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Sunday, 5 May 2013

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Ageless and timeless, Swan Lake

There is a beautiful story responsible for the Swan Lake Suite that Tchaikovsky composed and later the birth of Swan Lake ballet that is one of the best-loved classical ballets and performed around the world ever since it was mounted in March 1877.

Swan Lake, Op. 20, ballet scored in 1877 which is the earliest of Tchaikovsky's three ballets when Swan Lake was not a success at first and this prompted Tchaikovsky to disparage it initially. But in his much-loved score, he discovered a 'metier' that ideally suited his talents and the work has never been out of the repertoire. It has its famous waltz.

The dying swan

Tchaikovsky used to visit his sister and her family very often to get away from it all and spent most of his time with them which later he recalled to be his most happy times.

His sister's house was large with a lake running parallel between the woods that had birds singing all the time which the great composer enjoyed listening to and some of their melodies are found in his compositions. But most of all Tchaikovsky loved to sit under a particular large and spreading tree and watch his nieces play, chasing butterflies and dragonflies. Into this peaceful domain intruded a large number of swans and cygnets who gently glided on the waters of the lake.

They were a gleeful, disciplined set of birds that enjoyed the span of the lake until the sun was ready to depart, splashing in water, swirling in circles of bubbles that made ripples to timing as though they were thought to do so. Still later in the evening a huge and beautiful white swan would flap her wings and touch down like an aircraft on a runway only to be greeted in a chorus by the already frolicking swans. They followed her upon water, trailing and making a full circle around her. Apparently, she was their queen bird.

Imagination

This daily scenario captivated the imagination of the composer who heard music in their movements as they fluttered and soft trilling in the bubbles they created. To Tchaikovsky they were like keyboard caressing and the wind sweeping the strings of a violin. Day after day Tchaikovsky heard such melodies emerging from the swans that he put them down in notes until the midnight oil burnt out.

By morning he would assemble them into the finest suite he was going to call Swan Lake suite. His little nieces were thrilled by its symphonic variations that they would accompany him to the lakeside and watch the birds at play while their uncle gently strung the notes on the violin.

Thus the Swan Lake suite was born to mesmerise the classical scene.

Next came its sensational ballet that thunder-struck the classical ballet mode. It made the choreographers sit up and let their imaginations run riot. So, the first ballet in four acts was mounted by the Bolshoi Theatre in 1877 but not before Tchaikovsky intervened to introduce the Black Swan. It was his story and he wanted the inclusion for which he made some music reservation too.

From 1877 to 1977, there was no stop as each choreographer directed his own version, some in their important excerpts and the others at full length. From 1977 Swan Lake ballet simply blazed the trail not only because it was mounted in performance but with films and TV boosting it to heavenly heights. All the leading dancers have danced in it and all choreographers have mounted it. Yet, from a century gone, no one dared to use any other composer but the great Tchaikovsky for the lyrical romantic music.

The Swan Lake legend

The story is beautiful, romantic but tragic at the end. Except for a few leading dancing characters, swans make up the story. This is where Tchaikovsky comes in ... giving life to the endearing swans.

Prince Siegfried and Odette at the lakeside in Swan Lake along with the swans as they dance into the night.

The central character is Princess Odette who is turned into a swan by the magician, Rothbart. At midnight, she and her companions regain their human form for a few hours. On one such occasion, she meets Prince Siegfried who falls in love with her and swears to rescue her. At a ball in the castle Siegfried has to choose his bride.

The magician, Rothbart appears with his daughter in the form of a Black Swan so that she appears just like Odette. She tantalises Siegfried who becomes betrothed to her.

Odette then appears too late. Siegfried realises the mistake and that he has broken his oath and rushes off to the lake where Odette and her companions are crying.

From this point, the story takes a different turn, some of which are fantastic and popular the way they are presented and choreographed. Most of them walk away from Tchaikovsky's original story but Odette/Oddile combination is strictly maintained.

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