Last week, I went to see a production of Swan Lake. It is one of my favorite ballets and commonly considered a classic. Pyotr Tchaikovsky composed the music for the ballet, Swan Lake, in 1875-1876, but where did the story come from? It certainly seems to contain fairy tale elements, but is it based on any actual fairy tale?
The basic storyline of Swan Lake tells of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by von Rothbart, an evil sorcerer. By night Odette and other maidens that have been turned into swans can retake human form, but by day, they become swans once again. Odette will only be freed of this curse if a man pure of heart pledges his love to her. Prince Siegfried, discovers Odette while hunting, but before he can pledge his love, von Rothbart separates the two. Prince Siegfried’s mother throws him a ball, demanding he choose a wife. Von Rothbart arrives with his daughter, Odile, disguised as Odette. Prince Siegfried believes it is Odette and professes his love for her. Then, von Rothbart reveals Odile’s true identity. Prince Siegfried races to the lake to find Odette who forgives him for his mistake. Here, there is some variation on how the story ends, but the original ending had both Odette and Prince Siegfried drowning in the lake. This has since been modified in many ballets to have Prince Siegfried and Odette ascending as spirits together.
According to Tchaikovsky’s nephew and niece, Tchaikovsky composed a ballet called The Lake of Swans for his family in 1871, and is believed to be the basis for Swan Lake. Other sources point to both The Stolen Veil by Johann Karl August Musaus and the Russian folktale The White Duck as possible sources for the storyline of Swan Lake. But can anyone say for certain?
Swan maidens were a common theme in fairy tales throughout Europe. The Grimm Brothers even wrote of humans becoming swans, although the swans in the Grimms’ fairy tale The Six Swans are six brothers, not female swan maidens. Despite this tale, female swan maidens are more common. The Three Swans fairy tale comes from Germany; there is a Swedish fairy tale entitled The Swan Maiden, and Joseph Jacobs has reconstructed various European sources of swan maiden fairy tales for The Swan Maidens. Maidens taking the form of swans or other birds can be found in tales from other cultures, as well.
Going back to the original question, however, where did the story of Swan Lake come from? On one hand, it is not a direct retelling of any one specific fairy tale. On the other hand, it did not come from out of nowhere, either. Many fairy tales exist telling of swan maidens.
My point here is that art does not exist in a vacuum. Although the exact storyline of Swan Lake was most probably developed by Tchaikovsky, he had several sources from which to take material and reform it as his own, beautiful creation.