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January 30

January 30, 1959 – The Peter Tchaikovsky Story Premieres on Disneyland

“…for just as Sleeping Beauty was held under an evil spell for a long, long time, just so did an evil spell put Tchaikovsky’s genius to sleep for many years, until something wonderful happened to awaken him to his full powers as a composer.” – Walt Disney

Straight from Fantasyland, audiences were treated on January 30, 1959, with The Peter Tchaikovsky Story, a look at the life of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, composer of the ballet Sleeping Beauty, whose score inspired the Disney animators to create the animated feature of the same story. The episode also gave audiences a chance to see early clips from the completed film in widescreen, a first on television. This was also the first television show to be simulcast in stereo. The stereo simulcast required the assistance of radio stations, but unfortunately, this could not be accomplished in all markets. Two versions of this episode were prepared, to accommodate those who would be able to use their stereos. Although the episode was originally shown in black and white, the main story was shot in color. The episode was directed by Charles Barton, and stars Grant Williams as the older Tchaikovsky, Rex Hill as the younger Tchaikovsky, Lilyan Chauvin as Fanny Durbach, Leon Askin as Anton Rubinstein, and Narda Onyx as Desiree Artot. The episode also features Galina Ulanova and the Corps de Ballet of the Bolshoi Theater in a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

As the narrator relates, Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, a small provincial town in Russia, in 1840. When we first see Tchaikovsky, his siblings are running around the living room while he sits at the piano, playing. At a young age, he had found happiness in music, particularly the music of Mozart, whom he considered his idol. His mother, however, worried about how much time he spent at the piano, and hired a French governess to teach the children. The governess tries to understand the boy’s love of music, but in the end, she tries to tear him away from the piano to have him play in the sunshine. One evening, Tchaikovsky is troubled by the music that seems to play unending in his head. “Whenever the boy’s soul was stirred,” the narrator explains, “the music would throb in his head until it was almost painful.” The governess hears his painful cries, and decides to soothe him by reading him a story he had never heard before – the story of Sleeping Beauty. Unfortunately, the story did little to put him to sleep; it caused his creative juices to flow, and he snuck down to the piano to compose before being caught by the governess. The next day, Tchaikovsky is dismayed to see that the piano has been locked up, and as he tries to find another way to express the music in his head, he breaks the window after tapping emphatically on it, slicing his hand. His parents allow him to play once more, but this happiness would soon be interrupted.

Young Tchaikovsky (Rex Hill) being read the story of Sleeping Beauty by his governess, played by Lilyan Chauvin

“…contentment was never to be Peter’s fate for very long,” the narrator warns the audience. “Soon, he was to suffer the heaviest blow of his young life. His parents decided to prepare him for a government career at school in St. Petersburg.” Tchaikovsky is seen crying as his mother wishes him farewell, telling him to be a good boy and study hard. As she leaves, the audience is told that Tchaikovsky never saw his mother again, for she died soon after. After this crushing blow, “his musical genius withdrew deep inside him. It went to sleep, like Sleeping Beauty in the fairytale. And, strange to say, like Sleeping Beauty, it would stay dormant for a long time before something wonderful happened to awaken it again.” Seventeen years later, we see Tchaikovsky grown up, working as a lowly copy clerk. He toils away, feeling his life lacks meaning, until he sees an advertisement in the newspaper: the opening of a new conservatory of music, led by the great composer, Anton Rubinstein. This stirs something inside him, and Tchaikovsky decides to enroll in the evening classes for piano and composition.

One evening, as he improvises tunes of his own, he is spotted by Rubinstein himself. The composer asks Tchaikovsky if he wishes to make a career of music, to which Tchaikovsky admits he has dreamed of it, but needs to earn his bread. “Bread! Did Bach, Mozart, Beethoven think of bread?” the composer cries. “For music, an artist must be willing to starve.” He gives the young man a test: he plays a theme, and asks him to write variations on it, telling him that not only quality, but quantity counts as well. Inspired, Tchaikovsky works all night on his variations, which unfortunately gets him in trouble at work when he accidentally writes on an official decree with the signature of the prime minister. Immediately dismissed, Tchaikovsky goes back to Rubinstein to submit his variations – all 215 of them. Rubinstein offers to take Tchaikovsky under his wing, an offer Tchaikovsky immediately accepts.

Anton Rubinstein, played by Leon Askin, asks Tchaikovsky, now played by Grant Williams, about his plans in music

Tchaikovsky’s true awakening, the narrator states, was at a performance of the traveling Italian Opera Company, starring a beautiful soprano named Desiree Artot. To try to win her affections, Tchaikovsky writes her a song, which begins a relationship leading to an engagement between the two. This engagement is broken, however, by a letter from Desiree, addressing Tchaikovsky as her dearest friend and informing him that she has married a man in her troupe. Deeply wounded, he vows to never write another note of music, but this was not to be: his genius was too strong to be shut away again. Instead, his love for Desiree was replaced by a new love for the ballet. His first ballet was entitled Swan Lake, and although Tchaikovsky had great hopes for its success, it was a dismal failure. Unable to handle the criticism, Tchaikovsky fled to Europe. He was unable to find any solace while traveling, and so from Naples, he took a steamer back to Russia, where he was troubled by a dream of a memory. He remembered the time in his childhood when his governess soothed him by reading him a fairytale, and how he immediately set to work composing it. Waking with a start, he rummages through his belongings to find the manuscript of Sleeping Beauty someone had sent him, thinking it would be a good idea for a ballet. Inspired once again, he sat down to compose the entire ballet before arriving back in Russia. “And this time,” the narrator says, “his creation was headed for the bright future that was in store for all his wonderful works.”

Tchaikovsky conducting the Sleeping Beauty Ballet. The orchestra scenes used are actually reused footage from Fantasia

The rest of the episode is basically an advertisement for the upcoming film version of the story of Sleeping Beauty. “Imagine your living room is a theater,” Disney urges the audience, “and your television set is the theater’s wide screen, as we bring you this romantic sequence from Sleeping Beauty.” In fact, two scenes are played for the audience: the Once Upon a Time sequence, and the rescue of Prince Phillip from the evil clutches of Maleficent, which ends as the evil fairy turns into the dragon. “Well, there’s much more to Sleeping Beauty than the few brief scenes we’ve shown you on this program,” Disney reassures us. “But I can tell you this: like all good fairytales, true love does win out.”

Although not a truly accurate depiction of Tchaikovsky’s life, the episode is a rather good watch, especially to capture the excitement of audiences seeing a new technological advancement when it came to movies. This story of Tchaikovsky’s life is a good story, and told well, even though it comes at the cost of the omission of some facts that may not have been suitable for audiences in that time period.


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