What Is It About Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake That Makes It So Captivating?

Mar 5, 2018

Swan Lake was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's first foray into classical ballet, with a debut in 1877. Today if you ask someone to name an iconic ballet, Swan Lake is one that usually comes to mind. Believe it or not, that probably would have surprised the composer. 

Little did he know that Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty—the only ballets he ever composed—would one day define the classical genre. 

What is it about Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and his other ballets that resonates so deeply? WRTI's Meridee Duddleston spoke with Pennsylvania Ballet’s Music Director Beatrice Jona Affron about the composer's musical vision and how Swan Lake came to be so musically and artistically captivating.

Pennsylvania Ballet presents Swan Lake at the Academy of Music under Artistic Director Angel Corella, from March 8th to 18th. 

Q: When Swan Lake was first performed in Moscow in 1877 the reception was anything but warm. Why is that?

Beatrice Jona Affron is music director of Pennsylvania Ballet.
Credit Arian Molina Soca

A: It was hugely innovative, which is why I think it was not well-received. Russian audiences—at that point in 1877—were not accustomed to ballet where there are these thematic musical threads that take you from the beginning of the evening to the end.

Tchaikovsky was interested in this idea of how you develop a theme throughout the course of an evening, rather than what you hear in a classical ballet like [composer Adolphe Adam’s] Le Corsaire, which is a lot of short pieces, generally unrelated one to the next. If you were going to use a culinary analogy, Le Corsaire is more like tapas, and Swan Lake is more like a ten-course meal, where things are meant to connect one to the next, to the next, to the next. Not every moment of Swan Lake follows this pattern, but much does.

Q: So Tchaikovsky wanted to create more of a musical narrative?

A: Tchaikovsky wrote about this in his letters. He was very interested in finding a way for ballet music not just to be something that accompanies dance, but to drive the story and drive the evening. He developed this fascination for how to make the music more equal in interest to the choreography.

Q: How did audiences feel about his two other ballets when they first opened? (Sleeping Beauty (1890); The Nutcracker (1892))

A: He got very little positive feedback about all three during his lifetime. None of them did well while he was alive. He thought Sleeping Beauty was going to be a hit, but it wasn’t while he was alive. Nutcracker also didn’t do well….All of this seems sort of insane to us now, when you think about how important and how iconic these pieces are now, and how ballet companies wouldn’t survive without them.

Q: A reconfigured Swan Lake opened in St. Petersburg in 1895, almost twenty years after its original run, and two years after Tchaikovsky’s death.

A: [French-Russian choreographer] Marius Petipa basically rescued it from obscurity because what he did was not just rechoreograph it, but refashioned the story. In the original version that was performed in Moscow, I think it was a much more complicated story. The audience had a hard time following it. It wasn’t this ultra-clear struggle between good and evil that we know it to be now. And so while the music did not change much...in this posthumous refashioning, Petipa brought dramatic clarity and beauty to this gorgeous music.

The most important change that Petipa made was to take what was essentially a peasant pas de deux out of Act I and turn it into the "Black Swan" Pas de deux in Act III. To this day if you buy the printed parts and score "Black Swan" is found in Act I. We have to go in, copy that spot, and then insert it many pages later into the orchestral score. That was a hugely important emendation Pepita required.

Q: You’ve said traditionally the music for full-length classical ballets is tinkered with over time, by various composers or choreographers—some more, some less. Is there evidence of this in Artistic Director Angel Corella’s interpretation?

A: In Angel’s version, he is using a piece by Tchaikovsky, which he did not write for Swan Lake, but which sometimes is used. It’s “Un poco di Chopin,” a piano work by Tchaikovsky written in the style of Chopin, which was then orchestrated. Angel is using it in Act IV for the sad swans. There are many [classical ballet] traditions of that type.

Q: Philadelphia audiences have seen and heard a lot of Tchaikovsky’s music in the context of ballet that’s not from one of his full-length ballets.

A: Choreographers have used a ton of his instrumental music. They’ve gone through his entire repertoire and used a sizable chunk of it for dance. And I think he might have been surprised to know that. He really felt he wasn’t a success as a ballet composer. Not only was he a success, choreographers can’t get enough of him.