top of page

Exemplary: Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake

The MHS Review 409, VOL. 12, NO.13• 1988

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

David M. Greene


not yet released.png

Somehow my enthusiasm for dance as an art form ebbs away at the sight of a tutu (exclusive of the admirable Bishop). Not that I dislike tutus in and of themselves­--very graceful they are indeed! (Did you know that the word originated as baby talk for the human derriere?) Likewise, I have no serious objection to the young women who inhabit tutus. I even think them quite attractive in an assembly-line sort of way. But the kind of dance they represent­--classical ballet--strikes me as limited technically and vapid in point of narrative. Perhaps this is the outcome of having to sit through Les sylphides every time I at­tended the ballet in my nonage.

Save for a 20-minute abridgment by the Ballet Theater ca. 1952, I had to wait near­ly six decades to see Swan lake. It did not change my feelings. The occasion was the late-lamented Summer Festival on the Tem­ple University campus in Ambler, Pa. The orchestra was the Pittsburgh, the star Dame Margot Fonteyn (in the twilight of her career), and the dance company that of the Vienna State Opera. The orchestra was fine, the music lovely, and Dame Margot, even at that late date, still very much a phenomenon. But the VSO company was, frankly, pretty bad, a fact that made the ac­tion seem even sillier.

I don't remember the name of the dancer who played the ineffable Prince Siegfried, but I recall that his most prominent feature was a pair of legs so titanically muscled that he could undoubtedly have shattered Hulk Hogan's ribs in a scissors. He looked totally asinine dancing about in glee on his tip­pytoes and waving that five-and-dime crossbow they give the prince for his bir­thday. At the end he rolled across the stage and back several times to indicate that he was in the grip of the flooding lake. I had to close my eyes. (None of the synopses that I have at hand mentions this action!)

The plot may be detailed with merciful brevity: Disinclined by nature to inspect a lineup of prospective brides, Siegfried takes off to hunt swans, for which, like Ludwig II of Bavaria, he has a preference. Having found a covey (or whatever), he observes one of them turn into a young woman call­ed Odette (Odette, where is thy sting?). He falls for her, and persuades his companions to hold their fire, so that the two can "express their tragic love" (it says in the book). Back at the palace, he finds among the marital candidates the evil Odile, Odette's double, who is being offered as a lure by her pa, the villainous von Rothbart. When she performs 32 consecutive fouettes, he chooses her to be his wife. Odette, despair­ing, drowns herself, and Ziggy joins her, an action that causes von Rothbart to dry up or explode.

Swan Lake was its composer's first ballet, based on an entertainment he had whipped up for his sister's children, and commissioned from him when he was 35. What he came up with is said to be the world's most popular ballet. But it never achieved that status in Tchaikovsky's lifetime. The story line is said to be the work of his sometime pupil, Vladimir Begichev, and a dancer, Vassily Heltsin or Geltsin, but they never took credit for it (understandably). The 1877 production was a shambles--inferior cast, scenery designed by a committee and executed by hangmen, a jackleg choreographer, and general failure (by people used to diddly-­poo scores) to know how to respond to Tchaikovsky's quasi-symphonic music. There were attempts (no mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, however) to revive it in 1880 and in 1882, after which it was shelved. In 1894, subsequent to the composer's death, the great Marius Petipa applied new choreography to it and the rest is history.

One source notes cautiously that the music may have saved it. There's little doubt in my mind. I have long maintained that Tchaikovsky was at his best in music that did not allow him, so to speak, to pick at his own psychological scabs. The three great ballets represent this sort of thing at its finest. They also see him apotheosizing the entire musical tradition of the roman­tic ballet as it had developed from the time of Adolphe Adam. Of the three master­pieces, Swan Lake is perhaps the best, since it is more unified, less concerned with divertissements. As a lifelong ballet conductor, John Lanchbery knows just how it should go, and the recorded sound, as heard on the LPs, is exemplary.

Review of Swan Lake on inside cover

bottom of page