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The White Swan (Pas D’action from Swan Lake)

November 4, 2018: Sheryl Staples, violin; Lucille Chung, piano

In 1871 Tchaikovsky spent a particularly pleasant summer break at his sister’s home in Kamenka, where he loved to dream up family activities for his nieces and nephews. This was most likely when he composed his little ballet on the subject that would later become his first full-length ballet, Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky’s nephew Yury left a delightful account of this production, for which Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest danced the role of the Prince, his ten-year-old niece Tatyana presumably danced Odette, and seven-year-old Anna played a cupid. Uncle Vasily Davidov designed the scenery—which included several large wooden swans—and Tchaikovsky himself demonstrated the steps and pirouettes required of the dancers.

When Tchaikovsky received a commission for a ballet in the spring of 1875, he doubtless remembered the subject of this family divertissement. He may have even borrowed some of its music—most likely the iconic oboe theme representing the swans—though no proof exists. Two other early works provided themes for Swan Lake—his failed first opera, Voyevoda, and his ill-fated second opera, Undine, which was initially accepted but never produced.

Busy with other projects, Tchaikovsky eventually completed Swan Lake late in April 1876. The premiere on March 4, 1877, at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater met with a distinct lack of success. Critics blamed the unimaginative choreography by Julius Reisinger, the poor scenery and costumes, the lack of first-rate dancers, the inexperience of conductor Ryabov—and Tchaikovsky’s score, though one report noted many beautiful moments. The orchestra musicians complained of the music’s complexity, and the dancers were indeed challenged by Tchaikovsky’s innovations which required new technical standards.

Though not a brilliant success, Swan Lake did stay in the Bolshoi’s repertoire until 1883—in a version mangled with insertions from other ballets. Tchaikovsky never saw a satisfying complete performance, but in 1888 he experienced “one brief moment of unalloyed happiness” at a performance in Prague of the second act alone. Swan Lake’s great success did not began until two years after his death when a new production was mounted with the libretto revised by Modest Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Though still mutilated by cuts, additions, and reordering, the music at last began to be recognized for its daring achievement.

The story revolves around Prince Siegfried, who must take a bride, and Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. The enchantment can be broken only by a lover who has never pledged himself to another. Evil trickery prevents this outcome, and the original ballet ends with the ill-fated lovers sinking into the lake. Later productions have adopted endings ranging from romantic apotheosis to “happily ever after.”

The famous “White Swan” Pas d’action (often called Pas de deux) poignantly accompanies the moonlit dance of Odette and Siegfried as they express their love for each other toward the end Act II—he has just saved her and her flock from his hunting party. Harp effects—here portrayed by the piano—pair with one of Tchaikovsky’s most tender violin melodies to create the romantic nocturnal atmosphere.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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