Swan Lake

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German special postage stamp on the 100th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's death with a scene from the ballet

Swan Lake ( Russian Лебединое Озеро , Lebedinoje osero ), op . 20, is one of the most famous ballets to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky . It belongs to the standard repertoire of classical ballet companies . In particular, the Allegro Moderato from Schwann dances of the second act is in the choreography of Lev Ivanov subject of countless parodies and therefore as a dance of the four little swans known far beyond the ballet interested public also.

Plot and libretto

The libretto was written by Vladimir Petrowitsch Begitschew and, possibly, Vasily Fyodorowitsch Geltzer and was exactly what the composer Tchaikovsky imagined. Contrary to this widespread assumption, some researchers stated that the choreographer Reisinger or Tchaikovsky or both could also have written this. This libretto was then kept by Geltzer and Begitschew. In the meantime, however, the libretto has been rewritten and changed many times, so that there are different versions with sometimes very different endings. The legend of the enchanted swan princess, who can only be released from the spell of the evil wizard through true love, is known to many peoples.

Frequent motifs from numerous fairy tales can be found in Swan Lake : In particular, the unhappily enchanted princess who is redeemed by the love of a prince. The unfortunate end of the original libretto is also a well-known fairytale motif of the swan girl or swan maiden . This differs from other forms of the fairy tale type in that in the original version of the libretto Odette is understood as a good fairy. She wears a magical protective crown that her grandfather gave her. This is the sea king. Her mother was also a fairy godmother, her father a noble knight. With this, Odette shares the fate of Melusine . However, according to the libretto, her father destroyed her mother and married a sorceress. This stepmother plagued Odette until she fled to the lake created from her grandfather's tears. There she had to assume the form of a swan for protection, because the stepmother chases her as an owl. This owl also sends a demon in the form of a knight, von Rotbart, together with his daughter Odile, who is exactly like Odette. In the end, the owl takes Odette's crown and kills her with it. Odette and Siegfried sink into the waves of the lake. This complicated plot, conveyed verbatim in the libretto, was eventually changed significantly. Odette's family tragedy was canceled, and Red Beard, who appeared on stage, took on the role of stepmother and father. Only a few companies, such as the Semperoper ballet, use motifs from the original libretto without, of course, ever attempting an exact reconstruction. The following is the libretto of the ballet version we are familiar with today.

Scene from the 3rd act: the Queen and Prince Siegfried
Scene from the 3rd act: Odile and Prince Siegfried
Scene from the 4th act: Odette among the swans


Stage design by Helmut Jürgens for "Swan Lake", performance by Bayer. Munich State Opera 1950

1st act

Prince Siegfried celebrates his 21st birthday in the palace gardens . The queen's mother comes up and gently accuses him of being light-hearted. She reminds him that there will be a court ball the next day and that he should choose a bride from among the participating guests. The dances continue until the prince isolates himself and is gripped by an indefinite melancholy . In the sky he sees white swans pass by and he decides to go hunting with his friends.

2nd act

On the shore of the Swan Lake, near the castle, the beautiful swan girl appears in the moonlight, stepping out of the water. The prince arrives and is about to put on his crossbow when the swan girl steps in front of him as the swan queen. The Queen tells Siegfried that she is Princess Odette, who has been transformed into a swan by the magician Red Beard. She can only be redeemed from this magic by swearing eternal love to her. Siegfried, overwhelmed by her charm, swears her eternal love and loyalty.

The enchantment of the lovers finds an echo in the dances of the swans. Odette and the prince do not notice that they were overheard by Red Beard. The lovers leave the clearing.

3rd act

Festival ball in the castle the next day. Prince Siegfried should choose his bride. The prince dances with the young brides from different countries, but his thoughts are only with Odette. A noble, unknown guest is reported unexpectedly: Baron Rotbart with his creature Odile, who is Odette's seductive, negative likeness and in whom Prince Siegfried believes he is fascinated by his beloved Odette. The divertissements with the national dances will continue. Siegfried, now completely addicted to the evil fascination of the "black Odette", holds for her hand and swears to her eternal love and loyalty. Redbeard and Odile leave the ballroom triumphant over the successful deception, while Odette's white ghost appears in the distance. Siegfried runs desperately to the lake.

4th act

There are several variants:

At the lake the swans are waiting for their princess to return. She comes and tells you what has happened. The prince reaches the lake and asks Odette's forgiveness, and she forgives him. A great wave sent by Rotbart threatens to drown Siegfried. Odette rushes into the flood to save Siegfried. Depending on the staging, either one of them dies (Siegfried or Odette), or both die, or both live happily ever after.


In addition to the technical requirements, ballet also places high demands on the actors' acting skills. The defining role of the piece is the double role of Odette / Odile, which, in addition to the demands of the dance, forces the dancer to embody a lyrical, good character on the one hand, and a demonic one on the other . After Pierina Legnani , Anna Pawlowa , Tamara Karsawina , Maria Danilowa and Margot Fonteyn danced famous interpretations of the role. Maja Plissezkaja's swan-like arm movements remain unsurpassed in their portrayal to this day. The world's most successful prima ballerina in this role is currently the Russian Polina Semionowa , who dances Odette / Odile with numerous well-known partners (in Berlin, for example, alongside Vladimir Malachow ).

The moment Siegfried discovers the deception, Siegfried has to switch from the somewhat innocent and happy lover to the role of the angry and angry betrayed. John Figg describes a strong dramatic effect of the play in that “ the prince was made into a living being who lived through the tragedy instead of being a human crane who merely picked up the ballerina. "


Romantic orchestra: 3 flutes (3rd piccolo ), 2 oboes , 2 clarinets in A, B and C, 2 bassoons , 4 horns in F, 2 cornets in A and B, 2 trumpets in F, D and E, 3 trombones ( 3rd bass), tuba , timpani , percussion ( snare drum , cymbals , large drum , triangle , tambourine , castanets , tam-tam , glockenspiel , tubular bells ), harp , strings .

The music includes auditions for flute, harp, trumpet, violin and cello.


The roles of Odette and Odile are usually danced by one and the same dancer. It is one of the most demanding and exhausting roles in classical ballet. Not only are two completely different characters portrayed, the choreography also places high demands on the dancer. Among other things, the role in one of the most famous scenes in the third act requires thirty-two fouettés . This feat was built into the choreography because it was the specialty of Pierina Legnani , the first Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Mariinsky Theater .



Anna Sobechshanskaya as Odette at the world premiere in the Bolshoi Theater

Schwanensee had its world premiere on February 20th July. / March 4, 1877 greg. in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in a production by Wenzel Julius Reisinger with the prima ballerina Pelagaja Karpakowa - the performance was characterized by insufficient preparation and technically inadequate actors and equipment. The Bolshoi Ballet at that time did not have the required level to dance this piece, and so the too difficult passages in the music were simply deleted and replaced by easier numbers by other composers . This made the performance unpopular and quickly canceled. She suffered just as much from the circumstances of the ballet at that time, which John Cranko describes in his Stuttgart program booklet: " ... historical events were completely changed, national dances were danced in completely wrong countries and totally inappropriate costumes ... Then the composer was asked to deliver a number of popular rhythms such as polka, gallop, waltz or mazurka. ... the whole thing was rehearsed by a ballet master on a treble violin, so that the dance combined with the orchestra sometimes represented a strange contrast to the music. The prima ballerina also had to be satisfied with the 'numbers', and if she wasn't, it was easy to cut out the pieces, regardless of whether the musical sequence was interrupted or not. “Under these circumstances, Schwanensee flopped at its premiere, not surprisingly.

The productions from 1880 onwards - Tchaikovsky's fame slowly began to grow outside of Russia too - had only moderate success, but above all they continued to distort the ballet. Nikolai D. Kaschkin , music critic and director of the Moscow Conservatory, wrote in his 1896 memoir:

"The replacement of the original numbers with inserted numbers was practiced to an ever greater extent, and ultimately almost a whole third of the music by Schwanensee was replaced by insertions from other ballets, and mostly only average ones."

Olga Preobrajenska as Odette in the performance at the Mariinsky Theater in 1895

The production, which is still relevant today, was staged on February 17 / January 15, 1895 at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg . The choreography was by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov . Later productions were mostly based very closely on this version. The Petersburg people probably came up with the idea of ​​reviving ballet through concert performances of the second act in the Mariinsky Theater in 1894. On behalf of the Petersburg theater director Ivan Vsevoloschski , Tchaikovsky's brother Modest fundamentally revised the score. The production was also only a moderate success, it was unauthorized, since there is no indication that Tchaikovsky himself ever considered a rework, but it profoundly influenced the entire further performance practice.

Petipa himself did not count on success and did not make any arrangements for the further performance practice: he neither had the choreography noted down step by step, nor did he make any arrangements about how to handle the choreography after his death. It was not until 1934 that a reasonably complete record of the version came to the West with the London emigrant Nikolai Sergejew . It was rehearsed by Sergeyev for the Vic Wells Ballet. The first performance of the Kirov Ballet in the West had to wait until 1969.

Outside Russia, the second act was first performed in Prague in 1877, and the entire ballet was then performed again in Prague in 1907. The German premiere took place in Dessau in 1938 , the first post-war German production in Mannheim in 1954 by Lisa Kretschmar . Waslaw Orlikowsky performed the first German rehearsal based on the Petipa Iwanow choreography in Oberhausen in 1955 .

Significant and alternative interpretations

Important versions of the ballet contributed in Leningrad Agrippina Vaganova (1933), Fedor Lopuchow (1945) and Konstantin Sergejew (1950), in Moscow Alexander Gorski (1901), Assaf Messerer (1937) and Yuri Grigorowitsch (1969) as well as at the Stanislawski and Nemirovich Danchenko Music Theater Vladimir Burmeister (1953).

Outside Russia, the productions of George Balanchine ( New York City Ballet , 1951), John Cranko ( Stuttgart , 1963), Rudolf Nurejew (Vienna State Opera, 1964), Erik Bruhn (National Ballet of Canada, 1967), and Kenneth achieved outstanding recognition MacMillan ( Deutsche Oper Berlin , 1969), Tom Schilling ( Komische Oper Berlin , 1978) and Peter Wright ( Sadler's Wells Ballet , 1981).

One of the best-known reinterpretations of Swan Lake is John Neumeier's Illusions - like Swan Lake , which premiered in Hamburg in 1976 .

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake , in which the swans are danced exclusively by men, was even more successful . This choreography was premiered in 1995 in London at Sadler's Wells Theater . She also celebrated success on tours through Europe, North America and Japan .

Dada Masilo went one step further in her staging and presented the piece as a homosexual composition.

In 2016 Alexei Ratmansky choreographed a swan lake at the Zurich Opera House and La Scala in Milan, which attempted to reconstruct the original version of Petipa, Ivanov and Tchaikovsky from 1895, the dance score preserved in Stepanov notation in the Sergeyev collection of Harvard University (Houghton Library ) is received. Ratmansky continued his reconstructions of ballets from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The ballet technique was not that advanced at that time and the dancers first had to relearn the old technique and forego the standards they had learned from the technical advancement and poses of classical ballet. At that time, more emphasis was placed on the acting aspect and the tempo was sometimes higher, precisely because the technical development of the dance was not that advanced at the time and you could cover up inadequacies. In his score, Tchaikovsky, in close collaboration with Petipa, followed precisely his specifications and changes, which corresponded to the dance possibilities of the time. Ratmansky also worked out the differences between Petipa's very precisely defined choreography (Act 1,3) and Ivanov's more flowing movements (Act 2,4).

Complete recordings (selection)



The climbing rose "Swan Lake", McGredy 1968

In 1968 the rose breeder Samuel Darragh McGredy introduced a tightly filled, white climbing rose under the name "Swan Lake".


  • Thomas Kohlhase : Swan Lake in: Introduction to Selected Works by Petr Il'ič Čajkovskijs , Schott, Mainz 1996, pp. 13–31, ISBN 3-7957-0324-7 (= Čajkovskij-Studien , Volume 2).
  • Horst Koegler , Helmut Günther : Reclams Ballettlexikon , Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 1984, ISBN 3-15-010328-2
  • Cyril Beaumont: The Ballet Called Swan Lake, London: Dance Books 1952
  • Roland John Wiley: Tchaikovsky's Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker. Oxford, Clarendon Press 1985
  • Roland John Wiley: The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov , Oxford, Clarendon Press 1997

Web links

Commons : Swan Lake  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Pictures ( JPEG )

Individual evidence

  1. Swan Lake Libretto from 1877. Retrieved October 27, 2018 .
  2. Swan Lake Libretto. (PDF) Retrieved October 27, 2018 .
  3. ^ GJ Dowker, Ballett Zürich - Swan Lake - Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of the 1895 Petipa & Ivanov version , Zurich Opera House, February 6, 2016
  4. Roses from AZ: Scho-Scra. World of Roses, October 21, 2014, accessed October 22, 2014 .