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
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.
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
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
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.