What would ballet be without Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky? He composed just three ballet scores, but Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker rewrote the rules for what ballet could be and mean. Composed in an era when most ballet music aspired to not be much more than a merry platform for dancing, storytelling, and scene-painting—sunny Spain! exotic India!—Tschaikovsky’s densely organized, eminently melodic scores burst through convention. Rather than structuring his scores as the then-standard string of pearls, with unrelated divertissement succeeding unrelated divertissement, Tschaikovsky plotted his ballet music along extended symphonic lines, so that themes and leitmotifs developed and recurred. Musical meaning accrued, deepened, bloomed, all while telling the story with poetic thrust and imaginative power.
Tschaikovsky didn’t innovate in a vacuum. Adolphe Adam’s 1841 score for Giselle famously deployed leitmotif, the repetition of a short musical tag for each character, and conjured lurid graveside mysteries. Tschaikovsky deeply admired the ballet music of Léo Delibes, whose Sylvia premiered in 1876, one year before his own Swan Lake. The music of the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene in his friend Ludwig Minkus’ La Bayadère, premiered in St. Petersburg the same year that Swan Lake premiered in Moscow, summons a transcendent eternity and an infinity of ballerinas.
But those are standouts. It took Tschaikovsky to prove that ballet could pack a cathartic wallop, delight and charm, evoke the darkest tragedy—and still make you want to dance. Today his scores are ballet’s big three, the canonic troika. The scores have even leapt beyond ballet to become central orchestral repertoire, performed on their own as concert music. As George Balanchine observed, “If it were not for Tschaikovsky, there wouldn’t be any dancing.”
If there’s one Tschaikovsky score that yanked ballet forward, it’s his first ballet, Swan Lake. But it wasn’t a sure thing. In 1875, he wrote to composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, “At the behest of the Moscow Directorate I am writing the music for the ballet ‘The Lake of the Swans.’ I took this work on partly for the money, which I need, and partly because I have long wanted to try my hand at writing this type of music.” He worked quickly, and Swan Lake premiered in 1877 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. It didn’t exactly go well. Choreographer Julius Reisinger was something of a hack, his scenario sketchy. The lead ballerinas thought the music nearly undanceable. Some critics found the music “too Wagnerian,” while others understood what Tschaikovsky was going for. Modest Tschaikovsky, the composer’s brother and himself a dramatist and opera librettist, lamented “the poverty of the production…the absence of outstanding performers, the Balletmaster’s weakness of imagination.”
But there must have been something to the music and the story, as the ballet did not vanish: with revised choreography, Swan Lake racked up around 40 performances in Moscow, substantial for the time. Tschaikovsky could not have completely hated the experience, because he eventually returned to ballet, creating The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892) under far more artistically sympathetic circumstances at St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theater with a powerhouse team: choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. These were creatively satisfying collaborations, with creatively satisfying results. After Tschaikovsky’s death in 1893, Ivanov staged the lakeside scene of Swan Lake for a benefit performance in 1894. Suddenly people started hearing what was in Swan Lake all along, and in 1895, Petipa and Ivanov choreographed their own full-length Swan Lake. Riccardo Drigo made some revisions to the score and conducted the premiere, and Modest Tschaikovsky provided a more dramatically cogent scenario. This version became the template for nearly all successive productions, and Swan Lake took flight.
Since then, the iconoclastic ballet has become an icon, and Swan Lake has been performed virtually everywhere, in infinite interpretations. This month, New York City Ballet performs Swan Lake, choreographed by Peter Martins after Petipa, Ivanov, and Balanchine. The production, created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996 and which entered NYCB’s repertory in 1999, features striking modern designs by the late contemporary Danish painter Per Kirkeby. George Balanchine also choreographed a popular one-act version of Swan Lake in 1951 that retained the essential Ivanov and captured the spirit of the complete work, in a 35-minute production that some felt saved the soul of Swan Lake while jettisoning such extras as mime. Never one to let a good Swan Lake tune to go waste, in 1960 Balanchine choreographed his Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux to a part of the score no one knew about. Tschaikovsky had written a pas de deux for the 1877 production of Swan Lake, but the music never made it into the 1895 revision that became standard. The music had lain forgotten in the archives of the Bolshoi Theater until it was rediscovered in 1953. Balanchine turned the lost music into a glittering bravura showcase for two dancers—and for Tschaikovsky.
So what makes the music of Swan Lake so good? “Let’s begin with the fact that Tschaikovsky was a genius,” says New York City Ballet Music Director Andrew Litton. “This is his first ballet, and it comes from a period when he was writing his first great masterpieces. If you want to put it in a New York City Ballet perspective, just before this ballet, he wrote the Third Symphony, which we know as Diamonds. Three years after Swan Lake, he wrote Serenade for Strings, which Balanchine choreographed as Serenade. It’s a very fertile period of creativity.
“Tschaikovsky wrote from the heart,” Litton continues. “This is what speaks to us, even all these decades later. It’s such passionate music, such romantic music.” Ask Litton what he views as the score’s emotional climax, and the answer is enthusiastic: “I think the most extraordinary measures that Tschaikovsky ever wrote occur at the very end of the ballet when the Prince returns. The music is two seven-bar phrases, which is very unusual. He only repeats that melody once. So you hear this fantastic, passionate outpouring twice, and that’s it. It disappears and never comes back. It’s not previewed beforehand. It’s an extraordinary bit of music, and my biggest frustration with Tschaikovsky is that he didn’t turn it into a symphony. It’s got soaring string lines, incredibly gut-wrenching harmonies, and it’s cumulative at that point in the story. What’s left to happen? The Prince has got to come back, and he comes back with the greatest entrance music of all time.”
The score is not a series of isolated sturm und drang highpoints, however. “What makes Tschaikovsky’s ballet scores symphonic is the through-structure,” says Litton. “They always have a sense of line and development, even when he takes little side trips like the Hungarian, Russian, and Spanish dances. A variation of the big Swan Lake theme is first presented on the oboe even before the curtain goes up. Then it comes back again and again. That all makes great material for a fantastic ballet.”
Robert Sandla is editor in chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.