Top 10: Ballet Music - the Classics

Sep 15 / OnlineBalletClass
Since Louis XIV emphatically manifested himself on stage as a dancer in the mid-seventeenth century and offered all the space for dance at his court, ballet music has developed from an accompaniment for movement to an independent art form. Thanks to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in the nineteenth century, the ballets of the Russian Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theater in particular ensured the independence of ballet music into a symphonic score. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Les Ballets Russes subsequently performed a great deal of ballet music, which also became a great success in the concert hall. That is why in this top ten, in which a lot of beautiful music comes along and just as much is missing, the emphasis is on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

1. Lully - Royal Ballet of the Night

To go back to the origins of academic ballet, we have to go to the French court. And that was the moment when Louis XIV, at the age of 15, was put forward as the man who would dominate France for decades to come. The artistic engine was formed by, among others, Jean-Baptiste Lully who probably wrote most of the music for the Ballet Royale de La Nuitfrom 1653, and who danced in that performance alongside the king. The highlight of this ballet was the moment when the young Lodewijk in golden clothes and hung with precious stones was lifted up like the rising sun. It earned him the nickname Sun King and an enduring love for dance. And Lully was appointed court musician shortly after. In this capacity he gave French dance music a sound and, together with playwright Molière, he became the spiritual father behind the comedies-ballets, of which Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is the best known, and by extension behind the prominent place of ballet in French opera. Even in 1861, someone like Richard Wagner still felt called upon to perform at the first Parisian performance of his opera Tannhäuser.adding a Bacchanalian ballet that took on a life of its own under the title Venusberg .

2. Von Gluck – Dance of the Blessed Ghosts

Also the great German opera reformer Christoph Willibald von Gluck in 1774, at the French premiere of Orfeo ed Euridice, did not escape the French requirement to add at least one substantial ballet to the opera. Especially for his Orphée et Eurydice he wrote the Dance of Furies and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, which at the beginning of the second act, just before Orpheus descends into the underworld, form a dance intermezzo full of memory, fear and hope.

3. Mozart – Ballet music for Idomeneo KV 367

Although Gluck advocated major operatic reforms and music should always have a function serving drama, dance and ballet were also popular in eighteenth-century Germany and Austria. Especially Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote many individual dances, but also incorporated the ballet in his operas. He wrote several dances for his opera Idomeneo from 1781. In the end, he decided that the opera was long enough and could do without ballet. The suite of different dances then became the basis for a ballet right after the opera. The scenario of this ballet has not survived, but the music is still extremely charming.

4. Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the interest in ballet, and thus ballet music, seems to wane in Germany and Austria. Only France keeps the tradition alive with complete ballets such as Adolphe Adam's Giselle and dance interludes in operas. It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that ballet received a new impulse. With works such as The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1891-1892) and especially Swan Lake (1877), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky seta new standard for ballet music. It is, especially after hearing that famous melody that sounds at the beginning of the second scene of the first act, unimaginable that the ballet flopped in the first place. It wasn't until the ballet returned to the stage in 1895 that it became the Christmas and New Year's evergreen it still is. Unfortunately, the composer was already dead by then.

5. Saint-Saëns – The (dying) Swan

Ultimately, it was a combination of Russian and French forces that would make ballet history in 1905. In 1886, Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his Carnaval des Animaux and added the stipulation that this cheerful piece of 'desk entertainment' should not be performed until after his death, which finally came in 1921. He only released De Zwaan . The young solo dancer of the Imperial Russian Ballet Anna Pavlova recognized the potential and asked choreographer Michael Fokje to design a solo to the three-minute piece. In 1905, The Dying Swan by Pavlova/Fokine premiered in St. Petersburg and the rest is history.

6. Stravinsky - Rite of Spring

The same Anna Pavlova and the same Mikhael Fokine formed the beginning of a Russian dance movement that would move the center of dance back to Paris. Impresario Sergei Diaghilev sensed a revolutionary innovation in dance and founded Les Ballets Russes in 1909. Especially when star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky mid-1912 took the choreografenrol Fokine, who shortly before had more success with Daphnis et Chloe by Maurice Ravel , was no stopping. Nijinski made his debut with his sensational sensual choreography to Debussy's Prelude à l'apres-midi d'un faune and put dance as a modern art form firmly on the map in 1913 with the much-discussed premiere of Le Sacre du printemps byIgor Stravinsky . The primal forces that unleashed both the choreography and the music of Le Sacre caused an unprecedented scandal.

7. Bartók – The Wonderful Mandarin

It became clear in November 1926 that scandals were not the preserve of the Ballets Russes. The premiere of the pantomime ballet The Wonderful Mandarin by Béla Bartók at the Cologne Opera was also the last performance. The mayor of Cologne banned on moral grounds the work in which three bums incite a woman to seduce men in order to steal their money. Although the work was more successful in Prague shortly afterwards, the concert suite was the solution for Bartók. His score, like Stravinsky's largely based on elements of folk music, became a permanent fixture on the concert stages.

8. Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet

For Sergei Prokofiev , the opposite happened. The suites from his 1935 ballet Romeo and Juliet gained fame in the form of several orchestral suites before landing on stage in its entirety. The now communist authorities objected to the happy ending that the ballet had in contrast to Shakespeare's tragedy. That's why it took a while. Finally, the Russian premiere took place in 1940 at the Kirov Theater, today's Mariinsky Theater, for which Prokofiev had originally written it. The Dance of the Montagues and Capulets was already a modest 'hit' at the time.

9. Copland – Appalachian Spring

While Romeo and Juliet also continued to elaborate on classical ballet in 1940, the foundations for modern dance had been laid in the United States. Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham caused a furore from 1929 with her Martha Graham Dance Company. Many new ballets were created and many composers were commissioned. So is Aaron Copland . He wrote a work for thirteen instruments in which the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts played an important role and later turned it into a full orchestral suite. An excerpt from the seventh part of the suite was subsequently the signature tune of the CBS Reports documentary series for years.

10. Katsjatoerian – Spartacus

Strangely enough, classical ballet, which had become popular under the Tsarist regime, continued to exist in communist Russia. The new rulers always found parallels with the proletarian ideals. For example, the ballet Spartacus by the Armenian Aram Katchaturian was embraced because the escape of Spartacus and his wife Phrygia resembled the victory of the working class over imperial power. Well… The ballet already won Katchaturian the Lenin Prize in 1954, two years before the complete ballet premiere in the Bolshoi Theater. And should this ballet make you think of the sea: the melody of the famous Adagio caused a furore in the 1970s as the opening tune of the TV series The Onedin Line .

11. Turnage – Blood on the floor

Although a work like Spartacus seems to suggest the victory of classical ballet and orchestral scores, it was mainly modern dance that continued to create a furore. For example, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who started with Martha Graham, often carried the dance to the end of the twentieth century together with avant-garde composer John Cage . Often dance and music had hardly any relationship, but it was fascinating. This also applies to the Cunningham-influenced production L'Anatomie de la sensation (pour Francis Bacon) by choreographer Wayne McGregor, which premiered in 2011 at the Opera Bastille in Paris. He used it for Ensemble Modern and four jazz soloists written Blood on the Floorby the Englishman Mark Anthony Turnage. The title of the work comes from a painting by Bacon, but the inspiration was Turnage's brother who died of an overdose. McGregor also used the paintings as inspiration for this existential ballet, mainly proving that any music can be ballet music.
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