This article is about the ballet. For other uses, see Swan Lake (disambiguation).
Swan Lake (Russian: Лебеди́ное о́зеро, romanized: Lebedínoye ózero), Op. 20, is a ballet composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1875–76. Despite its initial failure, it is now one of the most popular of all ballets.
The scenario, initially in two acts, was fashioned from Russian and German folk tales[a] and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. The choreographer of the original production was Julius Reisinger(Václav Reisinger). The ballet was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet on 4 March [O.S. 20 February] 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Although it is presented in many different versions, most ballet companies base their stagings both choreographically and musically on the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, first staged for the Imperial Ballet on 15 January 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. For this revival, Tchaikovsky’s score was revised by the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre’s chief conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo.
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Design by F. Gaanen for the décor of act 2, Moscow 1877
Origins of the ballet
There is no evidence to prove who wrote the original libretto, or where the idea for the plot came from. Russian and German folk tales have been proposed as possible sources, including “The White Duck” and “The Stolen Veil” by Johann Karl August Musäus, but both those tales differ significantly from the ballet.
One theory is that the original choreographer, Julius Reisinger, who was a Bohemian (and therefore likely to be familiar with The Stolen Veil), created the story. Another theory is that it was written by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, director of the Moscow Imperial Theatres at the time, possibly with Vasily Geltser, danseurof the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre (a surviving copy of the libretto bears his name). Since the first published libretto does not correspond with Tchaikovsky’s music in many places, one theory is that the first published version was written by a journalist after viewing initial rehearsals (new opera and ballet productions were always reported in the newspapers, along with their respective scenarios).
Some contemporaries of Tchaikovsky recalled the composer taking great interest in the life story of Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose life had supposedly been marked by the sign of Swan and could have been the prototype of the dreamer Prince Siegfried. However, Ludwig’s death happened 10 years after the first performance of the ballet.
Begichev commissioned the score of Swan Lake from Tchaikovsky in May 1875 for 800 rubles. Tchaikovsky worked with only a basic outline from Julius Reisinger of the requirements for each dance. However, unlike the instructions for the scores of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, no written instruction is known to have survived.
From around the time of the turn of the 19th century until the beginning of the 1890s, scores for ballets were almost always written by composers known as “specialists,” who were highly skilled at scoring the light, decorative, melodious, and rhythmically clear music that was at that time in vogue for ballet. Tchaikovsky studied the music of “specialists” such as the Italian Cesare Pugni and the Austrian Ludwig Minkus, before setting to work on Swan Lake.
Tchaikovsky had a rather negative opinion of the “specialist” ballet music until he studied it in detail, being impressed by the nearly limitless variety of infectious melodies their scores contained. Tchaikovsky most admired the ballet music of such composers as Léo Delibes, Adolphe Adam, and later, Riccardo Drigo. He would later write to his protégé, the composer Sergei Taneyev, “I listened to the Delibes ballet Sylvia … what charm, what elegance, what wealth of melody, rhythm, and harmony. I was ashamed, for if I had known of this music then, I would not have written Swan Lake.” Tchaikovsky most admired Adam’s 1844 score for Giselle, which used the Leitmotiftechnique: associating certain themes with certain characters or moods, a technique he would use in Swan Lake, and later, The Sleeping Beauty.
Tchaikovsky drew on previous compositions for his Swan Lake score. According to two of Tchaikovsky’s relatives – his nephew Yuri Lvovich Davydov and his niece Anna Meck-Davydova – the composer had earlier created a little ballet called The Lake of the Swans at their home in 1871. This ballet included the famous Leitmotif, the Swan’s Theme or Song of the Swans. He also made use of material from The Voyevoda, an opera he had abandoned in 1868. The Grand adage (a.k.a. the Love Duet) from the second scene of Swan Lake was fashioned from an aria from that opera, as was the Valse des fiancéesfrom the third scene. Another number which included a theme from The Voyevoda was the Entr’acte of the fourth scene.
By April 1876 the score was complete, and rehearsals began. Soon Reisinger began setting certain numbers aside that he dubbed “undanceable.” Reisinger even began choreographing dances to other composers’ music, but Tchaikovsky protested and his pieces were reinstated. Although the two artists were required to collaborate, each seemed to prefer working as independently of the other as possible.
Tchaikovsky’s excitement with Swan Lake is evident from the speed with which he composed: commissioned in the spring of 1875, the piece was created within one year. His letters to Sergei Taneyev from August 1875 indicate, however, that it was not only his excitement that compelled him to create it so quickly but his wish to finish it as soon as possible, so as to allow him to start on an opera. Respectively, he created scores of the first three numbers of the ballet, then the orchestration in the fall and winter, and was still struggling with the instrumentation in the spring. By April 1876, the work was complete. Tchaikovsky’s mention of a draft suggests the presence of some sort of abstract but no such draft has ever been seen. Tchaikovsky wrote various letters to friends expressing his longstanding desire to work with this type of music, and his excitement concerning his current stimulating, albeit laborious task.
Adelaide Giuri as Odette and Mikhail Mordkin as Prince Siegfried in Aleksandr Gorsky’s staging of the Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake for the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1901. A young Vera Karalli is seen kneeling.
Moscow première (world première)
Date: 4 March (OS 20 February) 1877
Place: Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Balletmaster: Julius Reisinger
Conductor: Stepan Ryabov
Scene Designers: Karl Valts (acts 2 & 4), Ivan Shangin (act 1), Karl Groppius (act 3)
St. Petersburg première
Date: 27 January 1895
Place: Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg
Balletmaster: Marius Petipa (acts 1 & 3), Lev Ivanov (acts 2 & 4)
Conductor: Riccardo Drigo
Scene Designers: Ivan Andreyev, Mikhail Bocharov, Henrich Levogt
Costume Designer: Yevgeni Ponomaryov
Other notable productions
1880 and 1882, Moscow, Bolshoi Theatre, staged by Joseph Hansenafter Reisinger, conductor and designers as in première
1901, Moscow, Bolshoi Theatre, staged by Aleksandr Gorsky, conducted by Andrey Arends, scenes by Aleksandr Golovin (act 1), Konstantin Korovin (acts 2 & 4), N. Klodt (act 3)
1911, London, Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev production, choreography by Michel Fokineafter Petipa–Ivanov, scenes by Golovin and Korovin
RoleMoscow 1877Moscow 1880St. Petersburg 1895Moscow 1901London 1911QueensopranoOlga NikolayevaGiuseppina CecchettiSiegfriedtenorVictor GillertAlfred BekefiPavel GerdtMikhail MordkinVaslav NijinskyBennoSergey NikitinAleksandr OblakovWolfgangWilhelm WannerGillertOdettePelageya KarpakovaYevdokiya KalmїkovaPierina LegnaniAdelaide GiuriMathilde KschessinskaVon RothbartSergey SokolovAleksey BulgakovK. KubakinOdilesopranoPierina LegnaniMathilde Kschessinska
Original production of 1877
The première on Friday, 4 March 1877, was given as a benefit performance for the ballerina Pelageya Karpakova (also known as Polina Karpakova), who performed the role of Odette, with première danseur Victor Gillert as Prince Siegfried. Karpakova may also have danced the part Odile, although it is believed the ballet originally called for two different dancers. It is now common practice for the same ballerina to dance both Odette and Odile.
The Russian ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya was originally cast as Odette, but was replaced when a governing official in Moscow complained about her, claiming she had accepted jewelry from him, only to then marry a fellow danseur and sell the pieces for cash.
The première was not well-received. Though there were a few critics who recognised the virtues of the score, most considered it to be far too complicated for ballet. It was labelled, “too noisy, too ‘Wagnerian’ and too symphonic.” The critics also thought Reisinger’s choreography was “unimaginative and altogether unmemorable.” The German origins of the story were “treated with suspicion while the tale itself was regarded as ‘stupid’ with unpronounceable surnames for its characters.” Karpakova was a secondary soloist and “not particularly convincing.”
The poverty of the production, meaning the décor and costumes, the absence of outstanding performers, the Balletmaster’s weakness of imagination, and, finally, the orchestra … all of this together permitted (Tchaikovsky) with good reason to cast the blame for the failure on others.
— Modest Tchaikovsky, brother of the composer
Yet the fact remains (and is too often omitted in accounts of this initial production) that this staging survived for six years with a total of 41 performances – many more than several other ballets from the repertoire of this theatre.
Tchaikovsky pas de deux 1877
Anna Sobeshchanskaya [ru] as Odette in Julius Reisinger’s original production