While ballet enjoyed a golden age in the mid-nineteenth century, it is generally acknowledged that the music accompanying that medium did not flourish in tandem with the other components. Even in so celebrated a work as Giselle, only a balletomane would not be hard pressed to hum one of its tunes. This is by no means a criticism, for the music specified for a production was to be functional. It can be argued that Tchaikovsky is the first composer of great ballet scores, infusing them with his trademark tunefulness, emotion, and drama. Long an admirer of dance, the composer placed the same amount of effort into his three great dance scores as he would into his symphonic and operatic works. For the first time, suites from the ballets could be performed sans staging and choreography for a purely musical experience.
After the less-than-promising 1877 debut of Swan Lake, marred by a largely amateur production, over a decade lapsed before the composer was commissioned by the Director of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg to supply music for a ballet on the Perrault fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky threw himself arms-deep into the project. Not only was the composer again on happy turf, he was currently in a state of delight by the occasional presence of the three-year old daughter of a friend's servant; despite his celebrated melancholy, children seemed to tap a joyful vein in Tchaikovsky, the feeling reciprocated in his capacity to be mischievous or silly at their level. The little girl's proximity fed a spirit of fantasy which transmitted to this most lighthearted of the composer's scores. Most musicologists and historians concede that Sleeping Beauty is the most perfectly wrought of Tchaikovsky's three ballet scores, classic in its restraint, especially when compared with the hyper-Romanticism of its predecessor Swan Lake or the seasonal whimsy of The Nutcracker, yet possessing the right amount of color and panache to render it pure Tchaikovsky; its waltz remains a Pops favorite.
The well-known story of the ballet opens with Princess Aurora's christening at the royal court. Rejoicing quickly fades with the uninvited appearance of the evil fairy Carabosse, who places a curse on the princess, preordaining that at 16 Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into an enchanted sleep. This comes to pass but the spell is at long last broken by Prince Charming, who forges through barriers of enchantment to kiss and awaken Aurora. The enlarged final act is a wedding celebration at which many other celebrated fairy tale characters are present. This act alone is often performed as Aurora's Wedding.
Sleeping Beauty was premiered to great acclaim and success, with choreography by the great Marius Petipa at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 1, 1890. In 1921, Diaghilev remounted the work for a notable London production.