Mayerling was MacMillan’s fourth three-act ballet, completed after he had resigned as artistic director of the Royal Ballet in 1977. His interest in the Habsburg royal family and the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire had been sparked by a 1974 book, The Eagles Die, by George Marek. The story of the double suicide of the Crown Prince and his young mistress at the Mayerling hunting lodge had been romanticised in several films; MacMillan wanted to show the social, political and personal pressures that might have driven the prince to such desperate measures.


Edward Watson and Mara Galeazzi in Mayerling courtesy of Royal Opera House Archives.


He commissioned a scenario from Gillian Freeman, author and script-writer, who researched the period in depth, providing MacMillan with pen portraits of key figures in the Habsburg court and Viennese society. John Lanchbery, who had been the Royal Ballet’s chief conductor from 1960, suggested Liszt as an appropriate choice of composer. Not only would Liszt’s music provide the right atmosphere for the dramatic events (extracts from his Faust Symphony serving as a motif for Rudolf’s obsession with guns and death) but he had actually written piano music for Empress Elisabeth to play. Lanchbery arranged and orchestrated some 30 pieces of Liszt’s music as the score for Mayerling.

Lengthy preparations meant that the intended premiere in autumn 1977 had to be postponed. MacMillan had started work with Anthony Dowell as Rudolf, until he was injured early on and David Wall replaced him as the creator of the role. Rudolf is scarcely off the stage throughout the ballet, dancing seven major pas de deux with five different women. Mayerling was the first British ballet to make such demands of a male dancer in a leading role.

Mayerling starts and ends with a funeral. In a brief prologue, an anonymous coffin is lowered in the rain. Only in the epilogue will the audience realise that the corpse is that of Mary Vetsera, buried clandestinely in the cemetery of the Heiligenkreuz monastery, not far from the Mayerling hunting lodge outside Vienna.

After the sombre prologue, the first act opens with a state ball celebrating the marriage of the Crown Prince of Austro-Hungary and his Belgian bride, Princess Stephanie. Crowned heads, political dignitaries, courtiers and hangers-on file past before the ball begins. Although first-time viewers have little chance of identifying who they all are, significant players in the drama are on parade, including Mary Vetsera and her mother. Rudolf soon offends his bride by paying conspicuous attention to her sister, Princess Louise. He is reprimanded and it becomes apparent that he is a misfit in this pompous, hypocritical court. His dynastic marriage is intended to tame him and to produce an heir to the empire.

Georgiadis’s Act I set features tiers of stuffed dummies in ceremonial uniforms, reinforcing Rudolf’s awareness that he is always under surveillance. He is pressurised by four Hungarian nationalists to support their separatist cause; his complicity with them will spied upon and reported. To add to the intrigue, Rudolf’s former mistress, Marie Larisch, reminds him of her sexual claims on him. The Emperor interrupts their liaison and orders Rudolf to attend to his new wife.

On the way to the bridal chamber, Rudolf visits his mother in her apartments. Their encounter reveals his craving for her love and sympathy, but she is unable to respond. The real Elisabeth, married at 16 to the Emperor, had had little contact with her third child and only son, whose upbringing had been harsh. Unhappily married, Elisabeth found her life in the court barely tolerable. Both she and the Emperor had affairs. In the ballet, the relationship between mother and son is fraught with emotions both have to suppress.

Rudolf takes out his pain on his bewildered bride, terrifying her with a skull and a revolver before forcing himself on her. While Stephanie was prepared to submit to her marital duties in a dynastic marriage, she evidently had no idea what awaited her.

In the second act, Rudolf obliges Stephanie to accompany him to a tavern frequented by whores and their clients. She soon leaves in disgust, escorted by Bratfisch, Rudolf’s private coachman, who knows all about his master’s dissolute tastes. Rudolf, drunk, is entertained by his mistress, Mitzi Caspar, while the Hungarian conspirators amuse themselves. Rudolf hides with Mitzi from a clumsy police raid on the tavern. Afterwards, his mind disturbed, he tries to persuade Mitzi that they should commit suicide together. Repelled, she leaves conspiratorially with Count Taaffe, the Prime Minister, who knows that Rudolf is still in the tavern.

On the prince’s way out, he is met by Marie Larisch, who presents him to Mary Vetsera in a carefully contrived encounter. The real Larisch was Empress Elisabeth’s niece (albeit illegitimate) and Rudolf’s cousin. Married to a count, she had a place at court. She was a friend of Baroness Vetsera, Mary’s mother, a well-connected socialite. Mary, at 17, was already sexually ambitious.

In the next scene, Mary is sighing over a portrait of Rudolf when Larisch arrives on a visit to the Vetsera household. She sets up Mary as the next royal mistress-to-be by foretelling her future with a pack of cards. She encourages Mary to give her a letter for Rudolf.

Larisch finds a way to hand over the letter during Emperor Franz Josef’s birthday celebrations. All the court is assembled, including the Dowager Empress Sophie, Franz Josef’s formidable mother, and a pregnant Princess Stephanie. Elisabeth presents her husband with a portrait of his mistress, Katherina Schratt, who is by his side. While a firework display diverts the court, Elisabeth consorts with her lover, an English cavalry officer nicknamed ‘Bay’ Middleton after his horse. Rudolf is sickened by his parents’ duplicity and by the hopelessness of his own future. His mental state is deteriorating, damaged by disease (Rudolf had contracted syphilis) and morphine. Larisch provides a distraction by tempting him with Mary’s letter.

An assignation made, Larisch leads Mary to Rudolf’s bedchamber. Well-instructed or instinctively in tune with Rudolf’s fantasies, Mary confidently seizes the skull and pistol with which he had terrified Stephanie, and proves she is as sexually voracious as he is.

Act III opens with a royal shooting party in the snowy countryside, everyone elaborately dressed in furs to keep out the cold. As in all his three-act ballets, MacMillan starts each act with a crowd scene depicting the society in which his key characters move, before narrowing the focus to their personal dilemmas. During the shoot, Rudolf, evidently in a bad way, fires his rifle wildly, killing a bystander. The shot has narrowly missed the Emperor, and although Rudolf is suspected of aiming at him, someone else is arrested in a cover-up.

a clip from mayerling, A south bank special, 1978.

Back in his apartments in disgrace, Rudolf has been joined by Larisch, who attempts to console him. Empress Elisabeth discovers them together and angrily orders Larisch to leave. Larisch ushers in Mary Vetsera, who offers herself as an alternative to the morphine to which he has resorted. He proposes a suicide pact with her, to which she agrees. Her reason for so doing is left open. The real Mary was highly-strung, impulsive and self-dramatising. Perhaps, like adolescent girls through the ages, she romanticised the idea of death as the supreme act of love or defiance.

The final scene takes place in the hunting lodge at Mayerling. Rudolf dismisses his drinking companions and waits for Mary to arrive, escorted by Bratfisch. The coachdriver tries in vain to entertain the couple by dancing and juggling with his hat, but soon withdraws. Tension mounts as Rudolf, drugged with morphine and alcohol, engages Mary in a sexually frenzied pas de deux. He shoots her and then himself.

The epilogue shows how Mary’s corpse was taken by her uncles, propped up between them in her hat and coat, to the Heiligenkreuz cemetery at night. The double suicide had to be hushed up to protect the royal family and the state. Mary’s burial was kept secret and Crown Prince Rudolf was declared to have died of a heart attack – but rumours of suicide and even assassination soon spread and have never ceased to fascinate.

Mayerling’s premiere, somewhat inappropriately, was on Valentine’s Day 1978, at a royal gala. The audience gave it, and MacMillan, a prolonged ovation. Critics, invited to the next performance, applauded the boldness and originality of MacMillan’s approach. Mary Clarke in The Guardiandeclared that MacMillan had vindicated his decision to resign from the directorship of the Royal Ballet to devote himself to his true vocation. The world was short of choreographers who could make big narrative ballets for opera houses and who could show a great company to advantage. ‘It is a thrilling, moving theatrical experience’. Clement Crisp commented in The Financial Times that MacMillan had moved the three-act ballet from its 19th century structure and conventional fantasy figures into a form able to deal with the harsher realism of modern life. John Percival in The Times, a harsh critic of Anastasia and Manon, found that in Mayerling MacMillan had the full courage of his convictions: the set-pieces were relevant, the character-drawing clear and ‘even the most far-fetched of inventions [in the duets] worth the fetching’.

Percival and other critics recommended that cuts be made (Mayerling originally ran at three and a quarter hours). After the intial run, some of the scenes were trimmed – notably the hunting scene in the snow. The song, Ich Scheide (‘I am leaving’), sung by Katherina Schratt at the Emperor’s birthday party, was cut and then restored when its absence was found to unbalance the ballet. The stillness of the sequence allows the cast and audience time to register the relationships between the characters and the emotions seething beneath the formal etiquette of the court.

Mayerling’s reception in the United States, when the Royal Ballet took it on tour to the West Coast, was mixed. Audiences and local critics were impressed, but Clive Barnes in The New York Post (and on radio) and Anna Kisselgoff in The New York Timespanned it. Influential Arlene Croce in The New Yorker wrote a complex review that intermingled respect for what MacMillan had achieved with strong reservations about ballet taking on subjects she considered it ill-equipped to deal with, such as politics, disease and motives for suicide. Rudolf was ‘a titled creep forever Hamletizing around the house with a skull in one hand and a gun in the other’ but she summed up Mayerling as ‘this curious, crippled, provocative work by [a] master choreographer’.

The Metropolitan Opera House in New York initially refused to accept Mayerling as part of a Royal Ballet season in 1983. MacMillan threatened to withdraw all his ballets from the Royal Ballet repertoire if the Royal Ballet gave in. Mayerlingwas duly scheduled for just two performances, which were so over-subscribed that a matinee was added. East Coast audiences arrived by the coachload, their interest roused by the 1978 South Bank Show documentary about the making of Mayerling, which had been shown across the eastern seaboard by a TV company filling air time. Kisselgoff changed her mind in The New York Times, declaring that Mayerlingwas now a ballet that deserved to be seen in New York. It contained, she discovered, ‘unsuspected opportunities for great dancing as well as great acting’, and the Royal Ballet was dancing at a higher level than before. ‘It now has to be said that as a model of its own genre, [Mayerling] works completely on a level of sophistication and richness of detail’.

Although Mayerling has become a staple of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, it is rarely seen in the United States. Only a few other companies dance their own productions of MacMillan’s ballet: they include the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Vienna State Opera Ballet and the Hungarian National Ballet.

  • First performance: Covent Garden, London, 14 February 1978

  • Company: Royal Ballet

  • Cast: David Wall, Lynn Seymour, Merle Park, Georgina Parkinson, Michael Somes, Wendy Ellis, Laura Connor, Graham Fletcher.

  • Music: Franz Liszt, arr. John Lanchbery

  • Design: Nicholas Georgiadis

  • Benesh notation score: Jacquie Hollander, Lyn Vella-Gatt (Master Score, 1978)

  • Video: Opus Arte (Mukhamedov, Durante, Bussell, Collier)