The Romantic Period in music began in the late 18th century and was a dominant style in Western classical music in the 1800s. The period takes its name from the French term roman, which means novel.
Music of the Romantic period was expressionistic, dynamic, emotional, and passionate. In both the music and ballet of the time, there was an interest in fantasy, supernaturalism, and exoticism. Story and literature were important. Stories of the time often dealt with issues of good vs. evil, man vs. nature, and society vs. the supernatural. Women became the superstars of the ballet with the introduction of pointework, a style of dancing on the tip of the toes which gave the illusion of floating.
Swan Lake was written by one of the most important composers of the period, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). He was born in Russia and was a sensitive child. As an adult he was plagued by nervousness and emotional breakdowns. He wrote symphonies and operas as well as ballets. Swan Lake was his first ballet. It tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. Under the curse she is a swan by day but returns to being a maiden at night. A young prince, Siegfried, falls in love with her, but their love is tragically doomed.
Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake in 1875 for the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow. In its own time it was not popular mainly because dancers and conductors thought the music was too complicated and too difficult to dance to. The Swan Lake we know today choreographed in 1895, after Tchaikovsky’s death, by the famous Russian choreographer Marius Petipa.
1. Use the segment as part of a study of the Classical and/or Romantic periods and their music. Discuss how the music performed in the video reflects characteristics of Romantic period music.
2. Show as part of a study of ballet. Explore Tchaikovsky’s influence on ballet and discuss why Swan Lake is one of the most popular and enduring ballets.
3. Have students read a synopsis of the story told in Swan Lake. What happens in Act II? Do you think the music fits what is going on? Listen to the entire score and/or watch a video of a performance of the ballet. Analyze it in terms of the elements of music. Is the music enjoyable to listen to on its own?
4. Is the story of Swan Lake similar to other stories students are familiar with? In what ways? Explore what might be involved in adapting a folk tale or piece of literature to another art form such as dance/music.