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The Swan Lake mystery: An amalgam of different fairytales

The exact authors of Swan Lake are unknown – but the ballet shows the influence of a variety of different fairytales.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

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.

This article has 6 comments

  1. Ghio Monica responded on 20 February 2015 at 10:25am Reply

    In your article you forgot to write about the first coreographer of the Swan Lake Maurice Petipa. Congratulation for the new costume for the Swans.

    • ML responded on 6 August 2016 at 9:11pm

      The very first choreographer of Swan Lake wasn't actually Marius Petipa- which is why it was not successful in its first run like Tchaikovsky's other ballets were. Its first choreographer was Julius Reisinger and the choreography was weaker than Petipa's. It was performed for a short time and then forgotten. When Petipa mounted it, he did the ballroom scenes (Act 1 and Act 3) while Lev Ivanov choreographed Act 2 and Act 4, and since then the ballet has been hugely successful and hardly out of the repertory in Russia.

  2. Denis J. Haughton responded on 14 March 2015 at 5:51pm Reply

    I don't know if this is helpful...a book I read sometime ago "To The Ballet" by Irving Deakin (first published 1936) so he would have known a lot of the originals first hand, anyway from the book, the chapter "Le Lac Des Cygnes" (The Swan Lake), as given to-day, is "a choreographic poem in one act," with music by Tchaikovsky, and the setting by Prince A. Schervachidze. Originally a two-act, three-scened ballet, with scenes by the Russian painters, Golovin and Korovin, only one act remains to-day. It was Tchaikovsky's first ballet composition, written, as he said, "partly because I needed the money, but also because I have long had a wish to try my hand at this kind of music." It was first produced in St. Petersburg in 1876...

    I hope the above was helpful...the book; I LOVED and it inspired me to create my very own ballet "Waiting (The Ballet For One)" (music: single artist compilation style) like some of those in the book! (I have also sketch choreographed the scenes myself) I have not brought it to any Ballets attention but hope to do so someday.

    Denis J. Haughton

  3. Balancement responded on 6 April 2015 at 5:19pm Reply

    The Tchaikovsky Research website has this information:

    "The authorship of the libretto of Swan Lake has long been in doubt. In his recollections of Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Kashkin names the supposed author of the libretto as Vladimir Begichev. In a letter to Herman Laroche of 9/21 September 1894, Modest Tchaikovsky said that he had heard the same from Pyotr Jurgenson, but that 'the Theatre Directorate's copy has the note: "property of Geltser' [i.e. Vasily Geltser, dancer with the Moscow Imperial Ballet]. The latter was probably responsible for writing down the subject. In his biography of the composer, Modest Tchaikovsky named Begichev and Geltser as joint authors of the libretto. However, the notices and programme for the first production describe it as "Grand ballet in four acts, composed by balletmaster M)r Reisinger. Music composed by P. I. Tchaikovsky.'

    "The prominence given to Reisinger's name, and the fact that no librettist is separately credited, suggests that he could well have been the author. Because of his German cultural background and obvious familiarity with children's stories (such as Der geraubte Schleier), Reisinger would have been uniquely placed to devise this complex libretto. Moreover, out of ten ballets, choreographed by Reisinger on the Bolshoi Theatre stage,) he personally wrote four librettos: Broken Solitude, Stella, Ariadna (in collaboration with Marius Petipa) and Grandmother's Wedding. It means thlat he already had some experience in the libretto writing, but it does not save him from a number of inconsistencies in the plot, and the reason why Tchaikovsky sought so many meetings with him in order to clarify the story."

  4. Balancement responded on 6 April 2015 at 5:26pm Reply

    Typo errors = my fault for using a new tablet instead of a computer with keyboard. My apologies...

  5. Verena Felizitas Demel responded on 21 October 2016 at 3:57pm Reply

    Perhaps i Can help for solving Swan Lake mystery. PLEASE READ !!!!!!!!!!!
    Like Musäus was a German author and Reisinger from Bohemia I have the feeling also a German like me should think about solving Swan Lake mystery. Of course it is an European mixture, but without historical and national myth knowledge the veil of mystery cannot be resolved. In 'The stolen veil' the swan maiden wears a crown, the dumb Svabian hero Friedbert befriends with a monk called Benno who was the lover of the girl's mother who was taken away from her youth source, the lake, by her husband. Friedbert takes the veil of the swan maiden away and lies to the girl called Zoe that a wizard(an enchanted prince) would have snatched the veil, but at wedding date Zoe, the swan maiden, finds out and escapes back to home. The Christian mother thinks Zoe were a demon and her son a wizard. Finally Friedbert begs Zoe for forgiveness and Zoe-as ironically commented- falls again in love.
    Also in tsar saltan a swan maiden and a hero as hunter, and a evil prey bird appear.
    Odette can be also seen as Valkyrie because they are swan shapeshifters and Odette can also mean daughter of Odin (Brynhild, but Odile has the reference, too )or Little Oda (Kriemhilds mother). The motif of all, like Rusalka or May Night, is the evil father(Odin put his daughter under a spell, the father of Rusalka causes her drowning and gets crazy thinking he was a raven, Pannotchka's father neglects her and then by her stepmother-witch tortured she drowns herself and spends her time with water spirits). Rusalka has later a daughter.
    Tchaikovsky liked the Wagner stuff( See for that The life& letters of Peter Illich Tchaikovsky,) the hero is called Siegfried. Siegfried was also collegue to Archbishop Benno who was befriend to King Henry IV( the Holy Roman Emperor who had a ambitious mother and nearly drowned once).
    Odette is probably also Odette de Champdivers who was mistaken by King Charles VI of France for his wife. She was a French icony of Romance with authors like Dumas and Balzac, because praised as pure and graceful.
    And there is Odile who was a Saint of Alsace. In a famous legend the pure maiden escapes from a forced marriage and is saved in a monastery or (as later legends) a rock and a fountain. Her evil father came to hell. Odile built a chapel of tears(does that not remind you of Act 2?). Odile was favourite Saint of drowned King Frederick Barbarossa, originally like Friedbert from Svabia, (Readbeard/Rotbart), who waits like Artus in the Kyffhäuser Mountain, banished together with his poor daughter. Barbarossa is as dreamy as later Ludwig II of Bavaria. He also founded a village called Swenersee/Schwanensee (Swan Lake), nowadays known as Schwörsheim. At 4th march he was elected as emperor, the same date Swan Lake was staged first time. Around 1870 there were a lot of Barbarossa plays in Germany as he was celebrated as a national hero and ancestor for the new founded Reich. Should that be Reisinger's parody? A German prince fallen in love with a french girl, betraying her with Alsace, a Legend is changing to demons, history repeated( like Odette/Zoe and her mother).Is it the long German-French struggle for Alsace?
    Well, Tchaikovsky also put his own ideas in it, especially for Act 2, his favourite, He searched perhaps for a solution for Undine( the White Adagio taken from the Last Aria has a happy ending),(in Lortzings Undine vine is very popular, so like Swan Lake Act 1). Rusalka's daughter could have her own story, as the poem is not finished.
    Also Cinderella , which Tchaikovsky planned and Reisinger's possible: Prince shall choose a wife, but falls in love with unknown beauty, who has evil stepmother, (but also motif in Gogol's May Night, where girl drowns and becomes dancing water spirit). It resembles to the composer's life because Tchaikovsky should marry, got to know N. v. Meck, and suffered because of a lost love.
    I think the problem of Swan Lake are the different interests: Tchaikovsky the Romantic composer, focusing on emotion und telling stories of girls destroyed because of love and both lovers dead(like Snow Maiden). But I would listen to the music and not trust the dark end as it could be a political warning. Reisinger is an Biedermeier choreographer making fun of Romantic motifs and perhaps a slight political mark in a special time period.
    Tchaikovsky indeed was in Germany and as Russian with French influences he created a piece of culturre, perhaps spoilt with the different interests in the project. He loved Act 1 und 2, as musically most elaborated , put in Act 3 his personal notes like Bolero(Carmen) and Neapolitan Dance( Undine's father occurs as Neapolitan ambassador), and in Act 4 from his Voyevoda happy pieces and the perhaps Wagnerian stuff in Scene Finale.
    Please read it and find more about it! I am not a research scientist. I put just together some pieces of general knowledge I learned while being engaged to my ballet love. All things I never learned at school. I am very disappointed that Aaron Watkin of Semperoper Dresden uses the 1877 Libretto as 'original sources' but instead of faithful work he just reworks it without any hints for the interested audience ( so a stepfather and a grandmother appear, in Ballet Journal presented as study about sexual abuse in family). Jolanthe could be inspired of Odile because she was a blind dreamy girl learning to see at last.In English more people can be interested in Swan Lake mystery so i write to ROH. I think it is not important if Swan Lake was a German or Nordic mixture. The importance is to unterstand where the motifs came, even Tchaikovsky was not so happy with them. But the unlogical plot with comic elements like Odette telling 'a short and simple story'( which is actually very long!!) Can become more clear. I read the original German texts which are not so often translated as i suppose. Please write comments, answers if you read that! I would like to write a book and perhaps you have more sources than me. How funny there was a time i hated Swan Lake as a violent, silly Story.
    Best wishes from Germany
    Verena Felizitas Demel

This article has 1 mention elsewhere

  1. The Green Fairy Book (a personal mixtape) |:  […] link is to the tale in German. I’m working on a translation!), which is said to be one of the sources of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. Both tales were first published in German (1782-1786) in his Volksmärchen der Deutschen. Like […]

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