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Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake Suite

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky had music synchronised in his mind and brain long before he could read or write music. He was at the piano when his tiny finger could not stretch over even half an octave. He was a sensitive child and as his family moved from place to place, he found it difficult to cope with the separations. The final blow came when his mother died of cholera before he could reach his 14th birthday. Tchaikovsky withdrew and became an introvert and this state of mind spurned him to seek solace in music. It inspired him to an obsession from which he never turned back. The more I listen to his music the more convinced I become that the deep feelings of sorrow he carried throughout his life have been incorporated to his music. They are highly strung, sensitive and complexed that even early choreographers found it difficult to translate them to ballet steps. It is believed that if a student masters Tchaikovsky, he has reached his brilliance in music. Today, however, even the layman is able to enjoy his music very especially scores like The Serenade For Strings as well as some scores used in ballets like The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake etc. as well as the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin.

Rudolf Nurejev as Prince Siegfried in the Swan Lake to the music of Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky's love life was a disaster from the beginning and to break free from his homosexuality, he married a student named Antonina Milyukova announcing publicly that he was not in love with her at all. The marriage lasted only a couple of weeks. This happened on the rebound because Tchaikovsky was passionately in love with a French singer whose parents never approved Tchaikovsky for their daughter's hand in marriage. She was Desiree Ariot and she married someone else. It helped the Master to become what he became. He was the genius among Russian composers todate. It also led to his homosexuality when he spurned women. When his marriage ended in 1877, he sat down to write the full score for the lengthy Swan Lake Suite. Those who know of the life and time of Tchaikovsky will find everything in his spectacular scores; the moods, the passion, restlessness and the impatience. The helplessness and passion of Prince Siegfried, the infidelity of Odile and the sacrificial love of Odette and their suicide are so much part of his life.

However, he wrote his happiest and brilliant music when he was emotionally released of his tether and on the brink of suicide. Some of the doom-laden music were scored during the more tranquil and contented period of his life. This distinctive Russian Master wrote the spectacular Nutcracker Suite with all its technical brilliance in 1892 a year before his suicide. He was able to write the Sixth Symphony in 1893 before he died on sixth November the same year.

Most people have the notion that Swan Lake is ballet. It was not so; in fact, the strong image of the swan was used much later and was the conception of Michael Fokine.

He used it for Anna Pavlova in the Dying Swan which of course has nothing to do with Swan Lake. However, the story or legend of Swan Lake in ballet perhaps is the much loved and popular among all full length ballets. What the ballet world does not know is that Swan Lake was a total failure when it was produced in Moscow in 1877. Tchaikovsky's music was so badly arranged that it ended in a catastrophe. The choreography so ordinary and without coordination with music and story. It was retained at the Moscow repertory for almost 20 years until such time it saw the light and as seen by us today. It is believed that Sleeping Beauty paved the way for the rise of Swan Lake by its success in Russia.

Swan Lake was the outcome of Tchaikovsky's imagination. His daily visits to the lakeside of his sister's home where he lived along with her children were spent watching the strange happenings by the lake when a flight of swans would descend down every evening to frolick and dance in formation until the arrival of the most beautiful swan. Together they would create a water symphony that fascinated Tchaikovsky who evolved a fantasy in his mind. Around 1871, Tchaikovsky scored simple notations based on these strange happenings to entertain his nieces and their friends. Unknowingly, he had laid the foundation to the greatest of his musical compositions that led the directors of the Imperial Theatres in Moscow to commission him to compose for the full length ballet and out of his own imagination rose the Swan Lake Suite as we hear it today.

By April 1876, the score was completed but Tchaikovsky was faced with major problems. No one was prepared for the high quality and complexity of the music which was beyond the reach of the conductor Stempen Ryabove. Apart from this fact, all were used to gaudy music and not certainly for sensitive and spectacular scores that Tchaikovsky wrote. The costumes were shabby and so was the dancing of Odette/Odile by ballerina Polageia Karpakova that was sub-standard. When Swan Lake was premiered on 4th March 1877 one reviewer complained that it had dull, monotonous, music. Unfortunately, they could not read Tchaikovsky's music to understand it. From the Swan Lake Suite, Tchaikovsky was able to 'rescue' some music for concert use. The Waltz, Act 1 though it related more to character of Prince Siegfried was one of Tchaikovsky's delightful watzes. It had the pulslating effect for Siegfried's birthday celebration ball where he had to choose a bride when he was about to meet the girl of his dreams.

Odette in the Swan Lake

The original Dance of the Little Swans in Act 11 was titled Dance of the Swans for the St. Petersburg production and was a series of dances performed by the swans; now in human guise at the ball given by the Prince. The highlight of the composition is found in Scene of Pas d'action of Act 11 where Princes Odette and Prince Siegfried engage in a passionate dance solo for the harp, violin, and cello. The music is so very apt for the pledge of eternal (Siegfried thinks Odets to be Odille).

Prince Siegfried reaching his twenty first birthday celebrates the event in the palace garden dancing with the peasant girls while his retainers fetch him gifts and flowers. His mother also brings him precious gifts.

It is a jewelled crossbow. After presenting it, she informs him of her desire to see him married as he has reached age. A ball is arranged for this purpose where is to select a bride among the princesses. Siegried is not happy but gives in to her but broods over it. Suddenly he sees a flight of swans overhead and along with his retainers, he follows them into the woods nearby. As he reaches the forest, he sees a lake with a beautiful swan gliding over it.

As he takes aim to shoot her down, the swan transform hereself into a beautiful girl. Siegfried is so surprised that he lays down bow and arrow and approaches her. She is terrified but reveals that she is Princes Odette taken away from her castle and transformed into a swan by the wicked magician, von Rothbart who places her under a spell, they declare their love in a tender duet.

That evening at the ball, Siegfried is distraught. He is not interested in the princesses because Odette is in his mind and in love with her. His mother the queen is annoyed with him and their thoughts are interrupted by the noise and fanfare of the entry of a beautiful girl in the guise of Odette.

It is a cleverly disguised act of von Rothbard who poses off as a merchant and brings his daughter Odile. On seeing Odile, the Prince believes her to be Odette, embraces and declares his love to her. The pledge of eternal love to Odille is broken and Rothbart casts a spell on her. In the meantime, the Prince does not see Odille fluttering outside the tall window with the curse upon her. However, in a short while the Prince realises his mistake and rushes to the lakeside but it is too late.

Princes Odette is under the spell of Rothbart and helpless. She is surrounded by the swans who comfort her but nothing can break the spell. Siegfried declares his true love and in desperation, they both throw themselves in the lake defying Rothbart's plea not to destroy him by the power of their love. They are united forever in eternity.

The first spectacular choreographer of The Swan Lake ballet was Michael Fokine and still later for over 50 years was Marius Potipa who was the force behind its popularity. He did so at St. Petersburg for a long long time and projected Swan Lake with such aplomb while rearanging the dances so cleverly that dancers of different degrees could dance without restriction.

They could dance precisely to their solo positions thus arranged and come out brilliantly with their own identity and character. After his illness during many productions of The Nutcracker which had given Lev Ivanov his golden opportunity, Petipa divided up the work on Swan Lake in the wisest possible way. He created the court scenes and Acts 111 while the Acts of the second and fourth were created by Ivanov. Ballet steps were taken originally from Italy and the real establishment of ballet as we see and recognise came from France and Russia. When Tchaikovsky scored him music, ballet was the least in his mind. He composed for the sheer beauty of music for different instruments mainly to be played in concerts as symphonies. When composer Sergie Taneiev complained that certain parts of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony were redolent and too complicated for ballet, Tchaikovsky lost his cool and said that he failed to understand why the term of 'ballet' music should in any sense be projected.

Taneiev may have been right or not was later to be seen but it supported a strong image of approval when music composers for dancing reached a low ebb by the middle of the 19th century when choreographers paid little attention to refined music. They were more interested in the dancers, their costumes, stage setting, sceneries, etc. This angered Tchaikovsky so much when he discovered that scant consideration was given to high quality music.

It is over a century after Tchaikovsky's death and he would be surprised (or would he?) at the magnitude of popularity over his music and that of The Swan Lake Suite.

 

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