19 February 2015 at 6.02pm | 6 Comments
Do you know who wrote the original story for Swan Lake, most famous of classical ballets? Well, neither does anybody else. The programmes for the original performances in 1877 gave no clue as to either author or sources – which, frustrating as it might be, has left the field open for those who like to speculate. It’s also contributed to the ballet’s fluidity; probably more than any other work in the art form Swan Lake has inspired a multitude of different readings, from Matthew Bourne’s male-swan version to Darren Aronofsky's film Black Swan.
The easiest question to answer is over the identity of those uncredited authors at the 1877 premiere – almost certainly Bolshoi Theatre artistic manager Vladimir Petrovic Begichev and dancer Vasily Fedorovic Geltser, likely with input from composer Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky. The original story requires quite a bit of exposition that is not very ballet-friendly, and has been cited as one of the reasons that the ballet failed to take flight in its original staging. In this version, Odette is hiding from her wicked stepmother with her grandfather, a sorcerer. He allows her to roam at night disguised as a swan, and has given her a protective tiara. She falls in love with Siegfried; he betrays her at a ball; she refuses to forgive him and Siegfried angrily snatches the charmed crown off her head. The stepmother seizes her chance and sends a wave that sweeps the lovers to their deaths.
The story was simplified for the 1895 production that has gone on to become the primary source for all classical productions of the ballet today. Begichev and Gelster worked together to hone the ballet's narrative, this time with contributions from Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest (Pyotr Il’yich having died in 1893). This pared-down story has a crucial difference from the original in its sympathetic depiction of Siegfried. He’s now tricked into his treachery by an Odette-like apparition sent by Von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer who has Odette cursed as a swan. There’s the same denouement of death by lake, as Odette and Siegfried fling themselves into its waters to escape Von Rothbart’s power.
All this is very well – but where did that accursed swan maiden come from? The legend of the shapeshifting swan maiden is a long-standing folkloric trope that has countless manifestations. She is most commonly pursued by a mortal man, whose relationship with the swan maiden represents a weakening of her power. There’s no evidence to suggest whether one version in particular inspired the 1877 libretto, but the one most commonly proposed is German writer Johann Karl August Musäus’s story Der geraubte Schleier (The Stolen Veil) – one of the many versions in which the swan maiden’s power is held by a veil, which is stolen from her by an amorous mortal.
Another potentially influential myth is that of the water nymph Undine or Melusine. She, like the swan maiden, appears in countless stories, many of which share elements with Swan Lake – a love triangle, where Undine’s mortal lover is distracted by another; and the watery end, as the water nymph returns to her lover to give the kiss of death. Undine had been given a new lease of life in Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s 1811 novella (inspired by writings of Goethe and Paracelsus, among others) – iterations that followed included Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Aleksandr Pushkin’s 1830s unfinished verse drama Rusalka (and even Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1882 fairytale-cum-political satire Iolanthe). Tchaikovsky had been working on an Undine opera at the time he wrote Swan Lake, and recycled some of its music in the ballet.
As it stands, there’s no known precursor that exactly matches the story for Swan Lake. Perhaps we should consider it the amalgam of a number of different European and Russian folktales, collaboratively concocted by a small group at the Bolshoi. Whatever their sources, together they produced one of the most enduring stories in ballet history.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Celia Blakey, John and Susan Burns, Doug and Ceri King, Peter Lloyd and Gail Ronson. Original Production (1987) and revival (2000) supported by The Linbury Trust.