With Swan Lake (1876), Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) became the second composer of symphonic stature to write a ballet score. (The first was Léo Delibes, whose Sylvia premiered seven years earlier.) Ignorant of balletic compositional techniques, Tchaikovsky studied the specialists—Adolphe Adam and Ludwig Minkus—to determine length and tempos for individual dances. However, Tchaikovsky used a complex system of key relationships and applied symphonic scoring techniques to create more interesting sonorities. His innovations include using two or more solo instruments within a variation (in Act 1’s pas de trois, the third variation’s melody moves from clarinet to flute to oboe, then back to clarinet) and unorthodox instrumentation (the swan theme, which ends Act 1 and bookends Act 2, combines oboe, tremolo strings, and harp).
Like the specialists, Tchaikovsky included many dance forms in Swan Lake. The waltzes (Act 1, score no. 2, “Peasant Dance”; Act 2, no. 13, “Waltz of the Swans”; Act 3, no. 17, “Waltz of the Fiancées”) show a sophisticated use of melodic material. Listen for cross-phrasing—lengthening the musical phrase by tying over a bar’s third beat into the next bar’s first beat—in “Fiancées,” and for the melody in “Peasant Dance” starting on the bar’s second beat against the accompaniment’s consistent “oom pah pah” rhythm.