Ask anyone who claims to know nothing about ballet to actually name one, the chances are it will be one of Tchaikovsky's. Swan Lake is classical ballet for many, while hundreds were introduced to the art form as children via The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky was the first great composer to write for the ballet and the first whose ballet music came to be appreciated away from the stage and in the concert hall.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Swan Lake was the first of Tchaikovsky's ballets. It premiered at the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, although it wasn't the immediate hit we might imagine it to be – that came later with the 1895 revival by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, first staged for the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.

Mariinsky set for Act 2 of <i>Swan Lake</i>, 1895 © Wikicommons
Mariinsky set for Act 2 of Swan Lake, 1895
© Wikicommons

In preparation, Tchaikovsky studied the music of ballet specialists such as Cesare Pugni and Ludwig Minkus, being impressed by the nearly limitless variety of infectious melodies their scores contained. Tchaikovsky most admired the ballet music of Léo Delibes, Adolphe Adam and Riccardo Drigo. He later wrote to his protégé, Sergei Taneyev, "I listened to Delibes' ballet Sylvia... what charm, what elegance, what wealth of melody, rhythm, and harmony. I was ashamed, for if I had known of this music then, I would not have written Swan Lake." Tchaikovsky admired Adam's use of leitmotifs in Giselle, and would associate particular themes with particular characters or moods in Swan Lake and, later, The Sleeping Beauty.

Tchaikovsky composed his score in under a year, although the famous oboe 'swan theme' [listen to the track above] originated from a miniature ballet called The Lake of the Swans which he had previously created for his niece and nephew. He also made use of discarded material from his abandoned opera The Voyevoda. By April 1876 the score was complete and rehearsals began. Soon, the choreographer Julis Reisinger (who devised the first version of Swan Lake) began setting certain numbers aside as "undanceable". Reisinger even began choreographing dances to other composers' music, but Tchaikovsky protested and his pieces were reinstated. The 1877 première, alas, was not well received, and although Tchaikovsky’s score was commended, it was considered too complex for dancing (listen, below, to the finale).

However, the composer was not afraid to put his foot down to protect the integrity of his score. When Anna Sobeshchanskaya made her debut as Odette/Odile, she demanded a new pas de deux from Marius Petipa who choreographed something based on music by Ludwig Minkus. Tchaikovsky was furious. Sobeshchanskaya relented and agreed to perform her pas to Tchaikovsky instead, but wanted to retain Petipa’s choreography, so Tchaikovsky was forced to write something that would correspond with the Minkus piece and could therefore substitute it. Sobeshchanskaya was so pleased that she requested he compose an additional variation for her. This pas de deux isn’t regularly included in Swan Lake performances or recordings, but was appropriated by George Balanchine for his 1960 Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. This is the first of its four movements:

The score performed today usually differs slightly from Tchaikovsky's original. The pas de deux for two peasants in Act 1 is usually shunted to Act 3 to become the famous ‘Black Swan’ pas, while a Danse russe, composed for ballerina Pelageya Karpakova, is occasionally added.

After a few attempts to revive it, Swan Lake was eventually dropped from the repertory. During the late 1880s and early 1890s, Petipa and Vsevolozhsky considered reviving the ballet and were in talks with Tchaikovsky about doing so. However, Tchaikovsky died on 6 November 1893, just when their plans were beginning to come to fruition.

Interest in the ballet revived in February 1894 when Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani danced Odette/Odile in two memorial concerts in memory of Tchaikovsky, whipping out thirty-two fouettés (the most ever performed at that time) during the grand pas.

The dazzled public roared with demands for an encore, and she repeated her variation, this time performing twenty-eight fouettés. Sadly, the Tsar Alexander III died later that year and all ballet performances at the time were halted.

In the meantime, Petipa and Lev Ivanov decided to collaborate on a revival of Swan Lake for the Imperial Ballet, Ivanov re-choreographing Acts 2 and 4, while Petipa set the first and third acts. Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer's brother, made changes to the ballet’s libretto to become the scenario we know today and Riccardo Drigo revised the score himself, particularly Act 4, but not before receiving approval from Modest. Swan Lake never looked back.