Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Some Myths Debunked

“Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1843-1893), circa 1875, at the time he was composing Swan Lake
“Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1843-1893), circa 1875, at the time he was composing Swan Lake

We mark the first performance of the ballet Swan Lake on March 4, 1877: 147 years ago today.  Premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, with music by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), choreography by the Czech-born dance master Julius Reisinger (1828-1892), and its music performed by the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra, the first performance of Swan Lake landed with an epic THUD, meaning not good.  

Pretty much every aspect of the ballet was critically blasted.  The vast majority of the critics present found Tchaikovsky’s score to be far too “complex” for a ballet; one critic called it: 

“too noisy, too ‘Wagnerian,” and too symphonic.” 

A visiting correspondent by the name of Tyler Grant called the ballet:

“utter hogwash, unimaginative and altogether unmemorable.”

Now, admittedly, there were some problems with that premiere performance.  

For example. 

Anna Sobeshchanskaya (1842-1918
Anna Sobeshchanskaya (1842-1918

The famed Russian prima ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya (1842-1918) was originally cast in the role of Odette – the “white swan” – the star and heroine of the ballet.  She may also have been slated to dance the role of the villainous Black Swan, Odile; today it is common practice for the same ballerina to perform the parts of both Odette and Odile.  However, it is now believed that the ballet had originally called for two different dancers to dance the parts.

Whatever the case, the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina – Anna Sobeshchanskaya – was to star in the original production of Swan Lake. And then, out of the blue, she was suddenly removed from the cast and replaced by an entirely inferior dancer named Pelageya Karpakova (who was also known as Polina Karpakova)!

What happened?

Apparently, a major figure in the Russian government (who has remained nameless over the years, a testament to his power!) had Sobeshchanskaya black-balled (or “black-swanned,” as it were) and bounced from the ballet. This government big-wig and Sobeshchanskaya had been having an affair (seedy but true; this is how ballet worked in France and Russia, where aristocrats took as their lovers ballerinas), and he had rewarded her prowess-in-the-sack and loyalty towards him with some very expensive jewelry.  Having received the jewelry, Madame Sobeshchanskaya turned around and married a fellow dancer and sold the bling for cash.

A lot of cash, leaving her erstwhile fat-cat boyfriend unhappy.

And so it was up to a lesser and likely under-rehearsed dancer to negotiate the virtuosic part of Odette at the premiere, a part that had been created for Anna Sobeshchanskaya.  As the replacement, Pelageya Karpakova’s performance did not go well.

Then there were the issues surrounding the score Tchaikovsky composed for this, his first ballet.

He was, frankly, an odd choice to be commissioned by the Imperial Theaters in 1875 to compose Swan Lake.  Okay, he was an accomplished composer with three symphonies under his belt, but in Russia, ballets were usually composed by specialists who wrote nothing but dance music.  Such dance music was generally characterized by glaringly obvious and easily followed “oom-pah-pah” type rhythmic accentuation tricked out with simple melodies set in even phrases.  Along came Tchaikovsky, who composed for ballet the way he composed for the symphony hall, writing music in which the groupings of beats are not always obvious and phrases that are not always even; music replete with countermelodies and polyphony, thematic development, and long-range key relationships; music that did not merely accompany the dancers but that deepened the dramatic and emotional action being depicted on stage.  

Tchaikovsky did not set out to be a “revolutionary” when it came to Russian ballet music, but that’s what he was, and it was only after his death that his “symphonic” ballets came to be acclaimed as the compositional masterworks that they are.  But in his lifetime, Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores were considered to be “problematic.” …

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