Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake - The Beautiful Ballet & Suite

Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet is an enthralling fantasy story, brought to life with glittering colors and mesmerizing dancing.

Tchaikovsky's first ballet, it transformed the genre. Now Swan Lake is seen as the height of classical ballet. With good reason!

Swan Lake's Origins

The Tchaikovsky Swan Lake ballet

In 1875, Tchaikovsky's friend and head honcho of a theater in Moscow Vladimir Begichev asked the composer to write music for a ballet inspired by a German fairy tale, and various other legends.

Tchaikovsky agreed, partly for the money, but also because he wanted to try his hand at writing a ballet.

The composer took almost a year to finish Swan Lake. He got quite bored with having to orchestrate the whole thing towards the end!

The premiere was in March 1877, but bombed completely. The stage sets were tacky, the choreography (by an unpopular Austrian) boring, and the music a bit too complex. Dancers complained that it was hard to dance to. What next!

It wasn't all doom and gloom though. The ballet was mildly popular while Tchaikovsky was still alive, and even had some new productions made of it.

But it didn't really take off until after Tchaikvosky passed away, when famous choreographers Petipa and Ivanov launched a revamp. This version shot the ballet to mega-popularity, and is the standard even today.

The Ballet

A scene from the Tchaikovsky Swan Lake ballet The Tchaikovsky Swan Lake story partly has its origins in folk tales. Most of them had similar plot points. Usually hunters find swans, who somehow tell the hunters not to shoot them. The swans at some point transform into beautiful maidens, then marry the hunters.

These legend goes back centuries, and are from loads of different countries. Tchaikovsky had a fair amount of influence over the final story of the ballet, and altered some aspects to fit his music.

The ballet is extremely difficult to perform, since it's packed with all sorts of ridiculous and painfully technical dance moves. The lead female role is especially tricky, since the ballerina has to perform two main characters who are exact opposites.

But if you can perform the lead ballerina part in Swan Lake, it's safe to say you've attained ballet super-diva status!

Here's the plot of the Tchaikovsky Swan Lake ballet...

Prince Siegfried is celebrating his coming-of-age party. Everyone dances, then Siegfried runs off hunting with his friends. And his trusty crossbow.

In the forest, the Prince find a serene lake with a beautiful swan on it. The swan transforms into a beautiful woman, Odette. She tells Siegfried that the evil wizard Rotbart cursed her to become a swan.

The only way out? The love of a noble man, of course! But Rotbart turns up and ruins things by snatching Odette.

The next day, it's time for the Prince to choose a bride. Rotbart turns up again with his daughter Odile, whom he's bewitched to look like Odette. Siegfried dances with her, confesses his love to her, then sees the real Odette run away in horror (she was watching all along!).

Siegfried chases the real Odette back to the lake, where she forgives him. Rotbart turns up, summons a storm, and scuffles with Siegfried. Then the Prince and Odette jump into the lake, breaking the curse. They drag the evil sorcerer and his daughter with them into the water, and all four drown. The End.

Other ballets by Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty

The Tchaikovsky Swan Lake ballet

Music & Recordings

It was the first ballet Tchaikovsky wrote. Ballet music at the time was pretty poor quality, so he used his talents to pretty much reinvent the genre. He made the music almost symphonic, with grand, sweeping passages and rich orchestral colors.

Still, the music is relatively light compared to his other works, and there are dozens of memorable dance tunes.

He also stitched little bits of music he'd already written into the score, including some bits from a light-hearted mock ballet he wrote to entertain his nieces.

The Tchaikovsky Swan Lake Suite is a highlight reel of popular pieces from the ballet, including the famous Dance of the Swans:

Probably my favorite piece from Swan Lake is the amazing Russian Dance:

There are pretty much always productions of the Tchaikvosky Swan Lake ballet. If you're interested in seeing it, you should check if it's on in your city! It'd be a great experience.

If you don't feel like going to a live performance, not to worry! I'd recommend the DVD of the ballet performed by the Maryinsky Ballet and conducted by Valery Gergiev. The performance is in excellent widescreen quality and features world-class musicians and dancers.


Here's the finale of the Ballet from the DVD:

If you just want a CD set of the ballet, I recommend the lyrical, powerful recording by Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. The recording is a remaster, and available on EMI Classics.

Recommended Recording

You might also want to try the nuanced, energetic recording by Viktor Fedotov with the the Maryinsky Orchestra, on the Classical Records label. It's bursting with color!

Whichever you choose, I really hope that you enjoy Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet!!

Click to explore the delightful music of other famous Russian composers, some of who's styles are similar to Tchaikovsky

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