Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, a small town in present-day Udmurtia (at the time the Vyatka Guberniya under Imperial Russia). He was the son of Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, a mining engineer in the government mines, and the second of his three wives, Alexandra Andreyevna Assier, a Russian woman of French ancestry. He was the older brother (by some ten years) of the dramatist, librettist, and translator Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Pyotr began piano lessons at the age of five, and in a few months he was already proficient at Friedrich Kalkbrenner's composition Le Fou. In 1850, his father was appointed director of the St Petersburg Technological Institute. There, the young Tchaikovsky obtained an excellent general education at the school of Jurisprudence, and furthered his instruction on the piano with the director of the music library.
Also during this time, he made the acquaintance of the Italian master Luigi Piccioli, who influenced the young man away from German music, and encouraged the love of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. His father indulged Tchaikovsky's interest in music by funding studies with Rudolph Kündinger, a well-known piano teacher from Nuremberg. Under Kündinger, Tchaikovsky's aversion to German music was overcome, and a lifelong affinity with the music of Mozart was seeded. When his mother died of cholera in 1854, the 14-year-old composed a waltz in her memory.
Tchaikovsky left school in 1858 and received employment as an under-secretary in the Ministry of Justice, where he soon joined the Ministry's choral group. In 1861, he befriended a fellow civil servant who had studied with Nikolai Zaremba, who urged him to resign his position and pursue his studies further. Not ready to give up employment, Tchaikovsky agreed to begin lessons in musical theory with Zaremba.
The following year, when Zaremba joined the faculty of the new St Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky followed his teacher and enrolled, but still did not give up his post at the ministry, until his father consented to support him. From 1862 to 1865, Tchaikovsky studied harmony, counterpoint and the fugue with Zaremba, and instrumentation and composition under the director and founder of the Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein, who was both impressed by and envious of Tchaikovsky's talent.
Swan Lake begins at a royal court. Prince Siegfried, heir to the kingdom, must declare a wife at his birthday ball. Upset that he cannot marry for love, Siegfried escapes into the forest at night. As he sees a flock of swans flying overhead, he aims his crossbow and readies himself for their landing by the lakeside. When one comes into view, however, he stops; before him is a beautiful creature dressed in white feathers, more woman than swan. Enamoured, the two dance and Siegfried learns that the swan maiden is the princess Odette. An evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, captured her and used his magic to turn Odette into a swan by day and woman by night.
A grouping from the fourth scene of Rudolf Nureyev's production of Swan Lake for the Vienna State Opera Ballet, Vienna, 2004A retinue of other captured swan-maidens attend Odette in the environs of Swan Lake, which was formed by the tears of her parents when she was kidnapped by Von Rothbart. Once Siegfried knows her story, he takes great pity on her and falls in love. As he begins to swear his love to her - an act that will render the sorcerer's spell powerless - Von Rothbart appears. Siegfried threatens to kill him but Odette intercedes; if Von Rothbart dies before the spell is broken, it can never be undone.
The Prince returns to the castle to attend the ball. Von Rothbart arrives in disguise with his own daughter Odile, making her seem identical to Odette in all respects except that she wears black while Odette wears white. The prince mistakes her for Odette, dances with her, and proclaims to the court that he intends to make her his wife. Only a moment too late, Siegfried sees the real Odette and realizes his mistake. The method in which Odette appears varies: in some versions she arrives at the castle, while in other versions Von Rothbart shows Siegfried a magical vision of her.
At this point versions of the ballet diverge. Many different endings exist, ranging from romantic to tragic.
In a version danced by the Mariinsky Ballet in 2006, the true love between Siegfried and Odette defeats Von Rothbart, who dies after the prince breaks one of his wings. Odette is restored to human form to unite happily with the prince. This version has often been used by Russian and Chinese ballet companies. In a version danced by American Ballet Theatre in 2006, Siegfried's mistaken pledge of fidelity to Odile consigns Odette to eternal swanhood. Realizing that her last moment of humanity is at hand, Odette commits suicide by throwing herself into the lake. The Prince does so as well. This act of sacrifice and love breaks Von Rothbart's power, and he is destroyed. In the final tableau, the lovers are seen rising together to heaven in apotheosis. In a version danced by New York City Ballet in 2006 (with choreography by Peter Martins after Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa, and George Balanchine), the Prince's declaration that he wishes to marry Odile constitutes a betrayal that condemns Odette to remain a swan forever. Odette is called away into swan form, and Siegfried is left alone in grief as the curtain falls.