While the composition of Swan Lake came in the period of 1875-1876, it incorporated music from an 1871 unpublished effort entitled The Lake of the Swans, the composer's first attempt at ballet. In addition, a second-act waltz was said to have been adapted from his 1869 opera Undine. Swan Lake was not a success initially, but shortly after the composer's 1893 death, it began to take hold. The work was then staged in the Riccardo Drigo version, which, with many excisions, additions, and reordering of numbers, became the standard performing version for many years.
For Swan Lake Tchaikovsky composed an introduction and 29 dance numbers, which fall into four acts. The story, set in medieval Germany, centers on Prince Siegfried and his Princess-mother, who, reproaching her son for a lavish celebration at his chateau, commands him to take a bride from among a group of princesses invited to a ball for him the following day. Later the same evening the suddenly-bored Siegfried, at the behest of his friend Benno, gives chase with a group of hunters to a flock of swans. At a lakeside that night the Prince meets the beautiful maiden, Odette, who beseeches him to abandon the hunt for the swans, since they are her companions, cursed, like her, to adopt a winged appearance by the sorcerer Von Rotbart, except between midnight and dawn when they return to their human form. At the ball the next evening, Siegfried cannot choose a bride, but notices some strange guests, the disguised Von Rotbart and his daughter Odile, to whom the sorcerer has given the exact likeness of Odette. The unwitting Siegfried chooses her for his bride and swears to an oath of loyalty to her. In a dramatic lakeside finale, Odette throws herself into the lake and Siegfried joins her, thereby destroying Von Rotbart and his evil power. The young maidens are freed from their swan form and Siegfried and Odette are reunited when the lake vanishes.
The music associated with Odette and the swans is probably the most famous in the ballet. It first comes near the close of the first act in the "Flight of the Swans." The oboe introduces the enchanting theme with harp accompaniment, the whole creating a fantasy-like atmosphere of wonder and expectation. In the Act Four finale, this music is played faster and with agitation in preparation for the main characters' demise. There are, of course, many other famous themes in this colorful work, including the waltz in the Act One "Entrance of the Guests." It is both carefree and festive in its nonchalance and brilliant colors.
Tchaikovsky also wrote a number of dances of ethnic flavor, including an Hungarian czardas, a Spanish dance, Neapolitan dance, and mazurka, all colorfully imagined and brilliantly orchestrated. A complete performance of this ballet can range from slightly over two hours to about two hours and 20 minutes.