Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20 . . . Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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


One of the most popular ballets of all time, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, composed for the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, premiered on March 4, 1877.  The original choreography and its production were inept, so the ballet initially failed.  Tchaikovsky mistakenly thought that the fault lay in his music and decided to rewrite it, but died before he could do so.

In the story line of Swan Lake, the young Prince Siegfried accompanies his companions to hunt swans.  In a mysterious, romantic lake, swans float gracefully, becoming lovely young ladies as they touch shore, but the evil magician, Rotbart only allows them to remain human between midnight and dawn.  Siegfried falls in love with Odette, the Queen of the Swans, and invites her to a ball so he can propose to her. She cannot attend the ball unless Rotbart no longer weaves his spell.

At the ball, many seek the Prince’s hand, each performing a national dance from her country.  The Prince dances with them all, but awaits Odette.  Two new guests arrive: Rotbart, dressed as the Knight of the Black Swan, and Rotbart’s daughter Odile, transformed into Odette’s twin.  Siegfried, initially deceived, declares he will marry Odile, while Odette, still a swan, beats against the window in vain to warn Siegfried.  Rotbart, delighted that he has forced the prince to break his vow, disappears with Odile.  Siegfried realizes the truth and rushes out to find Odette.  Rotbart creates a storm in hopes that Odette will drown in the lake, but Siegfried risks his life to save her, proclaiming his willingness to die with her.  His heroism breaks the magician’s spell.  The floodwaters recede, and the girls regain their human form, freed forever.

In 1880, Tchaikovsky’s benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, wrote that she had commissioned a young Frenchman to make piano arrangements of three dances from the ball scene; it became Debussy’s first published work.  In 1882, Tchaikovsky decided to create a suite from the ballet, but unfortunately he never did.  Swan Lake Suite was selected by others and varies greatly in movements from performance to performance.