Swan Lake programme notes

While Swan Lake is arguably the most famous ballet of all time, it took a long time to establish itself into the format performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet in the new season. Commissioned in 1875 by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, director of the Moscow Imperial Theatres, choreographic duties went to Julius Reisinger, while Tchaikovsky was asked to create a score. Noël Goodwin explains the evolution of the ballet from this point on...


Tchaikovsky's acceptance of the commission was unusual at the time, because music for ballet was customarily supplied by the theatre's staff composers who readily adapted it to the needs of the ballet-master in choreographing the dances. Other composers found this an unacceptable practice but, without actually setting out to 'reform' ballet music, Tchaikovsky seems to have gone about his task as primarily a musical conception, treating the medium of ballet as worthy of a stronger and more imaginative musical element. Keys and their tonal opposition are related to character and situation, for instance, and identifying themes are repeated and transformed.

The score caused problems at the first performances, which were apparently poorly played and conducted. Tchaikovsky made himself amenable to some changes and wrote an extra Russian Dance as an addition to Act III. When the lead ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, inserted a pas de deux made for her by Marius Petipa to music by Ludwig Minkus, Tchaikovsky composed his own music for it to the steps already set.

'the music suffered more and more until nearly a third was exchanged with music from other ballets - and not necessarily good ones'.

Nikolay Kashkin

In spite of Reisinger's indifferent choreography, the first Swan Lake was not the flop mentioned in many accounts. Nikolay Kashkin, who made the piano score, noted that it 'achieved a success, though not a particularly brilliant one, and held its place on the stage until the scenery was worn out, when it was never renewed'. That was after new choreography by Joseph Hansen in 1880 and again in 1882; but Kashkin also recalled: 'Not only the decor became ragged, but the music suffered more and more until nearly a third was exchanged with music from other ballets - and not necessarily good ones'.

After 41 performances up to 1883, Swan Lake remained unperformed again before Tchaikovsky died. Following a new staging by Lev Ivanov of the Lakeside Act II in 1894, as part of a memorial tribute to Tchaikovsky at St Petersburg, the complete ballet was given what became the crucial historical version there with choreography by Petipa (Acts I and III) and Ivanov (the Lakeside scenes) early in 1895.

Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer's brother, helped to modify the scenario and agreed to some musical changes, of which the most important involved the transfer from Act I to Act III of the music now known as the Black Swan pas de deux. Other musical numbers were cut and three Tchaikovsky piano pieces orchestrated by Riccardo Drigo were added.

Performances of the ballet outside Russia followed, with any new choreography credited 'after Petipa and Ivanov'. The next most historic production after 1895, however, was mounted on the fledgling Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler's Wells Theatre, on 20 November 1934, by Nicholas Sergeyev from his St Petersburg notebooks of the Petipa - Ivanov version. Alicia Markova and Robert Helpmann led the performances (with Margot Fonteyn among the corps de ballet). This Swan Lake became significant not only as the root from which all later Sadler's Wells/Royal Ballet versions have flowered, but as a working basis for most other productions in Europe, America and, more recently, Japan and the Far East.

The present production, for Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet), by Peter Wright and Galina Samsova was first performed at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, on 27 November 1981, with designs by Philip Prowse. Galina Samsova (who danced Odette/Odile on that occasion) included in it some dances from the version she learnt while she was a leading dancer at Kiev, complementing other new choreography by Peter Wright.

Noël Goodwin