alive any beloved object always gives me away. Yesterday I gave myself away completely… I burst. I made a total confession of love, begging him not to be angry, not to feel constrained if I bore him, etc. All of these confessions were met with a thousand various small caresses, strokes on the shoulder, cheeks, and strokes across my head. I am incapable of expressing to you the full degree of bliss that I experienced by completely giving myself away.
Modest idolised his elder brother, maybe because his mother died when he was just four and Pyotr Ilyich was ten years older. So it was with happiness that he discovered, aged 14, that his older brother was also gay (to the horror of Modest's twin brother, Anatoly) and he wrote in his unfinished autobiography, (which has never been published):
I forgot every trouble and was filled with inexpressible joy. A heavy weight fell from my shoulders. I am not a freak, I am not alone in my strange desires. I may find sympathy not merely with the pariahs among my comrades, but with Pyotr I may fall in love and feel no shame since Pyotr understands me!
The correspondence between the two brothers shows uninhibited sharing of intimate detail. Tchaikovsky wrote of the violinist Kotek:
I cannot say that my love is completely pure. When he caresses me with his hand, when he lies with his head on my chest and I play with his hair and secretly kiss it, when for hours on end I hold his hand in my own and tire in the battle against the urge to fall at his feet and kiss these little feet, passion rages with me with unimaginable force, my voice shakes like that of a youth, and I speak some kind of nonsense. However, I am far from desiring physical consummation. I feel that if that occurred I would cool to him. I would feel disgusted if this wonderful youth stooped to sex with an aged and fat-bellied man. How horrible this would be and how disgusting I would become to myself! It is not called for.
Pyotr, the “aged and fat-bellied man” was 36.
In February 1877, Tchaikovsky dedicated his Valse-Scherzo for violin and orchestra to Kotek. Their relationship had various ups and downs – not the least being Tchaikovsky's disastrous marriage in 1877 which didn't last three months – but in 1878 he wrote his Violin Concerto for Kotek, though it wasn't dedicated to him; he told his publisher that it was “to avoid gossip of various kinds”. Although Kotek didn't play at the premiere, the two men worked together on its composition. Tchaikovsky wrote:
How lovingly he busies himself with my concerto! I would have been able to do nothing without him. He plays it marvellously!
Tchaikovsky composed Swan Lake during Kotek's final year at the conservatoire. He started composing it in August 1875 and completed it in April the following year, though some revisions were made in 1877. As he said in the letter to Modest in 1877:
I always liked [Kotek], and on several occasions I have felt a little bit in love with him.
Concertmaster solos are, of course, frequently found, but it is difficult to imagine that in choosing the violin to convey such important themes for both the white swan and black swan pas de deux (as well as the Tchaikovsky pas de deux) – which express moments of passionate but impossible love – he wasn't thinking of Kotek and his violin.
This LPO concert can be viewed free of charge until 9 June on Marquee.tv and then by subscription.
Letter quotes are from the excellent http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.