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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Swan Lake

In 1875 the composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was living in Moscow and he received what was for him an unusual commission, a request to compose a full-length ballet. Although Tchaikovsky had had no experience in writing ballet music, he said later that he’d accepted the commission because he needed the money (it was a rather small fee) and because he wanted the experience of a new sort of musical creation.

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (1888)

The ballet which resulted was Swan Lake but the genesis of the project in 1875 is shrouded in mystery because very little documentation survives. The ballet’s plot is said to be based on a German legend but there are many tales from many different cultures which contain elements of the story as we know it now from the ballet. It seems that the Intendant of the Russian Imperial Theatres, Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, and one of the dancers in the company, Vasily Fedorovich Geltser, planned the detailed scenario for the ballet.

Rehearsals for Swan Lake began in April 1876, before Tchaikovsky had finished the score, and the saga of the ballet’s premiere and subsequent performance history is a sad one. Given its iconic status, it’s hard for us to realise these days that Swan Lake is a revolutionary score. No-one in Moscow had encountered a ballet score like this before.

Ballet had, with very few exceptions, been composed for the preceding century or more by third-, fourth- and fifth-rate composers whose music was eminently forgettable. One of the first composers to challenge this was the French composer Léo Delibes. Tchaikovsky was very impressed with Delibes’ ballets Coppélia and Sylvia, and later was said to have described his own Swan Lake as “poor stuff compared with Sylvia”. Tchaikovsky viewed the composition of his first ballet score as being symphonic in nature. It was this huge step forward - making the music as great as the choreography - which stunned some of his first audiences and collaborators, and appalled others.

Leo Delibes (1875)

Rehearsals for the premiere of Swan Lake went on for an incredible 11 months. Initial delight at Tchaikovsky’s music soon turned to incomprehension. It was generally regarded as too complex and complicated for ballet.

Added to this was the fact that choreographer for the premiere, Julius Reisinger, was clearly not up to the task. He and the dancers had little appreciation for the score as a whole and neither did the conductor, by all reports. Chunks of the music were cut and replaced by chunks from works by other composers.

With sets and costumes that were either borrowed from other productions or made at minimal expense it’s no surprise that the premiere was what one writer calls “a soggy failure”.

Gaanen: Design for Act 2, Moscow 1877

Despite all this, Swan Lake was revived in the early 1880s to new choreography. An 1888 performance of just Act 2 in Prague (with Tchaikovsky conducting) provided the composer with what he described as “a moment of absolute happiness”. Thereafter, the ballet was not staged during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime.

After Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, and given the successes of his later ballets The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, Swan Lake was revisited and a new version was devised by the great choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The story was revised and adapted by the composer’s brother, Modest, and the music rearranged by the conductor Riccardo Drigo, sometimes incorporating music from some of Tchaikovsky’s other works. The Petipa/Ivanov version - first performed in 1895 - is nowadays regarded as the standard version Swan Lake; few people seem aware that it is not the score as originally conceived by Tchaikovsky. In what follows we’ll survey the score in its original four-act version of 1877, which is undoubtedly a major work; when played complete, the score of Swan Lake contains almost three hours of music. But when you go to see a performance of Swan Lake today, you can be almost certain not to hear the work as conceived by the composer.

Right from the start of the first act Tchaikovsky thinks and writes unlike any other ballet composer. The melodies heard at the outset are played by the oboe and the clarinet. The oboe will later come to represent the tragic heroine of the story, Odette, while the clarinet will represent her identical alter ego, Odile. This introduction is also in the key of B minor, a key which Tchaikovsky associates with the tragic thrust of the plot, and of the swans in particular. [listen]

The introduction soon gives way to the opening of the first act. It’s set outdoors, in a beautiful park, with a castle visible in the background. Prince Siegfried and his friends are drinking, celebrating his birthday. A group of local people enter to congratulate him and entertain him with their dances. [listen]

Pavel Gerdt as Siegfried, St Petersburg 1895

The waltz which follows is well-known from its incorporation into the concert suite (made after Tchaikovsky’s death). It’s in the key of A major which Tchaikovsky later associates with moments of action throughout the ballet. [listen]

Prince Siegfried’s mother enters to impress upon him the importance of choosing a wife. Siegfried understands that this will mean the end of his carefree life. The scene continues with the local people performing a series of dances - a divertissement - for the Prince. The first of these is a pas de trois (a dance for three people) in six short sections. Tchaikovsky shows that this is “outside” the main thrust of the plot by setting it in B flat major, a key not connected with the main keys of B minor and A major.

The second divertissement is a pas de deux - a dance for two of the local people - and this is where Tchaikovsky originally placed this music. Petipa and Ivanov put it later in the score, where it became known as the “Black Swan” pas de deux, but that was not the composer’s intention. It contains one of the great violin solos of the score. Any orchestra playing Swan Lake requires a virtuoso concertmaster. [listen]

After this entertainment from the local people the action of the plot continues. Clearly Siegfried and his friends have continued drinking while the divertissement has been happening. The scene grows dark as night falls and they all dance once more, a brilliant polonaise in which all hold their wine goblets while dancing. [listen]

As the dance ends, a flight of swans appears. Siegfried’s friend Benno quickly suggests a hunt and they leave. This famous melody is in B minor, the key of the introduction, and played by the oboe, the instrument associated with the doomed Odette. Siegfried, Benno and his friends all leave to follow the swans and act 1 ends on an ominous note, despite the move to the major key. [listen]

The second act of Swan Lake takes place later that night. Siegfried and his friends watch the swans as they cross a moonlit lake. This act opens with the best-known version of the famous swan tune, in the form in which it was incorporated into the orchestral suite. [listen]

The hunters are delighted and take aim at the swans but as they do they are amazed to see the swans transform themselves into young women. Their leader is Princess Odette, who has been bewitched by her step mother and Rothbart, a sorcerer. She is doomed by the spell to be a swan by day and a woman by night. In the course of the narrative music which follows, Siegfried becomes aware of her plight, and of the fact that only a vow of love can break the spell. Siegfried is totally smitten with Odette and falls in love with her.

Anna Sobechshanskaya as Odette, Moscow 1877

As he is about to declare his love, Rothbart briefly appears and menaces Siegfried and the women. Siegfried throws away his weapon and begs Odette to attend the ball the following night at the castle at which he must choose his bride. [listen]

The remainder of the second act comprises what at first looks like another divertissement - a series of dances for the swans - but it is also an essential part of the plot as it enables Siegfried and Odette to declare their mutual love. The five sections of this tightly-constructed sequence contain another famous moment, a dance which Petipa called “Dance of the Young Swans” although Tchaikovsky reserved that title for a later movement. [listen]

After this comes a major pas d’action for Odette and Siegfried, featuring solo violin and cello in the orchestra. This music is based on a love duet Tchaikovsky wrote for his discarded opera Undine; the violin and cello parts reflect the original solo vocal parts and here of course portray the two lovers now dancing on stage. [listen]

The second act ends with a spirited ensemble finale for Siegfried and the swans. [listen]

Tchaikovsky’s score then clearly requires the famous scene music from the start of the act to be repeated. Whether it’s used as exit music, or as an entr’acte with the curtain down, it rounds off the first half of the ballet beautifully, in the ballet’s home key of B minor and in the mood that reminds us all may not be well for these young lovers.

The third act is set the following night in the glittering ballroom of the palace. It’s Siegfried’s birthday, the night on which he must choose his bride. [listen]

A ballroom scene is, of course, tailor-made for ballet and there are several dances which follow to provide the opportunity for much varied choreographic display. A dance for the full company follows, with what appears in the original score as a dance for some dwarfs. The dwarfs are usually omitted in modern productions but the music Tchaikovsky wrote for them is clever and inventive, with pizzicato strings answering winds and horns.

The principal guests then arrive. These are the six Princesses from whom Siegfried must choose his bride. This becomes a grand waltz during which each princess is presented to Siegfried. [listen]

Siegfried refuses to choose a bride. But it is at this moment that Rothbart appears with his own daughter, Odile. She appears to be identical to Odette except that Odette wore white, while Odile wears black. (The same ballerina dances both roles.) Siegfried thinks it is Odette and warmly welcomes her.

In this narrative sequence, Tchaikovsky brilliantly reflects in the music the events on the stage. The waltz theme is “malformed”, as it were, into four beats in the bar, and the swan theme is heard but in harsh orchestral colours, suggesting Odile’s outward resemblance to Odette. [listen]

A pas de six for the six princesses follows. This is the start of a very long sequences of dances not directly related to the plot, but Tchaikovsky manages to make it less like an interruption to the story and more like an enhancement of it.

The pas de six, for example, provides a different dance for each of the six princesses, each of which is in a different style and thus reflective of the individual nature of each Princess. After this, a pas de deux for Siegfried and Odile was later added by Tchaikovsky although only the second variation was orchestrated by him. Then comes a sequence of nationalistic dances - a Hungarian dance, a Russian dance, a Spanish dance, a Neapolitan dance and a Polish Mazurka. The Russian dance was added later by Tchaikovsky at the request of Pelagaya Karpakova, the first dancer to take on the role of Odette and (we assume) Odile. In performance, this entire sequence takes more than half an hour if performed complete. The Mazurka with which it ends involves the whole company. [listen]

Principal dancers, Moscow 1901

After this the drama takes off and Tchaikovsky has a lot of action to cover in a very short period. In fact, the last section of the third act takes less than four minutes. The pleasure of the dances, and of Siegfried in thinking he has found the woman of his dreams, is shattered as soon as the Prince announces his choice of Odile, which is done in the “malformed” version of the waltz. Siegfried and Odile then dance the waltz in its correct rhythm and meter.

Rothbart is delighted at his success. The hall darkens as he turns into an owl and leaves the hall, screeching. As he does, Siegfried glimpses the real Odette. Realising his mistake he rushes out into the night. [listen]

The brief fourth act returns us to the lake. After a short entr’acte (which Tchaikovsky adapted from his early opera The Voyevoda) the scene is set, showing us Odette’s friends awaiting her return at the lake. Their agitation and confusion is clearly audible in the music. [listen]

Then comes the dance Tchaikovsky called the “dance of the little swans”, a sad expression of loss and uncertainly, based on other themes from The Voyevoda. [listen]

Odette then bursts into the scene, heartbroken at what she sees as her desertion by Siegfried, and falls into the arms of her friends. Siegfried pursues her through a rising storm. [listen]

Siegfried begs Odette for forgiveness but she dies of grief in his arms. The waters of the lake rise up and engulf the lovers, thus Siegfried dies with Odette. [listen]

Royal Swedish Opera production (2008)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2008.

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