Skip to page content


Composed: 1876

Length: c. 30 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, and triangle), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 2, 1941, Efrem Kurz conducting

About this Piece

One of the most progressive trends of late 19th-century ballet was the desire for music that was not merely serviceable but that was of high artistic quality and an integral part of the scheme. Enter Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky’s natural affinity for music that dances is apparent in virtually everything he wrote. His first ballet was written as a matter of necessity. When he was 35, before Nadezhda von Meck came into his struggling life as bountiful benefactor, the need for ready cash was the chief impulse for his accepting a commission to compose the music for the ballet Swan Lake. Wrote Tchaikovsky to composer Rimsky-Korsakov in 1875: “I accepted the work partly because I need the money, and because I long cherished a desire to try my hand at this type of music.”

When in 1877 the badly staged premiere production of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theater was shrugged off and dismissed, the composer was not surprised. Shortly after the ballet’s failure, he wrote in his diary: “Lately, I have heard the very clever music of [French composer Léo] Delibes. Swan Lake is poor stuff compared to it. Nothing during the last few years has charmed me so greatly as this ballet of Delibes.” (Was he referring to Coppélia of 1870, or Sylvia of 1876?) Delibes notwithstanding, Tchaikovsky later had enough faith in his balletic abilities to compose Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. Unfortunately, he did not live to witness the success of Swan Lake in its revival in 1895, with new choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

For many years now, this stage piece has stood as possibly the best loved of all the “white” ballets, the ultimate Romantic dance work that floats, shimmers, and whirls on Tchaikovsky’s wondrously inspired music. Any true balletomane is quite willing to suspend reality and believe in swans who are actually enchanted maidens allowed to resume human form only at night; in dashing Prince Siegfried, who loses his heart to Odette, the Queen of the Swans; in the evil magician Rothbart and his wicked daughter Odile, who trick the Prince and thereby victimize the Swan Queen (in most productions, Odette and Odile is a dual role danced, one hopes, by a ballerina who is all lyricism and elegance and also a brilliant technician). And then one must be able to shed a tear at the poignant ending, in which the reunited lovers choose to die together. (Some productions opt for a happy ending, but that’s an unnecessary bromide for a fairy tale that is the ultimate of romantic tragedy. —Notes from the Philharmonic’s archives