On this day in 1877, the world premiere of Pytor Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet Swan Lake took place at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. It was the composer’s first major ballet, and, while not a resounding success at the time, is now widely considered one of the greatest works of the genre.
Tchaikovsky began writing the ballet score in 1875. Up until this point he had largely stayed away from writing ballet music, and was not thought to be well-disposed to the art form. Ballet was considered by the more “‘serious” composers to be light, frivolous, and inconsequential, and far from worthy of the talents of a great artist.
The composer was persuaded to provide the music for Swan Lake by Vladimir Begichev, director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre, who was determined to utilise the skills of Russia’s greatest composer. Begichev is also thought to have devised the story of Swan Lake, which he probably adapted from various folk and fairy tales of Russian and Germanic origin.
Tchaikovsky evidently threw himself into the project. He studied the works of the most popular writers of ballet music, finding them to be more nuanced and musically impressive than he had first imagined. He found a new level of respect for the ballet, and worked on his own score with speed and zeal. Meanwhile, Begichev engaged the Czech choreographer Julius Reisinger to produce the ballet. Tchaikovsky and Reisinger had little to do with one another during the production process, the former preferring to write the score as he saw fit, rather than be dictated to by his colleague. This led to inevitable tensions between the two, and meant that the score was subjected to numerous re-writes before it was deemed ready for performance. At one point Reisinger even substituted parts of Tchaikovsky’s score with the works of other composers, but Tchaikovsky insisted his tunes be reinstated, and Reisinger finally relented. The score was completed in the spring of 1876, and rehearsals began immediately.
The first performance was not the critical success that Tchaikovsky and Reisinger would have hoped for. Audiences at the Bolshoi Theatre were left unimpressed by the choreography and the set design, and Tchaikovsky’s score, considered heavy and oppressive, was described by one critic as “Wagnerian.” The role of Odette was given to Pelageya Karpakova, who was not the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina, and her performance evidently left the audience unmoved.
The early criticisms led to several alterations being made to the score, and as the production became more polished and audiences became familiar with the music, it began to illicit favourable responses. Despite the inauspicious beginning for Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, Swan Lake soon became accepted as among his finest achievements, and became a vital component of the Bolshoi’s repertoire. By 1895, the work was accepted as central to the balletic canon, with celebrated productions being seen in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Today Swan Lake is an ever-present feature in the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theatre, and is the most commonly performed ballet in theatres across the world.
Credit: epa european pressphoto agency b.v. / Alamy
Caption: Prima ballerina Olga Gaiko in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”