Riccardo Drigo – Part Five

by Irina Sorokina
translation: Stephanie Lewis

Another instalment of this fascinating recount of Drigo’s life and work. Visit our History blog for the previous parts.

With so much experience and so many successes to his name it is hardly surprising that Drigo was asked to revise Swan Lake. As stated previously, it represented Tchaikovsky’s first attempt at dance music, was unappreciated by the 1877 audiences and also somewhat undermined by the shaky choreography of Vatslav Reisinger.

The joint revision of Swan Lake by Drigo and Petipa contained two aspects.  Without a doubt Drigo treated the task with great delicacy, “with fear so as not to touch the personality of the great Russian genius” (15). Nonetheless many of the important episodes were either suppressed or moved, changing therefore the original order of the work. Naturally, there were critics who termed Drigo’s alterations a “sin” against Tchaikovsky’s original score. All agreed, however, that it was only thanks to the musical and choreographic changes that Swan Lake came into its own. 

Some of Drigo’s changes were particularly observable. For example, the opening waltz was moved to the centre of the first scene, the Pas de deux of Siegfried and the peasant girl became the famous “black” Pas de deux of the third scene. Other order changes, however, were so utterly convincing that the original lineup was lost and forgotten, as seen in the celebrated second scene with the “suite of the swans” or Odette and Siegfried’s Pas d’action which came immediately after the “swan waltz”. The protagonist’s variation and other dances were performed after the central adagio which both Drigo and Ivanov, choreographer of the swan scenes, considered the lyrical peak of the second scene.

Some of the more questionable changes include the already-mentioned “black” Pas de deux which substituted Tchaikovsky’s Pas de six, the “waltz of the white and black swans” and the deletion of the storm episode (in the fourth scene). The Pas de deux music, as well-known as that of Siegfried/Odette’s in the third scene, does not entirely correspond with the episode’s character. The energetic and brilliant music, which could have created the image of Odille as seductress, queen of the ball, lacked a necessary dramatic edge. The variation of Tchaikovsky was replaced by a piano work, L’Espiègle (op 72 n. 12), but even here, it was felt to be insufficiently expressive for Odille’s character. Notwithstanding these unresolved problems, the Pas de deux was the show’s absolute ‘hit’ and even now, remains one of the musical masterpieces of classical dance.

Drigo substituted the “little swans’ dance” in b-flat with the pieces Valse Bluette and Un poco di Chopin, again from Tchaikovsky’s op 72 (numbers 11 and 15). Some scholars thought that the last scene of Tchaikovsky’s score lacked a waltz to signify imminent death. Therefore Drigo followed the form of the previous scenes, all of which included a waltz. The artistic result was nonetheless outstanding, and Drigo’s arranged music, whilst maybe less suggestive than Tchaikovsky’s original score, nevertheless created the inspiration that Ivanov needed to create one of his most moving and original choreographies, the celebrated “waltz of the white and black swans”.

All in all, notwithstanding the inevitable mistakes that arise with such a difficult task, Drigo realised an historical first – transforming a wonderful, but bulky and choreographically unsuitable score into a phenomena of live theatre.  His work, together with Petipa and Ivanov, represented the departure point for all future interpretations of Swan Lake.

In 1896, Drigo was asked to produce a score for the ballet La Perle, a work that was to celebrate the coronation of the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II. The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow held its premiere on 17th May 1896.  Drigo insisted on dedicating the music to the young empress Aleksandra Fedorovna, though this proved no easy task with much correspondence to the Ministry of the Imperial Court before final approval.

In 1899, Petipa offered Drigo the chance to score a new ballet. “The subject of The Millions of Harlequin based on Italian carnival images was naturally close to my heart and immediately inspired me. (…) In writing the music, I took daily walks along the river Neva, resting on stone benches in front of the Summer Garden. It was there I created the Serenade, accompanied by mandolins, mentally composing everything to then come home and write it out almost without mistakes. At the time, I could not have imagined the success this work was destined to have, its popularity consigning The Millions of Harlequin an important place in ballet repertory. I finished the scoring in January 1990 and the following month it premiered at the Hermitage Imperial Theatre with M.F.Ksesingskaja as Colombine. It was the most successful of all my works”. (16)

Also known as L’Harlequinade, it was also one of Petipa’s masterpieces in the lyric-comic genre. To this day, it remains a popular choice for theatre, largely thanks to Drigo’s music – energetic, brilliant, full of humour, creativity and fire. Besides the celebrated Serenade, other of its more famous works include La Valse des Alouettes, La Reconciliation, Polka de caractère, Pizzicato and the Andante for solo violin. The latter work, indeed, echoes the tradition of using solo violin to express the soul of the protagonist as found for example in Aurora’s Intermezzo of Sleeping BeautyHarlequinade’s magic lies in its wonderful, Italian melodies, happily fused with a clear elasticity so suitable for dance. The music was much loved by his Russian contemporaries, like Nikolaj Andreevic Rimskij-Korsakov who, writing to the music critic Sergej Nikolaevic Kruglikov, declared that the music possessed a, “modernity and its orchestration is simply piquant” (17). 

  1. “From the memoirs of Riccardo Drigo”, p.16.
  2. Same, p.16
  3. “From the memoirs of Riccardo Drigo”, p.16.