A guide to… Swan Lake

Your guide to the background and recordings of one of the most popular ballet scores ever written…

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Genesis of a classic

Although it has since become one of the most popular ballets of all time, Swan Lake had a far from auspicious beginning. In 1871 Tchaikovsky wrote a short ballet for his nephews and nieces on the Swan Lake legend.

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When, four years later, he was commissioned to write a full-length score on the same story for the ballet of the Mosxow Imperial Opera at the Bolshoi, he returned to the music he had already composed.

The composition of the score occupied him from August 1875 to March 187

Origins of the story

The plot is Begichev and Geltser’s own, but aspects were drawn from a number of existing sources. The myth of the Swan-Maiden appears in many cultures, and the legend of human to animal metamorphosis is widespread – one apt example is the swan in Wagner’s Lohengrin, who is Elsa’s enchanted brother.

The most direct sources for the scenario are the Russian tale ‘Sweet Makhail ivanovich the Rover’, about a huntsman who meets a swan-maiden, and the southern German legend of a forester who is about to shoot a swan when it turns into a woman.

A new kind of ballet

Before Tchaikovsky, fairytale ballets were composed from a series of divertissements, but Swan Lake, the first of his three full-length ballets, broke away from this tradition.

It is the first recognisably symphonic ballet score, setting to music a dramatic narrative as serious as that of any opera.

This new style rather foxed the first choreographer, the Austrian Wenzel Reisinger, who re-ordered the movements and added music from other sources to present it in a more conventional way.

First productions – from failure to triumph

Badly staged and rehearsed, the first performance in this form in March 1877 was not a great success. A revival with new choreography took place in 1882, but it wasn’t until after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 that the ballet finally won the hearts of audiences.

It was partly the success of the composer’s two other full-length ballets Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker which prompted the directorate of the Imperial Theatre to take another look at Swan Lake.

The best recordings

Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
Decca 436 212-2

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Mark Ermler
Royal Opera House ROH 301/3

London Symphony Orchestra/Andre Previn
EMI CZS 67743 2

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHSA 5124(2)

State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Vladimir Jurowski
Pentatone PTC 5186 640

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Original text by Jonathan Swain