August 2016 | 2 Music Tips for Dance Teachers | Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty

Photo courtesy Nina Pinzarrone

Photo courtesy Nina Pinzarrone

Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty

By Nina Pinzarrone

Tip 1
Before The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky and Petipa first collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty (1889), with Petipa providing detailed descriptions of his musical requirements. Listen to the overture for the two leitmotifs that, throughout the ballet, represent the conflict between good and evil: strident, disjointed chords for the fairy Carabosse; and lush, lyrical music, like a barcarolle (a lilting piece that imitates gondolier songs) for the Lilac Fairy.

Beauty’s masterful score contains many musical gems. The prologue’s pas de six, for example, includes the pizzicato melody of the Breadcrumb Fairy promising the gift of plenty (third variation), the piccolo triplet melody of the Canary Fairy giving the gift of language (fourth variation), and the plucked strings of the Violente Fairy depicting the energy of electricity, which at the time was still a novelty (fifth variation).

Tip 2
The story’s 100-year time span gave Tchaikovsky the opportunity to explore various historical dance forms. Act 1’s waltz (no. 6) is a wonderful piece for introducing waltz steps. Try Act 2’s gavotte (no. 12c) with tendus in center, or Act 3’s polonaise (no. 22) with grands battements or polonaise walks.

Beauty was the first ballet score to add piano to its orchestration. Act 3’s “Sapphire” variation in 5/4 (no. 23, third variation), for example, uses plucked strings over piano accompaniment.

A 5/4 meter may be accented on either the first and third beats of the bar (1-2 / 1-2-3) or the first and fourth (1-2-3 / 1-2); in “Sapphire” it’s the first and third. Clap the rhythm with students first, then try this piece with a frappé, petit battement, relevé, or small jump exercise to take advantage of the uneven accents. A frappé pattern, for example, could be out on 1, in on 2, out on 3, hold on 4, in on 5.


Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded nine CDs for ballet class.