An Analysis of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from “Swan Lake”

July 16, 2018

Brian Li Principles of Music Literature Final Paper An Analysis of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from Swan Lake The goal of this musical analysis is to identify and explain certain musical concepts and happenings in the famous Valse from the first act of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake. Topics that will be discussed will be grouped into the following general categories: melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, sonority, and form. All measure number references made correspond to the provided score.

Swan Lake was a ballet written by Pyotr Tchaikovsky between the year 1875 and 1876. The work is split up into four major acts with several movements of music in each act. It was based on a collection of Russian folk tales, and is one of the most famous ballets in history. It is regularly performed at many major theatres all around world.

Overarching principles of the piece include the use of the 12 tone equal temperament tuning system, and a constant 3/4 compound meter, a hallmark of the waltz. The piece is entirely tonal. This is evident from the frequent V-I resolutions back to the note “A,” which is the tonic of the key. Examples of this include m.19-27 (constant resolutions back to A. Furthermore, an “A” bass note starts the melodic phrase). At the FINE at m. 82, the final chord is an A major chord. This suggests the piece is centered around the key of A major. Lastly, the last eight measures of the piece consists of many perfect cadences, before ending on a final A major chord. The piece’s instrumentation is that of a symphony orchestra and is constant, even though not all instruments play at the same time – violin, viola, cello, bass, piccolo, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, english horn, trombone, tuba, timpani, and other percussion instruments.

The first two sections of the Valse from Swan Lake is m.1-m.50. This section is diatonic and tonal. The pitch collection of this piece consists of notes from the A major scale, with occasional flatted or sharped notes outside the scale. The contour of the first melody that is presented in the first violins in m.19 is wave-like. The range of this melody isn’t very large, but there is a constant wave-like motion. In summary, the melodic motion is largely conjunct. The largest jump in the melody in this opening melody occurs at m.35. The first violins jump to a C#5 – this section marks a repeat of the opening melody up an octave, which ends at m.50. Tchaikovsky definitely takes advantage of instrumental ranges in this opening section.

The piece starts off with a pizzicato figure which spans two full octaves in the first violins, cellos, and basses. The flutes also demonstrate a fairly specific use of contrasting registers that starts on the lower end in m.7 and goes up to mid-high range in m.36 with the E6. Tchaikovsky also implements a call and response technique between the flutes and clarinets starting at m. 36. This call and response figure is a downward arpeggio.

The opening pizzicato motif lasts for eight measures, which is followed by a traditional waltz figure with the cello and bass lines establishing a solid beat at the start of each measure. When the violins enter with the main melody in m.19, each melodic phrase lasts eight measures. One compositional technique used in this section of music consists of moving the violin melody up an octave at m.35. This successfully introduces a new timbre to the melody. The violas also start doubling the violin melody at m.35. 2 Rhythm in this first section of music is definitely explicit. Since the waltz is a traditional dance style of music, an explicit beat is important to help keep dancers in time. The lower instruments such as the cellos and basses are often in rhythmic unison, maintaining a steady first beat, while mid-range instruments such as the english horn play ostinato quarter notes on beats two and three. Syncopation does not occur in this section of music.

The harmonic rhythm in this section changes every measure, with the chord roots landing on the tonic, dominant, and leading tone scale degrees of A major – A, E, and G#, respectively. Despite the usage of the leading tone as a a bass note, there are no triads based on the leading tone. Instead, the usage of G# as a bass note actually represents an E major chord in first inversion. In short, the two functional chords that are used in this section are the I chord and V chord, built with triads.

The texture of this section of music is polyphonic, with the exception of the opening pizzicato figure which is monophonic. There is always a melodic line, with other instruments providing accompaniment. When the first violins come in with the melody in m.19, the english horns, cellos, and basses are strictly providing accompaniment, and a foundation for the melody to play over. When the violas double the violin melody in m. 35, the texture is still polyphonic – the english horns, cellos, and basses are still providing accompaniment. The flutes and clarinets have a descending arpeggio oratorial figure, but this does not take away from the melodic presence of the violins and violas. The flutes and clarinets simply provide embellishment to the music. 3 The piece starts off with pizzicato articulations in the string instruments, which continues until an arco marking at m.14. In this section, the english horns are playing a rhythmic and articulate ostinato on the second and third beats of each measure.

The notes are slightly detached, so that each beat can be heard clearly. A new legato articulation is introduced in m.19 with the violin melody. The legato quality of the melody helps offset and emphasize this melodic line from everything else going on in the background. The viola entrance in m.34 is played staccato, but not harsh. This grab’s the listener’s attention, and makes it clear that there is another instrument entering the scene. After the initial staccato entrance, the viola starts playing legato and doubles the violin melody in m.35. The flute and clarinet arpeggio embellishments starting m.36 are all played legato and soft. The lack of specific attacks on each note helps keep this figure strictly in the background.

The next section of the piece starts at m.51 and ends at m.82. Following a fortissimo E7 chord with an added 2nd consisting of the pitches “D, F#, G#, B, and E,” the resulting melody belongs to the violins and violas, which are playing in rhythmic and melodic unison. The pitches are the same, but are offset by an octave. This melody is highly contrasted with the first legato melody in terms of articulation – marcato markings occur in every second beat, and legato is no longer the dominant articulation. At m.61, the piccolo, flute, oboe, and clarinet join in with the melodic line. Even though all the instruments are playing the same pitches, the articulation between the winds and strings are different – the string articulation is marked legato, while the winds play a tenuto-like 4 articulation. The first phrase of this section lasts for ten measures with the melody in the strings. At m.61, another nine measure phrase starts, which incorporates melody in the strings and the woodwinds. The melodies in this section are relatively conjunct – the largest jump is a perfect fourth. There is also a definite sense of melodic direction, and the music is not stagnant at all. For example, the melody at m.61 is continuously ascending until it hits an apex four measures later, before descending again. The melody in this section sounds very grand. This is due to continuous motion in a certain direction – either up or down. This gives the music a sense of building confidence. The melodic shape in this section is much sharper compared to the smooth wave-like shape of the first section.The rhythm in this section is once again explicit with no syncopation. Furthermore, the rhythmic ostinato in the english horns still exists in this section. The harmonic rhythm of this section is similar to that of the first section – chords are established every measure.

Even though there are repeated chords, each measure represents a new statement of the chord. The exceptions are at the end of phrases such as m.51-52. Here, there is a tied D6 chord that lasts a full six beats in the oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. Furthermore, these two measures sound very unstable, and they’re begging to be resolved. Tchaikovsky uses the ascending melodic lines to build up tension and excitement before the resolution back to A major in m.65. The texture here is once again homophonic. The melodies start in the midrange and high strings before moving to the strings and winds in m.61. The english horn, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and tuba are all playing accompaniments that establish the sound of the chord every measure. Even though many instruments are playing the melody in this section, there is still only one melodic subject. Chord voicing in this section is relatively tight. There are no huge gaps in voicing and spacing. This makes for a very rich and dense sound because the voicings represent a complete range. The first chord to look at is the opening chord in this section at m.51. The lowest note in this chord is a D2 in the tuba (the bass plays a D3, but this sounds as a D2). Moving up, there is a D3 in the trombone.

This is the largest space in the chord voicing. This makes sense because the D2 is used to establish a foundation for the rest of the chord. Following the D3 in the trombone, the spacing is extremely tight. The same kind of chord voicing occurs at the end of the section at m.65 when the piece resolves back to A major. This section represents an expanded instrumentation compared to the first section. The addition of brass instruments like trumpet, trombone, and tuba makes for a much richer and dense sound compared to the more sparse instrumentation in the beginning of the piece. This is especially noticeable in the four measures leading up to the A major resolution in m.65. The ascending chords which is supported heavily by the brass instruments create a very think and velvety timbre that is simply not possible with just strings and woodwind instruments. Dynamics play a huge role in this section. The opening section of the piece primarily uses softer dynamics. At the start of this section at m.51, the listener is bombarded with 6 a fortissimo chord.

The dynamic is maintained throughout the section, and conveys a sense of majestic triumph. The usage of registers in this section are very balanced, and no register is used more frequently than another. The balanced usage of instrumental registers makes for a very full sounding timbre, which is an integral trait of this musical section. The next section of music starts in m.83 and ends at m.98, and acts as a transitional section between more important parts. This section starts with a statement of a new melody by the members of the wind section – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and english horn. The main melodic line happens in the higher flute part, and the instruments harmonize this melody. All instruments are playing in rhythmic unison in this initial statement, so it can be classified as homophonic because a main melody is being harmonized by other instruments in rhythmic unison. Since these are not considered countermelodies, the texture is not polyphonic. With that said, polyphony occurs in the subsequent measures starting at m.91.

he previously discussed melodic statement is played over a different melodic motive in the strings. These two melodies do not share similar qualities, but they do possess equal degrees of importance. Thus, m.91-98 is considered polyphonic. There is also a range of articulations in this section. The initial tenuto woodwind statement in m.83 is very “official” sounding. It’s a statement in its purest form free from any outside influence. The presence of complete rhythmic unison definitely contributes 7 to this sense. The next statement of this motive in m.91 is accompanied my a sweeping legato string figure, which definitely adds some color and excitement to the otherwise plain woodwind statement. The articulation contrast between the woodwind figure and string figure help establish that they are two separate entities. It is important to note that this transition section moves into F# minor, the relative minor of A major. The english horn plays a continuous C# throughout this section, which is a common note of both A major and F# minor.

However, the notes in the other woodwind instruments fill out the F# minor chord. Another clue that suggests the modulation to F# minor occurs in the string figure, which starts on an F#. Overall, this section sounds much more mysterious than the preceding sections. Tchaikovsky employs a compositional technique at m.99 that involves switching the previous section’s melodic lines between the strings and woodwinds. In this section, the strings are now playing a transposition of the initial woodwind statement in m.83, while the woodwinds are playing the eighth note figure played by the strings before. This goes on until m. 115, which can be considered as a six bar bridge of sort. In these six bars, Tchaikovsky establishes a motive with four right notes and one quarter note, which is passed through the piccolo and flute, strings, and clarinet and bassoon. This six bar section is homophonic because the main feature is always the motive with the other instruments forming the harmonic outline. In terms of sonority, this six bar section is much thinner than previous sections because of the reduced instrumentation and the use of a piano dynamic marking.

A huge contrast happens at m.121 with an eight measure phrase. The dynamic marking immediately changes to fortissimo and entrance of brass instruments fills out the sound once again. The texture also changes to homophony again – the piccolo, violin, and viola play a soaring wave-like melodic line that resembles the melody from m.109. This melodic line spans two full octaves, and uses a significant portion of each instrument’s range. The other melody going on at the same time is played by the english horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba. Compared to the eighth note melody played by the high winds and strings, this melody played by the lower winds is much more stately and uses notes with longer duration and lower subdivision. The harmonic rhythm in this section resembles that of m.83 – the difference is that the trombone and tuba maintain the root note of F# in the key of F# minor. Once again, the eighth note melody starts and ends on an F#, which reinforces the F# minor key. Moving past the D.S. al Fine, m.137 presents a new melody in the oboe and violin. There is also a modulation to the new key of F major. Within the section itself, there is movement between F major and D minor, the relative minor of the new key. This melody is much more delicate than the preceding fortissimo chords at the end of the D.S. al Fine. This melody is definitely conjunct, as the largest space between subsequent notes is a whole step. The rhythmic ostinato that was seen previously in the english horn on beats two and three are not present in the second violin and viola. The cellos and basses play the 9 bass note in this section. This section sounds much more refined and delicate than the preceding section because of the sparse instrumentation and usage of a piano dynamic marking.

In m. 141, the melody moves to the english horn with an ascending figure, which leads to a repeated section that is identical to m.137. At m.141, the english horn melody is accompanied by trills in the flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon which also follow an ascending theme. In these four measures, a crescendo also exist to build up excitement, before a decrescendo moves dynamics back down. This eight measure phrase is homophonic because only one melodic line is going on at once. This section ends with a pizzicato note in the strings and a shortly articulated note in the winds. In. m.153, the uncertainty created by the movement between F major and D minor in previous section ends. There is a strong sense of F major in this section. Two new melodies are presented in the flute and first violin. Since there are two simultaneous melodies going on, the texture of this section is polyphonic. Both of these melodies are played with a smooth legato articulation. Even though the legation articulation isn’t marked throughout the flute melody, the interpretation on the recording is distinctively legato. The signature waltz rhythmic ostinato is played by the viola, cello, and bass once again. In m.161, Tchaikovsky moves the initial violin to the flutes, while raising it up an octave. The original flute melody is moved to the instrument labeled “pist.”

The flute and violin melody in this section starting at m.161 is more disjunct than any previous melodies due to the minor seventh leap between the first two notes. Even 10 though there is no brass instrumentation present in this section, the overall sonority of the music sounds warm and full. The next major change of mood in the piece occurs at m.231. Here, Tchaikovsky employs a sequential melody in the flute and violin. The shape of the melody is the same, but the each instance of the motive occurs on a higher note. In m.232-237, the motive is two measures long, but moves to a one more motive in. 238. This creates a sense of compression and movement in time.

This section is homophonic because there is one melodic subject over an accompaniment provided by the the oboe, clarinet, bassoon, second violin, viola, and cello.The melodic subject moves through a significant portion of the violin and flute range in the middle to high registers. This section lasts until m.250. Throughout this section, there is a constant crescendo, which helps build a sense of movement. This section really feels like it’s going somewhere – and indeed it does. The end of the sequence happens at m.250 and forms a resolution back to the key of A major. The entrance of the timpani roll in 247 helps to foreshadow the resolution. Measure 251 marks the beginning of the end, and starts off with a huge A major chord that spans the whole ensemble. Chord voicing is very tight with no large gaps and spaces.

Once again, this creates a very thick and dense sound. Phrases in this section last eight bars, and whole ensemble is moving in rhythmic unison. The a large range of notes is used (E2 to E6), but the specific registers used for each instrument is much smaller. For example, the piccolo and flute play in their high registers, and the trombone and tuba stay in their low registers. The huge majestic sound of this section is the result of a number of contributing factors – the tight chord voicing that spans the whole ensemble, the frequent statement of the A major chord, and the fortissimo dynamic marking. In m.270, a new tremolo articulation is added in the lower strings A new melody is introduced in the cello, trombone, and tuba in m.285. This section is homophonic because the other instruments in the ensemble provide a harmonic background for this melody. This lasts until m. 322. At this point, the entire orchestra plays a series of V-I cadences before a massive A major chord ends the piece.

Compared to previous chord voicings, the last chord is actually smaller, and focuses on the lower and mid range of each instrument’s registers. Many themes that designate this piece as a waltz occur throughout the piece, so they will be reviewed now. The constant 3/4 meter is a waltz trait, and this is why there was no change in tempo and time signature. The rhythmic ostinato which places a small accent on the first beat of each measure is also present throughout the piece in different instrumentation applications. 12

In Music


Questions?

Find me on Twitter, or email me.