Music and ballet—harmony in motion

Punch Howarth

This article will be summer essay number five on Forms of Music and is one where I need to tread lightly—Ballet Music. There is much ballet music from romantic and modern composers that I am familiar with, but to attempt to explain ballet (the dancing) itself, I would pirouette-tutu easily and miss being on pointe. For this disquisition, ballet music will be divided into early and 20th century-plus modern, and secondly music composed specifically to be a ballet (Swan Lake) and non-ballet compositions made into ballets by choreographers (Ravel’s Bolero.)

An area of importance is the skill and level of advancement of the dancers similar to the evolution of musicians and the instruments they perform on. Just as some musicians claimed that violin concertos by Beethoven and Brahms were unplayable, some dancers felt that some ballets by Stravinsky and Prokofiev were not danceable; artists had to solve new problems with new solutions.

Lully in 1670, the first ballet composer of note, composed Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Another work of Lully would allow women in small roles in 1681 and following, females would slowly reduce their heavy bulky costumes and by 1734 had to wear panties for modesty due to their shorter skirts. Rameau’s Les Indes Gallentes in 1735 was a lavish production, and in 1800 Beethoven creates the Ballet Prometheus. The first great ballet danced on pointe (toes) was Giselle by Adam in 1841, followed by Coppelia in 1870 and Sylvia in 1876 by Delibes. A new generation of ballet scores starting with Tchaikovsky provide profound story telling with Swan Lake in 1877, Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Nutcracker in 1892 (intended for adults not children) and provide virtuoso dancing and musicianship. Prokofiev is another great Russian ballet composer with Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet and Prodigal Son.

A revolutionary composer becomes the preeminent composer of ballets starting in 1908 with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris, and he was, of course, Igor Stravinsky. His profound works include: Firebird 1910, Petroushka 1911, Rite of Spring 1913, Les Noces 1923, Apollo 1928 and Agon 1957.

With the development of many new ballet troupes and with choreographers looking for new projects, many great compositions not composed for ballet were utilized such as Ravel’s Bolero, Gaite Parisienne of Offenbach, Appalachian Spring of Copland, Carmen of Bizet and Scheherazade of Rimsky-Korsakov.

Ballet developed with the work of great companies in Italy, Paris, Copenhagen, England with Covent Garden and Sadler Wells and, of course, the two famous Russian institutions, Bolshoi in Moscow and Marinsky (called Kirov during the Soviet period) in St. Petersburg. Both these groups have marvelous symphony orchestras. America has had many outstanding companies mostly centered in New York City headed by Balanchine, Joffrey, Robbins, Ailey, Graham and Taylor.

Most ballets, like operas, have a story line called a libretto and is divided into acts and further dissects into scenes, i.e. Act II, Scenes 1 through 8. Many ballet performances are available on DVDs and can be rented from Netflix or purchased from Amazon. Tucson also has a professional Dance Company. If the reader would care to comment on these summer essays, you can reach Punch at [email protected]  or