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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake (Children's Classics)
By Raymond Walker
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1891)
narrated by Angela Rippon
Tchaikovsky's compositions for the theatre include three full-length ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker. The first of these was commissioned by the Imperial Theatre Directorate in Moscow in 1875 and was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 4 March 1877, with choreography by the Austrian Wenzel Reisinger. The libretto, by Vladimir Begichev and Vasily Geltzer was based on a version of an old German fairy-tale, Der geraubte Schleier (The Stolen Veil), as retold by Johann Karl August Musäus. Tchaikovsky had composed ballet music for this story some years earlier, to entertain the children of his sister Sasha, married to Lev Davidov and settled at Kamenka in the Ukraine. Uncle Pyotr devised the whole entertainment, demonstrating to his three nieces and the other performers the steps and pirouettes required of them, while the swans themselves seem to have been represented by figures of wood. Some of the music for this modest work was used in the commissioned score, with elements from his first opera, The Voyevoda, the source of the Entr'acte for Act IV and for the final union of Siegfried and Odette. His second opera, Undine, provided the music with violin and cello solo in the Dance of the Swans at the end of Act II.
The first performance of Swan Lake was not a success. The public was accustomed to very much less substantial music, while various omissions and additions were made to the score. The choreography was unsatisfactory, the designers lacked imagination, the dancing was undistinguished and the conductor out of his depth. In the following years various further changes crept into the ballet. The work acquired a more satisfactory choreographic form in a staging in St Petersburg in 1895, with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and has since then been mounted with varying choreographic interpretations, often based on the Petipa-Ivanov version, which made certain clear changes in the ballet as Tchaikovsky and his librettists had originally devised it. In particular a happy ending was substituted for the original tragic conclusion, in which Siegfried and Odette had been destroyed by Rothbart. Revisions to the libretto in 1895 were entrusted to the composer's brother Modest, to whom we owe such incidents as the appearance of Odette at the window in the third act, and the elimination of Odette's kind grandfather and wicked step-mother, the latter subsumed into the character of Rothbart, whose actions are now more intelligible.
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TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake (Children's Classics)