What makes it great? What makes a work of art great? You will get many answers, but a common one is unstalability. Age cannot wither nor custom stale a great work of art. Where other works cloy the appetites they feed, great ones make hungry where most they satisfy.
You get my drift (h/t Shakespeare).
Every year, the American Ballet Theatre stages Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky’s work from 1876. Every year, it scores. Not only does it bear repetition, it reveals more of itself, the more you take it in.
Credit goes to the choreography, which at ABT is “by Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.” Credit also goes to the sets and costumes (Zack Brown) and to the lighting (Duane Schuler). Also, of course, to the dancers.
Last Friday night, Hee Seo was the Swan and Cory Stearns the Prince. She was swan-like, demonstrating a floaty geometry. He was princely. Marcelo Gomes, as Rothbart, demonstrated a wicked magnetism.
But supreme credit goes to the composer, who was so unhappy with life that, apparently, he killed himself. Can you imagine being able to do what he did and being unable to tolerate life?
Many people, including me, have discussed Tchaikovsky’s score, and I won’t do much of it here—but I will do some. This score has ample variety, of course: dark and light, frilly and grave. Tchaikovsky spends a lot of time in B minor, that infamous death key, which Mozart and others have been so afraid of.
But what Tchaikovsky is especially good at, I think, is intensification: the building of tension and then the release of it. Years ago, I noted something written by Ernst Bacon, the American composer (1898–1990). I’m speaking of a sentence, rather than a passage of music: “If there is one trait common to all great interpreters, it is their capacity for intensification.” There is something to that. I also think that something like it applies to composers.
Over and over in Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky goes up to a high note. Then he comes back down, only to go up again: to the note a half-step above the previous one. He keeps doing this—half-step by half-step—until the tension is practically killing you. You are in chromatic agony.
This technique comes straight from Bach—who probably got it from someone before him. You will also find it in good pop music. A prime example would be “Steal Away,” that wonderful song by Robbie Dupree (1980).
On Friday night, I settled into my seat, and, within a minute, Tchaikovsky had me. Those woodwinds hooked me. I could hear Swan Lake again, and see it again—with grateful anticipation.
Many years ago, I was scheduled to go cover a Barber of Seville at the Met. It was January and very cold. Plus, sleeting. I was in a foul mood. I didn’t want to go to the opera house. The cast was undistinguished. Also, I wondered, “Can I really see The Barber again? Can I possibly?”
I went, and within minutes, Rossini had me. That old devil: his Barber spreads delight time after time, decade after decade, century after century. (It has been two centuries plus one year.)
If you see Swan Lake enough, you have a hard time separating the music from the dancing. They fuse (as they’re supposed to). I knew the Pas de quatre long before I ever saw the ballet. (I even knew it in the piano transcription by Earl Wild.) But once you see those four cygnets, linking arms: you can never unsee them. They go with the music, and it with them.
To many a fiddler, the Pas de deux is a violin solo. But let musical types not forget that it is also a pas de deux! Act III brings some devilish trilling. But when you see Marcelo Gomes brandish his cape at the same time, the devilish music and the cape are hard to separate. In his score, Tchaikovsky has exuberant leaps. But to see Cory Stearns leap, exuberantly . . .
A word in praise of the story, too. You know what will happen: but the story continues to enchant, wound, and melt, time after time. I think of Frederick Forsyth’s thriller of 1971, The Day of the Jackal. Everyone knows that de Gaulle wasn’t assassinated. Everyone knows that he died in bed, at a ripe old age. But, as Forsyth weaves his magic, it doesn’t matter: your heart is in your throat.
Lorin Maazel was the music director of the New York Philharmonic in the 2000s, when he was in the autumnal stage of his career. Sometimes he was electric, sometimes blah. One thing I noticed is that he approached familiar works—even hackneyed ones—with zeal (when he was in the mood). I asked him about this once. I referred, specifically, to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Maazel said, “It’s as glorious and thrilling as the day it was written. If you become jaded because of overexposure, the problem is yours, not the composer’s.”
If I ever tire of Swan Lake, please take the Prince’s crossbow and shoot me.
I often quote my friend Tom Griesa, that wise federal judge in New York: “A mediocre night at the opera beats a mediocre night at the ballet. But a great night at the ballet—that beats everything.” I think I’m with him.