What does it take to write ballet's most famous score? Piotr Tchaikovsky's haunting melodies are some of the most recognisable in the world. However, putting together this masterpiece was as laborious as it was intricate. We take a look at the origin of Swan Lake, from ongoing changes and an unfortunate reception, to what would ultimately become the composer's most performed work.
19 Sep 2023
“I’m up to my neck in scoring the ballet,” wrote an exasperated Tchaikovsky in the spring of 1875. With less than a month remaining to complete his score for Swan Lake, the composer had fled Moscow’s bustle and distractions for the uninterrupted solitude of a friend’s estate in the country. Swan Lake, at that precise moment, had “become an endlessly boring and interminable job,” he confided to his brother. Despite long wanting to write a ballet, the 35-year-old Tchaikovsky was eager to move to fresh projects. Instead, he was mired in demands for endless revisions, still mastering the idiosyncrasies of composing for dance.
As he explained somewhat self-consciously to fellow composer Rimsky-Korsakov, Swan Lake was a project accepted “partly for the money.” But the ballet’s subject matter also appealed instantly to Tchaikovsky’s theatricality. By the time the Bolshoi Theatre approached the composer, his catalogue already included three operas, incidental music for the play The Snow Maiden, a composition for vaudeville and his stirring Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasia. Not all these works proved equally successful; Tchaikovsky’s second opera Undine, the story of a knight’s doomed love for a beautiful mermaid, remained unperformed, and he later destroyed the score in disgust. However, its love-duet for Undine and the noble Huldbrandt resisted destruction, finding new life as Odette’s adagio in Swan Lake’s second act.
Swan Lake was a reflection of the late-Romantic vogue for spectacular works of fantasy and legend. Across Europe, musical circles were then in the thralls of Wagnermania, and Tchaikovsky himself was requested to write critiques of Richard Wagner’s operatic epics Tannhauser and Lohengrin. Musically and dramatically Swan Lake even hints at the German master’s influence: Prince Siegfried recalls the name of the Ring cycle hero, while musical critics recognised similarities between Tchaikovsky’s swan theme and a melody in Lohengrin.
Yet if Wagner’s world of clashing deities and mythical beings encouraged his contemporary to vision of grandeur, the intimacy of family life also found its way into Tchaikovsky’s score. The composer’s niece, Anna Meck-Davydov, recalled that her uncle “loved to produce all manner of house performances.” One of these was a memorable family “ballet” in which the children appeared rocking on “magnificent wooden swans”. Anna remembered playing Cupid in this improvised entertainment while Tchaikovsky played the part of the Prince. The “Song of the Swans” composed for the event, was woven into Swan Lake, according to family tradition.
When the ballet’s score was finally completed, Tchaikovsky was initially pleased by its reception. “Everyone is raving about my music,” he recorded after the first previews given by the Bolshoi’s orchestra. But he quickly put the project from his mind as he embarked on visiting his brother in France and descended into an increasingly tumult of personal difficulties. It would be almost another year before Swan Lake reached the Bolshoi’s stage, and when it did, it famously flopped. By then, however, Tchaikovsky was indifferent and composing on another dramatic tale of doomed love: Francesca da Rimini, his terrifying symphonic poem of illicit passions, murder and eternal damnation.