The Disastrous Premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake | History Hit

The Disastrous Premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

History Hit

16 May 2017
St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's 'Swan Lake', 2010
Image Credit: Vladimir Zenzinov, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most famous and popular ballet in the world, Swan Lake was actually a famous disaster when it was first performed in Imperial Moscow in 1877, heavily criticised for getting pretty much everything wrong.

However, it slowly won round its critics and is still a worldwide musical phenomenon and cornerstone of Russian culture which has survived all the turmoil of the last century.

Its composer, Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, was an interesting culture. He was born into an old military family in Russia in 1840, and despite an early interest in music he went into a career in the civil service – there being no opportunity for western-style musical education in Russia at the time.

A difficult life

Under the relatively liberal rule of Tsar Alexander II, this changed in the 1860s, and Tchaikovsky went to study at the new Conservatory in St Petersburg – where he learned his craft as a composer.

His subsequent life was not an easy one. A secret homosexual (a fact that was furiously kept hidden during the Soviet era) his attempts at forming meaningful relationships with women were a disaster and his music often received heavy criticism in Russia for pandering too much to a western audience. He died aged just 53 in 1893, possibly from suicide.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, c. 1888 by Émile Reutlinger. Image credit: Émile Reutlinger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In between, however, he composed some of the most famous pieces in the history of classical music, including the 1812 OvertureThe Nutcracker, and, of course, Swan Lake. The mythology which formed the basis of the story has been greatly disputed amongst musical experts.

German or Slavonic?

Some say that it is based on a German folk tale, which is why the character names are Germanic, though others (mainly Russians) argue that much of the dancing is Slavonic and that the swan is a Russian national symbol.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. In any case, there are both German and Russian tales that tell a similar story, that of a beautiful girl who is turned into a swan by an evil witch and dies hand in hand with a handsome Prince determined to release her from this curse.

The enthusiasm that Tchaikovsky felt while composing this work is evident from the speed in which it was finished after it was commissioned, with the extraordinarily complex ballet being completed in just one year.

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A disastrous debut

By the early months of 1877 it was finally ready for performance. Things got off to a bad start. Firstly, the brilliant ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya, for whom the main role of Odette had been intended, was removed after a senior official in Moscow accused her of agreeing to marry him, taking all the jewels she received as gifts, selling them, and then running off with someone else.

Her replacement, Pelageya Karpakova, was one of the many elements panned when the premier started. The list is endless, the nationalistic critics often disliked the Germanic setting and style of music, the dancing, the orchestra and the sets were all widely ridiculed, and most thought that it was far too complicated and frilly for ballet, which was – after all – just dancing.

Anna Sobeshchanskaya as Odette in Julius Reisinger’s original production of ‘Swan Lake’, Moscow, 1877. Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, despite this rocky start which even Tchaikovsky himself acknowledged, the ballet continued to run in Moscow for a few months, and reviews began to improve when Sobeshchanskaya returned.

Over the following years the mastery of Tchaikovsky’s score began to be recognised, and demand to see the ballet grew until it reached its present levels of recognition and fame – travelling to London in 1911 and Los Angeles in 1940. Today the score can be found everywhere from adverts to video games, and it is one of the main money earners at any opera house in the world.

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