The origins of the ballet Swan Lake are rather obscured, and since there are very few records concerning the first production of the work to have survived, there can be only speculation about who was the author of the original libretto. The most authoritative theory appears to be that it was written by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, director of the Moscow Imperial Theatres during the time that the ballet was originally produced, and possibly Vasily Geltser, Danseur of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre. However, Geltser was in all probability merely the first person to copy the scenario for publication, as a surviving copy bears his name. Since the first published libretto of the ballet and the actual music composed by Tchaikovsky do not correspond in many places, we may conjecture that the first actual published libretto was possibly crafted by a newspaper writer who had viewed the initial rehearsals, as new productions of operas and ballets were always reported in the newspapers of Imperial Russia, along with their respective scenarios.
According to two of Tchaikovsky's relatives - his nephew Yuri Lvovich Davydov and his niece Anna Meck-Davydov - the composer had earlier created a little ballet called The Lake of the Swans at their home in 1871. This ballet featured the famous leitmotif known as the Swan's Theme (or Song of the Swans ). Begichev commissioned the score of Swan Lake from Tchaikovsky in 1875 for a rather modest fee of 800 rubles, and soon Begichev began to choose artists that would participate in the creation of the ballet. The choreographer assigned to the production was the Czech Julius Reisinger (1827-1892), who had been engaged as balletmaster to the Ballet of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre (today known as the Bolshoi Ballet) since 1873. It is not known what sort of collaborative processes were involved between Tchaikovsky and Reisinger. Tchaikovsky likely had some form of instruction in composing Swan Lake, as he had to know what sort of dances would be required. But unlike the instructions that Tchaikovsky received for the scores of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, no such written instruction is known to have survived.
Swan Lake was the first ballet set to the score of a symphonic composer. From around the time of the turn of the 19th century until the beginning of the 1890s, scores for ballets were almost always written by composers known as "specialists" - composers who were highly skilled at scoring the light, decorative, melodious, and rhythmically clear music that was at that time in vogue for ballet. Tchaikovsky studied the music of these "specialists", such as the Italian Cesare Pugni and the Czechoslovakian Léon Minkus, before setting to work on Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky had a rather negative opinion of the "specialist" ballet music until he studied it in detail, being impressed by the nearly limitless variety of infectious melodies their scores contained. Tchaikovsky most admired the ballet music of such composers as Léo Delibes, Adolphe Adam, and later, Riccardo Drigo. He would later write to his protégé, the composer Sergei Taneyev - "I listened to the Delibes ballet 'Sylvia'...what charm, what elegance, what wealth of melody, rhythm, and harmony. I was ashamed, for if I had known of this music then, I would not have written 'Swan Lake'". Tchaikovsky most admired Adam's 1844 score for Giselle, which featured the use of the technique known as leitmotif - associating certain themes with certain characters or moods, a technique he would use in Swan Lake, and later, The Sleeping Beauty.
Tchaikovsky drew on previous compositions in for his Swan Lake score. He made use of material from The Voyevoda, an opera that he had abandoned in 1868. The Grand adage (a.k.a. the Love Duet) from the second scene of Swan Lake was fashioned from an aria from that opera, as was the Valse des fiancées from the third scene. Another number which included a theme from The Voyevoda was the Entr'acte of the fourth scene. By April 1876 the score was complete, and rehearsals began. Soon Reisinger began setting certain numbers aside that he dubbed "unsuitable for ballet." Reisinger even began choreographing dances to other composers' music, but Tchaikovsky protested, and his pieces were reinstated.
Moscow Premiere (World Premiere)
St. Petersburg Premiere
Other Notable Productions
|Role||Moscow 1877||Moscow 1880||St. Petersburg 1895||Moscow 1901||London 1911|
|Siegfried||A. Gillert||Alfred Bekefi||Pavel Gerdt||Mikhail Mordkin||Vatslav Nizhinsky|
|Odette||Pelageya Karpakova||Yevdokiya Kalmїkova||Pierina Legnani||Adelaide Giuri||Matilda Kshesinskaya|
|Von Rothbart||S. Sokolov||Aleksey Bulgakov||K. Kubakin|
|Odile||Pierina Legnani||Matilda Kshesinskaya|
The Russian ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya - for whom the original (1877) role of Odette was intended - was pulled from the premiere performance when a governing official in Moscow complained about her, stating that she had accepted several pieces of expensive jewelry from him, only to then marry a fellow danseur and sell the pieces for cash. Sobeshchanskaya was replaced by Pelageya Karpakova who danced the role of the Swan Queen until the former was reinstated by Petipa.
The premiere was not well-received, with near unanimous criticism concerning the dancers, orchestra, and décor. Unfortunately Tchaikovsky's masterful score was lost in the debacle of the poor production, and though there were a few critics who recognized its virtues, most considered it to be far too complicated for ballet. Most of the critics were not themselves familiar with ballet or music but rather with spoken melodrama. Critics considered Tchaikovsky's music "too noisy, too 'Wagnerian' and too symphonic". The critics also found fault with Reisinger's choreography which they thought was "unimaginative and altogether unmemorable".
The production was unsuccessful due to several reasons. The German origins of the story of Swan Lake were "treated with suspicion while the tale itself was regarded as 'stupid' with unpronouncable surnames for its characters". The dancer of Odette (and probably Odile though this has never been proved for certain) was a secondary soloist and "not particularly convincing".
In spite of the poor reaction to the premiere, the ballet nevertheless continued being performed. On April 26 1877 the prima ballerina of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre Anna Sobeshchanskaya made her début as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and from the start she was completely dissatisfied with the production of the ballet, but most of all with Reisinger's choreography and Tchaikovsky's music. Sobeshchanskaya travelled to St. Petersburg to have Marius Petipa—Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres—choreograph a new pas de deux to replace the Pas de six that functioned as the third act's Grand Pas. For a Ballerina to request a supplemental pas or variation was standard practice in 19th century ballet, and often these "custom-made" dances quite literally became the legal property of the Ballerina they were composed for.
Petipa choreographed Sobeshchanskaya's pas de deux to music composed by Ludwig Minkus, who held the post of Ballet composer to the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The piece was a standard pas de deux classique that consisted of a short entrée, the grand adage, a variation for the danseur, a variation for the ballerina, and a coda.
Word of this change soon found its way to Tchaikovsky, who became very angry, stating that, whether the ballet is good or bad, he alone shall be held responsible for its music. He then agreed to compose a new pas de deux for the ballerina, but soon a problem arose: Sobeshchanskaya had no reservations about performing a pas to Tchaikovsky's new music, but she wanted to retain Petipa's choreography, and she had no wish to travel to St. Petersburg again to have the Ballet Master arrange a new pas for her. In light of this, Tchaikovsky agreed to compose a pas that would correspond to Minkus' music to such a degree that the ballerina would not even be required to rehearse. Sobeshchanskaya was so pleased with Tchaikovsky's new version of the Minkus music that she requested he compose for her an additional variation, which he did.
Until 1953 this pas de deux was thought to be lost, until an accidentally discovered repétitéur was found in the archives of the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre among the orchestral parts used for Alexander Gorsky's revival of Le Corsaire (Gorsky had included the piece in his version of Le Corsaire staged in 1912). In 1960 George Balanchine choreographed a pas de deux to this music for the Ballerina Violette Verdy, and the Danseur Conrad Ludlow under the title Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, as it is still known and performed today.
In all, Swan Lake was given a total of forty-one performances between its premiere and the final performance of 1883 - a rather lengthy run for a ballet that was so poorly received upon its premiere. Hansen would go on to become Balletmaster to the Alhambra Theatre in London, and on December 1 1884 he presented a one-act ballet titled The Swans, which was inspired by the second scene of Swan Lake. The music was composed by the Alhambra Theatre's chef d'orchestre Georges Jacoby.
The second scene of Swan Lake was then presented on February 21 1888 in Prague by the Ballet of the National Theatre in a version mounted by the Balletmaster August Berger. The ballet was given during two concerts which were conducted by Tchaikovsky. The composer noted in his diary that he experienced "a moment of absolute happiness" when the ballet was performed. Berger's production followed the 1877 libretto, though the names of Prince Siegfried and Benno were changed to Jaroslav and Zdenek, with the role of Benno danced by a female dancer en travestie. The role of Prince Siegfried was danced by Berger himself with the Ballerina Giulietta Paltriniera-Bergrova as Odette. Berger's production was only given eight performances, and was even planned for production at the Fantasia Garden in Moscow in 1893, but it never materialized.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s, Pepita and Vsevolozhsky considered reviving Swan Lake and were in talks with Tchaikovsky about doing so. However, Tchaikovsky died on November 6 1893, just when plans to revive Swan Lake were beginning to come to fruition. It remains uncertain whether Tchaikovsky was even going to revise the music for the prospected revival of Swan Lake. Whatever the case, as a result of Tchaikovsky's death, Drigo was forced to revise the score himself, but not before receiving approval from Modeste. There are major differences between Drigo's Swan Lake score and Tchaikovsky's score. (Today, it is Riccardo Drigo's revision of Tchaikovsky's score as done for Petipa and Ivanov's 1895 revival, and not Tchaikovsky's original score of 1877, that many - though by no means all - ballet companies use when performing Swan Lake.)
In February 1894, two memorial concerts planned by Vsevolozhsky were given in honor of Tchaikovsky. The production included the second scene of Swan Lake, choreographed Lev Ivanov, Second Balletmaster to the Imperial Ballet. Ivanov's choreography for the memorial concert was unanimously hailed as wonderful.
The Ballerina who danced Odile was the Italian virtuosa Pierina Legnani, and it was because of her great talent that the prospected revival of Swan Lake was planned for her benefit performance in the 1894-1895 season. She had made her début with the Imperial Ballet in Cinderella, produced in December 1893 (choreographed by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Enrico Cecchetti to the music of Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell). Her performance demonstrated her phenomenal technique, climaxing in her variation from the final tableau no less than thirty-two fouettés en tournant (the most ever performed) during the grand pas. The dazzled public roared with demands for an encore, and the Ballerina repeated her variation, this time performing twenty-eight fouettés en tournant.
However, the death of Tsar Alexander III on November 1 1894 and the period of official mourning which followed it brought all ballet performances and rehearsals to a close for some time, and as a result all efforts were able to be concentrated on the pre-production of the revival of Swan Lake. Ivanov and Petipa chose to collaborate on the production, with Ivanov retaining his dances for the second scene while choreographing the fourth, and with Petipa staging the first and third scenes.
Tchaikovsky's brother Modeste was called upon to make the required changes to the ballet's libretto, the most prominent being his revision of the ballet's finale - instead of the lovers simply drowning at the hand of the wicked Von Rothbart as in the original 1877 scenario, Odette commits suicide by drowning herself, with Prince Siegfried choosing to die as well, rather than live without her, and soon the lovers' spirits are reunited in an apotheosis. Aside from the revision of the libretto the ballet was changed from four acts to three - with Act II becoming Act I-Scene 2, Act III becoming Act II, and Act IV becoming Act III.
All was ready by the beginning of 1895, and the ballet had its premiere on January 15. Pierina Legnani danced Odette/Odile, with Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried, Alexei Bulgakov as Von Rothbart, and Alexander Oblakov as Benno.
The premiere of the Petipa/Ivanov/Drigo was quite a success, though not as much of one as it has been in modern times. Most of the reviews in the St. Petersburg newspapers were positive.
Unlike the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake did not dominate the repertory of the Mariinsky Theatre in its first season. It was given only sixteen performances between the premiere and the 1895-1896 season, and was not performed at all in 1897. Even more surprising, the ballet was performed only four times in 1898 and 1899. The ballet belonged solely to Legnani until she left St. Petersburg for her native Italy in 1901. After her departure, the ballet was taken over by Mathilde Kschessinskaya, who was as much celebrated in the role as was her Italian predecessor.
Throughout the long and complex performance history of Swan Lake the 1895 edition of Petipa, Ivanov, and Drigo has served as the version from which many stagings have been based. Nearly every balletmaster or choreographer who has re-staged Swan Lake has sought to make modifications to the ballet's scenario, while still maintaining to a considerable extent the traditional choreography for the dances, which is regarded as virtually sacrosanct. Likewise, over time the role of Siegfried has become far more prominent, due largely to the evolution of ballet technique.
Several notable productions have diverged from the original and its 1895 revival:
By 1895 Benno von Sommerstern became just "Benno", and Odette "Queen of the Swans". Also Baron von Stein, his wife, and Freiherr von Schwarzfels and his wife were no longer identified on the program. The sovereign or ruling Princess is often rendered "Queen Mother". Rothbart ("Redbeard") may also be spelled Rotbart.
Von Rothbart is a fictional villain in Swan Lake. Rothbart is rarely seen in human form in most productions as he appears as an evil bird for most of the ballet. His human form is seen once in the scene with his daughter Odile, when she dances with the Prince Siegfried.
Rothbart is a powerful sorcerer who turns the girl Odette into a Swan during the daylight hours and yet when the sun sets she can return to human form until day break. The reason for Rothbart's curse upon her is not known; yet several other versions of the ballet including two feature films have suggested other reasons.
In The Swan Princess, a loose animated adaptation of Swan Lake without Tchaikovsky's music, Von Rothbart quests to be King and needs Odette who is known to be a princess. She rejects him, for she is already in love with the Prince Derek, whom she has known since birth; Von Rothbart, not knowing of this, changes Odette into a Swan and carries her away in the night. Only through true love's kiss and the destruction of the sorcerer can Odette change back.
In another version, a Barbie take on the ballet; Rothbart changes Odette into a Swan because she is the prophesied Chosen One who will release the curse that he has placed upon the forest. To prove his powers over Odette, he changes her into a Swan but cannot harm her because of a 'Magic' Crystal.
The story changes in each version, yet when Rothbart realises that Odette falls in love with the Prince Siegfried he tries to intervene by tricking Siegfried into marrying his own daughter Odile; the plan succeeds yet Rothbart's fate is undecided depending on the ballet. In some versions his fate is unknown and yet it is presumed that he has survived, in the original version the love of the two dying lovers breaks the spell and Rothbart is overthrown and destroyed.
In the Swan Princess version Rothbart transforms into a giant winged creature known as the "Great Animal" and attacks the Prince, after a short melee, the Prince shoots him with an arrow and he collapses into the Lake dead; his powers destroyed along with him. However, his memory returns in the two subsequent and unsuccessful sequels in which his old friend wizard and his old love both try to resurrect the Dark Arts.
In the Barbie version he does seem to kill the lovers but is destroyed by the Crystal's power that returns after the two prove their love. While Rothbart seems to explode he actually transforms into the bird in a cuckoo clock in a subsequent scene in which the villains of these films never seem to die.
Rothbart's only powers displayed in the ballet are his multiple ability to change into an owl and to disguise his daughter into the looks of Odette. In the Swan Princess he has great and varied magical abilities and often changes himself into a giant winged monster; the Barbie version he has multiple powers and changes characters and objects into animals; he also can change into an Eagle-type monster.
In the second American Ballet Theatre production of Swan Lake, telecast by PBS in 2005 and now out on DVD, Von Rothbart is porttrayed by two dancers. One of them depicts him as young and handsome; it is this Von Rothbart that is able to lure Odette and transform her into a swan (this is shown during the introduction to the ballet in a danced prologue especially created by choreographer Kevin McKenzie). He is also able to entice the Prince to dance with Odile, and thus seal Odette's doom. The other Von Rothbart, a repulsive, reptilian-like creature, always reveals himself only after he has accomplished an evil deed, such as transforming Odette into a swan. In this version, the lover's joint suicide and reunion in the spirit world causes Von Rothbart to die.
Swan Lake is generally presented in either four Acts, four Scenes (primarily outside Russia and Eastern Europe) or three Acts, four Scenes (primarily in Russia and Eastern Europe).
Act 1 - A magnificent park before a castle.
Swan Lake begins at a royal court. Prince Siegfried, heir to the kingdom, must declare a wife at his birthday ball. Upset that he cannot marry for love, Siegfried escapes into the forest at night. As he sees a flock of swans flying overhead, he sets off in pursuit.
Act 2 - A mountainous wild place, surrounded by forest. In the distance a lake, on the right side of which are ruins. A moonlit night.
Siegfried aims his crossbow at the swans and readies himself for their landing by the lakeside. When one comes into view, however, he stops. Before him is a beautiful creature dressed in white feathers, more woman than swan. Enamoured, the two dance and Siegfried learns that the swan maiden is the princess Odette. An evil sorcerer, von Rothbart, captured her and used his magic to turn Odette into a swan by day and woman by night.
A retinue of other captured swan-maidens attend Odette in the environs of Swan Lake, which was formed by the tears of her parents when she was kidnapped by von Rothbart. Once Siegfried knows her story, he takes great pity on her and falls in love. As he begins to swear his love to her - an act that will render the sorcerer's spell powerless - von Rothbart appears. Siegfried threatens to kill him but Odette intercedes. If von Rothbart dies before the spell is broken, it can never be undone.
Act 3 - An opulent hall in the castle.
The Prince returns to the castle to attend the ball. Von Rothbart arrives in disguise with his own daughter Odile, making her seem identical to Odette in all respects except that she wears black while Odette wears white. The prince mistakes her for Odette, dances with her, and proclaims to the court that he intends to make her his wife. Only a moment too late, Siegfried sees the real Odette and realizes his mistake. The method in which Odette appears varies: in some versions she arrives at the castle, while in other versions von Rothbart shows Siegfried a magical vision of her.
Act 4 - Same scene by the lake as in Act 2.
Realizing that the spell can never be broken, Odette and Siegfried drown themselves by leaping into the lake. This causes von Rothbart to lose his power over them, and he dies as a result.
Note: Many different endings exist, ranging from romantic to tragic:
Video recordings of the ballet: