Orchestral Music: Swan Lake, Suite from the Ballet, Op. 20 (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)

(Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk; died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg)

Tchaikovsky wrote some of the most memorable and most often performed ballet music: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. Swan Lake had its first performance on March 4, 1877 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, where surprisingly enough to today’s lovers of this ballet, the first production failed. The original choreography was inept. Sadly, Tchaikovsky mistakenly thought that the fault lay in his music, although the weakness really sprang from the weakness of the original choreography. He decided to rewrite the score, but he died in 1893 before he could completely carry out his plan.

When Marius Petipa, the famous choreographer of the Maryinsky Theater, studied the score, he immediately recognized its importance and with his assistant, Lev Ivanov, prepared a new second act for a Tchaikovsky memorial program in 1894. In January 1895, Petipa presented a new full four-act Swan Lake that has been altered somewhat since then but has never left the repertoire.

The story of Swan Lake, in brief, is the following: Prince Siegfried must choose a bride from among the guests at a ball. He and his companions go on a hunt for a flock of swans that has flown overhead, which they discover to be beautiful maidens who have been turned into swans by an evil magician. They take human form again between midnight and dawn. The Prince falls in love with Odette, the Swan Queen and invites her to the ball with the intention of marrying her. At first light, Odette and all her maidens again become swans.

At the ball, ladies from many lands seek the Prince’s hand, and each performs a national dance from her native country. The Prince dances with each of them, but he is waiting for Odette. Suddenly, the magician appears, accompanying his daughter Odile, whom he has transformed into a twin of Odette. Siegfried declares that he will marry her, but finds out too late that he has been tricked and that his decision will bring about the death of the true Odette and her companions. He rushes to the forest and risks his life to save Odette from the magician, thereby breaking the spell. As morning breaks, the girl-swans retain their human form.

In 1880, Tchaikovsky’s benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, wrote to him that she had engaged the services of a young French musician to make piano arrangements of three dances from the ball scene. That French musician was Claude Debussy, and those piano arrangements became Debussy’s the first published work. Two years later, Tchaikovsky told his publisher that he wanted to make a suite for orchestra from the ballet, but unfortunately he never did. The music we now hear in concert as the Suite from Swan Lake was later selected by others and often varies substantially from one performance to another.

The first suite to be published, however, is still very often performed. Its six movements are: l) Scene, in which a group of swans, soon to change into beautiful young women, glide across the lake; 2) Waltz, danced by young villagers early in Act I; 3) Dance of the Swans, from the end of Act II; 4) Scene and Pas d’action (a mimed dramatic episode of the plot), also from the latter part of Act II; 5) Hungarian Dance, a solo in the grand ball scene of Act II for one of the ladies seeking the Prince’s hand in marriage; 6) Scene and Finale, from Act IV, in which a storm over the lake subsides, and at dawn, the girl-swans find themselves forever free of the evil spell.

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