Swan lake

31st January 2003 at 00:00
The story behind: Swan Lake

Some pieces of music radiate the struggle which went into their creation: others sound like impromptu outpourings. We know Mozart wrote some of his greatest music at top speed, and it's tempting to imagine Tchaikovsky did the same, particularly with that tumbling cornucopia of melodies Swan Lake.

So the true story is a surprise. It sprang out of a little home entertainment - inspired by a German folk tale - which Uncle Pyotr wrote for his nieces while staying at their country home. As his brother recalled, Tchaikovsky not only wrote the music but devised all the parts and danced them himself: "red-faced and wet with perspiration as he sang the tunes, he was an amusing sight."

Four years later, he was commissioned by Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre to turn the tale into a full-length ballet. But the premi re in 1875 was a disaster, because the choreographer and the leading dancer had decided that the score was "not danceable", and had substituted dances by other composers they felt more comfortable with.

As David Brown observes in his biography (Tchaikovsky, Gollancz), the critics were not impressed. One opined that it was far inferior to the composer's other works, while another accused him of "a poverty of creative fantasy and, in consequence, thematic and melodic monotony". With characteristic modesty, the composer accepted the blame for its failure, and agreed to rewrite it, but the job was still unfinished at the time of his suicide (on the orders of the kangaroo court which condemned him for being homosexual).

One year on, after hearing a performance to commemorate Tchaikovsky's genius, the great choreographer Marius Petipa was inspired to reconstruct the score. The rest is history: Swan Lake is now the best-loved ballet in the repertoire. Try Antal Dorati's vintage recording on Mercury 462 950-2.

And as proof the work's durability, consider what choreographer Matthew Bourne has done with it (Warner DVD 0630-15899-2). Male swans, a Royal-Windsor storyline, coke-snorting in discosI and the music plays on, magic as ever.

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