Caitlyn Lehmann discovers how Tchaikovsky's earnest, complex score for Swan Lake changed ballet compositions and set a new benchmark for future composers.
22 Nov 2023
Just a few months after Swan Lake’s Moscow premiere, Tchaikovsky sat in Vienna’s opera house, listening to an opera by Cherubini and to the ballet Sylvia, recently composed by Leo Delibes. “Swan Lake is not fit to hold a candle to Sylvia,” wrote Tchaikovsky despairingly after the performance. “What charm and elegance, what riches in melody,” he exclaimed of Delibes’s music. “If I had known [Sylvia] before, I would not … have written Swan Lake.”
Swan Lake was not like the brightly melodic, often sentimental scores that his contemporaries wrote for dance. Where composers like Delibes infused their music with a salon lightness, Swan Lake was epic, earnest and melodically sophisticated. Although many elements undermined the ballet’s appeal when it was first performed in 1877 – among them, what one critic described as the “paucity of imagination” shown by the ballet’s choreographer, Julius Reisinger – Tchaikovsky worried that his inexperience and ambitious scoring had also played a part. Never before had the Bolshoi’s orchestra been asked to perform such a complex work for ballet. Tchaikovsky ruefully reflected that he had overwhelmed the onstage action with the grandeur of his musical vision.
Certainly there were those who expressed doubts about Swan Lake’s suitability for ballet. One critic rebuked the composer for a “noisy orchestration” that indulged the “roar” of kettledrums and brass in scenes requiring “soft, peaceful sounds”. Nikolai Kashkin, a friend of Tchaikovsky, described the score as having “many beautiful moments,” some of which, he observed cautiously, were “perhaps even too good for a ballet.” Yet Swan Lake, with its emotional storytelling and symphonic gravitas, convinced other listeners of Tchaikovsky’s extraordinary gifts as a composer for the stage. Among these, none was more influential than Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, the Director of Imperial Theatres, who would oversee the creation of all Tchaikovsky’s late, great works for opera and ballet.
Vsevolozhsky was a man of taste, astute judgement, and excellent creative instincts. Appointed to his position in 1881, he instituted a series of reforms designed to raise production standards in the Tsar’s theatres. In 1886, he abolished the post of in-house composer at the Mariinsky Ballet upon the retirement of its incumbent, Ludwig Minkus. Vsevolozhsky urged flexible arrangements for hiring the best talent. Minkus had not yet taken his final benefit performance, when Vsevolozhsky wrote to Tchaikovsky proposing the ballet The Sleeping Beauty (1890).
Ten years after raw enthusiasm and hope fired Tchaikovsky’s creation of Swan Lake, experience and confidence in his collaborators inspired Tchaikovsky to write the finest of his scores for ballet. In Vsevolozhsky and choreographer Marius Petipa, the composer found keen creative minds able to match the richness of his music with the splendour and refinement of their designs and choreography. The Nutcracker (1892) followed The Sleeping Beauty two years later. After Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, long-discussed plans to revive Swan Lake were finally realised by Petipa and fellow choreographer Lev Ivanov. Their production became the blueprint for the Swan Lake we see today and restored the score’s reputation, fortifying Tchaikovsky’s renown as a titan of theatrical composition—one whose influence endures through the aspiration for powerful, musically complex scores for ballet.