Behind the Music : Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky began work on Swan Lake in August 1875, using material from a domestic ballet of the same name he wrote for his sister’s children in 1871. The score was completed in April 1876, and the ballet was first performed on March 4, 1877, in Moscow. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets and two cornets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, harp, and strings.

We owe the first of Tchaikovsky’s great ballet scores, Swan Lake, to Tanya and Anna Davidová, the children of Tchaikovsky’s beloved sister Sasha. When Uncle Pyotr whipped up an afternoon’s entertainment to delight his nieces sometime during the summer of 1871, he never could have guessed Swan Lake would become the classic monument of ballet. (He also never suspected that Anna would one day marry the son of Nadezhda von Meck, the only woman Tchaikovsky ever loved—although their passion was expressed solely in letters and music.)

We know little about that first Swan Lake except that it was hastily written and “premiered” as a modest, do-it-yourself production during the summer holiday at Kamenka, where the composer often went to take in the country air. Four years later, when the Imperial Theatre in Moscow commissioned a full-length ballet, Tchaikovsky naturally remembered that he had one already started. Taking some of that music, rescuing other passages from his first two ill-fated operas, Undine and Voyevoda, and writing a good deal more—including some last-minute additions, purely to appease the Bolshoi’s star ballerinas—Tchaikovsky created the first of his three great ballets (The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker came much later).

At the first performances, in March 1877, Swan Lake was far from the popular success it is today. The dancers were uneven, the scenery and costumes shabby, the choreography pedestrian, and the conductor inept (a “semi-amateur,” in the words of Tchaikovsky’s brother, “who had never before been faced with so complicated a score”). Several numbers in the score were cut because they were too difficult to play and to dance. Pieces by Cesare Pugni—pedestrian but easily danced—were added.

Audience members can hardly be blamed for failing to notice Tchaikovsky’s uncanny way of writing melodies that beg to be danced, or his knack for suggesting character through orchestral color. There were a few additional performances of the ballet during the composer’s lifetime, and with each one, Tchaikovsky’s score was further diminished by substitutions of other music, and the plot graced with new twists. Not for the only time in his career, Tchaikovsky came to doubt his music’s merit. He wrote to Nadezhda von Meck, “I tell you that Swan Lake is not fit to hold a candle to [Delibes’s] Sylvia.”

Swan Lake won great success only in the celebrated 1895 production staged by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov two years after Tchaikovsky’s death. Eventually, Swan Lake, with the sheer beauty of its melodies and the richness of its orchestral colors, was recognized as a turning point in ballet music. The finest parts of Tchaikovsky’s full score have long been performed in various orchestral suites, none of them authorized by the composer, who never suspected that Swan Lake would find itself a home in the concert hall, or that this tale of the bachelor Prince Siegfried and Odette, who has been turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer, would be reinterpreted again and again through the ages.

Notes by Phillip Huscher, program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.