George Balanchine

Serenade

The interplay of dance and music in Balanchineʼs symphonic ballet »Serenade«

By PhD Gretchen Horlacher, Music Theorist, Associate Professor of Music, School of Music, University of Maryland

»See the music, hear the dance!« George Balanchine said, for he was both a consummate musician and choreographer. Balanchine created the plotless ballet »Serenade« to teach young dancers »how to be on the stage.« His style required soloists and corps de ballet alike to perform at top speed in evolving geometric configurations, all to match Tchaikovsky’s intricate music.

Even before the curtain rises, an urgent melody moves deliberately downward, and yet when we first see the entire corps, they are standing completely still. Their stunning opening formation fills the stage’s rectangle with striking diagonal rows (the »double diamond«) but the melody continues, so we wait for the female dancers to move. Finally, they respond to the insistent melody, moving arms and feet fully into position. They are now ready to dance.

Throughout the ballet the corps shapes the stage to suit the music. As melodies build, tightly configured groups gradually break loose to fill the stage, or to encircle a soloist. Never serving as mere background, they provide pathways through which a female soloist moves as she introduces a new melody along with the score. The movements of the groups define the beginnings and ends of musical phrases.

Soloists too interpret melodies for the choreography is mirroring the notes. In the second movement (Waltz), Tchaikovsky’s melody gently rises in a series of peaks. The ballerina in this pas de deux precisely marks the peaks both with diagonally outstretched legs and with the graceful lifts on part of her partner. When the waltz melody returns near the end of the movement, the corps too lifts and dips as she flits across the stage.

These relationships are the »plot« of »Serenade«: we learn to »see the music and hear the dance.«

Free and in the spirit of Mozart – Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, op. 48

By Dr Ulrich Linke, Musicologist

In 1880, Peter Tchaikovsky decided to retire for a few months to his sister's rural estate in Kamenka, Ukraine, which had once belonged to the composer's grandfather, in order to spend some time relaxing there. »I am doing absolutely nothing now and wandering for days through forests and fields,« he wrote to his patron Nadezhda von Meck in September 1880. But just a few days later, he was already full of energy once again: »How unstable all my intentions always are to devote myself for a longer period to recovery! No sooner had I passed a series of utterly idle days than I felt a vague state of gloom and even malaise, that is, I began to sleep poorly and felt tired and weak. Today I couldn't take it any longer and occupied myself a bit with planning a future symphony. And what do you think? Immediately I became healthy, cheerful, and calm.« And Tchaikovsky had more than enough work: in addition to corrections, completions, and revisions, he composed the commissioned 1812 Overture op. 49 »without any pleasure or inclination,« as well the Serenade for Strings op. 48, written from inner motivation.

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The Serenade was dedicated to the Moscow cellist and choirmaster Karl Albrecht (1836–1893). Tchaikovsky dined at his home daily in the 1870s, appreciating him as an unconventional friend whom he would ask for musical advice and not infrequently for money, with whom he spoke in a familiar, playful tone, and whose son Yevgeny was his godchild. Tchaikovsky admired Albrecht's wide-ranging interests »in geology, entomology, and mechanics; for the latter, he even possessed a certain talent and was continually inventing some apparatus or device for a usually very abstruse and impractical purpose. In the summer, he passionately collected all kinds of beetles and butterflies« (Hermann Laroche).

An unofficial premiere of the Serenade performed by professors and students took place in late 1880 at the Moscow Conservatory; the public premiere was then heard the following autumn. The work was an immediate success and quickly entered the repertoire of several orchestras. Tchaikovsky's strict teacher Anton Rubinstein also praised the composition unreservedly. Only Nadezhda von Meck couldn’t quite find her way to the Serenade, which she played four-hands with »Bussy« (as she affectionately called her protégé Claude Debussy) from the piano reduction. She felt it was »pure music that only impresses the mind [...] and touches neither the heart nor the nerves,« as she told the composer in August 1881. However, she remained the only critical voice among those close to the composer.

The musical author of the Serenade for Strings

By Benedikt Stampfli, Regina Genée, dramaturges

Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk in the Urals, the second son of the engineer and lieutenant colonel Ilya Petrovich and his second wife Alexandra Andreyevna. Music played an important role in his family: his mother taught the children to play the piano and sang a great deal. Initially, Tchaikovsky studied law in St. Petersburg for nine years before embarking on a new path and, from 1862, studying composition and instrumentation with Anton Rubinstein at the newly opened Conservatory. Only three years later, after completing his studies with the diploma, Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow. He wrote his first successful compositions there, such as the First Symphony (1866) and the »Romeo and Juliet« overture (1869). He travelled considerably, met other composers and became acquainted with their aesthetics. In addition, he worked as a music critic and visited Bayreuth in 1876, for example, to attend the premiere of Richard Wagner's »The Ring of the Nibelung«.

In the same year, Tchaikovsky composed the ballet music for »Swan Lake«, and Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and sincere admirer who supported him generously from that point on, sought the composer's acquaintance. In the late 1870s, he composed a setting of »Eugene Onegin«, based on the work of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, with which he enjoyed a great success at the Bolshoi Theater in 1881. From 1878, Tchaikovsky was also increasingly active as a conductor: on a major concert tour through Europe, he stopped in Dresden in 1889 and conducted the Dresden Philharmonic, which had been founded less than twenty years earlier as the Gewerbehaus-Kapelle.
Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C Major from 1880 was the result of Tchaikovsky’s musical studies with a focus on the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – a composer whose aesthetics he considered extremely inspiring for his own creative work. After all, it had been a performance of the dramma giocoso »Don Giovanni« that had sparked Tchaikovsky's passion for music. The Serenade for Strings was eventually premiered in Moscow in 1882.

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A few years later he also produced other important works, such as the last two operas »The Queen of Spades« (1890) and »Iolanta« (1891), the ballets »The Sleeping Beauty« (1890) and »The Nutcracker« (1892), and the Fifth and Sixth symphonies (1888/1893). The last years of the composer's life were marked by numerous successes and awards, including the guarantee of a lifelong pension from Tsar Alexander III (1888) and the conferring of an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge (1893). However, Tchaikovsky's great successes – mainly as a composer – are only part of his life story: he struggled with depression throughout his life, the main reason for which was his homosexuality, which was kept concealed from the public. From his letters to his brother Modest, we can surmise how close Tchaikovsky must have come to the brink of insanity due to his »forbidden« sexual inclination, and was also at risk of suicide. At the end of October 1893, he conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony in St. Petersburg. Just a few days later, on 6 November, he died of a cholera infection. Whether this was the actual cause of death remains a mystery to this day, since there is also the rumours that Tchaikovsky poisoned himself with arsenic because a »court of honor,« consisting of members of the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence (where he had also studied) had asked him to take his own life due to his sexual inclination.

Rehearsal insights (1/12)


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