All you need to know about Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

Eva Mackevic

BY Eva Mackevic

1st Jan 2015 Music

All you need to know about Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

Swan Lake is one of the most technically and emotionally challenging classical ballets. It is also one of the most popular, adored by children and adults alike. We take a look at what makes it such an enduring and powerful work.  

It’s hard to talk about ballet without mentioning Tchaikovsky—the man is responsible for some of the world’s greatest, most-loved and most-performed ballet works: The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and, of course, Swan Lake.

The latter has been a massive influence on both subsequent ballet evolution as well as present-day pop culture. 

All you need to know about Swan Lake


The origin  

Ludwig II of Bavaria. Image via Herrenchiemsee

There are a few different theories as to how Tchaikovsky came up with the idea for Swan Lake.

Though the libretto is based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus The Stolen Veil, many of Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries claimed that he was deeply fascinated by the tragic life story of Bavarian King Ludwig II—sometimes called the Swan King—who died under mysterious circumstances by drowning himself in a lake. It is likely that Tchaikovsky chose him as the prototype of Prince Siegfried. 

It is easy to tell that the composer clearly enjoyed working on the music for Swan Lake, as he wrote far more material than would ever be required. As a result, the version most commonly performed today is, in fact, an edited one, created after Tchaikovsky’s death and significantly shorter than the original work. 


The story

Image via markronan.com

Prince Siegfried comes across a flock of swans at a lakeside while hunting. As he aims his crossbow at the swans, one of them turns into a beautiful woman, Odette.

She and her companions are victims of a terrible spell cast by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. The spell can only be broken if one who has never loved before swears to love Odette forever. Siegfried is instantly enchanted and determines to break the spell that holds her captive.

Yet the evil Von Rothbart devises a terrible plan: he disguises his daughter Odile to look exactly like Odette and brings her to a ball where Prince Siegfried must choose a bride for himself. Fooled, Siegfried declares his love for Odile, and so dooms Odette to suffer under the curse forever. Siegfried and Odette drown themselves and are united in death.


The premiere

Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where the original premiere took place in 1877. Image via Balletinsider

Considering that Swan Lake is currently the most frequently performed ballet in the world, it's hard to imagine that it was a failure upon its premiere, with near unanimous criticism of different production aspects: the dancers, orchestra, and stage sets. Because of these distractions, the actual brilliant score by Tchaikovsky got largely overlooked amidst the chaos. 

Although a few critics did recognise the virtues of the masterful score, it was considered far too complex for ballet, too “noisy” and too “symphonic”, resembling the grand, weighty music of Richard Wagner. Even the initial ballet dancers deemed the music too difficult to dance to as its density clashed with the fluid and graceful balletic movements.


Four key moments

1. Waltz in Act I

The instantly recognisable waltz when Prince Siegfried celebrates his birthday with his tutor, friends, and peasants.


2. Dance of the Cygnets in Act II

The light-hearted Dance of the Cygnets, also known as Dance of the Little Swans, which involves 16 pas de chat performed by four dancers moving sideways in exact unison with their arms interlaced. 



3. The Black Swan Pas de deux in Act III

 The brilliantly dramatic moment in which the heroic prince is tricked into forsaking his love.


4. The Dying Swan

This solo was choreographed by Mikhail Fokine for Camille Saint-Saëns' Le Carnaval des animaux and influenced modern interpretations of Odette in Swan Lake. Demonstrated below by the legendary Anna Pavlova. 



The legacy

Swan Lake is currently seen as one of Tchaikovsky’s most valuable works, which surged him into the realm of the most important ballet composers.

Its influence on later ballet composers as well as modern-day pop culture is undeniable: from spoofs in Funny Girl and Dexter’s Laboratory, through new rose breeds named in honour of the ballet, to Rudolf Nureyev performing "Swine Lake" with a giant ballerina pig in The Muppet ShowSwan Lake has been omnipresent since its conception and is still going strong. 

It was also the inspiration for the 2010 thriller Black Swan (above) starring Natalie Portman; and the music itself has been used in numerous iconic films, including Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932) and Phantom of the Opera (1925).

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more music stories

Enjoyed this story? Share it!

Feature image via roh.org.uk 

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...