How Swan Lake Became the Greatest Ballet in the World

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On 4 March 1877 a new ballet premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The critics were unmoved.

The ballet was Swan Lake, the first major ballet score composed by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky.

A rough start

Tchaikovsky was not overly enthusiastic about ballet music when he was commissioned to compose Swan Lake by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre.

However, through his study of composers such as Leo Delibes and Adolphe Adam, Tchaikovsky grew to appreciate and admire the music. His newfound enthusiasm resulted in Tchaikovsky completing the ballet within the year.

The Czech choreographer Julius Reisinger was appointed to craft the ballet. He and Tchaikovsky had a bumpy relationship, with both preferring to work independently rather than collaborate.

Critics at the first performance were universal disparaging. They disliked the set, they disliked the choreography, they thought the orchestra and dancers were subpar, and they thought Tchaikovsky’s score was too complicated.


One of the issues for the premiere performance was the absence of the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya. Sobeshchanskaya rejoined the production as Odette/Odile in April 1877 but insisted on making certain changes to the choreography and score.

Two years later the original choreographer, Julius Reisinger, left Moscow and was replaced by Joseph Pater Hansen. Hansen set about re-staging Swan Lake, launching his new version in January 1880.

A planned revival of the ballet in the early 1890s was cast into doubt by the death of Tchaikovsky in November 1893. Riccardo Drigo took on the job of revising Tchaikovsky’s score, with the approval of his brother Modest Tchaikovsky.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky.

The revised version, commonly the version of the score used today, premiered in January 1895 to largely positive reviews.

Today, Tchaikovsky’s score for the tragic story of Prince Siegfried and Odette, is considered one of his most important works. Swan Lake is the most commonly staged ballet in the world.

Image: Anna Sobeshchanskaya as Odette

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