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Raymonda: On Trial? (blog 2)

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Glazunov completed Raymonda several months before it was premiered. As soon as he handed the music off to choreographer Marius Petipa, he is said to have tried to ditch the production, but Petipa insisted that Glazunov would come to rehearsals and monitor the progress of the work. He never agreed to conduct the work, because conducting ballet is very difficult work, and instead a dear friend named Riccardo Drigo conducted it. Glazunov's initial misgivings became clear as rumors began to spread that he was going to rehearsals for "other reasons," but it was not unfounded. He had that reputation of doing it before, but he didn't want his past to be associated with his present. Apparently he was still the rather reserved, timid character that tended to hide his feelings, and rather than find any ballerina suitable, he never proposed to any of the women he courted. Perhaps they were not good enough for him, or perhaps the women did not always reciprocate as much as he wanted. Either way, after having done it for so many years before, he began to lose hope by this time, though he didn't stop finding ballet as a very amusing art...

The original Raymonda was Pierina Legnani, Italian ballerina principal, and considered one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. She danced in many countries until she finally arrived in St. Petersburg where she made her greatest name. Raymonda is considered the highlight of her career along with other collaborations with Petipas. She also later premiered Glazunov's Les Russes d'Amour.

The premiere was on January 19, 1898. Unlike Tchaikovsky's ballets which were received with mixed reactions, the public and critical reception was extremely positive. The dancers and the musicians particularly thanked Glazunov for his music, and they gave him a wreath. In fact, he and Petipas became the highlight of the night. Why?

"The plot is terrible!" lamented the critics. It was criticized as simplistic, overly predictable, and not enough tension. A meager fairytale with uninteresting characters, especially for being a 3 act ballet (1st act split into 2 scenes). The White Lady serves as Deus ex Machina which annoys some people for being trite. To this day, this has been considered the number 1 reason why the ballet has been shunned by most ballet theater companies. Tchaikovsky's ballets were taken from literary subjects by master writers, whereas the plot was perfunctorily made just for dancing. Raymonda is considered more of a spectacle than a good story, and this turns off the public who would appreciate the dancing and music to mean something more than just abstract show, as much of the ballet is. In our modern day, classical ballet is already an acquired taste, and having a poor plot doesn't serve to help make appreciating ballet better for non-connoisseurs.

Nevertheless, Raymonda was performed many times in Russia in Glazunov's lifetime, as much as any of Tchaikovsky's ballets, and even Rimsky-Korsakov said that it had to have been the greatest work he ever wrote, although Rimsky-Korsakov always had a dislike for ballet and "miming." Glazunov, who always found it difficult to find a plot he liked, avoided opera for this reason, but with ballet, he found a venue for his musical dreams to be expressed that he couldn't find anywhere else. He said that the characteristics of ballet and "miming" did not detract from the story-telling for him, as well as the rigorous and rigid technique of ballet composing which requires in-depth knowledge of dance form. "I have found freedom in chains" is one of the many things he said about composing Raymonda.

I'll make a little personal point about the plot criticism next. I listened to radio podcast once about Raymonda that came from Russia, and I got the words translated for me to English. And this once again became the sore point of the subject. In fact, it's considered a downright shame that Glazunov couldn't have gotten a better lot. However, how much power did he really have? Perhaps it really was out of his control. And like I said before, medieval subjects were to die for, and so he accepted it only to dream about it. Would he have gotten a better commission? Very likely not. Anyhow, on that podcast, the Russian host spoke of how the music speaks for itself, that it can be removed from the plot and be as glorious as anything by Tchaikovsky. Fair enough. Glazunov compiled a suite of the best moments so that it could be taken to the concert hall, and I highly approve of his choices.

Still, here I make my caveat: I don't believe Raymonda to be as terrible of a plot as may be said. In some ways, it's a very different fairytale than most, and in a refreshing way. If Raymonda is a damsel in distress, it is for very different reasons than say, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Raymonda undergoes character change, a growth of maturity, and a test of her own heart, rather than just of the man. She is the one to undergo trial and temptation, and to be victorious. She's only a damsel in distress because eventually she cannot control her own fate, but so do many who encounter various things in life. Raymonda's story is about loyalty, that women are not simply products of their environments or their circumstances. Women can stand up for who they are, and for that, she is glorified. The role of the White Lady as Deus ex Machina is also not so trite because after all, this is meant to be a fairytale and not simply a realistic fiction or something. The White Lady doesn't overshadow Raymonda's role in the plot, and while Raymonda is in many ways guided by fate, she still influences the final outcome. Raymonda's final fate is that she has grown up, that she can take care of her own heart, a reverse of the circumstances of Cosi fan Tutte. I would think Raymonda represents a good feminist fairytale character because she promotes the idea that women can be loyal and strong, that their hearts are not easily conquered by temptation. One can't always control their outside circumstances, but one can always be the master of one's heart...

Furthermore, with that said, Glazunov's music to the ballet is so darn good, simply listening to the Suite is not enough. It's 2 and a half hours of music! His music comes to life with dance, and there was so much that he left out of the Suite. I consider the Variation sets of Acts I, II, and III as some of the very best of miniature writing that Glazunov ever did, and it's only usually recorded with full-ballet albums or other compilations CDs. His music compliments the story with a full range of emotional expression, and sure, sometimes dancing detracts from those emotions. But that's just me as a musician speaking out. Honestly, I enjoy watching ballet too, I've got the "acquired taste" for it. I go to see this ballet mostly for the music, but I do not expect the dancing to really detract that much from his true nature, or that the plot also makes him shallow. Raymonda should have little need to defend itself if its merits are allowed to be given light.

To be continued!

Updated Feb-22-2016 at 20:30 by Huilunsoittaja

Classical Music , Personal , Other , Talkclassical , Composers