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One of the most famous of all ballets is Swan Lake. As well as the principal ballerina and a host of Swans, there are four Cygnets, who perform a famous dance together.
In the late 19th century, the scores for new ballets were most often written by the
theatre's staff composer, so that the choreographer could make as many changes as he wanted. The staff composers ecpected this, but most composers found potential mutilation of their music unacceptable. It was very unusual for a composer to accept a commission to write a ballet. However, in 1875, this is exactly what Tchaikovsky did, although he admited himself that one of the reasons was that he needed the money!
The story was a familiar folk tale of the time, and the scenario was planned by the director of the Moscow Imperial Theatres, Valdimir Begichev, and the dancer Vassily Geltzer. It was on this scenario that Tchaikovsky's
based his now hugely famous score.
The story tells of Prince Siegried who, out hunting for swans with his friends Benno, sees his prey turn into a beautiful maiden, Princess Odette. She and her friends have had a spell cast over them by the evil Baron von Rothbart. Only between midnight and dawn will they return to human form. She tells Siegfried of the spell and that it can only be broken with an oath of undying love, which Siegfried duly makes. Whilst Siegfried is meeting visiting princesses, one of whom his mother intends as
bride, von Rothbart's daughter Odile, magically disguised as Odette arrives. Fooled by von Rothbart's spell, he asks for her hand in marriage, and swears his love for her. He realises his mistake when he sees Odette at the window and rushes out to find her. She has returned to the lake, but explains that even though she forgives him, as he broke his vow, her curse can never be lifted. The lovers throw themselves into the lake and are united in love.
The ballet received 41 performances during Tchaikovsky's lifetime. The current choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov was first performed in early 1895, a couple of years after Tchaikovsky's death. The first complete performance of the ballet outside Russia was not until 1907. It quickly became popular, until today it is one
of the most famous of all ballets, and one of Tchaikovsky's best-loved compositions.
Click on the thumbnails below to see some photos of Swan Lake.