Tchaikovsky’s Thoughts on Swan Lake’s Visual World

From Thérèse Hurley: Opening the door to a fairy-tale world: Tchaikovsky’s ballet music in Kant 2007: Cambridge Companion to Ballet:

“Little evidence survives of the collaboration of Swan Lake‘s choreographer Julius Reisinger and the composer; we cannot know how Tchaikovsky might have responded to any specific requests Reisinger made. We do know that the composer took a keen interest in more than just the musical aspects of the ballet’s first production. He was very specific about special effects, as machinist Karl Valts recalls:

‘Peter Ilyich gave special attention to the final act. In the storm scene, when the lake overflows its banks and floods the entire stage, a real whirlwind was built at Tchaikovsky’s insistence. Branches and twigs of trees were broken, fell into the water, and were carried away by the waves. After the storm, for the apotheosis, dawn came and the landscape was illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun at the curtain.’ [quoted from: Karl Federovich Valts: Shest’desyat pyat’ let v teatre (Sixty-five Years in the Theatre), Leningrad 1928 (p.108). Translation in Roland John Wiley: Tchaikovsky’s Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Oxford 1985 (p.56)]


Clearly, Tchaikovsky had a vision of the way in which his ballet was to come to life – not just the music, but also the visual and sound effects on stage combined. And he was more interested in conveying the tumult and despair felt in the final scene than the immediate picture of swans in flight. When he chose to depict the swans, he did so very effectively.” (p.165)

“[…] Tchaikovsky was very conscientious in his use of instruments to simulate nature (harp arpeggios as waves), affect the plot (instrumentation used to deceive Siegfried [in Act III]) and add a touch of magic (harp cadenza and accompaniment in the love pas de deux). Yet the composer himself was not satisfied with his instrumentation for Swan Lake and according to Drigo ‘had intended to take up the matter, but he never managed to do this’ [quoted from: Wiley 1985: Tchaikovsky’s Ballets (p.244)]. We can only speculate what changes Tchaikovsky himself would have made had he lived long enough to collaborate on the Petipa/Ivanov production.” (p.167)


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