by Nina Pinzarrone
The great modernist composer Igor Stravinsky first intended Petrushka as a concert piece for piano and orchestra. At Serge Diaghilev’s urging, he instead wrote music and (with Alexandre Benois) libretto for a one-act dance drama in four “tableaux” portraying traditional Russian puppet theater. The resulting score was electrifying—but difficult for the dancers to count.Read More
by Nina Pinzarrone
Tip 1: In the 1950s, composer-lyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted many of these pieces for their musical Kismet; for example, the lilting 4/4 “Gliding Dance of the Maidens” became “Stranger in Paradise.” I like to use this piece for a barre or center fondu, stretch, port de bras, or adagio, or for a lilting women’s dance in character class.
Tip 2: For Scheherazade, Fokine used Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, op. 35—an 1888 suite based on stories from The Arabian Nights. This suite contains wonderful material for creative movement and character classes.Read More
by Nina Pinzarrone
On June 2, 1909, in Paris—an auspicious day in ballet history—Serge Diaghilev presented his newly formed Ballets Russes in Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides in the form we know today.Read More
by Nina Pinzarrone
Last month I wrote about useful music from operas. (See “2 Music Tips for Dance Teachers: Ballet Divertissements from Operas: Part 1,” November 2016.) Here are more examples.Read More
by Nina Pinzarrone
Ballet divertissements featuring the corps de ballet, soloists, and small ensembles were integral to 19th-century grand opera productions. These musical interludes—occurring at Act 3’s beginning, or during Act 1—enhance the story by using tunes that illustrate the setting.Read More
Ludwig Minkus (1826–1917), a Vienna-born Czech who worked in both France and Russia, composed melodic, rhythmically clear, and uncomplicated ballet music, mostly in waltz rhythm. He excelled at giving each ballet an underlying mood, for example the passionate Spanish flavor of Don Quixote (1869) or the tragic atmosphere of La Bayadère (1877).
Both Don Quixote and La Bayadère—landmark achievements in Minkus’ long association with Marius Petipa—contain music that’s perfect for ballet class.
Before The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky and Petipa first collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty (1889), with Petipa providing detailed descriptions of his musical requirements. Listen to the overture for the two leitmotifs that, throughout the ballet, represent the conflict between good and evil: strident, disjointed chords for the fairy Carabosse; and lush, lyrical music, like a barcarolle (a lilting piece that imitates gondolier songs) for the Lilac Fairy.
The story’s 100-year time span gave Tchaikovsky the opportunity to explore various historical dance forms. Act 1’s waltz (no. 6) is a wonderful piece for introducing waltz steps. Try Act 2’s gavotte (no. 12c) with tendus in center, or Act 3’s polonaise (no. 22) with grands battements or polonaise walks.
Tip 1 For many dancers and musicians, the holiday season is synonymous with The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s 1892 score, composed according to Petipa’s libretto, is fascinating in many ways. The orchestration includes toy instruments and the celesta, a recently invented cross between a piano and glockenspiel. Its silvery sound fit perfectly Petipa’s instructions that the Sugar Plum Fairy variation evoke water splashing in fountains.
Tip 2 The Nutcracker includes many dances that work well for class. In Act 1, try the March (no. 2) with marches in children’s class and the Gallop (no. 3) with gallops and spring points in 2/4. In Act 2, try a section of the accelerating Russian Trepak (no. 12d) with turns from the corner, the Spanish Bolero (no. 12a) with pirouettes and pas de basques in center, and the Tarantella (no. 14, first male variation) with frappés at the barre.Read More
With Swan Lake (1876), Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) became the second composer of symphonic stature to write a ballet score. (The first was Léo Delibes, whose Sylvia premiered seven years earlier.) Ignorant of balletic compositional techniques, Tchaikovsky studied the specialists—Adolphe Adam and Ludwig Minkus—to determine length and tempos for individual dances. However, Tchaikovsky used a complex system of key relationships and applied symphonic scoring techniques to create more interesting sonorities. His innovations include using two or more solo instruments within a variation (in Act 1’s pas de trois, the third variation’s melody moves from clarinet to flute to oboe, then back to clarinet) and unorthodox instrumentation (the swan theme, which ends Act 1 and bookends Act 2, combines oboe, tremolo strings, and harp).
Like the specialists, Tchaikovsky included many dance forms in Swan Lake. The waltzes (Act 1, score no. 2, “Peasant Dance”; Act 2, no. 13, “Waltz of the Swans”; Act 3, no. 17, “Waltz of the Fiancées”) show a sophisticated use of melodic material. Listen for cross-phrasing—lengthening the musical phrase by tying over a bar’s third beat into the next bar’s first beat—in “Fiancées,” and for the melody in “Peasant Dance” starting on the bar’s second beat against the accompaniment’s consistent “oom pah pah” rhythm.
Tip 1Polonaise or mazurka? It can be hard to know which to use for an exercise. These Polish national dances have similarities: both are in triple meter (3/4 time), use six-count (two-bar) melodic phrases, and accent each bar’s second beat.
Tip 2Try these pointers for using polonaises and mazurkas in class:
August Bournonville created the three-act ballet Napoli in 1842, inspired by a trip to Italy with his close friend Hans Christian Andersen (whose diaries contributed to the libretto). In Naples, Bournonville stayed in the Santa Lucia port and swam in the gulf (the settings for Act 1), visited Capri’s Blue Grotto (Act 2), and visited the Monte Vergine shrine and danced the tarantella with peasants (Act 3). Bournonville assigned sections of the ballet’s score to four composers—Niels W. Gade (known as the father of Danish music), Edvard Helsted, Holger Simon Paulli, and Hans C. Lumbye—and he himself suggested several of the musical themes. Tip 2
Napoli’s score includes several dance/musical forms
The first Romantic ballet, La Sylphide, a two-act ballet set in Scotland, depicts a love triangle between James, a farmer; Effie, his fiancée; and a sylph, or forest spirit. Torn between real and fantasy loves, James chooses fantasy, with tragic results. The ballet premiered in 1832 in Paris to acclaim, with Filippo Taglioni’s choreography showcasing his daughter Marie as the sylph. Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer’s score, with its lilting 6/8 rhythms and buoyant 2/4 variations, especially for the female leads, lends itself to petit allegro—ballonnés, pas de bourrées, brisés, and cabrioles.
Rhythmic and melodic features of Scottish Highland dances (which both Taglioni and Bournonville studied) appear in both La Sylphide scores. The Highland spirit is best captured in Løvenskjold’s Act 1 reel, based on the traditional tune “McDonald’s Reel”—perfect in class for dégagés, petits battements, and petit allegro.
Coppélia (1870), staged in Paris two months before the Franco-Prussian War broke out, is considered the last Romantic ballet. A collaboration between choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon, librettist Charles Nuitter, and composer Léo Delibes, it tells a comic story of a village couple, Swanilda and Franz, and a mysterious doll maker, Dr. Coppélius.
Delibes incorporated several national dances, all the rage then in Paris, into Coppélia’s score, setting a precedent for future ballet composers.
Until the 1820s, a ballet’s music was often a compilation of popular tunes, opera melodies, and original pieces by one or more composers, tailored to fit the story. Early ballet composers, hired to provide simple accompaniments for the solo and ensemble dances, were of lower stature than their symphonic counterparts. The choreographer decided the rhythms and number of bars for each dance, and the composer improvised music to fit. Mime scenes often borrowed melodies from well-known songs with words that fit the action; the association helped the audience understand the mime. By the 1830s, however, these musical practices were changing. Full-length, two-act ballets were being performed, and original ballet music was increasingly needed.
In 1841, Giselle debuted in Paris with music by French opera composer Adolphe Adam (1803–1856). Adam excelled in the new genre of ballet music. Giselle’s score, mostly written in major keys, uses minor tonalities to emphasize key themes and moments, including Hilarion’s theme, Albrecht’s entrance in the second act, the appearances of the Wilis, and the deaths of both Hilarion and Giselle.
The 20th century ushered in a new era in music composition, though Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Puccini, and others continued to write in a Romantic style.
Major 20th-century movements include neoclassicism, minimalism, and experimental music.Read More
From the 1850s to early 1900s, the nationalist movement arose in music, a reaction both to the abstract style in vogue among Germanic composers, and to the wars and revolutions then restructuring much of Europe. Musicians of conquered nations composed music intended to express national pride, often drawing upon popular songs, folk music, and folk dance rhythms (for example Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises).
The major composers of impressionism, a predominantly French movement (approximately 1870 to 1920), were Debussy and Ravel. They sought to break away from Romanticism’s restrictive tonal structures and create musical pictures, or impressions, analogous to the impressionist paintings of Monet, Degas, and Renoir.Read More
The musical style of the Romantic period was inspired by the literary romanticism of the great poets, novelists, and philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Works of this period (approximately 1820 to 1900) focused on the lives of common people instead of royalty.Read More
The polka was the second most important couple dance (after the waltz) in classical-period ballrooms. In 2/4 meter, the polka originated in Bohemia as a peasant dance.
Also in 2/4 meter, the galop, named after the running gait of a horse, is a lively country dance introduced in Paris at the Carnival of 1829 by the Duchesse de Berry.Read More
Classical music is art music based on the traditions of Western music, from the 11th century to the present day. Often more complex than folk or popular music, it requires technical mastery and a sophistication of form.Read More
Many baroque composers wrote multi-movement instrumental pieces known as suites, inspired by national folk dances of the period. The movements were generally in the same key (tonality) and were relatively short, yet they differed in tempo, meter, and style. The phrases were symmetrical and balanced harmonically to accommodate dance patterns.Read More
During the baroque period (1600–1750), new forms such as concertos, sonatas, oratorios, operas, and dance suites highlighted the virtuosity of individual performers. The basic string orchestra was augmented by trumpets, oboes, flutes, timpani, and the keyboard instruments, namely the harpsichord or the organ. Advances in instrumental construction allowed for precise tuning so that for the first time all possible tonalities (keys) were available to composers.Read More
During the medieval period (650–1450), most music was used for church rituals. Monophonic (unaccompanied single-line) melodies known as Gregorian chants were developed for church use.Read More
Melody is the horizontal aspect of music. The first thing most of us notice about a piece of music is the melody; often, it’s what stays with us. For dancers, the melody helps them remember the choreography. Harmony (the chords, combinations of notes sounded at the same time) is the vertical aspect of music; it supports the melody.Read More