Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Suite

Context

Composed between 1875-76, Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet Swan Lake was not an immediate hit with audiences and critics. After revisions were made and new productions came and went, now Swan Lake is one of the most popular ballets of all time. In 1882, Tchaikovsky considered joining the trend of creating ballet suites from the music from the main show. It’s not proven whether he decided to go ahead with it because the concert suite we now know was published after his death by an unknown author.

What we do know is that Tchaikovsky was very interested in the idea. He wrote extensively to his friend Pyotr Jurgenson:

 

“You know that French composer Delibes has written ballets. Since ballet is a thing without firm foundations, he made a concert suite from it. The other day I thought about my own Swan Lake, and I wanted very much to save this music from oblivion, since it contains some fine things.

And so I decided to make a suite from it, like Delibes. In order to do this I need the whole piano score of the ballet as well as the full score. I don’t know whether you yourself have a full score; if not, and if it proves difficult to extract from theatre, just send me the arrangement for now, and afterwards I shall indicate to you which numbers and in which order they were listed. And then, if you wish, this suite could be published in the form of a full score and arrangement for piano duet. Write and let me know what you think of this idea.”

 

Jurgenson liked the idea of making a Swan Lake suite and thus the wheels were in motion. No more correspondence suggests what Tchaikovsky chose from this point. 

 

The Music

The Swan Lake Suite is comprised of six iconic works that feature in the ballet. As aforementioned, we are not completely sure who chose the order or the pieces due to the mysterious publication marks. Each movement is a stand-alone movement representing various parts of the story:

 

I) Scène (Act II, No.10)

II) Valse (Act I, No.2)

III) Danse des cygnes (Act III, No.13, Part IV)

IV) Scène (Act II, No.13, Part V)

V) Czardas: Danse hongroise (Act III, No.20)

VI) Scène (Act IV, No.29)

 

Movement I – Scène (Act II, No.10)

The opening movement of the suite is taken from the opening scene of the second act. The music represents the theme of the Swan. The melody, first introduced by a solo oboe, is accompanied by shimmering strings and a whimsical harp. The atmosphere is relaxed, calm and full of magic. As the orchestra begins to build and unite, the french horns take the iconic theme which offers a new atmosphere. Now heroic, bold and intense the melody is beginning to unravel. The strings take a romantic swish of the melody before the brass begins to build the tension in the background. 

A final explosion of colour as a brass fanfare leads into a cascade of descending scales, the final reprise of the melody is heard primarily from the upper strings. Accentuated by off-beat heavy brass, the melody has turned dramatic and is high in intensity. The movement ends quietly and calmly.

 

Movement II – Valse (Act I, No.2)

The second movement represents music from the start of the ballet. Opening with pizzicato strings playing a light and bouncy descending sequence, the music rests into a romantic waltz tempo. Led by the strings, the melody flies between the strings and winds. An explosion from the brass and percussion lead the strings to develop the main motif. A flurry of countermelodies enter the mixing pot, with a sense of organised chaos ensuing before the winds take the reins on the development section. As the orchestra builds for the final climax after another reprise of the opening melody, the movement ends triumphantly and heroically thanks to the bold and bright brass fanfares, trilling winds and shrill strings.

 

Movement III – Danse des cygnes (Act II, No.13, Part IV)

The iconic third movement is taken from the Dance of the Swans interlude in Act II. Opening with bumbling bassoon, the oboes take the lead on the melody. Other winds begin to join with the upper strings playing in the gaps of the melody. This movement is relatively quiet, fast in pace, but ends with a quick final burst from the whole orchestra.

 

Movement IV – Scène (Act II, No.13, Part V)

Following on from the previous dance, the fourth movement represents the next dimension of the swan’s dance. Opening with oboes and flutes accompanied by a harp, the mysterious opening is a stark change from the dance before. A whimsical harp cadenza sings out as a solo violin gets ready for a lullaby-like duet with the harp. The slow movement and quiet dynamic adds to the emotional side of the duet. The instruments grow and retreat together, creating a special dialogue between themselves. 

The tempo picks up into a waltz style, the solo violin is now accompanied by pizzicato strings. The character of this movement fluctuates a lot, but ends up finishing quietly with a lower string pizzicato phrase.

 

Movement V – Czardas: Danse hongroise (Act III, No.20)

This Hungarian dance is primarily led by the strings who proclaim and then develop the main motif. The brass join in for a while before making way for the cello and upper winds duet. The tempo suddenly changes into a vivace section that’s high-spirited. Swirling winds pave the way for the boisterous brass and percussion to accentuate the now very fast strings who play the theme one last time. The movement ends with a classic Tchaikovsky ending, always keeping the listener on the edge of their seats.

 

Movement VI – Scène (Act IV, No.29)

The final movement of the Swan Lake Suite is taken from the final act of the ballet. The tense opening sees the strings and winds interweave with fast moving 7-part phrases. After an exciting wind cadenza, the orchestra stagger in to reach a climax before the same thing happens again. The orchestra builds to a dramatic percussion interlude before the whole ensemble explodes with romantic colour as the theme soars above. Led by the strings at first, the melody is passed to the horns for the hero effect. The orchestra come down as the harp plays a final short interlude to end the suite off in the most magical of ways.

 

Final Thoughts

The Swan Lake Suite comprises some of Tchaikovsky’s most-loved music from the popular ballet into a hand six-part suite. From the iconic dance of the swans to the finale scenes, the Swan Lake Suite has helped keep this magical music alive in concert halls.

 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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