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The story behind the ballet "Swan Lake" by Tchaikovsky

“Swan Lake” is a classical ballet composed between the years 1875 to 1876 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This emotionally and technically challenging piece was initially considered a failure but went on to become one of the most popular ballets of all time. 

Pyotr Tchikovsky - composer

Origin

There are various theories deciphering how Tchaikovsky first came up with his idea for the ballet. The libretto of “Swan Lake is based on “The Stolen Veil,” crafted by Johann Karl August Musäus. His contemporaries claimed that he was extremely fascinated by the tragic life of “Swan King” - Bavarian King Ludwig II. He had drowned himself under mysterious circumstances. However, that happened almost 10 years after the ballet’s premiere.

In 1875, Vladimir Petrovich Begichev commissioned the score from him for 800 rubles. Tchaikovsky had crafted the music for each dance sequence from mere outlines. However, no written instruction of the entire score has survived. Tchaikovsky had crafted an abundance of material while working on “Swan Lake,” which has resulted in the modern versions of it being edited and made significantly shorter.

History & Performances 

“Swan Lake” premiered on the 4th of March 1877. It was held as a benefit for Pelageya Karpakova, the famous ballerina. She played Odette, while Victor Gillert was given the role of Prince Siegfried. Although the original ballet had different dancers for the role of Odette and Odile, modern-day productions utilize the same ballerina for both roles.  Anna Sobeshchanskaya, another Russian ballerina, had been originally cast for the role of Odette. However, after a formal complaint from a governing official of fraudulence, she was replaced.

The première received heavy criticism from the experts, as they considered the ballet to be overly-complicated. Critics also labeled it as overly-symphonic, “Wagnerian,” and noisy. The choreography was chastised as pedestrian and forgettable. The German origins of the story evoked further suspicion, while the tale was considered nonsensical. However, despite all its detractors, the ballet racked up 41 performances in a span of 6 years, something that cannot be ignored.

In April 1877, the famous ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya was left unimpressed with “Swan Lake” after debuting as Odette. She sought help from Marius Petipa of St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres to incorporate a “pas de deux” instead of a “pas de six” in ballet’s third act. This request was standard procedure and quite common among ballerinas of that era. Petipa crafted a classic “pas de deux” - comprising a “short entrée,” variations for each individual dancer, a coda, and a grand adage. Tchaikovsky took this as an insult, announcing that he alone should be responsible for any musical alterations of “Swan Lake.” He soon crafted his own “pas de deux.” However, this further complicated proceedings as Sobeshchanskaya opted for Petipa’s version. The composer then altered his version to match the ballerina’s demand. Sobeshchanskaya was so impressed. She requested Tchaikovsky to compose another version, which was acknowledged.

During the 1890s, Ivan Vsevolozhsky and Petipa decided to collaborate with Tchaikovsky to revive “Swan Lake.” However, on the 6th of November 1893, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky passed away during the initial planning stage of the project. The production was then planned for the 1894–1895 ballet season but got further delayed due to the demise of Tsar Alexander III in 1894. As ballet performances were halted, the duo concentrated on perfecting the choreography. It was finally completed next year and was premièred on the 27th of January 1985.

The Play

Act I

Swan Lake, Bolshoi, Moscow in 1901

The first act takes place in a swashbuckling park facing a palace accompanied by an “Allegro giusto.” Prince Siegfried is seen hosting a birthday party for his friends, tutor, and peasants. The Queen, Siegfried's mother, soon interrupts the merrymaking. She is disgruntled about her son’s nonchalant lifestyle and wants him to settle down. She commands her son to choose a bride at the upcoming Royal ball. Siegfried feels upset, as he is forbidden to marry for love (Pas de trois). His tutor and his friend Benno try to cheer him up. Benno notices a flying flock of swans nearby and suggests a hunting party (Pas de deux for Two Merry-makers). Soon, they set off with their crossbows.

Act II

Swan Lake: Stage setting for Act 2

The second act starts at a lakeside. Siegfried arrives at a clearing by the lake, as the musical tempo in the background increases, as a “Moderato” is performed. The flock of swans soon land near him, and he aims his crossbow at them. However, he soon freezes at the spot as one of the swans turns into a gorgeous maiden named Odette. An “Allegro moderato” accompanies the scene, portraying a terrified Odette who explains to the prince that she is a victim of Rothbart, an evil “owl-like” sorcerer who has cursed her and her friends into swans. They can only return to their original human form only at nightfall, and only at this particular enchanted lake, which was formed from the tears of her mother. This spell can be broken, but only by a human who has never been in love and one who must swear his allegiance to Odette. Soon, Rothbart appears, and his presence is accompanied by an “Allegro Vivo” in the background. Odette stops an enraged Siegfried from killing Rothbart as she explains that if the evil wizard is killed before his spell is undone, it can never be broken again.

Rothbart soon disappears, as the other swans turn into maidens in the clearing. Siegfried decides to pursue Odette. He breaks his crossbow and starts gaining her trust. They soon fall for each other. At dawn, the spell becomes active again as Odette and her friends are drawn back into the lake and turned into swans.

Act III

Siegfried image from Swan Lake

The third act portrays the Royal Ball. As the guests arrive (Entrance of the Guests and Waltz), Siegfried meets the six princesses who are candidates to be his life-partner. Rothbart also arrives at the ball with his daughter, albeit in disguise. Odile, his daughter, has been transformed into Odette to fool the Prince. The music in the background offers an “Allegro giusto.” Siegfried falls for the illusion, despite the efforts of the real Odette, who appears at the castle window to warn him (Pas de six). He declares his intention to marry Odile. However, Rothbart displays a vision of the real Odette as the Prince realizes his mistake. He hurries back towards the lake, grief-stricken and panicked.

Act IV

Odette is seen distraught at the lakeside as her companions try to pacify her. Soon, Siegfried arrives and passionately apologizes. Although Odette forgives him, it is not enough to break the spell. His betrayal is impossible to rescind. Odette chooses death over remaining a swan forever. Siegfried also chooses the same fate, and the couple jumps into the lake together. Their sacrifice finally breaks the spell, as the other swan maidens return to their true human form. Rothbart loses his powers and passes away. The climax portrays Odette’s companions standing beside the lake, watching them ascend into Heaven, united forever.

Musical Overview 

During the late 19th century, ballet scores were mainly crafted by “specialists” composers who were highly adept at conjuring a rhythmic, melodious, decorative, and light musical essence required for ballet. Tchaikovsky studied such “specialists,”  Riccardo Drigo, Adolphe Adam, Ludwig Minkus, Léo Delibes, and Cesare Pugni, to name a few. Initially, he wasn’t impressed but slowly started appreciating the boundless variety of compelling melodies that were being dished out. The elegant harmonies, rhythms, and wealth of melodies completely enchanted him. Adolphe Adam’s usage of “Leitmotif” particularly caught his eye, which he later incorporated in “Swan Lake.”

Tchaikovsky also utilized his own compositions while scoring for “Swan Lake,” using material from his opera titled “The Voyevoda.” The “Love Duet” and “Valse des fiancées” in the second and third scenes of the ballet respectively were fashioned from his own aria in the opera. Also, another theme from the opera was used in the fourth scene. In April 1876, the composition was finally finished. The composer’s excitement is evident from the time he took to compose this huge piece, which he completed within a year of its commission. Also, he wanted to start working on a new opera, which compelled him to speed up the entire process. He completed the orchestration within winter but struggled a bit with the instrumentation.

Tchaikovsky successfully revived the excitement of “waltzing” in the very first jaw-dropping number of “Swan Lake.” His light notes resemble a fluttering heart as the strings ascend into the second beat very softly, “pianissimo,” barely brushing against the stronger first beat. The result is an accent hovering behind the downbeats - a palpable struggle of the music trying to “catch its breath.” In the ballet's iconic theme titled “Flight of the Swans,” the composer’s usage of light, shade, and melodic contour of the harmonies evoke the perils of the cursed flock. The music unfolds with an increasing thrust, almost like a swan struggling to take off. The melody is simple. It begins at the top, drops down, and again flows upwards. The second phase starts brightly and ascends thrice, each time a bit higher than the last. Here, Tchaikovsky offers a contrasting theme. The oboe increases the tempo while the double basses and cellos slowly descend into almost a lament. At the Royal Ball scene, the composer offers a treat - a staple 19th-century ballet format with diverse dance styles, curated by his musical innovation.

Usage In Popular Culture

  • In 1925, a modified piece of the music from Act 2 was used as a backing track in the silent movie titled “Phantom of the Opera.”  
  • In 1931, the movie titled “Dracula” incorporated a modified Swan theme into its opening credits. 
  • In 1932, the same composition was again utilized in the credits of the movie titled “The Mummy.” 
  • In 1940, a long musical sequence from “Swan Lake” was used in the movie “I Was an Adventuress.”
  • In 1965, the climax of the comedy titled “The Intelligence Men” incorporated a ballet performance that resembled “Swan Lake.”
  • In 1966, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie titled “Torn Curtain” used a scene from “Swan Lake.”
  • In 1968, Lenfilm studios and Kirov Ballet collaborated to produce a film version of “Swan Lake.”
  • In 1968, the movie “Funny Girl” incorporated a comedic spoof of the ballet. 
  • In 1981, Koro Yabuki directed a feature animation movie titled “Swan Lake” produced by Toei Animation, which retained Tchaikovsky's original score.    
  • In 1989, the movie titled “Étoile” used the ballet “Swan Lake” as an integral part of its central plot. 
  • In 1992, the main characters of the movie “Brain Donors” sabotaged a fictional production of “Swan Lake.”
  • In 1994, a two-dimensional animated movie titled “Swan Lake” was created, which also utilized Tchaikovsky's original score.    
  • In 1994, Nest Entertainment produced an adaptation of “Swan Lake” titled “Swan Princess.” 
  • In 2003, another movie titled “Barbie of Swan Lake” incorporated Tchaikovsky's original music and was filmed using motion-capture from the “New York City Ballet.”
  • The 2010 movie “Black Swan” is based on two characters from “Swan Lake” - “Odette” and “Odile.” The musical score is also inspired by the original ballet, although restructured to fit the dark theme.    
  • In 2011, the movie “Of Gods and Men” uses the climactic music from the ballet in a dinner scene. 
  • In 2020, a live-action adaptation of “Swan Lake” was announced by Universal Pictures.

“Swan Lake” has become a constantly evolving form of art, a testament to the fact that most productions have made their own alterations in the order and number of dances and even crafted alternate endings. It remains one of the most popular works that is adored by both adults and children, making its appeal more powerful and endearing. Tchaikovsky was responsible for the evolution of ballet, and its influence on pop culture - that it came from the master of the ballet is further proof that it indeed is a work of art. “Swan Lake” may feel somewhat melancholy, but its thrill is absolute. It can be termed as a moment of pure exuberance, but only a moment.

 

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