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May 7 Composer birthday: Tchaikovsky, music’s greatest gift to ballet.

May 7 Composer birthday: Tchaikovsky, music’s greatest gift to ballet. featured image

Despite my not being the biggest fan of Chopin’s music, I definitely love a big, romantic theme, with a big, heart-on-sleeve melody, especially the music of the Russians … and also, when an orchestra is involved, like the Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev piano concerti, and in particular, the music of Tchaikovsky, be it orchestral, his Piano Concerto No. 2, or his ballet music.

My memory of seeing “Swan Lake” for the first time is seared into my brain, and I recall many details like it was yesterday. I was seven years old. My mother, whom I affectionately refer to as “The Matriarch”, bought tickets for us to see “Swan Lake” danced by the Royal Ballet, then known as the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. I even remember the lead dancers, Monica Mason and David Wall, who went on to be named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Companion of the British Empire, respectively.

Seeing Swan Lake at such a young age so shook me up (in the good way), that three years later I begged for ballet lessons and Mrs. Soonee Lee at the Vancouver Academy of Music allowed me to take lessons, even though 10 was considered a late age to start. My mother told her about my ballet drawings taped up all over my bedroom. “Swan Lake” was the first ballet I ever saw, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, and the music was pure magic to me – it perfectly encapsulated the lights, the makeup, the costume – all the drama and magic that ballet meant to me. I insisted on going backstage (I must have pestered my mother something awful) and getting autographs of the dancers. I will never forget the incredibly exaggerated makeup of Ms. Mason, meant to be seen from the furthest back row, and looking over her shoulder into her dressing room and seeing a mountain of toe shoes on the floor behind her (I learned later that ballet dancers will break in their toe shoes to the sweet spot, and wear a few pairs out during a single performance). I also remember seeing rehearsal tutus hanging up on a rolling rack and a complex assortment of makeup on the counter in front of the brightly-lit mirror.

To this day, when I see “Swan Lake”, I am reminded of this life-changing performance, and my ongoing fondness for the music of Tchaikovsky, whose angst he channelled into his music like no other. I also officially fell in love with the oboe that night, which plays many of the haunting melodies.

“Swan Lake” also became known in recent years, as it was the ballet featured in “Black Swan”, the 2010 movie starring Natalie Portman, who won an Oscar for Best Actress.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet music so good it stands alone as orchestral music, and doesn’t sound like “background” music to the dance. Some other ballets I’ve seen requires the dance to complete the overall effect, but Tchaikovsky’s ballet music (“The Nutcracker” and “The Sleeping Beauty” being the other two) sound perfectly good on their own. Of the many gifts The Matriarch gave me, this memory of “Swan Lake” is one of the best.

The Kirov Ballet performs the complete “Swan Lake”, featuring Yulia Makhalina, Igor Zelensky in the lead roles, with a twist – a happy ending instead of the traditional conclusion of Prince Siegfried joining Odile in the afterlife.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born May 7, 1840 in present-day Udmurtia in the Russian Empire, and died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg.

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