Tchaikovsky’s Is Staged in St. Petersburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at St. Petersburg brought music, drama, and dance together in an intense and lyrical unity which revolutionized Russian ballet and set the standard for classical ballet. The St. Petersburg staging of the ballet remains the one most often followed today.

Summary of Event

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Lebedinoe ozero (1877; Swan Lake) has become one of the best-known and most appreciated of all classical ballets. The dual role of its heroine Odette/Odile is the trial by which every classical ballerina assures her claim to greatness. However, although it was the first ballet that Tchaikovsky wrote, it was also the last of his ballets to enjoy success. Tchaikovsky first tried his hand at writing a “ballet” in the summer of 1871, while he was staying with his sister Alexandra Davydova at her estate in the Ukraine. He was very devoted to her children and created a ballet for them based on fairy tales of swan queens. Once back in Moscow, he apparently talked about his “ballet” at a social gathering at the home of Vladimir Petrovich Begichev Begichev, Vladimir Petrovich , the intendant of the Russian Imperial Theatres of Moscow. The possibility of a full-scale ballet was subsequently discussed by the artists, writers, and composers present. Thus, in May of 1875, Begichev commissioned Tchaikovsky to write a score for a ballet derived from his improvised children’s entertainment to be called Swan Lake. Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) Ballet;Swan Lake Music;Russian Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich [p]Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich;Swan Lake St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia];ballet Petipa, Marius Ivanov, Lev [kw]Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Is Staged in St. Petersburg (Jan. 27, 1895) [kw]Swan Lake Is Staged in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky’s (Jan. 27, 1895) [kw]Staged in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Is (Jan. 27, 1895) [kw]St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Is Staged in (Jan. 27, 1895) Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) Ballet;Swan Lake Music;Russian Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich [p]Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich;Swan Lake St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia];ballet Petipa, Marius Ivanov, Lev [g]Russia;Jan. 27, 1895: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Is Staged in St. Petersburg[6010] [c]Dance;Jan. 27, 1895: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Is Staged in St. Petersburg[6010] [c]Theater;Jan. 27, 1895: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Is Staged in St. Petersburg[6010] [c]Music;Jan. 27, 1895: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Is Staged in St. Petersburg[6010] Legnani, Pierina

Although Begichev and a dancer in the Moscow Bolshoi Ballet Bolshoi Ballet Moscow;Bolshoi Ballet Company, Vasily Fedorovich, are credited with writing the first libretto for the ballet, Tchaikovsky is believed to have had considerable influence on the dramatic narrative. The legend of the Swan Maiden was centuries old, and tales of women turned into swans abounded in the folklore of both Eastern and Western culture, but the precise story told in the ballet is not to be found elsewhere. Thus, Swan Lake has many cultural ancestors but the story of Swan Lake can be considered as Tchaikovsky’s own tale.

The fact that Tchaikovsky had so much influence upon the story is somewhat unusual, since he was also responsible for the musical score. Ballets at that time were created in a fashion which may seem peculiar to a modern afficionado. The librettist of a ballet would simply choose a story or legend and create a ballet of five or six acts. The librettist wrote the entire story of his ballet; it was then put into the hands of a choreographer who created the dance movements, from whom it traveled to a composer who wrote the music and then into the hands of various designers of costumes and sets. In other words, there was very little collaboration among the various artists who created and performed a ballet.

Rehearsals for Swan Lake began in March of 1876 and went on for eleven months. Julius Wentzel Reisinger Reisinger, Julius Wentzel , an Austrian who was the Moscow ballet master at the time, was put in charge of the choreography. It seems that he found it impossible to create dances to Tchaikovsky’s music, however: He eliminated parts of the score or replaced them with other music, and at times he left the choreography of their roles to the individual dancers. The premiere performance of the ballet was given by the Moscow Bolshoi Bolshoi Ballet Moscow;Bolshoi Ballet Company on March 4, 1877.

The ballet was poorly received and severely criticized for its weak choreography and a general lack of talent among its dancers, costumers, set designers, and orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s music was rejected as too dramatic and emotional. It seemed to be in the dark, brooding style of Richard Wagner Wagner, Richard , while the audience was accustomed to light, airy scores. Although Swan Lake was viewed as a failure, it was performed forty-one times, and it remained part of the Moscow Bolshoi repertoire until 1883. All of the seats were sold out for thirty-three of these performances. Still, the ballet was looked upon as a failure.

During the late 1880’s, Marius Petipa, the ballet master and choreographer for the St. Petersburg Ballet Company, asked Tchaikovsky to compose a musical score for the ballet Spyashchaya krasavitsa (1889, Sleeping Beauty). The ballet was a great success, bringing renown to both Petipa and Tchaikovsky. In 1892, Petipa once again called upon Tchaikovsky for a musical score. This time, it was for a Christmas ballet, Shchelkunchik (1892; The Nutcracker). Petipa fell ill and had to assign the choreography of The Nutcracker to his assistant, Lev Ivanov. The first performance was somewhat poorly received, but the ballet was soon successful.

As a consequence of the success of Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, the possibility of a St. Petersburg production of Swan Lake soon materialized. Tchaikovsky did not live to see his ballet performed in St Petersburg; he died of cholera in 1893. The following year, a memorial concert was presented for him. For this performance, Lev Ivanov choreographed act 2 of Swan Lake. Ivanov’s choreography of the lakeside scene was especially successful, as he used the corps de ballet as an integral part of the ballet’s drama. Pierina Legnani, Legnani, Pierina the Italian ballerina who reigned as prima ballerina of the St. Petersburg Company, performed the role of the Swan Queen.

The performance was well received, and Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theatre, asked Petipa to choreograph a complete production of the ballet. Petipa made several changes in the music and the libretto of the ballet. In collaboration with Ricardo Drigo Drigo, Ricardo , the chief orchestra conductor of the company, he asked Tchaikovsky’s brother Modeste to alter the score to include more character dances. In the libretto, he changed Odette’s persecutor. Originally, her wicked stepmother had changed her into a swan. Von Rothbart had merely been her stepmother’s accomplice. Petipa eliminated the stepmother and made von Rothbart a wicked magician totally responsible for Odette’s plight. He also changed the ending. Tchaikovsky’s ending had been tragic, with Prince Siegfried and Odette being swept under the water of the lake and dying, united forever in death. Petipa, who liked happy endings, concluded the ballet with the lovers united to live happily ever after. His version of Swan Lake remained an intensely dramatic ballet, however.

Petipa divided the choreography of the ballet with Ivanov. Petipa choreographed act 1 and most of act 3, and Ivanov choreographed acts 2 and 4, plus two dances in the ballroom scene of act 3, the Venetian Dance and the Czardas. Ivanov once again used the corps de ballet as an integral part of the drama of the ballet and created lyrical dances emphasizing the beauty and flowing movements of swans. His pas de quatre, the Dance of the Little Swans, was particularly lyrical, with a soft ethereal quality. Petipa’s choreography of the court scenes had an energy and quickness of movement that created a definite contrast to the pas de quatre.

The Black Swan pas de deux of act 3 was perhaps the most striking dance in the ballet. Legnani Legnani, Pierina performed the role of Odette/Odile. Aware of the effect of her performance of thirty-two fouettés in his Cinderella (1893), Petipa included them as Odile’s means of seducing Siegfried. Composed of many different kinds of dancing, including classical, character, folk, and a considerable amount of mime, Swan Lake was truly representative of the genius of Petipa. Ivanov’s contributions were also significant, as he was able to bring together music and dance in a perfect combination. On January 27, 1895 (January 15 by the Eastern Orthodox calendar then in use in Russia), Swan Lake premiered at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg with Pierina Legnani in the role of Odette/Odile and Pavel Gerdt in that of Siegfried.


In bringing together the talents of Tchaikovsky, Petipa, Ivanov, and Legnani, Legnani, Pierina the St. Petersburg performance of Swan Lake epitomized the beauty and richness of ballet and assured the existence of the art in its highest form. Swan Lake became the embodiment of Russian classical ballet’s ideals. It was both technically and emotionally demanding. It required dancers who were accomplished both as actors and as dancers. The full range of emotion portrayed in the ballet coupled with the technical difficulty of the dance movements combined to create a standard for ballet choreography and performance which persists to this day.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Jack. Dance. New York: Newsweek Books, 1974. Although this book is rather old, it has an excellent discussion of the creation and performance of Swan Lake and is very well illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scholl, Tim. From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2001. Original and somewhat controversial argument that Balanchine’s choreography was a direct twentieth century response to Petipa’s work. Rejects a line of modernization through Fokine and Diaghilev.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Souritz, Elisabeth. The Great History of the Russian Ballet: Its Art and Choreography. Richford, Vt.: Parkstone Press, 1999. Detailed, in-depth treatment of ballet technique and performance in accord with Russian standards.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiley, Roland John. The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov: Choreographer of the Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Richly documented presentation of the career of Ivanov; includes discussions of the state of dance in Russia in Ivanov’s time and of his influence on later choreographers, especially Mikhail Fokine. Contains a chapter on Swan Lake and a chapter on libretti for ballets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Tchaikovsky: Ballets—Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1991. Includes discussion of the negotiations between Tchaikovsky and the Imperial Theater, a chapter on the production of Swan Lake in Moscow, and a chapter on the production in St. Petersburg. Useful appendixes, including the scenarios of Tchaikovsky’s ballets (both Moscow and St. Petersburg performances).

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