Swan Lake by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Lisbeth Zwerger

Our tour of Lisbeth Zwerger books in my collection continues today with Swan Lake.  Most people think of the ballet when they think Swan Lake but it was initially written as a one-act fairy tale dance piece for the children of his sister.  It wasn’t until four years later that he was commissioned to create the ballet of the same title.  As Zwerger relates in her author note, the presentation of this most famous of all ballets was a disaster.  Sixteen years later, and after Tchaikovsky‘s death, the score and choreography were changed and the story was given a tragic ending.

Zwerger revives the earlier story, the one with the happy ending, in her retelling of this classic.


Confessing in an appended note that she had approached Swan Lake with mixed feelings because of its tragic conclusion, Zwerger found that her research supported a happier ending, based on Tchaikovsky’s original version of the ballet in 1877. In this picture book, Zwerger offers a series of subtle, delicate paintings illustrating that story. Decorated with swans, boughs, and other figures and flourishes, a few bars of music appear on each left-hand page above the text, offering a musical context for each scene. Facing are large, bordered paintings that illustrate part of the story. Their magical yet somber tone and muted colors suit the many night settings. The delicately composed artwork also has surreal touches, such as the thundercloud that enters the ballroom above the villains’ heads, and the swan’s-head effects sometimes created with the swan queen’s hands. Some of the finest pictures are compositions in black, white, and many shades of gray. Told with drama and illustrated with grace, this is a handsome interpretation of the story.

I agree. It really is a wonderful example of a fairy tales coming to life in words and art.  It is a simple story but full of surprising emotion and depth. And with just ten evocative illustrations Zwerger both brings it to life and inspires the imagination; allowing the reader to bring their imagination to the story and fill in the details.

The illustration above is a good example. It dramatically illustrates the change from princess to swan but also captures the mood and emotions of the prince as he watches the Swan Queen change forms; a mix of magic, loss and elegance.  As the review above notes, there is a wonderful mix of realism and surrealism involved in Zwerger’s work. Which strikes me as wonderful balance for fairy tales.  There is something more evocative and mysterious to these illustrations; a sense that there is more to the story than is capture in the words or the pictures.

As with other examples of Zwerger’s work, I am not sure this is a volume you would read with your children. The unique font again might make it hard to read out loud and the illustrations certainly appeal to adults. But to my mind there is no reason you can’t introduce more sophisticated art and ideas to children. This might be a great way to explore art and music and literature.

As should be clear by now, I am a huge fan of Zwerger and can’t get enough of her explorations and interpretations of classic stories and fairy tales.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.