Minkus’ Don Quixote and La Bayadère
By Nina Pinzarrone
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).
A ballet specialist, Minkus generally composed to a choreographer’s order, sometimes creating music in the studio as the ballet master choreographed. He also maintained a file of pre-composed music at home, categorized as waltzes, polkas, adages, etc., which he drew from when creating scores.
Both Don Quixote and La Bayadère—landmark achievements in Minkus’ long association with Marius Petipa—contain music that’s perfect for ballet class.
From Act 1 of Don Quixote, try the beginning of the market scene (no. 1, a rousing, tarantella-like 6/8) with small jumps, skips, and gallops. A seguidilla (a fast 3/8 dance, similar to the bolero; no. 7) follows; its rapid triple meter (complete with triplets on the bar’s second beat) creates a wonderful Spanish atmosphere for pas de basques and chassés. The toreadors then enter in a paso doble (a 2/4 march used in 19th-century bullfighting; no. 8); its driving rhythm works well for frappés at the barre and piqué turns in center.
From La Bayadère, try the Act 3 Entrance of the Shades (no. 29), which mesmerizes with its lilting, barcarolle-like 12/8, for a lovely center port de bras.
One of Minkus’ achievements was composing music that, through ascending melodic lines and strong rhythmic accents, propelled dancers into the air—making his allegro music perfect for jumps. For the perfect grand allegro in 3/4, try Basilio’s Act 3 wedding variation from Don Quixote (no. 8, second variation), or Solor’s Act 1 variation from La Bayadère (no. 24).
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded nine CDs for ballet class.