The overture to Swan Lake begins with a high F-sharp held out over a void. The tone is plaintive, isolated—a long sigh. It is on this same high, held note that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky begins his famous “swan theme,” though by the time we first hear it, at the end of act I, that tone no longer seems a sigh, but a state. This is the theme everyone hums when they hear the words Swan Lake, the mysterious theme that keeps trying to vault above that opening F-sharp, which it hits three more times in four measures as if the note were a spell that must be broken. Meanwhile, the melodic line, thin as incense, curls in a turmoil of metamorphosis. In a mere four measures, Tchaikovsky has sounded out the ballet: Odette is spellbound, a swan-woman trapped in perpetual transformation, ravishingly so. In a mere four measures, we have heard Tchaikovsky’s genius for turning sound into silhouette, incantation into...


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