Even you have seen dozens of ballets in your lifetime, you might not know the interesting histories of the scores themselves. To help you better understand the world of ballet, we are sharing the stories behind some of the world’s most beautiful ballet music.
Alexandre Dumas Père’s adaptation of the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann was set to music by Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa. It was commissioned by the director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, in 1891, and premiered a week before Christmas 1892. Since premiering in western countries in the 1940s, this ballet has become perhaps the most popular to be performed around Christmas time. History of the Nutcracker
The Nutcracker is at the top of our list for the most beautiful ballet music. Legend has it that, after accepting the commission of the ballet, a friend of Tchaikovsky bet him that he could not write a melody based on an octave scale. Tchaikovsky proved him wrong with the Grand Adage in the second act of this classic ballet
The composer himself loved the project, and was extremely proud of his music. The charming fairy tale is seen as the height of classical ballet, one of the greatest, purest works in the art form. Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty
Although it was only Tchaikovsky’s second of the three ballets he would write, he wrote it in record time. After receiving the commission from the director of the Imperial Theater, Tchaikovsky wrote the ballet music in roughly 40 days! This feat is even more remarkable considering the length of the ballet. Uncut, and without intermissions, the ballet runs nearly three hours long.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
From a ballet that took only weeks to write, we move on to a ballet that was over a hundred years in the making. Felix Mendelssohn composed ballet music to accompany a stage version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the mid-1800s. That score inspired later Choreographer George Balanchine to create and choreograph a ballet of the same name in the mid-1960s.
Mendelssohn had written only about an hour’s worth of music for the play, not enough for an evening-length dance work, so Balanchine added the following pieces, listed in the order of being played: Overture to Athalie, Opus 74; Overture to The Fair Melusine, Opus 32; excerpts from The First Walpurgis Night, Opus 60; Symphony No. 9 for Strings; Overture to Son and Stranger, Opus 89. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Rite of Spring
A century ago, Igor Stravinsky’s classic ballet had an incredibly controversial debut. The ballet music and story centers upon a pagan in which a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death.
Its premiere, at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913, conducted by Pierre Monteux, caused a scandal. The work was such a violent wrench from every musical tradition that had gone before that, to many people, it seemed like the work of a madman. The Story Behind The Rite of Spring
The music and choreography so upset the audience, that they began jeering and yelling at the performers. The disturbance turned into a full on riot when audience members turned on each other and then the orchestra. But through all the disturbances, the performers continued to complete the ballet. This first showing received terrible reviews. However, the ballet was performed again a year later and “Stravinsky was carried from the hall shoulder-high in triumph.”
While it did not have as unfavorable reception as The Rite of Spring, Tchaikovsky’s first ballet was anything but an instant success. In spite of the rocky start, Swan Lake easily deserves a spot on our list of the most beautiful ballet music known.
The first performance was not the critical success that Tchaikovsky and Reisinger would have hoped for. Audiences at the Bolshoi Theatre were left unimpressed by the choreography and the set design, and Tchaikovsky’s score, considered heavy and oppressive, was described by one critic as “Wagnerian.” The role of Odette was given to Pelageya Karpakova, who was not the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina, and her performance evidently left the audience unmoved. “Swan Lake” First Performed
The chilly response to the premiere of the ballet led to several alterations to Tchaikovsky’s score. Since then, the ballet became one of the most well known, and best-loved, ballets of all time.
Which of these ballets is your favorite? Had you heard the story behind the music’s composition? Let us know in the comments or on social media! If you love classical music, be sure to read our post about the five pieces of music everyone should hear.