From Disaster to Masterpiece: The Unlikely Success Story of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Ballet | History Hit

From Disaster to Masterpiece: The Unlikely Success Story of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Ballet

Celeste Neill

16 Mar 2023
St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's 'Swan Lake', 2010
Image Credit: Vladimir Zenzinov, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Swan Lake, widely considered the most famous and beloved ballet in the world, has a remarkable history that spans over a century. The ballet’s premiere in Imperial Moscow in 1877 was met with scathing criticism, and it was considered a famous disaster at the time, with many deeming it to have gotten nearly everything wrong. However, over time, Swan Lake slowly won over its critics and captivated audiences around the world, becoming a timeless musical phenomenon and an enduring cornerstone of Russian culture.

Its composer, Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, was a fascinating figure with an intriguing background. Born into an old military family in Russia in 1840, Tchaikovsky initially pursued a career in the civil service due to the lack of opportunities for Western-style musical education in Russia during that time, despite his early interest in music.

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.

Tchaikovsky’s life was fraught with challenges and personal struggles. Despite his undeniable musical genius, he faced significant obstacles. As a secret homosexual, a fact that was vehemently concealed during the repressive Soviet era, Tchaikovsky struggled with forming meaningful relationships with women, which often ended in failure. Moreover, his music was frequently criticised in Russia for supposedly pandering too much to a Western audience, resulting in harsh reception from his own countrymen.

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

Despite the challenges he faced in his personal life, he created some of the most iconic and enduring pieces in the history of classical music. Among his notable works are the majestic 1812 Overture, the enchanting ballet The Nutcracker, and, of course, the beloved Swan Lake.

German or Slavonic?

The inspiration behind Swan Lake’s storyline has been a subject of much debate among musical experts. While it is commonly believed to be based on Russian folktales and Germanic legends, there is no consensus on the exact mythology that influenced Tchaikovsky’s composition. 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.

Anna Sobeshchanskaya as Odette in Julius Reisinger’s original production of Swan Lake, Moscow, 1877.

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Her replacement, Pelageya Karpakova, was one of the many elements panned when the premier started. 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 for a ballet.

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.

Tragically, Tchaikovsky’s life was cut short at the age of 53 when he passed away in 1893, with speculation of suicide surrounding his death. 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. Despite the difficulties he faced, Tchaikovsky’s contributions to classical music and his enduring legacy as a renowned composer continue to be celebrated worldwide. His works, including Swan Lake, have become timeless masterpieces that are cherished for their emotional depth, technical brilliance, and profound impact on the world of music.

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Celeste Neill