February 20th, 1877 – Swan Lake

Today-In-History

Tchaikovsky‘s famous ballet Swan Lake receives its première performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on February 20th, 1877.

Swan Lake

Many critics have disputed the original source of the Swan Lake story. The libretto is based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus, “Der geraubte Schleier” (The Stolen Veil), though this story provides only the general outline of the plot of Swan Lake. The Russian folktale “The White Duck” also bears some resemblance to the story of the ballet, and may have been another possible source. The contemporaries of Tchaikovsky recalled the composer taking great interest in the life story of Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose tragic life had supposedly been marked by the sign of Swan and who—either consciously or not—was chosen as the prototype of the dreamer Prince Siegfried.

Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (25 April/7 May 1840 – 25 October/6 November 1893)

From around the time of the turn of the 19th century until the beginning of the 1890s, scores for ballets were almost always written by composers known as “specialists,” who were highly skilled at scoring the light, decorative, melodious, and rhythmically clear music that was at that time in vogue for ballet. Tchaikovsky studied the music of “specialists” such as the Italian Cesare Pugni and the Austrian Ludwig Minkus, before setting to work on Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky had a rather negative opinion of the “specialist” ballet music until he studied it in detail, being impressed by the nearly limitless variety of infectious melodies their scores contained. Tchaikovsky most admired the ballet music of such composers as Léo Delibes, Adolphe Adam, and later, Riccardo Drigo. He would later write to his protégé, the composer Sergei Taneyev, “I listened to the Delibes ballet ‘Sylvia‘…what charm, what elegance, what wealth of melody, rhythm, and harmony. I was ashamed, for if I had known of this music then, I would not have written ‘Swan Lake.'” Tchaikovsky most admired Adam’s 1844 score for Giselle, which featured the use of the technique known as Leitmotif: associating certain themes with certain characters or moods, a technique he would use in Swan Lake, and later, The Sleeping Beauty.

Tchaikovsky drew on previous compositions for his Swan Lake score. He made use of material from The Voyevoda, an opera that he had abandoned in 1868. The Grand adage (a.k.a. the Love Duet) from the second scene of Swan Lake was fashioned from an aria from that opera, as was the Valse des fiancées from the third scene. Another number which included a theme from The Voyevoda was the Entr’acte of the fourth scene. By April 1876 the score was complete, and rehearsals began. Soon Reisinger began setting certain numbers aside that he dubbed “undanceable.” Reisinger even began choreographing dances to other composers’ music, but Tchaikovsky protested and his pieces were reinstated.

The Russian ballet patriarch Fyodor Lopukhov has called Swan Lake a “national ballet” because of its swans, which he argues originate from Russian lyrically romantic sources, while many of the movements of the corps de ballet originated from Slavonic ring-dances. According to Lopukhov, “both the plot of Swan Lake, the image of the Swan and the very idea of a faithful love are essentially Russian.”

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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