On 4 March 1877 a new ballet premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The critics were unmoved. The ballet was called Swan Lake, the first major ballet score composed by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (above), who would later go on to write and compose The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty.
Little did he know at the time that Swan Lake would become one of, if not the most popular ballet of all time.
There is actually no existing evidence of where the idea of the plot of Swan Lake came from, or what inspired its writer. The most accepted theory is that the content if the ballet is based on a Russian or German folktale.
Some contemporaries of Tchaikovsky recalled the composer becoming fascinated by the life story of Bavarian King Ludwig II, who had supposedly been called The Swan King and died under mysterious circumstances by drowning himself in a lake. This likely served as Tchaikovsky’s main inspiration for his lead character Odette, Prince Siegfried.
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 him completing the ballet within just one 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.
Swan Lake has a disatrous premiere. 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.
The revised version, commonly the version of the score used today, premiered in January 1895 to overwhelmingly 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.