Research Project - #PRN/33 Operation Swan Lake

(2028 - 2029)

Swan Lake

Ballet by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky
Commissioned in 1875
Influenced by Wagner's Lohengrin
Premiered in 1877 in Moscow
Full production first performed: 27.1.1895
Location: Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg

1940 performance

1895 performance


1937 performance

Golem and Odile dancing Swan Lake
at entrance to Ilawcze, Ukraine

Rosalind Brodsky 2028

Swan Lake was a ballet in four acts, based on a German fairy tale, with music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The first production of the ballet was in Moscow, 4 May 1877, at the Bolshoi Theater, with choreography by Julius Reisinger. This production was not a success.

The story, from a French version of a German tale, is about a princess, Odette, who is turned into a swan by an evil magician, Rothbart; in some versions of the story, all of her friends become swans, too.

Every midnight, she (and her friends) become human again for a few hours. One midnight, she is discovered by Prince Siegfried who falls madly in love with her and promises to rescue her.

There is a ball in the castle where Siegfried is meant to choose a bride. Odile, Knight Rothbart's daughter, enters as a black swan, looking exactly like Princess Odette. Siegfried is instantly drawn to her, and he declares she will be his bride.

Odette then appears and sees what has happened, and he recognizes her too, and realizes he has broken his promise. She rushes off to the lake, and he comes and finds her there. She forgives him, but Rothbart creates a big storm and both Odette and Siegfried are drowned.

In some versions, there is a happy ending: Siegfried fights Rothbart and rescues Odette and her companions after breaking the spell.

Yet in other versions of Swan Lake, Rothbart surprises the Princess and her companions while they are gathering flowers at the lake and transforms them all into swans.

After Tchaikovsky's death in 1893, a memorial to the composer presented the second act, rechoreographed by Lev Ivanov.

A full production was performed on 27 January 1895 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, its debut for that city.

The expectations of the Russian public had to be fulfilled, giving an element of "pressure" to the composition and choreography. Marius Petipa choreographed Acts I and III, and Ivanov choreographed Acts II and IV. This version required major changes in the sequence of the music as originally written. This revival finally received the appreciation that it had rightfully deserved.

Further information:

The History of the Ballet Swan Lake

The Origins of Swan Lake

This most revered of classical ballets did not appear in a blaze of glory, and even the exact origins of the ballet are uncertain. The Petipa/Ivanov version of Swan Lake that we consider the "standard" today was in fact created after Tchaikovsky’s death and was greatly altered from the original concept. Many of the features of Swan Lake that we believe to be from the original production (e.g. the White Swan pas de deux) were the result of revisions after the Petipa/Ivanov version. There is surprisingly little that was written down during the creation of the music or choreography. All we have to go on are personal recollections and memoirs that were written a long time after the event and thus subject to some skepticism and much debate among scholars.

It is known that Tchaikovsky was commissioned by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the intendant of the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow and a friend of Tchaikovsky, to write a score for Swan Lake in May 1875 for the sum of 800 roubles. It was Begichev who authored at least the initial programme of the ballet. He, along with Vasily Fedorovich Geltser, a dancer in the Moscow company, are credited with writing the libretto for the ballet, though many contend that Geltser was probably no more than the copyist. The first published libretto of Swan Lake did not correspond exactly to the musical lay out and was probably produced by a staff writer who based it on observations of rehearsals in progress. It is highly likely that Tchaikovsky had a good deal of influence over the story’s development. Legends of swans were presumably familiar to Tchaikovsky and his artistic friends, who no doubt discussed the idea of the swan as a symbol of womanhood at its purest.

The legend of the Swan-Maiden goes back for centuries, appearing in differing forms in both eastern and western literature. Women who turn into birds and vice versa were popular themes, and the swan was particularly favored due to its grace when swimming in the water. The ancient Greeks considered the swan to the bird closest to the Muses. When Apollo was born at Delos, the event was celebrated by flights of circling swans.

The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights tells the story of Hassan of Bassorah, who visits a place inhabited by bird-maidens. When they take off their feather garments, the bird-maidens are transformed into beautiful women. Hassan captures the clothes of one of the maidens in order to keep her in human form as his wife. She is able to regain her feathers and flies away from him. Hassan sets out on a quest to regain his wife and after many adventures succeeds in finding her.

Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover is a Slav tale that begins with Mikhail the Rover who is about to shoot a swan that warns him "Shoot not, else ill-fortune will doom thee for evermore!" On landing the swan turns into a beautiful maiden. When Mikhail tries to kiss her she warns that she is an infidel. However, if he takes her to the holy city of Kiev, then she might be received by the church and thus free to marry him. So they set out. In a similar South German legend a swan speaks to a forester who is about to kill her. The beautiful maiden in this case says that she would be his if he could keep her existence a secret for one year. He fails and thus looses her.

Celtic folk-lore brings us The Legend of the Children of Lir. When King Lir’s first wife dies, he marries a wicked woman Arife. Jealous of Lir’s children from his first wife, Arife turns them all into swans.

The complete scenario of Swan Lake is not to be found in any of these legends, but many parallels do exist. Other possible sources of inspiration could have been Johann Karl August Musäus’ Der geraubte Schleier, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans and Alexandre Pushkin’s Tzar Saltan, the story of a prince who saves the life of a wounded swan who later reappears as a woman to marry him. There are also elements of the story that are traditional in many ballets.

One cannot discount the influence, at least on Tchaikovsky, of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, the story of an heroic Swan Prince, a man with a mysterious past who arrives on a magical swan-boat. Tchaikovsky himself was an admirer of Wagner and reviewed his concerts, including the first Bayreuth Festival. He particularly admired Lohengrin, calling it "an excellent opera, written by a first-class master" that contained "some of the most beautiful pages in contemporary music."

Rehearsals for the first performance in Moscow began in March 1876, before Tchaikovsky had finished the score, and went on for an incredible 11 months. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modeste, "If you could have seen how comical the ballet master looked, composing the dances in a most serious and concentrated manner, to the accompaniment of a little fiddle. At the same time it was a pleasure to watch the male and female dancers smiling at the future audience and looking forward to the possibility of jumping, pirouetting and turning about in the execution of their holy duty. Everybody in the theater is delighted with my music!"

This delight in Tchaikovsky’s music was not long lived. The structure and emotional content was so in advance of what they were used to at the time that his music was soon labeled as ‘undanceable’. Even the conductor deemed it altogether too complex and difficult.

The Moscow company at this time was going through an undistinguished period and lacked a ballet master with a creative drive to propel the company forwards. The choreography of Lebedinoe Ozero (Swan Lake) was given to Julius (Wentzel) Reisinger (1827 - 92), an Austrian who was ballet master in Moscow from 1873-78. Reisinger’s contributions to the structure of the score are unknown. Although it was the tradition of the time for the ballet master to lay down a very clear ground plan that the composer was to follow, evidence points to composer and choreographer working separately. After initially deciding on the type and placement of dances, Tchaikovsky composed his music and Reisinger set about the choreography after the music was written. By many accounts Reisinger was baffled by the score and had the dancers compose their own variations.

Little is written of Reisinger today except for the failure of his Swan Lake. A critic of the day wrote "Mr. Reisinger’s dances are weak in the extreme.... Incoherent waving of the legs that continued through the course of four hours - is this not torture? The corps de ballet stamp up and down in the same place, waving their arms like a windmill’s vanes - and the soloists jump about the stage in gymnastic steps." The designs were borrowed from other productions or made cheaply. Conceived by three different men, who did not work together, the result was a shabby and incoherent look.

The choice of ballerina to perform Odette seems to have been somewhat political. The reigning ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, had offended the Governor General of Moscow by accepting jewels from him, then marrying a dancer, Stanislav Gillert, who promptly sold the jewels. The role was unexpectedly given to the lesser dancer, Pelegya Mikhailovna Karpakova, as a benefit performance. The offending Stanislav Gillert, although not notably a gifted dancer, was given the role of Siegfried. It is not known who danced the role of Odile as the program was printed with three asterisks. This was no doubt to promote the mystery about the identity of Odile, but leaves us today wondering if Karpakova took both roles or if Odile fell to another dancer.

Anna Sobeshchanskaya was permitted to dance Odette at the fourth performance of the ballet. Having no confidence in Reisinger’s talents, she went to St. Petersburg to seek the help of the illustrious choreographer Marius Petipa. She requested that he create a new third act pas de deux for her, which he did to the music of Ludwig Minkus. Tchaikovsky was appalled to learn of her plan to insert another’s music in his score. After long discussions he agreed to write additional music, basing it "bar for bar, note for note" on the Minkus music so that Petipa’s choreography could be retained. So thrilled was Sobeshchanskaya with Tchaikovsky’s composition that she requested an additional variation, which he composed for her. This is the music that Balanchine has since used as the accompaniment to his Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.


An understanding of ballet productions of the period

It is important to understand how ballets in this period were traditionally put together. The librettist (or author) would select a story or legend that suited his fancy and transpose it into a ballet in five or six acts, regardless of weather it had sufficient dramatic content to support this length. The librettist would also have little acquaintance with either the music, choreography or design. The sole requisite for success was that everything should center on one principal character to be interpreted by the prima ballerina; the slightest incident, the feeblest action, served as excuse for bringing in a dance.

Supernatural female creatures such as sylphs, wilis, shades, water nymphs and later swans, enjoyed great popularity. They appealed to the contemporary taste for idealized, fantasized womanhood and gave an opportunity for abstract choreography for the corps de ballet.

Next a composer was instructed to write the necessary music. It was usually the maître de ballet (choreographer) who set out how many dances were needed in each act, the types of music required (usually easily recognized marches, polkas or waltzes), their length, tempo and beat. If a particular location was indicated by the story, a liberal dose of appropriate national themes or instrumentation was included. The composer was seldom familiar with the libretto, so often the music was not a suitable match for the action. Since dance rehearsals were usually accompanied on the piano, the orchestral coloration of the music was seldom known before the first orchestra rehearsal. Therefore it was not uncommon for a large ensemble piece to be danced to airs lightly scored in the strings, and ethereal moments to be accompanied by the brass.

The maître de ballet tended to hang the dances on a framework, the style and sequence of which were based on established tradition. The prima ballerina must have her pas de deux with variations and coda, and there had to be at least one "pas d’action" for the dancer to display her abilities in mime. The premier danseur also was due his variation, and the corps de ballet had their "ballabiles" to give the principal characters a chance to rest and change costumes. It was also usual to introduce a number of "pas de caractère" for the soloists. It was also an important element to include processions for crowds who countermarched like soldiers, in geometric formations.

The scenery and costume designers also worked in a vacuum. Although knowledgeable in historic ornamentation and styles of architecture, the scenic designer’s chief concern was to provide a sense of richness and spaciousness no matter what the subject matter. In almost every ballet there was a lake-side scene, from which convention the members of the corps de ballet in the last row became known as "les ballerines près de l’eau". Convention also demanded that however historically correct the majority of the costumes were, the dancers had to wear a ballet skirt, pink maillot and rose colored ballet shoes. The dancers’ hairstyles always followed the prevailing fashion of the day, often decorated with a diamond tiara. The public saw nothing wrong in a dancer interpreting a humble peasant wearing jeweled bracelets or pearls.

Finally if the leading dancers liked the choreography, all was well and good. If not, the dance could be cut regardless of concern for musical flow, or a dance from another ballet could be inserted.


World Events of 1875 - 77


U.S. Congress passes Civil Rights Act.

France adopts a republican constitution.

Bizet composes Carmen.

The Paris Opera is built.

U.S. President is Ulysses S. Grant.

London’s main sewerage system is completed.

Electric tattooing machine invented.

First Kentucky Derby.

First swim across the English Channel.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s first operetta, Trial by Jury, performed.


Colorado becomes 38th state.

Mark Twain publishes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Tolstoy publishes Anna Karenina.

First performance of Wagner’s The Ring of the Niberlung in Bayreuth.

Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.

Baseball’s National League formed.

Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

Colonel Custer killed at Little Bighorn.


Rutherford B. Hayes declared U.S. president.

Russia declares war on the Ottoman Empire.

First general railroad strike in U.S.

Easter egg hunt initiated at the Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Edison invents the phonograph.

Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah premieres in Weimar.


Towards Petipa and Ivanov

Despite all the above, and that for years Swan Lake was dismissed as a failure, it may not have been the disaster we imagine. Reisinger was already disliked by the critics and therefore they were no doubt prejudiced against him. Swan Lake received forty-one performances at a time when new ballets usually received no more than eighteen. It was also given two more productions in the following five years (1880 and 1882) with choreography by the Belgian Joseph Peter Hansen. Although advertised as "newly produced, with improvements and embellishments", we have Tchaikovsky’s patron Mme von Meck’s word that "...choreographically the ballet was very poor." Hansen also produced what seems to be a variation of Act 2 in London at the Alhambra Theatre in 1884. Entitled The Swans, it was danced to music by Georges Jacobi, the resident composer of the theater.

In 1888 the second act was choreographed by Augustin Berger for a concert given in honor of Tchaikovsky in Prague with the composer conducting. In his diary Tchaikovsky described this as "a moment of absolute happiness."

There is proof that in 1886 Swan Lake was considered for production in St. Petersburg; however, nothing came of it at the time. It is unclear who in St. Petersburg was the first to suggest Swan Lake for the Maryinsky Theatre. Petipa had collaborated with Tchaikovsky on The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, only with the insistence of the theater director Vsevolojsky. The score of Swan Lake was acquired by the Maryinsky and approved by Petipa, who wrote in his memoirs, "I could not assume that Tchaikovsky’s music was bad, that his part of the work had no success; the problem was not in the music but in the production of the ballet, in the dances."

Either on account of time restraints or personal preference, Petipa assigned the choreography of Swan Lake to his assistant, Lev Ivanov. In the meantime Tchaikovsky died, and it was in 1893 at a memorial concert that Lev Ivanov’s restaged choreography for Act 2 of Swan Lake was first seen. The dance was not only a success in its own right, but it also changed the way ballets were conceived by incorporating the corps de ballet as an integral part of the drama and relating the steps directly to the symphonic structure of the music. Ivanov was able to understand Tchaikovsky’s music yet not be overwhelmed by it. One critic wrote, "Ivanov and Tchaikovsky have so closely interwoven their scenes that one might say there was a choreographically musical union. The dances of Swan Lake are lyrically symphonic, which is an expression of elegiac grief, continuing sorrow and the illusion of love."

Due to the success of Ivanov’s Swan Lake, Petipa was charged with producing the full length ballet. A new script for the ballet devised by Petipa is believed to have been created at this time. At Petipa’s request, Modeste Tchaikovsky began the libretto revisions that were completed by the editors at the Maryinsky. Along with considerable revisions to the libretto, the music was rearranged by the conductor Riccardo Drigo who also interpolated orchestrations of other Tchaikovsky compositions. He wrote: "It was my lot, like a surgeon, to perform an operation on Swan Lake, and I feared the I might not grasp the individuality of the great master."

Petipa made several changes, most notably to condense the first two acts of the original ballet into one act and two scenes. The subsequent acts 3 and 4 becoming Act 2 and Act 3. The choreography was to be new as well. Petipa contributed the choreography for Act 1 scene 1 and Act 2. Although the tale is set in Germany, Petipa’s style of choreography remained French. He added the technically demanding pas de trois and a waltz that was very balletic in style and far removed from the original concept of peasants dancing.

On January 27, 1895, two years after Ivanov’s Act 2 debuted, the world saw the premiere of the Petipa/Ivanov version of Swan Lake that is thought of today as the standard version of the ballet. The premiere had originally been planned for the fall of 1894 but was postponed due to the death of Tsar Alexander III. Despite the inclusion of the extant Ivanov Act 2, his major contributions to Act 4, and his assistance with the other acts, Ivanov’s name was not printed in the program. It was only after the Russian Revolution that his contributions were fully acknowledged.

The leading roles of Odette/Odile were danced by Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani who was noted by a critic as "the supreme ideal of plastic movement." Shortly after the premier performance she introduced the now famous thirty two fouettés into the Black Swan pas de deux. She had first executed this tour de force at the Alhambra Theatre in London in 1892

during a production of Aladdin. Prince Siegfried was danced by Pavel Gerdt who also created the leading male roles in The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. He was, however, at this point past his prime, and his role consisted mainly of partnering.

Swan Lake received sixteen performances in its first season, was not performed for a year and then received only four more performances in the following two years. Despite what we know today, the critic for the Petersburgsky Listok hailed the new production thus: "Swan Lake will hardly become a repertoire ballet and no one will regret it." The Russian Musical Gazette also found cause to criticize Tchaikovsky’s music. "The music bores because of its meaninglessness and banality."


Swan Lake After Petipa and Ivanov

As with all the classics of the ballet repertoire, Swan Lake has been the subject of many restagings and revisions. In records from Russian productions we see that a corps de ballet of children was used as a retinue for Odette in Scene 2 and that the hunters remained on stage for a majority of the dancing in the same scene. However, it is unclear to which early version these details belong.

Swan Lake was considered the ballet of Legnani until she retired from the stage. In the spring of 1901 it was passed on to Mathilde Kshesinskaya who brought the public new enthusiasm for the ballet. Due to the physical strength of Nikolai Legat as Siegfried, it was in this production that the famous White Swan Pas de Deux was seen for the first time. The original had been a pas de trois for Odette, Siegfried and Benno. That same year Aleksandr Gorsky mounted Swan Lake in Moscow in a production that sought to intensify the

dramatic elements and clarify the psychological motivations.

The 1933 Leningrad production by Agrippina Vaganova made new departures from the traditional Petipa/Ivanov version and became a major influence on subsequent Soviet productions. Vaganova had the assistance of musicologist Boris Asafiev (also the composer of Flames of Paris) who wrote a new libretto. Previously deleted music was restored, the action moved from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century, the roles of Odette and Odile (now the daughter of a ruined landlord) were danced by different dancers and the traditional pantomime sections were replaced with danced scenes. The great Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova took the role of Odette and imbued it with her own qualities that are now considered essential to the interpretation of the swan queen.

The ballet was reconceived by Fedor Lopukhov in 1945, who restored the Petipa/Ivanov plot and strengthened the role of Siegfried. Vladimir Burmeister used this as the starting point for his 1956 production where he returned to Tchaikovsky’s original ordering of the music. BalletMet’s former ballet mistress, Violetta Boft, was the first swan queen in this production. Burmeister staged his Swan Lake for the Paris Opera in 1960 and the Act 2 for the London Festival Ballet. He was the inspiration for much of the revisionist thinking of the ballet in the West, introducing many features that we now consider standard in productions of Swan Lake.

In his 1969 production for the Bolshoi, Yuri Grigorovich tried to show von Rothbart as Siegrfried’s alter ego, a symbol of the dark forces that lie within the human soul. In his final staging, he did maintain the Russian preference for a happy ending.

Swan Lake danced to Tchaikovsky’s score was one of the major artistic exports of Russia. A two act version of the ballet was seen with Pavlova in Scandinavia and Germany in 1908. In 1909 a more extensive tour of a three act version was seen in Europe, in 1910 in London and in New York in 1911.

Outside of Russia Swan Lake has been subject to many more interpretations and experiments, but it is almost always viewed as measure of the status of the company performing it. Given the innumerable versions that have sprouted, it is inevitable that many have only Tchaikovsky’s exquisite score to recommend them; even that has suffered numerous rewrites and interpolations.

Joseph Hansen, the second choreographer to work on Swan Lake at the Bolshoi, staged The Swans for the Alhambra Theatre in London in 1884 to the music of Georges Jacobi. It essentially followed the plot of Act 2 of the original Bolshoi production.

The first major non Russian production of Swan Lake is considered to be Diaghilev’s November 1911 production for the Ballets Russes, in which the ballet was severely shortened and new music was interpolated. The ballet remained, with some revisions, in the repertoire of the Ballet Russes from 1911 to 1914 and again from 1923 to 1926. After the closure of the company, Swan Lake was seen elsewhere in one act versions only.

The arrival in London of Nicholas Sergeyev, former regisseur for the Maryinsky Theatre, with his suitcase full of notation of the great Russian ballets, brought about the full length staging of the work for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1934. His staging of Swan Lake was based on notations of all the various changes made to the ballet in Russia during the Imperial period. The only dance not included was the Venetian Dance in Act 3. The Sadler’s Wells, and later the Royal Ballet remounted the work several times with new settings and additional choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton and later Nureyev.

The first full-length American production of Swan Lake was produced for the San Francisco Ballet by William Christensen ‘after Petipa and Ivanov’ in September 1940. In October 1940 Catherine Littlefield produced a Swan Lake on ice for the extravaganza It Happens on Ice in New York. The same year Balanchine choreographed an encapsulated version for the Twentieth Century-Fox film I Was an Adventuress. Balanchine himself was seen in the film as the conductor of the ballet. San Francisco Ballet toured their production extensively, and by the mid 1940s the story and music of Swan Lake were widely recognized as the paradigm for ballet.

In 1951 Balanchine choreographed a thirty-five minute Swan Lake as the first traditional ballet of the New York City Ballet repertoire. British dancer David Blair staged a full length production of Swan Lake for the Municipal Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia in 1965 featuring dancers garnered from companies across the country. He went on to stage the American Ballet Theatre’s first full-length production which premiered in Chicago in 1967.

John Cranko, Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn all staged notable productions of Swan Lake that focused on the Prince as a major character, who nonetheless dies at the end of the production. Erik Bruhn recast Rothbart as the Black Queen to equate Siegfried’s relationship to the evil magician with that to his mother. Nureyev inserted a melancholy solo for Siegfried to give him a dance life of his own, for him to be more than the ‘human crane’. In a later production of Swan Lake (Paris 1986), Nureyev combined the role of Rothbart and the prince’s tutor into one character danced by himself, and made the story Siegfried’s dream as he sleeps on a throne.

John Neumeier’s 1976 Swan Lake for the Hamburg Ballet made Prince Ludwig of Bavaria the protagonist who recalls his past obsession with Swan Lake.

Through the study of original Russian sources, the eminent musicologist Roland John Wiley assisted Anthony Dowell with his staging of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet in March 1987. Although controversial, this is believed to be the most musically authentic production in the West.

The Boston Ballet made headlines by producing an American-Soviet Swan Lake in May 1990; staged by Konstantin Sergeyev and his wife, Natalia Dudinskaya, and danced by a mixture of Russian and American dancers.

Peter Schaufuss has created a Tchaikovsky trilogy for his latest company, Peter Schaufuss Ballet in Holstebro, Denmark. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker have been conceived as a series of dreams. Three episodes of the same story feature Tchaikovsky himself, as well as acquaintances and events in his life. The costuming is of the 1990s.

Matthew Bourne’s recent staging of Swan Lake, for his London company Adventures in Motion Pictures, has attracted large attention for its completely new take on the classic ballet. With a contemporary setting, and more than passing commentary on the British Royal family, Bourne’s Swan Lake revolves around a timid and insecure Prince, and his indifferent and remote mother, the Queen. Adrift in his palace, the Prince’s life follows a downwards spiral. After an evening of dissipation at a nightclub he finally comes upon the male swan whose image has haunted him since his youth. His fascination with the swan and his flock of male swans is totally innocent at first. It is only in Act Three that the relationship becomes dangerous and the story ends with madness and death.


The Music

Although Tchaikovsky was no doubt familiar with the ballet from attending performances, Swan Lake was the first time he was to complete a composition for the art form. In 1870 Tchaikovsky told his brothers that he was hard at work on a four-act ballet of Cinderella. However, he seems to have quickly abandoned it as this is the last mention of the work and

no sketches survive. (Cinderella was staged that winter with music by a German composer.) In August 1875 he wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov, "I took this work partly for money, which I need, and partly because I have long wanted to try my hand at this kind of music." To familiarize himself with the demands of the art form he studied the ballet music of the period, which was of rather a poor standard. Thankfully his natural gifts and imagination enabled him to surpass this research and to produce a score that undoubtedly changed the public perception of music for ballet. Most of the music appears to have been written in Moscow, although just one month before he completed the work he wrote to his brother Anatoli, "I am up to my eyes in the orchestration of my ballet which must be ready by St. Thomas’ week. As I still have to finish two and a half acts, I have decided to work at this most boring task both in Holy and Easter weeks; to be able to do this I must get away from here [Moscow]." The score was completed by April 1876. After subsequently hearing Delibes’ score for Sylvia, Tchaikovsky wrote, "If I had known this music earlier, I would of course not have composed Swan Lake, for it is poor stuff compared to Sylvia."

Less is known about the genesis, composition and performance of Swan Lake than about any other major work by Tchaikovsky. The complete ballet and the familiar suite from it were only published posthumously.

Some 6 years before the Moscow debut of Tchaikovsky’s full ballet score for Swan Lake, he had written a little ballet to amuse his sister’s children entitled The Lake of the Swans. Little of this original composition is thought to have found its way into the full length ballet.

Tchaikovsky had also previously worked on three stage works featuring the love of a mortal man for an non-mortal woman that ended in tragedy. They were the operas Undine (1869), and Mandragora (1869-70) and incidental music to the play The Snow Maiden (1873). The two operas were never performed. Undine he destroyed, and Mandragora was never finished. It is possible that in Swan Lake he found a vehicle that fulfilled his aspirations on this type of subject. We do know that the love duet in Act 2 of Swan Lake is based on music discarded from Undine. Now featuring solo violin and cello, it was originally scored as a duet for soprano and baritone.

The fact that the score of Swan Lake almost certainly contains a quantity of music previously composed for other projects in no way distracts from its intrinsic qualities when measured against the undeniably more "through-composed" scores of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. It has a quite specific overall musical design that even extends to the key structure. The quasi-symphonic quality of Acts Two and Four has long been held up as the first, and possibly most significant, example of Tchaikovsky’s reform of the hitherto episodic nature of ballet music.


Notable Productions of Swan Lake


The Original

Lebedinoe Ozero (Swan Lake)

Choreography: Julius (Wentzel) Reisinger

Music: P.I. Tchaikovsky

Design: Karl Valz, Ivan Shanguine, and Karl Gropius

Libretto: Vladimir Begichev

Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, 4 March [20 February], 1877

Pelegaya Karpakova (Odette), Stanislav Gillert (Siegfried)


Choreography: Joseph Peter Hansen after Reisinger

Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1880 & restaged 1882


Ivanov's Act II

Choreography: Lev Ivanov

Design: Botcharov & Levogt

Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, February 29, 1894

Pierina Legnani (Odette)


The "Standard Version"

Choreography: Marius Petipa (Acts I & III) and Lev Ivanov (Acts II & IV)

Music: P.I. Tchaikovsky (Edited by Riccardo Drigo)

Design: Mikhail Bocharov and Heinrich Levogt

Libretto: Modeste Tchaikovsky and others after Begichev

Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, January 27 [January 15], 1895

Pierina Legnani (Odette/Odile), Pavel Gerdt (Siegfried)


The First in the West

Choreography: Mikhail Fokine after Petipa/Ivanov

Music: P.I. Tchaikovsky

Design: Konstanti Korovin and Aleksandr Golovin

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, London, November 30, 1911

Mathilde Kshessinskya (Odette/Odile), Vaslav Nijinsky (Siegfried)


The First Full Length Production in the United States

Choreography: William Christensen after Petipa/Ivanov

Music: P.I. Tchaikovsky

Design: Leslie Hurry

San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco, September 27, 1940

Jacquelin Martin (Odette), Janet Reed (Odile), Lew Chrsitensen (Siegfried)


The Revision Most Are Indebted To

Choreography: Vladimir Burmeister after Lopukhov

Music: P.I. Tchaikovsky

Design: Anatole Lushin & Archangelskaya

Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre, Moscow, April 25, 1953

Violetta Boft (Odette/Odile), Oleg Chichinadze (Siegfried)


Design: Dimitri Bouchène

Paris Opera Ballet, December 21, 1960

Josette Amiel (Odette/Odile), Peter van Dijk (Siegfried)


The All Male Swan Lake

Choreography: Mathew Bourne

Music: P.I. Tchaikovsky

Design: Lez Brotherston

Adventures in Motion Pictures, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, November 9, 1995

Adam Cooper (The Swan), Fiona Chadwick (The Queen)


Other Productions of Swan Lake

Choreography: Augustin Berger

Prague National Theatre, February 21, 1888. (Act 2 only) with Tchaikovsky conducting

Giulietta Paltrinieri-Bergrova (Odette), August Berger (Siegfried)

Choreography: Aleksander Gorsky after Petipa/Ivanov. Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, February 5 1901

Adelina Dzhuri (Odette/Odile), Mikhail Mordkin (Siegfried)

Choreography: Achille Viscusi

Prague, June 27, 1907

Choreography: Mikhail Fokine after Petipa/Ivanov

London Hippodrome, May 16, 1910. (Two act version)

Oleg Preobrazhenska (Odette/Odile)

Choreography: Mikhail Mordkin after Petipa/Ivanov

Mikhail Mordkin’s All Star Imperial Russian Ballet, New York, December 19, 1911

Ekaterina Gelster (Odette), Mikhail Mordkin (Siegfried)

Choreography: Agrippina Vaganova in collaboration with Vladimir Dmitriev & Boris Asafiev. Libretto: Vladimir Dmitriev

Kirov Ballet, Leningrad, April 13, 1933

Galina Ulanova (Odette), Olga Jordan (Odile), Konstantin Sergeyev (Siegfried)

Choreography: Nicholas Sergeyev after Petipa/Ivanov

Sadler’s Wells Ballet, London, November 20, 1934

Alicia Markova (Odette/Odile), Robert Helpman (Siegfried)

Choreography: Harald Lander after Ivanov. (One act version). Royal Danish Ballet, Copenhagen, January 22, 1936

Margot Lander (Odette)

Choreography: Anton Dolin after Ivanov

Ballet Theatre, New York, January 16, 1940

Patricia Bowman (Odette), Anton Dolin (Siegrfried)

Choreography: Fedor Lopukhov after Petipa/Ivanov

Kirov Ballet, Leningrad, 1945

Natailia Dudinskaya (Odette/Odile), Konstantin Sergeyev (Siegfried)

Choreography: George Balanchine after Ivanov

(One act only)

New York City Ballet, November 20, 1951

Maria Tallchief (Odette), André Eglevsky (Siegfried)

Choreography: John Cranko

Stuttgart Ballet, November 14, 1963

Marcia Haydée (Odette/Odile), Rudolf Nureyev (Siegfried)

Choreography: Robert Helpman with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton

The Royal Ballet, London, December 12, 1963

Margot Fonteyn (Odette/Odile), David Blair (Siegfried)

Choreography: Rudolf Nureyev

Vienna State Opera Ballet, October 15, 1964

Margot Fonteyn (Odette/Odile), Rudolf Nureyev (Siegrfied)

Staged by David Blair

American Ballet Theatre, Chicago, February 16, 1967

Nadia Nerina (Odette/Odile), Royes Fernandes (Siegfried)

Choreography: Erik Bruhn

The National Ballet of Canada, Toronto, March 27, 1967

Lois Smith (Odette/Odile), Earl Kraul (Siegfried)

Choreography: Yuri Grigorovich

Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow, December 25, 1976

Natalia Bessmertnova (Odette/Odile), Nikolai Fadeyechev (Siegfried)

Choreography: John Neumeier

Hamburg Ballet, May 2, 1976

Choreography: Mikhail Baryshnikov

American Ballet Theatre, Washington D.C. March 27, 1981

Martine van Hamel (Odette/Odile), Kevin McKenzie (Siegfried)

Choreography: Anthony Dowell after Sergeyev

The Royal Ballet, London, March 1987

Cynthia Harvey (Odette/Odile), Johnathon Cape (Siegfried)

Choreography: Staged by Konstantin Sergeyev, Natalia Dudinskaya and Anna-Marie Holmes

The Boston Ballet, May 1990

Nina Ananiashvili (Odette/Odile), Fernando Bujones (Siegfreid)

Choreography: Peter Schaufuss

Peter Schaufuss Ballet, Holstebro, Denmark. 1998

Choreography: Birgit Scherzer

Saarländisches Staatstheater, Saarbrüken. February 1998.


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