Suite(s) from Swan Lake

The community orchestra I play in just played the suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake–at least that’s what I thought it was when we first started rehearsing. I certainly didn’t know anything unusual about the piece. I’d heard the waltz many times, and it was nice to have a chance to play it. Some of the other movements have fun trombone parts, too.

Trombone parts in orchestral music always have lots of long rests and seldom have good cues. If I don’t already have a recording of the pieces we perform, I try to get one. So I went online and looked for the Swan Lake Suite. Since I already have multiple recordings of the Nutcracker Suite, I made my choice from recordings paired with something else.

The recording came, and it had six movements. Our version has eight. But where our “Dance of the Swans” is less than 40 measures long (with trombones playing only in the last measure), the recording had 12 minutes worth of “Dance of the Swans,” including four of at least six parts. In short, the recording maybe half of the music we were preparing and a bunch of other stuff.

Back to the Internet. This time, I added a keyword to my search to find a recording that has the “Spanish Dance.” That’s the movement where the trombones have 34 measures rest, no cue, and a very important entrance, where for the first two notes the first trombone is the only instrument in the orchestra that plays anything.

I picked one of the recordings, and when it arrived, got out my part. This version likewise had lots of music that our edition didn’t have, but it lacked the “Neapolitan Dance.” Oh well, that one has a dull trombone part and no counting issues. Murphy’s Law was still hard at work. This recording has a cut in the “Spanish Dance”–including the entire passage that I especially wanted to hear.

The guest conductor arrived last Thursday. She had been preparing from a different Swan Lake Suite score than what we were using. She seemed uncomfortable with the “Spanish Dance,” skipped over the “Neapolitan Dance,” and confessed she was sight-reading the “Mazurka.”

So, then, it appears that there are at least three versions of Swan Lake Suite! How can that be? It turns out that Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky’s very first ballet, was a dismal failure at its first performance, largely because neither the conductor nor the choreographer had any idea what to do with anything more than light background music. The Bolshoi Ballet company sort of kept it in it’s repertoire for a few years, but replaced at least half of Tchaikovsky’s music with then-familiar music by now-forgotten composers.

When Tchaikovsky died, a great interest in his lesser known pieces arose. In the hands of the team that had helped Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker achieve their success, the revival of Swan Lake created a sensation. It has remained popular as a full-length ballet ever since. All those different suites must have come later.

In rehearsal, we only played through the “Neapolitan Dance” once. I think it had a cornet solo in it. At least, the whole trumpet section looked heartbroken when they heard we weren’t playing it. Maybe some time I’ll get to hear it, but I’m not buying any more Swan Lake recordings.

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