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Program Notes: Sleeping Beauty

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Friday, January 31, 2020, at 10:30AM

Saturday, February 1, 2020, at 8:00PM

SCHUMANN Manfred Overture, op. 115

MENDELSSOHN Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, op. 40

TCHAIKOVSKY The Sleeping Beauty Suite, op. 66


Compose Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann


Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany

Died July 29, 1856, Endenich, Germany

Manfred Overture, op. 115

The Story of Manfred

Set in the “higher Alps,” Lord Byron’s verse drama Manfred (1817) depicts the quintessentially alienated “Byronic hero.” Its minimal plot centers on the dilemma and psychological torment of the title character, a tragic outsider. Resembling an amalgam of Hamlet, Faust, and Eugene Onegin, Manfred seeks to escape an unnameable guilt associated with the early death of his beloved sister Astarte. (The exact nature of his crime remains shrouded in ambiguity.)

Byron crystallized an outlook that became an archetype for generations of Romantic artists. This quintessential “Byronic hero” also looks ahead to a later era of brooding, alienated anti-heroes who confront the absurdity of existence. Manfred refuses the conventional solution of faith and religious penitence but resolves to meet fate on his own terms: “[I] was my own destroyer, and will be/My own hereafter….”

A Touch of the Poet: Romantics and the Literary Imagination

When he was still a teenager, Robert Schumann began keeping a diary in which he tracked reflections about his future destiny as an artist. He was equally fascinated by poetry and music and later gave voice to his literary gifts by writing criticism—Schumann became one of the most significant critics of the era—but also by engaging with literature in his music.

An intense interest in literature became a defining characteristic of the early Romantic composers—the generation that included Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. Highly educated and refined, Mendelssohn shaped the concept of the concert overture with his teenage masterpiece, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He also pursued his talents in the visual arts, documenting his travels in Scotland and Switzerland, for example, in drawings, water colors, and paintings. Of music’s particular expressive power, Mendelssohn once wrote: “People often complain that music is too ambiguous; that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me it is exactly the reverse…The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite…”

Tchaikovsky drew inspiration throughout his career from his remarkably eclectic interest in literature. As it happened, his early breakthrough was likewise in response to Shakespeare’s theater, in the form of his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Tchaikovsky’s compositions show an engagement with classic literature, from Dante to Schiller and Byron—including the same work that inspired the Schumann piece that opens our program—as well as Russian folklore and the realm of fairy-tale immortalized in his ballets. His musical treatment of the story of Sleeping Beauty, a masterpiece from the final period of Tchaikovsky’s career, concludes our program’s survey of a century of musical Romanticism.

Music for a Metaphysical Drama

Schumann’s father was a bookseller who made a good living by publishing German editions of classic English writers and poets, including the work of Lord Byron (1788–1824). So it’s not surprising that Robert was only a teenager when he first discovered Manfred, Byron’s poetic drama that took Europe by storm (see sidebar). His diary records his “agitated state of mind” after a “terrible night” spent reading the work. Decades later (in 1848, a year of revolution across Europe), he adopted a novel approach to setting this material to music.

Byron wrote Manfred, which he described as a “metaphysical drama,” as a dramatic poem not actually to be staged but rather to be relished by the reader (or, perhaps, a reading group sharing the roles), much as Goethe did the vast second part of Faust. Still, Schumann adapted the German translation into a libretto for a theatrical hybrid that defied genres—neither opera nor the form of music theater in the German-speaking world that included spoken text (like Mozart’s The Magic Flute or Beethoven’s Fidelio). Schumann had recently completed his sole opera, Genoveva (based on a medieval legend), and sketched out an adaptation he described as a “dramatic poem in three parts with music.”

In his biography of the composer, the late Martin Geck argues that Schumann was here envisaging a new kind of “total artwork”—though one certainly very different from the synthesis his contemporary Richard Wagner had in mind with his combination of music and the other arts. Schumann believed that his music “alone [could] bring to light all that lies hidden in the poem”—but its connections to the poem needed to be clear.

What Schumann created is a work comprising 15 numbers, with Byron’s text accompanied by his instrumental music, along with an overture. Franz Liszt led the belated premiere of the entire work in a staged performance in Weimar in 1852, but the overture is the only piece from the Manfred score that has found its way into the general repertoire. It represents one of Schumann’s most splendid achievements.

Listening Guide

Set in the dark key of E-flat minor, the overture portrays Manfred’s tormented inner world—the real source and substance of Byron’s minimal plot—with concentrated power. Three stabbing chords rip open the curtain. A slow introduction leads into the faster section, designed like the first movement of a symphony with its carefully plotted use of contrasting elements. Geck observes how wonderfully the music mirrors the “inner conflict” of the protagonist “between heroic bombast, his desire for love, and a sense of profound depression.”

The motifs are “torn apart, expanded, and woven together again” in a way that replicates Manfred’s “complex state of mind.” The overture’s conclusion allows the anti-hero Manfred no hope of redemption.

First performance: March 14, 1852, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Robert Schumann conducting

First SLSO performance: December 6, 1912, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: October 31, 1987, Mark Janowski conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Performance time: Approximately 12 minutes


Composer Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn


Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany

Died November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, op. 40

Mendelssohn’s Underrated Concerto

Along with his output as a composer, Felix Mendelssohn kept continually in the public eye with his busy career as a pianist and conductor. During the era when conducting evolved as a separate profession, he won public praise from his friend Schumann for improving performance standards and was an important advocate of Schumann’s own compositions. Mendelssohn also performed as a solo virtuoso at the keyboard throughout his career. One of the most astonishing prodigy composers in Western music, he studied piano as a child with a pupil of Muzio Clementi, whose compositions for that instrument were highly admired by Beethoven and served as a model for many younger composers.

Mendelssohn did not regard the piano as his alter ego in the way Robert Schumann and Beethoven did. Even so, no less a figure than Clara Schumann—acknowledged as one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century—wrote to her husband Robert about the effect Mendelssohn’s piano playing had on her: “For a few minutes, I really could not restrain my tears. When all is said and done, he remains for me the dearest pianist of all.”

Mendelssohn wrote his first concerto for the instrument during his student days—an unpublished work clearly modeled on well-regarded concertos of the post-Classical generation—and also penned two double-piano concertos in his teens. He introduced his first adult piano concerto, Op. 25 in G minor, in 1831. It earned widespread acclaim and counted Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt among its champions. In fact, the G minor Concerto became so popular that Hector Berlioz even wrote a parody in which he described the work taking possession of a keyboard, which cannot be silenced but continues playing the notes, zombie-like, despite attempts to destroy the instrument.

Perhaps it was this very popularity that made Mendelssohn avoid writing a follow-up concerto for several years—thus postponing the inevitable comparisons that would be made. Finally, in 1837, he received a commission for a new concerto from the Birmingham Festival of classical music—he was in high demand in Britain, a favorite of Queen Victoria. During that year’s festival, he also conducted his oratorio St. Paul.

Mendelssohn composed the Second Piano Concerto in the months right after marrying Cécile Jeanrenaud in March 1837. To Mendelssohn’s sister Rebecka, his new wife reported: “[Felix] is sitting opposite me and trilling with his fingers, writing, singing, playing the trumpet and flute, everything at once, then he again walks up and down the room with his manuscript paper, beating time or playing the bass fiddle with his arm—all these efforts are directed at his piano concerto, which is bound to be very beautiful.”

The D minor Concerto ended up becoming eclipsed by the First Concerto in G minor—in part because of Robert Schumann’s assessment that the music was lightweight and “fleeting,” “like a work tossed off by the older masters while recovering from one of their great exertions.” Still, contemporary performers have been reclaiming the Second Concerto and making a persuasive case that Schumann’s verdict sells the music short by a considerable measure.

Listening Guide

In his First Piano Concerto, Mendelssohn linked together the three movements of the standard concerto format. He once again follows that pattern here. Also as in the earlier concerto, he dispenses with the formal orchestral exposition of ideas but has the soloist enter the fray almost at once. This imparts a dramatic urgency to the first movement, which sets the tone with a severe opening theme. The piano introduces the second theme with flowing virtuosity, and Mendelssohn then develops these ideas economically.

Instead of a climactic culmination, he guides the Concerto gently into the slow movement. Surely Schumann underrated the stirring beauty of this simply shaped but transportive music in B-flat major, which emulates the lofty Adagios of Beethoven. The piano leads the way, presenting the theme alone, after which the strings warmly restate it. Mendelssohn segues directly into the finale as well. This movement, curiously styled “Presto scherzando,” develops a mood that is the polar opposite of the opening movement. Skipping along in a cheerful triple meter, the finale presents the piano in a particularly brilliant light, at times creating the illusion of a three-handed soloist.

First performance: September 1873, at the Birmingham Festival in England, with the composer as soloist

First SLSO performance: January 30, 1958, Thomas Schippers as conductor and soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: October 6, 2007, Nicholas McGegan conducting, with Jonathan Biss as soloist

Scoring: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Performance time: Approximately 25 minutes


Composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia

Died November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

The Sleeping Beauty Suite, op. 66

The Story of The Sleeping Beauty

The scenario of Tchaikovsky’s second ballet unfolds in a prologue and three acts. The prologue sets the stage by clarifying the backstory for Princess Aurora’s strange fate. At her christening, the Wicked Fairy Carabosse seeks revenge for being left off the guest list by casting a spell, announcing that when she reaches the age of 16, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The good Lilac Fairy is able to soften the curse so that the Princess will merely sleep for 100 years and then be awakened by a Prince’s kiss. The first act fast-forwards to the Princess’s 16th birthday celebrations, when she is courted by four suitors. Despite the King’s precautions, Carabosse sneaks in with the gift of a spindle, on which Aurora pricks her finger. The Lilac Fairy extends her spell to the entire kingdom, which falls into slumber at the same time.

In the second act, the century term has passed and the Lilac Fairy guides Prince Désiré to the hidden, sleeping kingdom, where he kisses Aurora and thus awakens her. The third act details the wedding celebrations and includes dances for a variety of attending fairies and even guests visiting from other fairy-tales. The ballet culminates in the triumphant marriage ceremony.

A Children’s Fairy-Tale as Parable and Orchestral Showcase

For all the radical changes which had shaken up the world of opera by the time Tchaikovsky made his own contributions to the genre in the later 19th century, another kind of theater music—composed for the ballet—remained for the most part a surprisingly tame, even lightweight, enterprise. Onstage, by contrast, the art of choreography had simultaneously been evolving by leaps and bounds, so to speak. But backed by frequently insipid scores, the ballet as such was essentially a formula-bound spectacle.

When Tchaikovsky undertook his first full-length ballet score with Swan Lake (1875–76), he created a work of unprecedented continuity and richness. Indeed, Swan Lake is his first composition for the theater in general that became a part of the repertoire, where all three of Tchaikovsky’s ballets occupy a prominent position.

Is it a coincidence that all three ballets depict magical realms associated with folklore and fairy-tale (albeit The Nutcracker’s narrative is the creation of the early German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann)? Something about these otherworldly settings set Tchaikovsky’s imagination on fire. Although his operas draw on a wide range of topics, one of his earliest, Undine (which was never performed and the score of which he destroyed), involves the folktale of a water sprite who falls tragically in love with a mortal—an obvious inspiration for the story of Swan Lake. (E.T.A. Hoffmann, who also composed, himself wrote a once-popular opera on the same theme.)

For The Sleeping Beauty, his second ballet, Tchaikovsky had the advantage of a commission from what, at the time, was the world’s premiere ballet company, the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg (now known as the Mariinsky), with no expense spared for the opulent costumes and sets. The choreography was the work of the experienced master Marius Ivanovich Petipa, who had elevated the art of ballet and who understood the quality of Tchaikovsky’s music. Petipa consulted closely with the composer to prepare the work.

Curiously, the original proposal was for yet another treatment of the Undine theme, but Tchaikovsky settled on a scenario by Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky based on the fairy-tale of Sleeping Beauty as retold in the anthology Histoires ou contes du temps passé that Charles Perrault published in 1697 (also known as the Mother Goose Tales). The tale had also gained fresh currency in the Romantic era thanks to the variant included in the collection published by the Brothers Grimm early in the 19th century, and this version additionally informs Vsevolozhsky’s scenario.

The Sleeping Beauty marks Tchaikovsky’s first work for the stage after completing his Fifth Symphony. Remarkably, he composed this longest of his three ballet scores—all told, its duration when uncut is around three hours, not counting intermissions—within an incredible span of about 40 days spread over the fall and winter of 1888 and spring of 1889. He completed the orchestration in August.

The premiere took place in January 1890, when Tsar Alexander III gave a lukewarm response directly to the composer (pronouncing it “very nice”). The biographer Roland John Wiley suggests that the subdued reaction was not a surprising response in view of the inadequacy of the ballet’s authority figure, King Florestan, with his “persistent inability to make the right decision or to exert a positive impact on events.” The Sleeping Beauty became immensely popular during the decade following the composer’s untimely death in 1893 and made the leap into the international repertoire after being produced in 1921 in London.

By this point, Tchaikovsky had developed the craft of a master symphonist and orchestrator. His vast, colorful score transforms a simple children’s story into what Wiley characterizes as a sophisticated parable “of birth, death, and rebirth” in which Tchaikovsky’s “attention to detail reconciles the competing demands of music [to match the physical movement] and narrative.” The ballet has a happy ending, of course, but before it arrives there, the title heroine must undergo the fate that has been foretold. Tchaikovsky’s obsession with the theme of fate recurs throughout his music, including in his own treatment of Lord Byron’s drama in his unnumbered Manfred Symphony of a few years before (1885).

Listening Guide

The suite that guest conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider had devised begins with the orchestral introduction to the ballet, which is followed by two numbers from the Prologue: the Grand pas d’ensemble or Pas de six and music from the final scene of the prologue. From the outset, Tchaikovsky presents the motifs associated with the evil fairy Carabosse and the good Lilac Fairy, respectively.

From this point on, the suite presents selections not in the original sequence found in the ballet score but intended to highlight Tchaikovsky’s extraordinary genius as an orchestral storyteller. Next is the scene (Panorama) in which the Lilac Fairy leads Prince Désiré through the enchanted forest on the way to the sleeping kingdom. The score’s best-known music, the Sleeping Beauty Waltz, accompanies the general celebration as the four princes prepare to seek the hand of Princess Aurora.

We then turn to the third act wedding scene where a sequence of fairies presents special gifts in the variation numbers—including, in the Diamond Variation, orchestral touches that make the metaphoric brilliance audible, as Wiley puts it, “in wisps of flute, clarinet, and violin.” The next scene finds characters from different Perrault fairy-tales making a cameo appearance. The suite flashes back to the vision the Prince first has of the Princess at the center of the second act. Moving yet further back in the storyline, the finale of act one depicts the working of the spell when the Princess pricks her finger on the spindle and the Lilac Fairy’s intervention. From the ballet’s wedding celebration, the dance of Prince Désiré is heard, and the suite concludes with the Rose Adagio of the first act, in which Princess Aurora is given a red rose by each of the four suitor princes.

First performance: Of another edition, December 25, 1900, at the Winter Gardens in Bournemoth, England, Dan Godfrey conducting

First SLSO performance: Of this edition, this weekend’s concerts. Of another edition, December 29, 1965, Edwin McArthur conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: Of another edition, June 7, 2014, Steven Jarvi conducting

Scoring: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, triangle, harp, piano, strings

Performance time: Approximately 45 minutes


Notes by Thomas May

Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. He contributes to the programs of the Lucerne Festival as well as to The New York Times and Musical America.


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