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The Swan Lake

Pyotr Il'ich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Ballet in the Letters of Tchaikovsky

In the summer of 1871, Tchaikovsky went to stay with his sister Alexandra Davydova on her estate at Kamenka, in the Ukraine. For her children he wrote a little domestic ballet which he called "Swan Lake". Everybody was involved, including his brother Modest as the Prince, and the entertainment was long remembered with pleasure by the family.

By the end of May 1875, Tchaikovsky had for unknown reasons received the commission for a full-length ballet on "Swan Lake". He accepted and told Rimsky-Korsakov that he accepted:

"Partly because I want the money, but also because I have long had the wish to try my hand at this kind of music."

Lacking a proper musical tradition to give expressive substance to its ballet tradition, which had hitherto depended largely upon the purely decorative and virtuoso, the Russian theatre was not ready for so ambitious a score as "Swan Lake", and innovations were regarded as suspect. The first to rebel were the orchestral players. Bemused by the unprecedented difficulty of the score, they found little help from their conductor. The dancers, required to act out a dance drama rather than merely show their paces in a set of pretty numbers or exhibitionist turns, were at a loss. On top of that the décor was feeble, as contemporary drawings show, and was prevented from achieving any kind of expressive unity by being parcelled out between three different designers. The ballet became a complete fiasko and on the 7th of December 1877, Tchaikovsky wrote to the composer Sergei Taneyev:

"Listened to the Leo Delibes's ballet "Sylvia". In fact, I actually listened, because it is the first ballet, where the music constitutes not only the main, but the only interest. What charm, what elegance, what richness of melody, rhythm, harmony. I was ashamed. If I had known this music early then, of course, I would not have written "Swan Lake"".

The history of "Swan Lake" as a successful ballet really dates from the 1895 revival of the complete work with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately Tchaikovsky did not live to see it. He died in 1893 convinced of Swan Lake's failure.

Research: John Warrack and Thomas Kohlhase
Translation of Tchaikovsky letters: Olga Gerdt