Thursday, March 10, 2011


The Origins of Swan Lake

"Jezioro łabędzie" to historia kobiety zaklętej w łabędzia oraz młodego, dorastającego mężczyzny.

This most revered of classical ballets did not appear in a blaze of glory, and even the exact origins of the ballet are uncertain. The Petipa/Ivanov version of Swan Lake that we consider the "standard" today was in fact created after Tchaikovsky’s death and was greatly altered from the original concept. Many of the features of Swan Lake that we believe to be from the original production (e.g. the White Swan pas de deux) were the result of revisions after the Petipa/Ivanov version. There is surprisingly little that was written down during the creation of the music or choreography. All we have to go on are personal recollections and memoirs that were written a long time after the event and thus subject to some skepticism and much debate among scholars.

It is known that Tchaikovsky was commissioned by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the intendant of the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow and a friend of Tchaikovsky, to write a score for Swan Lake in May 1875 for the sum of 800 roubles. It was Begichev who authored at least the initial programme of the ballet. He, along with Vasily Fedorovich Geltser, a dancer in the Moscow company, are credited with writing the libretto for the ballet, though many contend that Geltser was probably no more than the copyist. The first published libretto of Swan Lake did not correspond exactly to the musical lay out and was probably produced by a staff writer who based it on observations of rehearsals in progress. It is highly likely that Tchaikovsky had a good deal of influence over the story’s development. Legends of swans were presumably familiar to Tchaikovsky and his artistic friends, who no doubt discussed the idea of the swan as a symbol of womanhood at its purest.

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was composed in 1875 as a commission by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the intendant of the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow. The legend of the Swan-Maiden goes back for centuries, appearing in differing forms in both eastern and western literature. Women who turn into birds and vice versa were popular themes, and the swan was particularly favored due to its grace when swimming in the water. The ancient Greeks considered the swan to the bird closest to the Muses. When Apollo was born at Delos, the event was celebrated by flights of circling swans.
Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover is a Slav tale that begins with Mikhail the Rover who is about to shoot a swan that warns him "Shoot not, else ill-fortune will doom thee for evermore!" On landing the swan turns into a beautiful maiden. When Mikhail tries to kiss her she warns that she is an infidel. However, if he takes her to the holy city of Kiev, then she might be received by the church and thus free to marry him. So they set out. In a similar South German legend a swan speaks to a forester who is about to kill her. The beautiful maiden in this case says that she would be his if he could keep her existence a secret for one year. He fails and thus looses her.

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