In the third instalment of the At Home Guide, we look at how ballet music evolved from a mere afterthought to a formidable artform in its own right. Click on the links to see the pieces played by some of Europe’s top orchestras and immerse yourself in the world of ballet music.

Adelaide Giuri and Mikhail Mordkin in Alexander Gorsky's <i>Swan Lake</i> in 1901 © Public domain
Adelaide Giuri and Mikhail Mordkin in Alexander Gorsky's Swan Lake in 1901
© Public domain

Ballet music: on the fringes

When dance started featuringring in the European courts of the Renaissance period, little thought was given as to what sounds the performers would be moving to. Most of the time, in fact, their movements would be accompanied by nothing at all - no music would be played, and the focus remained purely on the dancers’ visual aspect. Though this changed with the advent of the Baroque period, the music that came to be used in ballet performances was initially little more than an afterthought.

A sea-change came when one Italian composer set foot in the court of the French king in 1653. Giovanni Battista Lulli, now commonly known by his French name Jean-Baptiste Lully, was invited by Louis XIV to dance with him in a production of Ballet royal de la Nuit, a ballet for which Lully had composed some of the music. Lully went on to spearhead the use of faster tempi in music composed for ballet productions, and also advocate the then-unheard-of idea that one composer should write all of the music for a single ballet. Lully’s music diverged from what had been traditionally used to accompany ballet performances; it had a distinct style and suggested something of a narrative. However, ballet as a form had yet to solidify into anything near like what we think of it today. At the time, ballet dances could be incorporated into sections of an opera to allow for set changes, or be part of a longer performances featuring elements of singing and poetry reading.

Jean-Baptiste Lully © Gallica Digital Library | Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Baptiste Lully
© Gallica Digital Library | Wikimedia Commons

Ballet and its accompanying music came more to the fore in the 18th century with composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau and the form of the opera-ballet, in which the narrative was manifested partly through dance and partly through song. Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes arguably inaugurated this more lightweight style. Inspired by a visit by members of the Native American Mitchigamea tribe to the court of King Louis XV, the ballet was highly successful when it was first staged by the Académie Royale de Musique in 1735. Watch the Gothenburg Symphony perform an orchestral suite of this seminal piece of Baroque-era ballet music here.

Taking centre stage

Ballet music took a step forward with the advent of the ballet pump. This seemingly small change opened up a world of possibilities for ballet composers. While before, ballet dancers wore hard shoes that had a somewhat restrictive effect on their movements, this new footwear allowed for more free and expressive kind of choreography: male dancers lifted ballerinas into the air, while the performers were increasingly able to dance on pointe. Consequently, the music was adapted to suit this more daring kind of choreography. Meanwhile, Adolphe Adam’s score for Giselle (1841) was the first ballet music it use motifs to represent particular characters.

However, the status of ballet music - and by extension of its composers - was still considered to be somewhat inferior to more weighty orchestral works. Ballet composers were referred to as “specialists”. They were craftsmen rather than innovators, their work artisanal rather than artistic. But the next chapter in the story of ballet music changed that, though not in France - the country of its birth - but in Russia. Here, Tchaikovsky would usher in a new era of ballet composition with his music for Swan Lake. This was the first ballet music to be written by a composer of symphonies, and even Tchaikovsky himself believed the work to be somewhat beneath him. However, while studying the music of “specialists” such as Cesare Pugni in preparation for Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky became enamoured with the finesse and skill involved in the composition of ballet music. With the composer’s symphonic background and the influence of the infectious, detailed music of “specialist” ballet composers, Swan Lake had a recipe for success. Yet it was apparently aruged that Tchaikovsky’s music was too complex to perform to. Moreover, the ballet's première in 1877 (at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow) didn’t achieve the success its makers had hoped for. The ballet was rearranged and revived in 1895 (at The Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg) Time has shown the wiser, however, and Swan Lake is now the world’s most frequently performed ballet. Tchaikovsky’s music, with sections such as the serene waltz of Act 1, has undoubtedly kept audiences coming back for more. Watch the North Netherlands Radio Orchestra perform music from the ballet here.

Going further out

A costume design for <i>The Firebord</i> by Léon Bakst, 1910 © Wikimedia Commons
A costume design for The Firebord by Léon Bakst, 1910
© Wikimedia Commons
Formal innovation was everywhere in the arts during the early years of the twentieth century, and this was as true in ballet music as any other discipline. A major iconoclast in ballet music came in the form of Igor Stravinsky, an astonishingly young Russian composer who shocked and delighted the ballet world with his score for The Firebird (performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris) at the age of just 27. Perhaps what’s most impressive about Stravinsky’s game-changing work was that the composer hadn’t even been the first choice of choreographer Michel Fokine. That honour was originally meant for Anatol Liadov, but the composer found himself unable to create anything befitting the mystical folkloric tale of the supernatural bird. Though the original principal ballerina left the production on account of her distaste for the music, the rest of the world was delighted by Stravinsky’s innovative score, which bore the hallmark of Russian folk melodies and the techniques of Stravinsky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. The première of the work was rapturously received, with commentators calling it a “danced symphony”. Like his predecessor Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky had helped to bring ballet music to the fore. You can watch Het Gelders Orkest perform the “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird here.

An even more shocking forward leap in ballet music came with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which inspired riotous scenes on its first performance in 1913 (again, when performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris). With its irregular rhythms, harsh dissonances and extended instrumental techniques, it was a complete break with the past. In direct response to Stravinsky’s rule-breaking ballet music, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók wrote his own, similarly shocking ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. Its heavy score aims to evoke the urban environment of the scenario, with blaring brass fanfares, chord clusters and dense chromatic tonalities all contributing the work’s tempestuous feeling. Some critics say that the tumultuous atmosphere of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin reflected the political instability in the composer’s homeland at the time. What’s more, the scenario’s bawdy subject matter saw it banned by local authorities when it premiered in Cologne in 1926. At any rate, the music for the ballet remains among Bartok’s most challenging works. Catch the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner perform a suite from the ballet here.  

A somewhat gentler revolution came in the form of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe (Ballets Russes, Diaghilev commission, 1912). In a typically Impressionistic blurring of boundaries, the composer himself described the work as a “choreographic symphony”, and the primacy of the music is reflected in how the work has come to be performed: largely in the form of two concert suites rather than a two-act ballet. The music was hailed as a masterpiece even during the composer’s lifetime, and its lush harmonies and infectious motifs have made it one of the most performed pieces in the classical canon. Watch the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra perform the second orchestral suite from Daphnis et Chloe here.

Repurposed music

While the story of classical composers turning to ballet music is an interesting one, it is also worth noting that ballet librettists also looked to the pre-existing classical canon for inspiration. Debussy’s symphonic poem Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune was so persuasive in its evocation of classical myth that it inspired a ballet of the same name, choreographed by the Russian ballet master Vaslav Nijinsky in 1912 (watch the Essen Philharmonic perform the orchestral work here). In 1919, Ottorino Respighi used music by the Romantic-era composer Gioachino Rossini to form a new ballet named La Boutique Fantasque. In 1936, Benjamin Britten would also repurpose Rossini’s work, using music from the Italian Composer’s opera William Tell to write a score for a ballet named Soirée Musicales, which was choreographed by George Balanchine.

Edward Landseer's <i>Scene From A Midsummer Night's Dream</i>, 1851 © Public domain
Edward Landseer's Scene From A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1851
© Public domain

Perhaps the most fertile symphonic work to be mined by ballet choreographers, however, is Felix Mendelssohn’s music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Starting life as a concert overture composed when Mendelssohn was just 17, it was eventually reborn as a full programme of incidental music for a production of the play toward the end of the composer’s life. But it didn’t end there. In 1962 George Balanchine choreographed a two-act ballet of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for the New York City Ballet) using Mendelssohn’s incidental music along with other works in the composer’s oeuvre. And just two years later, Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed Mendelssohn’s music to another ballet adaptation of the play, simply entitled The Dream. You can watch the Orkest van het Oosten perform Mendelssohn’s incidental music here.

From its beginnings as a sideshow held in little regard by critics, composers or audiences, to its heyday as a complex artform in its own right, ballet music has evolved into a complex art that is fully integrated with the art form it supports. With modern composers for ballet employing ever more experimental techniques, who knows when the next great leap will come.