On Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, presented this season by the American Ballet Theatre
Often, I say such things as, “The older I get, the smarter Verdi gets.” You simply learn things, as you mature. You throw off the childish. I used to think Swan Lake was fine. It had some excellent music. Some surpassing music. But it was still, you know: a ballet. A little sentimental, a little frilly, a little perfumed.
I suppose I was in my thirties when I realized that it is no less than a great work of art. I could see the ballet once a week, well danced and well played. Not so well danced and not so well played, maybe once a month.
It was very well danced by the American Ballet Theatre when I saw it earlier this month. And it was competently played, which is probably asking enough, at the ballet.
Odette/Odile was a Russian, Maria Kochetkova. She was utterly musical. She produced the physical expression of Tchaikovsky’s phrasing, rhythm, feeling, everything. She bent to every note (or turned or sailed or whatever was required). I think the composer would have been amazed.
So admiring was I of Kochetkova, I almost felt disloyal to a longstanding favorite, Nina Ananiashvili (the great, retired Georgian).
Doing the honors as the Prince was Herman Cornejo, from Argentina. He was virile, elegant, noble. In a word, princely. Let me note, too, that Rothbart was danced by Gray Davis, though not by the ex-governor of California. Young Mr. Davis is from South Carolina (and a ballet dancer).
About Tchaikovsky’s music, countless words have been written, and I will add a few more. It is nearly miraculous. It is a miracle of variety: light and dark, slow and fast, universal and “ethnic.” Tchaikovsky knows just where to change, so his ballet doesn’t drag. There is scarcely a longueur here.
I recall something that Rodion Shchedrin, the Russian composer, said many years ago. This was when modernism was firmly in the saddle. Someone asked him, “What music are you prepared to listen to right this second?” “The Nutcracker,” Shchedrin replied. “I am always prepared to listen to it, because each and every section is a masterpiece.” Would he say the same of Swan Lake? I bet so.
It begins in B minor, the “death key.” Once, I did a public interview of Hans Graf, the Austrian conductor, and I asked him about keys. He went through them, and their meaning, or possible meaning. Fascinating. Apparently, Mozart was scared to death of B minor. He wrote almost nothing in that key. There’s the famous Adagio for piano. There is also the middle movement of a flute quartet, K. 285. That quartet is in D major, which is B minor’s companion key. (Each has two sharps.)
And what does Tchaikovsky do, when he leaves his B-minor-suffused prologue and goes to the Prince’s birthday party? He goes to D major—in which the B minor somehow lingers on, just a little.
You will know another Tchaikovsky piece in B minor: the Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique,” his final work, his final exertion. As my colleague Fred Kirshnit remarks, “It’s the longest suicide note in history.”
Swan Lake, like many Tchaikovsky scores, makes extensive use of woodwinds. It at times seems an oboe concerto. Indeed, it is one of the best “oboe concertos” in the repertoire.
And let me tell you something you might find amusing—or at least strange: I knew the pas de quatre—the Dance of the Cygnets—in Earl Wild’s piano transcription before I actually knew it in the ballet. It is such a slinky, sly, intricate, delicious affair (both from Wild and from Tchaikovsky).
Here it is, played not by Wild himself but by young Behzod Abduraimov. He’s not as slinky as Wild—he’s a little crunchy—but he will do.
Let’s end with a podcast. Last week, I was talking with Mark Helprin, the novelist, political writer, etc. We were talking mainly about the presidential election. (More tragic than Swan Lake, by a lot.) But at the end, I brought up Swan Lake, because I had just seen it and was flush with it. In the late ’80s, Helprin wrote a treatment of Swan Lake, with illustrations by Chris Van Allsburg.
The music is what hooked him, he told me. It has a “sadness” about it that is very rare, and also an “otherworldliness.” That is perfectly worded.
In any event, I wish I were seeing Swan Lake, again, this very night. And what music am I prepared to listen to right now? Yes. And I am. Listening to it.
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