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.
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.
Tip 1 For many dancers and musicians, the holiday season is synonymous with The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s 1892 score, composed according to Petipa’s libretto, is fascinating in many ways. The orchestration includes toy instruments and the celesta, a recently invented cross between a piano and glockenspiel. Its silvery sound fit perfectly Petipa’s instructions that the Sugar Plum Fairy variation evoke water splashing in fountains.
Tip 2 The Nutcracker includes many dances that work well for class. In Act 1, try the March (no. 2) with marches in children’s class and the Gallop (no. 3) with gallops and spring points in 2/4. In Act 2, try a section of the accelerating Russian Trepak (no. 12d) with turns from the corner, the Spanish Bolero (no. 12a) with pirouettes and pas de basques in center, and the Tarantella (no. 14, first male variation) with frappés at the barre.Read More
With Swan Lake (1876), Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) became the second composer of symphonic stature to write a ballet score. (The first was Léo Delibes, whose Sylvia premiered seven years earlier.) Ignorant of balletic compositional techniques, Tchaikovsky studied the specialists—Adolphe Adam and Ludwig Minkus—to determine length and tempos for individual dances. However, Tchaikovsky used a complex system of key relationships and applied symphonic scoring techniques to create more interesting sonorities. His innovations include using two or more solo instruments within a variation (in Act 1’s pas de trois, the third variation’s melody moves from clarinet to flute to oboe, then back to clarinet) and unorthodox instrumentation (the swan theme, which ends Act 1 and bookends Act 2, combines oboe, tremolo strings, and harp).
Like the specialists, Tchaikovsky included many dance forms in Swan Lake. The waltzes (Act 1, score no. 2, “Peasant Dance”; Act 2, no. 13, “Waltz of the Swans”; Act 3, no. 17, “Waltz of the Fiancées”) show a sophisticated use of melodic material. Listen for cross-phrasing—lengthening the musical phrase by tying over a bar’s third beat into the next bar’s first beat—in “Fiancées,” and for the melody in “Peasant Dance” starting on the bar’s second beat against the accompaniment’s consistent “oom pah pah” rhythm.