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The Swan and Saint-Saens

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I'm doing research on the "Dying Swan" ballet music. I am getting two different stories on this piece of music... one is that the "dying swan" was composed by Saint-Saens in response to a request from a particular dancer. In other words, it was written FOR a famous ballet dancer.

The other story comes from a music web site and this said that Saint-Saens composed the series of pieces "the animals" as a sort of private joke that he first shared with his composer friends and "the Swan" just happened to be one of those compositions.

So does anyone know which one of these is the more accurate account of the history of "the Swan". Can you sort it out for me? Thanks.

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Ronny, it's even more intime than that. Saint-Saens wrote "Carnival of the Animals" for the entertainment of his own family. The only section of it that he allowed to be published before his death was "The Swan". It doesn't outwardly exhibit any of the satire implicit in the rest of the suite, except that the original at-home scoring was for double bass instead of a cello. Hey, swans are BIG birds! The other sections, like "Kangaroos" - dedicated to Parisian audiences, who just had to get up from their seats and go hopping up the row to visit with their friends, and "Music Critics" - Personages with Long Ears, to a violin going "hee-haw, hee-haw", and "Fossils" which has a section of "Una Voce poco Fa" quoted in it, for a mezzo of a certain age who liked to sing that number at parties, were for private entertainment only, and perhaps detrimental to the composer's subsequent works!

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perhaps along the way here, someone will identify precisely when fokine's solo, originally created as and called THE SWAN got THE DYING SWAN as a title.

my assumption is that anna pavlova (or her presenters) decided to give the solo the more dramatic title when she toured the work and noted all the reactions to its dramatic tone; perhaps fokine was even consulted. the records are likely 'out there' to pinpoint when the newer title was first used, but i wonder if there is any extant documentation to explain why/how the title: THE DYING SWAN came into the picture.

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if it helps, i have a copy of a slim book published in new york in 1925. its title:

"Choreographic Compositions by Michel Fokine"

"The Dying Swan"

(that title would imply that it was intended to be part of a series, but i have never seen any others.)

the subtitle is "Detailed Description of the Dance by Michel Fokine", "Thirty-Six Photographs from Poses by Vera Fokina"

it is indeed a DETAILED description: fantastic stuff! i treasure it, even though it is only a photocopy of an original.

in this book, under the initial heading "The Dying Swan", fokine writes:

"As I begin the publication of one of my first creations, the dance called "The Dying Swan", I am fully aware of how difficult it is to express in words the beauty of movement of the human body.

Nevertheless, I wish to record this dance and by all possible means make clear its composition, its technique and plan.

It was long ago, when I was a young artist in Petrograd, that this dream was first realised and this vision first produced. And during almost twenty years I have witnessed in all parts of the world a thousand interpretations and imitations by artists and amateurs, trying to express this vision, or visualise this dream."

further down, he writes:

" 'The Dying Swan' was composed and staged in Petrograd in 1905." and then "...was a great success and from that evening 'The Dying Swan' became the favorite number in the repertoire of Mme Pavlova."

of course, this doesn't 'prove' anything at all about the original title. i am merely offering what i've got.

the music score (which appears in the book) is here titled "The Swan (Le Cygne)", Copyright 1925.

(tired sigh, for whomever. yes, yes - i DO know you're not supposed to photocopy music scores ....but i DID, OK?)

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thank you, grace.

i know that booklet. and even have a photocopy of it somewhere in my files.

still, even tho' it seems a fact that when more or less copyrighting the choreography for his solo, MF himself referred to his dance as THE DYING SWAN, this does not mean anything conclusive about its past. records in russia for i don't know how many years or performances, however, give the title of the solo as THE SWAN. i do not know personally how soon the 'dying swan' name entered the picture. obviously once pavlova was touring it and playing it all around the world it was known by the latter title. still, i've always wondered when precisely the 'dying' part came into the mix and what motivated the change.

there is probably enough documentation around to make a good guess as to time and motivation for the expanded title, but perhaps one will never for certain whence it came to be so called.

or maybe someone on this site has already done the research and published a paper unbeknownst to us.

as a colleague noted to me years back regarding similar dance history matters: we know SO little.

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Years ago at the Salvation Army, of all places, I picked up a souvenir program from one of Pavlova's American "farewell" tours. I thought I'd flip through it to see how Swan was referenced, and much to my surprise it's not there at all! We have all kinds of priceless choreographic goodies ("Flora's Awakening?" "The Mummy's Curse?" A Don Q in which Dulcinea seems to have had a much bigger role than Kitri?), but no Swan. And I don't think any pages are missing! Well, it's a puzzlement.

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Fokine's original title for the ballet was Umirayushtshi Lebedy, so the dying was present ab origine in the choreography, but certainly not in Saint-Saens' serene and magisterial music--making the ballet a much earlier example of choreographic counterpoint than Le Jeune Homme et la mort, which was rehearsed to swing music and staged to Bach. Fokine clearly had in mind the legend that swans sing most sweetly at the point of death, which is why in Ovid's Heroides, Dido, sitting on her funeral pyre, compares herself to a swan on the banks of the Meander, and why Coleridge composed his famous epigram "Swans sing before they die--'twere no bad thing / Did certain persons die before they sing."

However, Pavlova seems to have layered an additional meaning on to the ballet if the following rather dubious anecdote can be accepted. In 1980 (I think) I attended an exhibition of ballet costumes at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There was nothing of actual historical interest, apart from a ragged blue Messel number that Merle Park (as a member of the corps) had worn in the original Homage to the Queen. Most of the exhibits were fresh reconstructions from the Ballet for All repertoire--eg Elssler's Cachuca costume (pink rather than peach, to my immense disapproval) once worn by Margaret Barbieri--and a brand new Mort du cygne tutu, with a green paste jewel on the bodice. Two old woman (in their eighties and therefore likely to have seen Pavlova in her prime) were clucking over this "error,"claiming that Pavlova had always worn a red jewel there to signify a breast wound. If that is true, in her mind at least, she was dancing an unjust, premature death--not, as Fokine seems to have intended, a death in the manner of Gertrude's "thou know'st 'tis common, all that lives must die".

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Having some experience in clothing reproduction, I think that I can guess what happened with the green/red confusion in the reproduced garment. Many commercial photographic emulsions of the early twentieth century were red/green colorblind, and showed both hues as black or gray. The chroma and the value were there, but the hue was missing(obviously, is it was black-and-white technology). Even the earliest ca. 1900 color film had this unfortunate tendency, so the photointerpreter would have to provide further documentation to define the color. When taking a picture with lots of red or green in it, the photographer often hand-painted the area either on the negative or on the print itself. It takes at least a 30x magnification to begin to discern the application of superimposed tint. Computer enhancement and associated dedicated software have made the red/green confusion diminish considerably, but were not commercially available in the 80s.

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re: seeing red! or green!

i swear i once read in some prose by karsavina that the jewel associated with odette was the emerald.

i assumed thereafter that the ruby affixed to pavlova's tutu was a modification of this "swan," different in kind from odette.

(i have combed 'theater street' somewhat but haven't come across this statement again; perhaps i missed it - the confounded book has no index! - tho'o perhaps the green-gemstone mention is elsewhere in karsavina literature.)

if anyone here knows of a statement to this effect, i'd love to know where.

rodney: what source do you have that notes fokine's use of the 'Umirayushtshi Lebedy' title for the dance's premiere? lynn garafola's rather solid-seeming appendix to fokine's work simply calls it "the swan"; the copy i have of fokine's memoirs (in russian) also says, in the 1907 section of the chronology, simply, 'lebedy.'

however in my files i also have a russian theater program - UNdated, alas - but definitely pre-1917 as its cast is given as artists of the imperial theater, one of the numbers on the bill's second half is given as 'Umirayushtshi Lebedy' performed by one Margarita Ferdinandovna Kirchgem (pardon the crude transliteration) - she appears to have in the imperial theater's ballet troupe from 1912 onward.

so within russia, sometime between '07 and '17, the 'dying' description became part of the program copy.

as for whence i cometh the ident. of emerald or ruby stones on 'swan/ballerina' tutus, i cannot say.

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RG, my source is Mary Clarke's entry for the ballet in The Encyclopaedia of Dance and Ballet--but I realize now I might have made an unwarranted inference. She gives the Russian title (which I read as meaning the original) as having the participial adjective. Choreographically, though, death was there from the start. I think it possible that at the charity event things might have been a little vague, and that the compiler of the programme simply knew that Fokine was using the swan music from CoA and said as much in the paperwork.

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PS RG, I am writing this on campus, so the lineation will be odd (I compose in my email programme here because the Netscape software for posting messages is so peculiar). I have an indexed version of Theatre Street, but unfortunately in a defective Dance Books reissue that is missing Chapter 18. If the emerald/Lac connection is made there, that's why it's unfamiliar to me. Anyhow, it should narrow the scope of your search because all the other Lac references in TS come up blank on gemstones.

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PS RG, I am writing this on campus, so the lineation will be odd (I compose in my email programme here because the Netscape software for posting messages is so peculiar). I have an indexed version of Theatre Street, but unfortunately in a defective Dance Books reissue that is missing Chapter 18. If the emerald/Lac connection is made there, that's why it's unfamiliar to me. Anyhow, it should narrow the scope of your search because all the other Lac references in TS come up blank on gemstones.

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