The History of Swan Lake

We’ve all seen snippets of Swan Lake at some point or another – girls in white tutus with feathers attached to their heads striking beautiful poses while soloists glide across the stage conveying the grace and beauty of swans. This is quintessential ballet!


There’s a good chance that most of you have seen the full-length, four act ballet since it is a part of nearly every major ballet company’s repertoire. The story is magical, the music entrancing, the dancing empowering. While most classical ballets have heroines that have some relation to the real world, whether peasant girls or princesses, Swan Lake’s heroine is a princess of the night – all magic and a creature of the imagination, making this particular ballet all the more ephemeral, timeless, and enchanting.

Every story has its origin, and how much do you know about Swan Lake’s creation? Let’s start at the beginning.


The story of Swan Lake follows Prince Siegfried who, while trying to evade his mother and the issue of marriage, chases a flock of swans into the forest in the middle of the night. He comes upon a lake, and watches in astonishment as a majestic swan suddenly transforms into a beautiful woman. He learn that the swans on this lake have been bewitched by the evil sorcerer, Baron Von Rothbart. Each day they turn into swans, and every night they are able to resume their true human form. The poor women are doomed to this bewitched life until the Swan Princess, Odette, discovers true love.

Sounds fairly typical of a fairytale plot, doesn’t it? But what is the source of this particular fairytale?

That is an issue of some debate, and the question hasn’t been clearly answered. The ballet itself is of Russian origin, having been commissioned for the Russian Imperial Ballet in the 1870’s by the then current intendant, Vladimir Petrovich Begichev. He is often credited as having written the original libretto for the ballet, in conjunction with Danseur Vasily Geltser. It is thought that they pulled the source material from a story by the German author Johann Karl Musaus, titled Der Geraubte Schleier (The Stolen Veil), while some elements of the story bear a similarity to the Russian folktale The White Duck.

begichev_vladimir Vladmir Begichev

In truth, the concept of swans or fowl turning into maidens spans many cultures, both Eastern and Western. It’s seen in Greek Mythology, it’s one of the stories in Scheherazde’s Thousand and One Nights, you can find it in Slavic and Celtic folklore. Whatever the origin of the actual storyline, today the libretto’s authorship is credited to Begichev and Geltser, with heavy influence from ballet’s preeminent composer, Tchaikovsky.


That’s right, yet another of ballet’s greatest productions was composed by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky! In fact, Swan Lake was his first major ballet. The composer was commissioned to create the new ballet in 1875. Tchaikovsky had never before written a full-length ballet, and had long wanted to try his hand at the art form. In preparation for the task, he studied the ballet music of the time before beginning his work.

He found it lacking.

Ballet music, prior to Tchaikovsky, was often simplistic and of poor standards. Tchaikovsky’s natural ability with music composition allowed him to push ballet scores to a new height. While his complex scores are a staple in the ballet world today, they were not immediately embraced by the dancers or the public. At the time, the score was deemed “undanceable” and even the conductor felt it was altogether “too complex.”

Tchaikovsky Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Genius always goes unnoticed and underappreciated in its own time.

Here is a little known tidbit: six years prior to being commissioned for Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky composed a short ballet titled The Lake of the Swans. This short ballet was composed solely for the purpose of amusing his sister’s children, and some believe that the leitmotif (a piece of music that serves as a theme for a specific character) for the swans came from this short piece. If you’ve heard any part of the Swan Lake score, it is most likely this piece.

swan lane corps

Ultimately, the entire score was completed in about a year. Tchaikovsky worked with the choreographer while composing, but the two did not work well together. Each preferred to work on their own, and the choreographer did not particularly like all of Tchaikovsky’s work. He even tried to set aside pieces and utilize other composers. That didn’t fly. After some protest from the composer, Tchaikovsky’s music was reinstated, and work on the choreography continued.

Julius Reisinger, the original choreographer of Swan Lake,  was an uninspired ballet master for the Russian Imperial Ballet, when set beside the likes of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. He served as ballet master from 1873-1878, but little is written of him aside from his failure with Swan Lake.

JuliusReisinger Julius Reisinger

That’s right, I said failure.

The original production, which premiered in 1877 was a complete flop. Tchaikovsky’s score, brilliant as it may be, was ahead of its time and underappreciated. Reisinger’s choreography was lackluster, and the entire production was ultimately a critical failure. Already disliked by critics, there was probably nothing Reisinger could have done to create a success, although the original Swan Lake did receive forty-one performances in a time when a ballet typically received eighteen. Nontheless, is was not Reisinger who would raise the ballet to the level of fame it now enjoys.

That honor rests on the shoulders of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The two choreographers worked intimately with Tchaikovsky during the creation of Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, and both had profound confidence in the composer’s ability. In his memoirs, Petipa is quoted as having said,

"I could not assume that Tchaikovsky’s music was bad, that his part of the work had no success; the problem was not in the music but in the production of the ballet, in the dances."

To that end, the Maryinsky Ballet acquired the score and Petipa assigned the project to his assistant, Ivanov.

TchaikovskyGrave Tchaikovsky’s Tomb at the Alexander Nevsky Monestary

Alas, Tchaikovsky did not live to see his music turned into a successful ballet. He passed away in 1893. At a memorial concert that same year, Ivanov debuted his rechoreographed second act of Swan Lake. Received with critical success, Ivanov proved that dance and music are natural extensions of each other by using his profound understanding of Tchaikovsky’s music to create steps that blended seamlessly with the score.

SL13 copy

With Ivanov’s success, Petipa was charged to produce a restaging of the full ballet. When work began in earnest, the libretto was rewritten, the score was rearranged (using only Tchaikovsky’s compositions), the dance was rechoreographed, and the once ugly duckling became the gorgeous swan that we all know and love today.

Two years after Lev Ivanov first debuted his restaged second act, on January 27, 1895, the world was treated to Swan Lake in its final form – the production that everyone associates with classical ballet today.

It’s ironic that Tchaikovsky’s first ballet score became his last ballet success (posthumously). Swan Lake’s tumultuous beginnings and ultimately successful ending proves that without the right players on the team, no amount of genius can force a success.

Cats      NUTCRACKER_DSC4270      Untitled 6 copy

Sleeping Beauty          The Nutcracker                 Swan Lake

These three productions are all synonymous with classical ballet. Guess what? They were all ultimately created by the same dream team: Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky.


Are you curious enough to experience these ballet’s in person? Join California Ballet Company this weekend, March 26 and 27, 2011 at A Touch of the Classics where we will be performing excerpts from Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

For tickets or more information, call 858-560-6741 or go online to


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