Swan Lake is one of the most popular classical ballets and the first of Tchaikovsky‘s three ballets (the others being The Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker) which opened a golden age of Russian ballet. It is a romantic ballet in four acts composed between 1875 and 1876 and premiered on March 4, 1877 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow with a choreography by Julius Reisinger. However, what is seen most often today is a revised version of the score with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov which premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on January 27, 1895, two years after the death of Tchaikovsky.
Listen to our recommended Tchaikovsky recording Swan Lake, featured on Tchaikovsky: Ballet Suites performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Mstislav Rostropovich, on Apple Music and Spotify and scroll down to read our guide to ballet masterpieces.
Swan Lake: Guide to Tchaikovsky’s Romantic Ballet Masterpieces
For such a famous work, the genesis of swan Lake, the greatest of all romantic ballets, is surprisingly vague. Every summer Tchaikovsky used to visit the same three places and friends. It was in these places that he wrote the Second and Third Symphonies, and Swan Lake. Family tradition reports that there was an in-house production of a ballet called Swan Lake in the summer of 1871 that Tchaikovsky wrote for his nieces and nephews. It was performed in the country house of Tchaikovsky’s sister, Alexandra Davydova, in Kamenka (Ukraine). One informant claimed that the familiar “swan theme” from the later ballet made its first appearance around this time; another claimed that production took place in the summer of 1867.
There is also uncertainty as to who provided the ballet libretto. Russian culture has always been heavily inspired by fairy tales, but the two or three often cited as possible sources of Swan Lake bear little resemblance to the story that is being danced on stage. One theory is that Reisinger provided the libretto, another says it was Vladimir Begichev, director of the Imperial Moscow Theaters, together with dancer Vasily Geltser. There is no literary source cited in the printed booklet.
Tchaikovsky studied the music of “specialist” ballet composers
We do know, however, that it was Begichev who commissioned the score in May 1875 for an amount of 800 rubles. We also know that before setting to work, Tchaikovsky studied the music of “specialist” ballet composers such as Cesare Pugni (1802-70) and Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917) whose light, rhythmic, melodious but insipid works were in great demand. The two composers whose ballet music he most admired were French: Adolphe Adam and Léo Delibes. Adam 1844 Giselle, still one of the most famous in the repertoire, was Tchaikovsky’s favorite ballet. Adam uses leitmotifs – the technique that associates certain musical themes with particular characters and emotions, a device that Tchaikovsky adopted for Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. As for Delibes, Tchaikovsky later wrote to his protégé the composer Sergei Taneyev that he “listened to the ballet Delibes Sylvie… What charm, what elegance, what richness of melody, rhythm and harmony. I was ashamed, because if I had known this music then I would not have written Swan Lake. ”
Between July 18 and mid-August 1875, Tchaikovsky finished his Third Symphony and wrote two acts of Swan Lake. The score was finally completed in April 1876. Unlike The Sleeping Beauty, composed over a decade later, there was little communication about the details of the music between Tchaikovsky and the ballet master, Reisinger. Oddly enough, there is no record of Tchaikovsky’s involvement in the ballet during his rehearsal period until much of 1876, although he was living in Moscow at the time. In addition, the score of Swan Lake allows the ballet master to repeat or delete sections at will. No rehearsal material or performance scores survive.
The main roles are:
Odette (aka Queen Of The Swans and The White Swan), who was turned into a white swan by Rothbart
Prince Siegfried, a handsome prince who falls in love with Odette
(Baron Von) Rothbart, an evil wizard, who enchanted Odette
Odile (The Black Swan), Rothbart’s daughter
Benno (von Sommerstern), the prince’s friend
The Princess (aka Queen Mother), Prince Siegfried’s mother
Wolfgang, his tutor
Although different productions present different versions and interpretations of the story, the essential elements are constant:
Act 1 – A magnificent park in front of a palace
Prince Siegfried celebrates his majority. Wine is flowing, Wolfgang is flirting, everyone is dancing. The festivities are interrupted by the princess who, worried about the carefree life of her son, announces that he must choose someone to get married the following evening. The princess leaves, the celebrations resume, but Siegfried is understandably miserable at the thought of not being able to marry for love. Night is falling. Benno tries to cheer his friend up and when Siegfried sees a flock of swans flying above him, he suggests they go and chase them.
Act 2 – A clearing by a lake in a forest near a ruined chapel
Separated from his friends, Siegfried arrives in the clearing as the swans fly overhead. He aims with his crossbow but freezes when one of them transforms into a beautiful maiden – it was the swan he was about to kill. She is Odette who explains that she and her companions are victims of a spell cast on them by the evil Rothbart by which they are transformed into swans during the day, only resuming human form at night by the enchanted lake. The spell can only be broken by someone who has never loved and swears to love Odette forever. Young swan maidens appear in the clearing. Siegfried breaks his crossbow and declares his undying love to Odette. But dawn rises and the spell transforms her and her companions into swans.
Act 3 – A magnificent ball at the palace
The guests arrive, six princesses are presented to Siegfried as candidates to be his wife. He doesn’t choose any. Then Rothbart enters with his daughter Odile whom he transformed to look like Odette. Of course, Siegfried only has eyes for her, whereupon Odette appears and tries to warn him of the thing, but he does not see her and announces to her that he will marry Odile. Rothbart gives Siegfried Odile’s hand then shows him a magical vision of Odette. Realizing his mistake, Siegfried fled in distress to the lake.
Act 4 – By the lake
Odette, comforted by her young swans, is upset. Siegfried arrives and asks his forgiveness. Which she grants him, but her betrayal means the spell can no longer be undone. A storm is rising. Rather than living forever like a swan, Odette chooses to die. Siegfried chooses to die with her and, falling into her arms, they disappear under the waters (or, in some productions, ascend to heaven in apotheosis). Rothbart’s fate on the swan virgins is broken. He has lost all of his evil powers and dies. The storm subsides, the moon appears and a band of swans appears on the tranquil lake.
Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score Swan Lake was revolutionary
Today we take Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score Swan Lake for granted, but he was revolutionary in his day. There are 33 numbers in the complete ballet written for a large symphony orchestra (five more instruments than the pit orchestra for Tristan and Isolde, for example). The music was no longer a chain of unrelated dance moves with no attempt to portray characters or events on stage, as was customary in the fare provided by “specialist” ballet composers. Besides a full symphonic score, Tchaikovsky offered moments of magical orchestration too numerous to mention and, with the sophisticated use of different tones, connects the various elements of the narrative into a cohesive whole (using B minor for Swans, for example, F minor for Rothbart).
The first of Swan Lake was a fiasco
Yet with it all, the premiere of Swan Lake Friday March 4, 1877 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow was a sort of fiasco. The conductor was unable to do justice to such an intricate score, the sets and choreography were poor, and to top it all off the brilliant ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya, who was destined for the lead role of Odette, was dropped. after an official in Moscow accused her of having agreed to marry him, of having taken all the jewelry she had received as a gift, of having sold them, and then of running away with a fellow dancer. “The poverty of production”, wrote Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer’s brother, “the absence of exceptional performers, the weakness of the imagination of the ballet master and, finally, the orchestra… the blame for failure on the others.
Nonetheless – and it is not often recorded – this production survived in the repertoire for six years and had 41 performances, more than most other ballets in the Bolshoi repertoire. But it was not until after Tchaikovsky’s death that Swan Lake achieved the success it deserved in a revised version of the score by Riccardo Drigo (1846-1930), longtime composer, conductor and musical director of the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg. Various changes were made to the libretto (see above) and the four acts became three (act 2 became act 1 scene 2). New Swan Lake premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on Friday January 27, 1895 and was warmly received.
One last point. One of the most famous parts of all of the ballet was an afterthought that Tchaikovsky was not included in the original production but danced in the revised version. Now, Act 3 offers a No two danced by Siegfried and Odile. It ends with the famous 32 Whipped While Turning. This, the graceful “Waltz” from Act 1 and the delicious “Dance Of The Cygnets” from Act 2, are the best-known musical highlights of this great score.
Our recommended registration of Swan Lake, featured on Tchaikovsky: Ballet Suites performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, can be purchased here.
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