How the music of Swan Lake became the ballet's most enduring constant.
25 Oct 2023
It’s portrayed in popular culture as an enduring and stable classic. But in reality there is very little that is predictable about Swan Lake. Even the ballet’s uniform rows of women in white tutus aren’t aways guaranteed. Some productions alternate white swans with black swans for a chequerboard of intricate corps formations. When Marius Petipa rechoreographed Swan Lake for its St Peterburg premiere in 1895, he originally had in mind a ballet of white, black and “rose” swans!
Some Swan Lake's end happily: Rothbart defeated and Odette returned to human form. Most end tragically with one or both lovers perishing in the eponymous lake, occasionally with an apotheosis depicting their reunion in the afterlife. There can be a jester, or a grumpy old tutor, or Siegfried might have a mate called Benno. But if there’s one constant about Swan Lake – and it’s certainly not the designs, the costuming or even the choreography – it’s Tchaikovsky’s music. What the St Petersburg Gazette boldly declared in 1877 remains true today: “the entire essence of the ballet is in the music.”
Yet if Tchaikovsky’s luscious score makes Swan Lake Swan Lake, seasoned critics and balletgoers know that no two productions arrange the musical numbers in the same way. As musicologist Roland Wiley explains, every Swan Lake is a tussle between “musical coherence” and “choreographic expediency.” Some numbers, like the cygnets’ dance, the national dances, and the climactic revelation of Siegfried’s deception, are reliably kept in situ by the logic of storytelling and their popularity with audiences. Other pieces are swapped in and out, moved around, abbreviated or extended according to the wishes of choreographers and musical directors.
This continual shuffling and re-editing would not surprise Tchaikovsky, who was familiar with the compromises that shaped ballet composition in the nineteenth century. Swan Lake’s creation was at a time when choreographers typically dictated to composers the length and time signature of each musical number, and star ballerinas routinely interpolated music from other sources to show off their talents in choreographies tailor-made for them.
Indeed, Tchaikovsky narrowly avoided sharing billing for Swan Lake with Ludwig Minkus when the Bolshoi’s leading ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, made her debut as Odette. Unhappy with Reisinger’s original choreography and daunted by the complexity of Tchaikovsky’s scoring, Sobeshchanskaya petitioned Marius Petipa in St Petersburg for an alternative pas de deux for her performance. Petipa obliged, choosing music by Minkus. When Sobeshchanskaya announced the new number’s inclusion, Tchaikovsky protested vigorously; but she insisted. In a flash of inspiration, he engineered a musical solution. He promised Sobeshchanskaya music corresponding “bar to bar, note for note” with Minkus, and appeased her with an extra variation for good measure.
By the time Petipa rechoreographed Swan Lake himself in the 1890s, Tchaikovsky’s renown, and Petipa’s own collaborations with the composer, banished any such thought of compromising the ballet’s musical integrity. Some productions today may add music that Tchaikovsky wrote for other purposes. Yet the essence of Swan Lake remains basically the same, loved and recognisable in whatever final form the score is heard.