In spring of 1896, Alexander Glazunov received a commission from the director of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres Ivan Vsevolozhsky to compose the score to the ballet Raymonda. Despite being busy (Glazunov was already a well-known composer at the time whose works were loved by the public, an author of five symphonies, chamber and instrumental pieces), Glazunov found the offer interesting and agreed.
"Acceptable orders to write compositions did not tie me. On the contrary, they heartened me. For example, I composed the ballet Raymonda quickly enough with special fervour and enthusiasm," he wrote later.
It was the composer's first experience with a score for a ballet performance. However, he had had some creative experience of realizing the principles of dancing. It would suffice to recall his previous opuses such as Characteristic Suite and Ballet Suite, and concert waltzes.
The libretto was written by Princess Lidya Pashkova, a traveler and columnist of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, who also wrote novels and librettos. The script plot belonged to Marius Petipa, an illustrious ballet master who staged ballets in Russia in the second half of the 19th century. The story involved characters who actually existed (Jean de Brienne and King Andrew) and fictional ones, and was historically inaccurate. But that was not a serious obstacle for the composer who started to think over the first ten numbers of Raymonda and wrote them down in summer of 1897 before he even received the script. The first two acts were finished in August, and the third one in autumn of 1897. The score autograph has the composer's inscription: "The ballet finished 21 October, 1897. Orchestrated within 1 year."
While working on the music, Glazunov closely cooperated with the author of the script. Marius Petipa gave the composer a thoroughly developed plan of each scene with tempos, measures, and even the number of times. In that way Glazunov perceived the nature of choreography. Spending a great deal of time at the theatre working with the ballet dancers, musicians and the ballet master, he left all his other business behind to a great chagrin of Mitrofan Belyayev, who was Glazunov's partner in not only the same music circle, but in publishing activities as well (Glazunov helped Belyayev publish works by the contemporary Russian composers in Leipzig).
Pyotr Lambin, Orest Allegri and Konstantin Ivanov worked on the sketches of the ballet set. Many of the costumes for the first staging were created by Ivan Vsevolozhsky himself.
The premiere took place on 7 (19) January, 1898, on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre and was conducted by Riccardo Drigo. The main parts were performed by Pierina Legnani as Raymonda, Sergei Legat as Jean de Brienne and Pavel Gerdt as Abderakhman.
The performance was a real triumph. The encores began as early as after the first act. Glazunov was presented a laurel wreath, and the artists read a letter of greetings to him. One of the reviews explained the success of the ballet as a combination of three factors – "beautiful, melodic and captivating music, the ballet master's unfading talent and the artists' wonderful performance."
Glazunov's progress in symphonic music obviously influenced the music of the ballet with its principles of through development and diverse techniques of orchestral writing. The music plays a huge role in Raymonda (in that way, Glazunov continued the reforms in the art of ballet initiated by Pyotr Tchaikovsky). The musical content facilitates the expansion of the plot line, at times prevailing over the plot thanks to its depth and vivid development of the musical characteristics so important to the dramaturgic function of dance and pantomime. The dances in Raymonda are not illustrative yet efficient as they embody the situation, the state and disposition of the characters. The continuing symphonic development, wealth of melodic patterns and organic integrity of the work are what help us perceive the performance as completely as possible.
The destiny of Raymonda has been happy. The ballet has been staged many times both in the Soviet Russia and overseas.
France in the time of crusades
Pages and court ladies have gathered in a big castle of Countess Sybille de Doris to congratulate the countess's niece Raymonda on her name day. Awaiting Raymonda, the pages play the lutes and viols, some compete in fencing. A few girls leave their fancywork to dance with the pages. Soon, Countess Sybille appears. Her coming ruins the common merriment. The countess tells the young ones about the foremother of the Doris family, who was known as the White Lady. It is her statue that stands on the terrace. The White Lady does not stand idlers and can strictly punish those who do not fulfill their duties, but she always protects the members of her household, and every time one of them is in danger she shows up and warns. The young people do not take the countess's words seriously and continues to amuse themselves. Before long, a messenger appears sent by Jean de Brienne, Raymonda's fiancé, who is crusading with Andrew II of Hungary. The messenger hands Raymonda a letter from de Brienne, in which he informs Raymonda that he is returning home in triumph and he will be at the Doris castle the next day. Raymonda rejoices. She orders a sumptuous reception in honour of her fiancé. Vassals and peasants congratulate Raymonda on her name day, and dances begin. The day is over and the evening comes. Exhausted, Raymonda falls asleep on the terrace.
Illuminated by the light of the moon, the White Lady comes down from her pedestal. With a gesture, she orders Raymonda to follow her. The garden around the castle gets covered in fog.
The garden has transformed. Jean de Brienne appears before the amazed Raymonda. The beloved are happy. Suddenly, she sees Abderakhman who has taken the place of her fiancé. The White Lady tells Raymonda to be cautious. Abderakhman declares his passionate love for her, but she is frightened. Corpse lights and imps surround her. Raymonda is perturbed. It is dawning. The pages and maids of honour come and find Raymonda unconscious on the terrace.
Sybille and Raymonda surrounded by the pages, maids of honour and guests come out to the courtyard. Fanfares sound announcing the arrival of new guests. However, it is not Jean de Brienne, but Saracen Abderakhman accompanied by his suite. Raymonda recognises the stranger seen in her dream. She is agitated, and Sybille reassures her.
Captivated by Raymonda's beauty, Abderakhman speaks of his love for her. She is frightened and rejects him with contempt but feels attracted to him at the same time. Dancing goes on. Wishing to impress Raymonda, Abderakhman calls his servants. Jugglers, Arab boys and Saracens appear. The dances follow one after another becoming bacchanal. Using the bustle, Abderakhman's servants abduct Raymonda. But at that moment, Jean de Brienne and the knights stands on the Saracens' way. Raymonda is freed. King Andrew II of Hungary allows de Brienne to challenge Abderakhman to a duel, during which de Brienne kills Abderakhman. De Brienne requests the king to be present at his wedding. The king agrees. The procession enters the castle.
The garden in Jean de Brienne's castle. A celebration for the wedding of de Brienne and Raymonda. King Andrew II comes out surrounded by the retinue and guests. Everyone greets the bride and groom. One dance is followed by another. A knightly tournament on the occasion of the wedding. The anxiety of the past is forgotten.