Today on February 20, 1877, the iconic Tchaikovsky ballet, Swan Lake, premieres at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Despite its initial poor reviews, Swan Lake has since become one of the world’s most popular ballets. Its creator, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, became the first composer to achieve mainstream success outside of Russia. Throughout his career, he composed several internationally acclaimed works while making guest appearances as a conductor throughout Europe and America. Tchaikovsky composed during the late Romantic period, fusing elements of western classical music with traditional Russian melodies. Some of his most famous works include The Nutcracker, The Seasons, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. Critics have suggested he betrayed his Russian heritage to achieve mainstream status. In 1884, Tchaikovsky was recognized for his achievements by Emperor Alexander III and granted a lifetime pension from the state.
Swan Lake was the first noteworthy ballet produced by Tchaikovsky. He began writing the Swan Lake score two years before its initial debut. Throughout his early career, Tchaikovsky avoided ballet music — leading composers of the day often regarded ballets as frivolous and not worthy of great talent. The story of Swan Lake was written by Vladimir Begichev, the director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatre. The plot borrows elements from various Germanic fairy tales and Russian folklore. Begichev played an instrumental role in recruiting Tchaikovsky to compose the score, who eventually became enamored with the project. In fact, Tchaikovsky later revised his views on ballets, developing a newfound respect for the subtle intricacies of the category.
Tchaikovsky recruited the famous Czech choreographer, Julius Reisinger, to produce the ballet. However, tensions eventually grew between the two as he insisted on making several minor tweaks to the score. After almost a year of rehearsals, the ballet finally premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in the heart of Moscow. To his dismay, Swan Lake was met with negative reviews from local critics. Audiences were left uninspired by almost every facet, including the choreography, stage design, and score. Tchaikovsky made several changes to the ballet, which led to more favorable reactions from its audiences. Over time, Swan Lake would become a worldwide phenomenon. Many regard it as one of the most iconic ballets in history.