Music in Ballet: A Brief History of Evolution

Music in Ballet: A Brief History of Evolution

From an accompaniment to a meaningful part of the ballet performance - how has the role of music in ballet changed over the centuries?

The origins of European ballet music

Starting from the 14th-16th centuries, suites and variations of that time musical works were used in French and Italian ballets. In the first performances one could hear music of court and folk dances.

Over time, music began to play a more distinct and independent role in ballet. The ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre wrote that music determined movements and actions of a dancer in a ballet. In the 18th-19th centuries, drama came to the fore and the musical score became one of the ways to enhance the emotional impact on the audience. A striking example of that period is the ballet Don Juan (1761) to the music by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Traditional dances (minuet, gypsy dance) and musical dramatic climaxes (Dance of the Furies) mix well in the production.

Music in the service of ballet

From the 17th to the first half of the 19th century, composers were creating musical accompaniment for performances according to strict canons to emphasize vivid dramatic episodes or dancer's ballet technique. Probably, this "restriction" of the composer's creativity was the reason why there were virtually no examples of genius works in the ballet music of that period.

Obey all the requirements of the choreographer - this rule was followed by the famous music authors of the first half of the 19th century: Catterino Cavos, Ferdinando Antonolini, Cesare Pugni, who created over 300 ballets for the Imperial Bolshoi Theater of St. Petersburg, and Ludwig Minkus, who succeeded him in this position.

Composers of ballet music usually worked in the compilation genre, combining their own works and the music of other composers. Another option was to compose music that was “comfortable” for staging. So, it is no coincidence that the concept of “dansantity” was consolidated in the art of ballet during that very period. The concept meant a set of features of a piece of music that made it convenient to use in a ballet production.

Time for a change: influence of folklore and Tchaikovsky's ballets

Changes began in the second half of the 19th century: ballet scenes in the operas by Mikhail Glinka, Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov were already different . Composers began to utilize folklore sources, to create an original musical language.

The last decades of the 19th century were marked by a qualitatively new stage in ballet music. The three world famous ballets by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky became the Rubicon: Swan Lake (1877), The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892). The composer introduced symphony, drama and imagery into ballet music, while preserving the number structure. Certain themes from each ballet have been well known for a couple of centuries now, and each of the performances represents a complete symphonic work with its own dynamics.

The traditions of symphonization were taken up in the melodic vivid creations by Alexander Glazunov, such as Raymonda (1898), The Seasons and Les Ruses d'Amour (both 1900).

Modern times: folklore and popular trends in art

At the beginning of the 20th century, ballet music finally parted with the concept of “dansantity”, experiencing the influence of impressionism and expressionism. Imagery was becoming the most important feature, and considerable merit in this belonged to the composer Igor Stravinsky. In creative collaboration with Diaghilev, he created dozens of scores for productions in various genres. Over 40 ballet performances have works by Stravinsky as their musical basis.

The composer's ballet debut was The Firebird, which the audience first saw on stage of the Grand Opera in 1910. At the same time, Stravinsky was working on the music for the ballet Petrushka, where his innovative nature was implemented with all its might. The culture of Maslenitsa (Pre-Lenten) folk festivals and fairs with their songs and jokes can be clearly heard in the music.

In general, the first half of the 20th century was characterized by the introduction of folklore motives from all over the world into ballet performances. Composers turn to the folk art of Spain, Italy, America.

The principles of impressionism in ballet music were vividly conveyed by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Russian composers also found themselves under the influence of the new French movement: for example, Nikolai Cherepnin's ballet Armida’s Pavilion (1907) was inspired by the Impressionists.

Another creative source for the world ballet music in the first half of the 20th century was neoclassicism with its polyphonism and more drawling rhythmics than in Stravinsky's early works. Music by Paul Hindemith for The Four Temperaments (1946) can illustrate this trend.

In the 20th century, non-ballet music, primarily symphonies, began playing during performances more and more often. Choreographers Mikhail Fokine - Chopiniana (1908) and Scheherazade to the music by Rimsky-Korsakov (1910), George Balanchine - Serenade to the music by Tchaikovsky (1934), Leonid Myasin - Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (1938), and others work with such musical accompaniment.

From socialist realism to a new comprehensive perception of musical culture

The period of socialist realism gave ballet music new emotionality and dynamics. Contemporary rhythms sounded in Dmitry Shostakovich's music for the ballets Bolt (1931) and The Bright Stream (1935). But folklore didn’t vanish from Soviet ballet scores either: national motives of the peoples of the USSR can be heard in the productions of 1930-1950.

Music by Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, it appears, evokes the most vivid associations with the Soviet ballet. The first continued to embody the principles of symphony and drama, for example, in the ballets Romeo and Juliet (1938) and Cinderella (1945). And the second combined symphonism with expression, which is more characteristic of the theater, as in the ballet Spartacus (1956).

In the modern musical history of ballet, composers continue to search for new forms and styles, they enthusiastically turn to non-ballet music, seek inspiration in folklore and other musical genres, including electronic ones, have no fear of innovation.