The Bayadere

Tchaikovsky Research

The Bayadere (Баядерка) is an opera subject (TH 230 ; ČW 461) [1] based on a story by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which Tchaikovsky considered between May and August 1888.

Goethe's ballad Der Gott und die Bajadere (1797), subtitled "An Indian Legend", tells of the god Mahadöh (i.e. Mahadeva), who descends to earth and assumes human form. A bayadere, or Hindu dancing girl, invites the fair stranger into her house and offers herself to him. Deciding to test her heart, Mahadöh yields to her solicitation. When she awakens the next day she is horrified to see him lying dead next to her. The corpse of the stranger, whose attire is that of a nobleman, is carried away by priests to be burnt on a pyre in accordance with Hindu custom. She rushes after them and begs them not to separate her from her husband. The priests sternly remind her of who she is, adding that only virtuous women could follow their husbands into death. When the funeral pyre is lit, however, she forces her way through the assembled crowd and jumps into the flames. Suddenly, a divine figure is seen soaring above the pyre and carrying the bayadere in his arms. Goethe concludes his ballad thus: "The Godhead rejoices in penitent sinners; / With fiery arms immortal beings / Lift prodigal children up to heaven" [2].

This remarkable ballad was translated into Russian many times, including by Konstantin Aksakov (1817–1860) and Aleksey Tolstoy (1817–1875) [3].

The subject was first suggested by Ippolit Shpazhinsky in May 1888, after Tchaikovsky had finally rejected his libretto for The Captain's Daughter. On 30 May/11 June 1888, the composer told Yuliya Shpazhinskaya that her husband had "immediately suggested to me another subject, namely Goethe's Der Gott und die Bajadere. Last year I. V. wrote part of a scenario on this theme for the French composer Simon, who lives in Moscow. But nothing came of it with Simon, and now it is quite possible that I shall write an opera on this wholly lyrical subject to I. V.'s very accomplished scenario" [4]. On the same day, Shpazhinsky sent his libretto to the composer [5].

Although during the summer Tchaikovsky reviewed Shpazhinsky's libretto—even noting down a March theme to accompany the military procession—he was reluctant to commit himself to the project. On 13/25 August, the composer told the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, that "... it is not yet decided whether I will collaborate with him [i.e. Shpazhinsky] to compose an opera on this subject. In the autumn we will consider and settle the matter" [6].

Vsevolozhsky's reply two days later sought to dissuade the composer from committing himself to the opera: "About your desire to take up Shpazhinsky's version of The Bayadere's Love-Story. It seems that of all the well-known authors, he is the most terre à terre... Secondly, there is already an opera on the subject—Auber's Le Dieu et la Bajadère [...] Finally, so far as the production is concerned, Indian subjects have become terribly hackneyed for us" [7]. Tchaikovsky's reply of 22 August/3 September 1888 shows that he had been duly convinced, and that "from today" he would concern himself only with the new ballet The Sleeping Beauty [8].

However, shortly afterwards Tchaikovsky considered another libretto based on the same subject (see La Courtisane).

Notes and References

  1. Entitled "La Bayadère" in TH.
  2. "Es freut sich die Gottheit der reuigen Sünder; / Unsterbliche heben verlorene Kinder / Mit feurigen Armen zum Himmel empor".
  3. See Vasily Kiselev's introduction to Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Ippolit Shpazhinsky as published in Чайковский на московской сцене. Первые постановки в годы его жизни (1940), p. 425.
  4. Letter 3580 to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya, 30 May/11 June 1888.
  5. Letter from Ippolit Shpazhinsky to Tchaikovsky, 30 May/11 June 1888 — Klin House-Museum Archive.
  6. Letter 3643 to Ivan Vsevolozhsky, 13/25 August 1888.
  7. Letter from Ivan Vsevolozhsky to Tchaikovsky, 15/27 August 1888.
  8. Letter 3647 to Ivan Vsevolozhsky, 22 August/3 September 1888.