Ballet in 4 acts, Op. 20 (1875–76).
Tchaikovsky's original score contains an Introduction and 29 individual numbers as listed below, together with two supplementary numbers (Nos. 19a and 20a). This sequence differs from some versions produced after the composer's death. The titles of numbers in French (italic type) and Russian (Cyrillic) are taken from the published score, with English translations added in bold type.
The action takes place in medieval Germany:
Act I. The scene represents part of a magnificent park, with a castle visible in the distance. An elegant bridge crosses a nearby stream. Prince Siegfried and his friends are seated at tables, drinking wine, and celebrating the eve of his coming of age. A crowd of peasants come to congratulate the prince. His elderly tutor Wolfgang invites them to entertain the Prince with their dances. The peasants agree. The prince orders wine for them, and the women are given flowers and ribbons. After a grand waltz, Siegfried’s mother arrives unexpectedly, and tells him that he must choose a bride the next day, at a ball to be held for that purpose. Siegfried reluctantly agrees, and his mother departs. The Prince declares that this means an end to their carefree life. His friend Benno, a knight, consoles him. They resume their places and the party continues, with divertissements for the peasants and revellers. Wolfgang decides to join the dancing, but wine and age have fuddled his movements and he falls, leaving others to finish the dance. Evening approaches with the setting sun, and one of the guests proposes that the last dance shall be with their goblets in their hands. A flock of swans appears in the air, and Benno suggests a hunt. Wolfgang proposes to go to bed. The Prince appears to agree with Wolfgang, but as soon as his tutor leaves, he takes his gun and hurries off with Benno in the direction the swans were flying.
Act II opens in a mountain landscape, with forests on all sides. In the background is a lake, shimmering in the moonlight. On the right bank are the ruins of a chapel. A swan wearing a crown on its head leads the other swans as they glide majestically across the surface of the lake. The Prince and Benno enter. Siegfried sees the swans and prepares to fire, but they disappear behind the ruins, which are then illuminated by a magical light. The two men decide to investigate, and as they approach, a young girl comes down the staircase, wearing a white dress and the crown on her head. She asks Siegfried why he wishes to persecute her. She tells him that she is the Princess Odette, the unwanted stepdaughter of an evil sorceress who is trying to kill her. She is protected by her crown, which was given to her by her grandfather. Only the marriage vow can break the spell, which holds her and the other girls bound as swans by day and humans by night. An evil sorceress appears in the guise of an owl and menaces Siegfried. Then a flock of swan maidens and children appear and reproach the young huntsmen. Odette tells them to desist since she considers him to be no threat to them. Siegfried throws away his weapon. The swans dance, and Siegfried confesses the love he has began to feel for Odette. She reminds him of the ball planned for the next day, and its purpose, but Siegfried swears his love despite this. Odette promises him she will attend the ball tomorrow. As dawn breaks. Odette and her friends withdraw into the ruins, and reappear on the lake as swans.
Act III. In the castle ballroom, Wolfgang orders the servants to admit the guests, and they are followed by the Prince’s mother, Siegfried and their retinue of pages and dwarves, who perform a dance. The Master of Ceremonies signals the revels to commence, and new guests are announced, including an old count with his wife and daughter, who begins to dance with one of the knights. Six eligible princesses arrive with their parents, and each daughter dances for Siegfried. After several such entrances, the Siegfried’s mother instructs her son to make a choice, but he cannot. Annoyed, she calls Wolfgang to talk some sense into him. Fanfares sound anew, and Baron von Rothbart enters with Odile. Siegfried is struck by Odile’s likeness to Odette. He even asks Benno to affirm her resemblance to Odette, but his friend sees none. Siegfried delightedly welcomes Odile, and the ball recommences. Dances follow for the visiting Princesses, a Pas de deux for Siegfried and Odile, and dancers from many nations. The Prince’s mother is delighted that Siegfried is taken with Odile. He announces that he will marry her, and kisses Odile’s hand. The Prince’s mother and von Rothbart join their hands. The scene then darkens, and an owl cries out, as von Rothbart is revealed as a demon. Odette appears helplessly at a window as white swan, while Odile laughs loudly. Siegfried is horrified, and flings away the hand of his newly betrothed. Clutching his breast, he rushes out of the castle.
Act IV. Back at the lakeside clearing, the Swan maidens await Odette by the lake, unable to understand where their queen has gone. The young swans dance while they wait. Odette eventually returns in despair and tells the others that she has been betrayed, and no hope remains. Against their advice, Odette lingers to spend one last moment with Siegfried, who rushes in. As a storm rises, Siegfried begs Odette’s forgiveness, but she feels powerless to forgive him, and she tries to run away towards the ruins. The Prince catches up with her, grasps her hand and desperately exclaims that she will remain with him forever. Then he takes the crown from her head and throws it into the stormy lake. An owl flies screeching overhead, holding Odette’s crown in its claws. Odette dies in the Prince’s arms. The sad last song of the swan is heard. Both lovers are engulfed by the overflowing lake. As the waters subside, swans are seen gliding across the calm surface of the lake.
The Tchaikovsky Handbook, vol. 1 (2002), p. 100–101
Nikolay Kashkin  stated that the composer was persuaded to write a ballet on a mythical subject from the time of medieval knights. There is extremely little reliable information on the process of composition. Kashkin insisted that the composer began to work on the ballet in the spring and that the first act "was already written by the end of the conservatory examinations", although he mistakenly dates this to the spring of 1876 (by which time the ballet had been completely orchestrated).
Tchaikovsky himself first mentioned the ballet in a letter to Sergey Taneyev of 14/26 August 1875 written from Verbovka, where he had arrived on 18/30 July and finished his Symphony No. 3 (completed on 1/13 August): "I have written (in outline) two acts for a ballet The Lake of Swans". In this same letter he mentions that he is tired, adding: "After my exertions of the last few days, I really intend to take a break before returning to Moscow. I don't want to think about music this coming term" . On 10/22 September he wrote to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov from Moscow: "I spent the summer in various provinces with friends and relations. I worked quite diligently and besides a symphony, I have written (in outline) two acts of a ballet. At the behest of the Moscow directorate I am writing the music for a ballet Lake of the Swans. I accepted this task partly for the money, and partly because I have long wanted to try my hand at this sort of music" . On 14/26 August the composer reported to Modest Tchaikovsky: "I am diligently writing the ballet" .
It is not possible to ascertain exactly when the sketches were completed and the instrumentation was begun. On the fair copy of the manuscript, after Act I, No. 3 is the autograph date: "13 October 1875 [O.S.]. Moscow". Evidently at this point the rough sketches had already been completed, and the composer had embarked on the instrumentation of the ballet.
Besides composing Lake of the Swans, Tchaikovsky had to attend to a number of other tasks. On 12/24 November 1875 in a letter to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, we read: "I am drowning in a flood of work. Besides a ballet, which I am rushing to finish as soon as possible so that I can start on an opera, I have a mass of proofs and—worst of all—a commitment to write some musical articles" . On 11/23 December the same year, the composer wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "If only you knew how after writing articles, scoring the ballet, conservatory classes, and so forth, how difficult it is for me to find the time to carry on a discussion with you" .
On 20 December 1875/1 January 1876, Tchaikovsky went abroad, where he began to write his String Quartet No. 3. On 10/22 February 1876, the composer told Modest Tchaikovsky: "After the quartet I want to take a break, i.e. just finish the ballet, and not write anything else" . The quartet was finished on 18 February/1 March (according to the date on the manuscript score).
On 17/29 March, in a letter to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, we read: "I am up to my eyes in the scoring of the ballet, which without fail must be finished by Saint Thomas's Week. With 2½ acts still to do, I have decided to devote the whole of Easter to this endlessly boring task. In order to do the job properly, I need two weeks away from here otherwise nothing will get done" . In the same letter he reported that he was going to see Konstantin Shilovsky at Glebovo.
On 24 March/5 April, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest: "At the end of this week I am leaving to spend the whole of Holy Week and Easter in Kostya Shilovsky's village [Glebovo]. I want to get away from all the bustle and clamour of the festivities in Moscow, and to work properly on the ballet, which has to be finished as soon as possible. Yesterday in the hall of the Theatrical School there was a rehearsal of a few numbers from the first act of this ballet". And below he added: "The whole theatre was delighted with my music" .
Tchaikovsky remained at Glebovo from 28 March/9 April until 12/24 April, and then returned to Moscow with the completed full score of The Lake of Swans. The author’s date at the end of the manuscript reads: "The End!!! Glebovo 10 April 1876".
Evidently the full score of Act I was in the hands of the theatre before Tchaikovsky left on his foreign travels. This would seem to be a contradiction between his letter of 17/29 March, stating there were "2½ acts still to do", and his subsequent letter of 24 March/5 April, where he referred to rehearsals of the first act having taken place. In a report from the inspector of music, Yury Gerber, to the Directorate of the Moscow Theatres, we read: "I have the honour of informing the Directorate that on this day I received from Mr Tchaikovsky the remaining 3 acts of the ballet Swan Lake—Mr Tchaikovsky asked me to petition the Directorate for payment of the balance of his fee". This report was received by Pavel Kavelin on 12/24 April 1876 .
After finishing the ballet, Tchaikovsky had to write two additional numbers for it. The first of these pieces is described on the manuscript score as: "Russian Dance for the third act of Lake of the Swans (for Mme. Karpakova)". This dance was performed by the principal ballerina in all productions of the ballet during the composer's lifetime. The second number, Pas de deux, was apparently written at the request of another ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, whose benefit took place on 28 April/10 May 1877. The origins of this Pas de deux are described in Pavel Pchelnikov’s recollections of Tchaikovsky . The former was told the story by the conductor Stepan Ryabov. Without naming the ballerina, Pchelnikov reported that she went to Saint Petersburg to ask the balletmaster Marius Petipa if he could furnish her with a Pas de deux. The number was set to music by the composer Ludwig Minkus. Not wanting to allow music by others in his ballet, Tchaikovsky wrote his own Pas de deux, preserving the length and divisions of Minkus' piece .
According to Pavel Pchelnikov’s account, up to the end of the 1878/79 season the ballerina Pelageya Karpakova danced a Pas de six in Act III, and later a Pas de cinq or Pas de dix (from 1878), while the ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya always danced a Pas de deux after a Pas de cinq. Furthermore, ballerina E. N. Kalmykova, who performed the role of Odette in a new production by the balletmaster Hansen (1880), danced the Pas de deux in Act III .
The arrangement for piano (2 hands) was made by Nikolay Kashkin in 1876, at the request of Tchaikovsky himself. On 16/28 September 1876, Tchaikovsky wrote to Pyotr Jurgenson: "Kashkin will be coming over today to play the first and second acts of the ballet. Would you like to hear it? Albrecht will be there as well" . Nikolay Kashkin wrote about his work on the arrangement in his memoirs: "The principle objective of my arrangement of the ballet was, where possible, to preserve all the main lines in the full score, which was not a particularly easy task. When he came to review it, the author simplified a few places of little musical importance, while elsewhere he even added a few grace notes. These additions could not be played on the piano, but, probably imagining the printed orchestral score of the ballet, the composer inserted these details simply because he took it into his head that the music would read better that way" .
A piano duet arrangement of Swan Lake appeared in an edition by Pyotr Jurgenson in February 1877 (for the premiere). In 1895, Jurgenson published the full score of the ballet corresponding to the author's manuscript score, with an appendix containing the Russian Dance. At this time, the Russian text of the libretto, included in the full score, was translated into the French language . In the same year, Jurgenson reprinted Nikolay Kashkin's piano score with the Russian text of the libretto, with an appendix including the Russian Dance .
The first performance of the ballet took place in Moscow, on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre, on 20 February/4 March 1877, at a benefit for the ballerina Pelageya Karpakova, choreographed by Julius Reisinger, and conducted by Stepan Ryabov. The ballet's libretto was printed for the premiere , in which the plot and text correspond to the scenario written by the composer in the manuscript score. The production went well, and it remained in the repertoire until the 1882/83 season , after which it was not performed again in Russia during the composer's lifetime. It should be noted that on 9/21 February 1888, Act II of Swan Lake was performed on the stage of the National Theatre in Prague. This was the first production of a Russian ballet outside its native land.
There are few surviving accounts by Tchaikovsky concerning his ballet. In 1877, after seeing Delibes' ballet Sylvia in Vienna, the composer wrote to Nadezhda von Meck that Swan Lake was poorer by far than Sylvia .
In 1882 Tchaikovsky considered creating a Suite from the music to Swan Lake.
On 4/16 April 1886, in reply to a letter from Pyotr Jurgenson, in which the publisher reported that Ivan Vsevolozhsky wanted to present an act from Swan Lake in a partially open-air performance, and asking which act would be best, Tchaikovsky wrote: "Out of the four acts I must choose the second, and not the fourth as you suggested. So don’t forget: the second " .
In parts of the ballet Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky used music from his earlier destroyed operas. The Entr'acte to Act IV of the ballet was taken unchanged from the opera The Voyevoda (where it was the introduction to Act III). In the second act of the ballet, the Andante non troppo section of the scene between Siegfried and Odette (in G♭ major) served as the music to the final duet of Undina and Huldbrand in the destroyed opera Undina . For the arrival of the Prince in the final scene of Act IV of the ballet, the music is taken from the meeting between Mar’ia Vasil’evna and Olyona with Bastryukov and Dubrovin in the opera The Voyevoda (Act Ill).
Conversely, some numbers from the ballet were used by the author when composing the piano pieces Children's Album (Op. 39) and Twelve Pieces (Op. 40). The Neapolitan Dance (from Act III of the ballet) is based on an Italian folk song.
None of Tchaikovsky's other stage works were subject to such changes and misrepresentation in productions as Swan Lake. Unfortunately, up to the present time it is still not possible to find materials which would show conclusively how the ballet was performed during the composer's lifetime. Some information can be gleaned by comparing posters from the first three productions of the ballet on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Judging by the list of dance numbers, Julius Reisinger did not introduce any significant changes to the full score. It is impossible to tell from the titles of the individual dances whether the music was authentic. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the history of the Pas de deux, we might suppose that at the first production the music was performed in accordance with the author's full score, apart from small changes in the order of numbers and, possibly, some cuts (evidently a Pas de cinq and Pas de dix dances replaced the Pas de deux discussed above). When the ballet was revived in 1880, the choreographer Hansen took greater liberties with the score. It is not known whether he introduced new music, but in any case much of the music was cut, including the Pas de six in Act III. It seems that the plot of the ballet was also changed, judging from some annotations to the list of dances performed. Thus, Odette was transformed from a good fairy in the original version into a Queen of the Swans, and the appearance of the magician Rothbart in Act IV was not preserved from the first version. At the time of the third production, in 1882, Hansen introduced further changes, and added a new dance in Act III for the ballerina L. N. Geiten—Cosmopolitan, to music by Cesar Pugni, which had no relevance whatsoever to the ballet.
Although the version of the ballet widely promulgated in the 20th century originated after the composer's death, it still played an important part in popularising Tchaikovsky’s music and revealing the musical dramaturgy of his first ballet.
On 17 February/1 March 1894 in Saint Petersburg, there was a memorial performance for Tchaikovsky, at which Act II of Swan Lake was staged by the balletmaster Lev Ivanov, and conductor Riccardo Drigo. In the same year, Ivan Vsevolozhsky decided to produce the complete ballet, and asked Modest Tchaikovsky to rewrite the libretto . In a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky of 17/29 August 1894, Ivan Vsevolozhsky wrote: "I am eagerly awaiting the refashioned libretto of the ballet. I hope that you have managed to leave out the flood in the last scene... and later on the Prince taking the crown from the head of his beloved swan and destroying it? All this is confusing. I cannot order the scenery until the story is decided upon, but there is plenty of time" . In a subsequent letter to Modest Tchaikovsky of 28 August/9 September the same year, Vsevolozhsky thanked him for sending the "refashioned libretto", and stated that he had passed it to the balletmaster Lev Ivanov "for consultation with R. Drigo" . In a letter of 31 August/12 September 1894, the conductor Riccardo Drigo told Modest Tchaikovsky that he expected to return to Saint Petersburg to meet with Ivanov and Petipa, and discuss with them the musical setting of each number in the ballet, "taking pains to ensure that as far as possible, I hope, you will be satisfied with the outcome" .
The production of the ballet in this version with new music took place on 15/27 January 1895 on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, at a benefit performance for the ballerina P. Legnani, with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and conducted by Riccardo Drigo. For this production, three piano pieces by Tchaikovsky were inserted into the ballet, namely Nos. 11, 12 and 15 from the Eighteen Pieces (Op. 72), orchestrated by Drigo. In Moscow, this version of the ballet was staged on 5/17 May 1896. As in the 1880 production, and in all subsequent ones, Swan Lake was never performed in its entirety (as in the autograph full score). The ballet was performed with the music intact for the first time on the stage of the Chernyshevsky State Opera and Ballet Theatre in Saratov (1955/56 season).
When the full score was published in 1895, Pyotr Jurgenson commissioned a new arrangement of the ballet for two hands, made by Eduard Langer of Riccardo Drigo's version (the latter's orchestrations of the Op. 72 pieces were issued separately). The title page of the edition of this score carried a note explaining that the pieces inserted into the ballet were Tchaikovsky's own, and had been orchestrated by Drigo.
In 1951 a violin répétiteur  was discovered for the additional Pas de deux, which included the names: "Sobeshchanskaya—Gillert. Kalmykova—Bekefi". With this piece was a rough draft of the coda from the Pas de deux, now preserved in the archive of the Klin House-Museum. The Adagio from the Pas de deux was orchestrated by the composer Vissarion Shebalin in 1952, and published for the first time in Tchaikovsky’s collected works in 1955 .
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 156–163
This page was last updated on 02 April 2013