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What's the story behind Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake?

Swans dancing Swan Lake
Swans dancing Swan Lake

Nowadays Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake stands as one of the most beloved and performed works in the ballet repertoire. It’s certainly popular amongst our members, with movements from it being amongst the most visited pages here on 8notes (see below for a list of some the best parts with links to sheet music). Its start was, however, a rocky one, with a difficult premiere and a stuttering first run before a triumphant revival after the composer’s death. Here is the full story.

A commissioning bargain

Swan Lake was commissioned in 1875 by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre for 800 rubles—about $24,000 in today’s money. A bargain for an orchestral score that in performance lasts nearly three hours and took Tchaikovsky, working at top speed, a year to complete.

The plot

The plot is a mixture of Russian and German folk tales. Initially in two acts, but later revised to four, it tells the tale of a princess, Odette, who has been turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer Rothbart. Prince Siegfried, who is in search of a bride meets Odette when out hunting. He falls in love with Odette and vows to break the spell. Siegfried is later tricked by Rothbart into declaring his love for another disguised as Odette, preventing him from breaking the spell. Distraught the lovers choose to die together, finally breaking Rothbart’s power and causing his death too.


The orchestration is fairly typical for its time, consisting of 2 flutes and a piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons; 4 French horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombone and tuba; string, including harp; and percussion.

Musical Highlights

The work contains some of the most beloved ballet music ever written. Some of the most famous movements include:

Swan Theme
Swan Lake uses leitmotifs, the process of associating musical themes with certain characters. The most famous of these in is the ravishing Swan Theme:

This lively and grand waltz is used in Act 1 to reflect the celebratory mood at Prince Siegfried’s birthday:

Dance of the Little Swans (Pas de Quatre)
One of the most recognisable movements, featuring a synchronised dance by four young swans:

Neapolitan Dance
The Neapolitan Dance forms one of a number of national dances in Act III, the others being a Hungarian Czardas, a Spanish dance and a Polish mazurka. These are danced by eligible maidens at Prince Siegfried’s ball:

The Black Swan (Pas de deux)
The iconic moment in Act III, where Prince Siegfried falls under the spell of Rothbart's daughter Odile, who by magic has been made to resemble Odette. His declaration of love to her leads directly to the ballet's final tragedy.

The premiere was not a triumph

The work was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet on 4th March 1877. It was not a success. Julius Reisinger’s choreography was considered to be uninspired and lacking cohesion and the dancers under-rehearsed. The production more generally was hampered by poor stage design, costumes, and overall production values, whilst conductor Stepan Ryabov struggled with the complexity, subtlety and scope of Tchaikovsky’s score. So too did the critics, who labelled the piece ‘too noisy, too 'Wagnerian' and too symphonic.’ Despite this, the initial staging managed to survive for six years and total 41 performances.

1895 revival

After the first run choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov discussed a revival of the piece with Tchaikovsky around the early 1890s. Sadly however, Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and was never to witness the revival of his work. It was the success of this new staging, which was almost unanimously praised by critics, that truly established the work as a masterpiece of its genre.