Best ballet music: 12 greatest scores of all time
19 October 2021, 09:30
From Adolph Adam to Alvin Ailey, we explore the music scoring the most beautiful, revolutionary or simply ravishing ballets ever created.
Ballet takes movement and music, and elevates it into something structured yet sublime.
The history of the genre starts in the Italian courts of the 15th century and continues with France’s King Louis XIV, who established the Royal Dance Academy, the first Western dance institution ever invented, and laid the foundations of classical ballet as we know it.
The word ‘ballet’ encapsulates the choreography of the production, as well as the classical music written to go with it, and many great composers throughout history have written for the genre.
Christoph Willibald Gluck: Dance of the Blessed Spirits
‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ is a ballet from the Classical opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.
The opera tells the story of Orfeo and his journey to save, and ultimately lose, his wife Euridice to the underworld.
The ballet, accompanied by a famous flute solo, sees the protagonist pass through the Elysian Fields, which are the beautiful final resting place of heroic and virtuous souls in Greek mythology.
Adoplphe Adam: Giselle
The popular ballet’s plot revolves around the ghosts of maidens deceived and lost, and has a fittingly haunting score.
Léo Delibes: Coppélia
Coppélia is a comic ballet, composed by Léo Delibes and choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870.
The three-act ballet features a lifelike dancing doll, the young man who becomes besotted with it, and his heart’s true desire, Swanhilda, who dresses as the doll to ultimately save the young man from his foolish infatuation.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake
Take the tale of a princess transformed into an elegant swan and add some of the most ravishing melodies in classical music, and you get Swan Lake.
Tchaikovsky’s 1875 work remains one of the most popular ballets ever written, and contains the famous pieces ‘Dance of the Little Swans’ and the instantly recognisable Act I Waltz.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
Tchaikovsky’s two-act 1892 ballet, The Nutcracker, is the magical story of a girl who makes friends with a soldier-shaped nutcracker that comes to life on Christmas Eve, and wages a battle against the evil Mouse King, before whisking her off to an enchanted land.
It features many memorable melodies, and has become a firm favourite with audiences at Christmastime and beyond.
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird
The Firebird was the first ballet Stravinsky wrote for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Premiered in 1910, it shot the Russian composer to international fame, and started a collaboration that would see The Rite of Spring, Petrushka and other famous works born.
The music is at once glittering, with moments of scary dissonance, to bring to life the ballet’s fairytale plot around the mythical firebird. Hear the terrifying but electrifying ‘Infernal Dance’ below.
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloé
French composer Maurice Ravel described his one-act ballet, Daphnis and Chloé, as a ‘symphonie chorégraphique’.
The ‘choreographed symphony’ is a love story telling of the romance between the goatherd Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé, and it features some of the most passionate and beautiful music Ravel ever wrote. The score, featuring rich impressionistic melodies and harmonies, is often performed in concert as a standalone symphonic suite.
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Three years after The Firebird, Stravinsky was back making headlines – and by all accounts causing riots – with his revolutionary music for Diaghilev and Ballet Russes’ Rite of Spring.
The ballet, controversial at the time, tells of a sacrificial pagan ritual in which a virgin dances herself to death and was described by one critic as “puerile barbarity”. The music is suitably savage and striking, and went down in history for its sheer audacity and invention.
William Grant Still: Sahdji
American composer William Grant Still wrote his second ballet Sahdji in 1930. The ballet starts set in a hunting festival of the real life Central African Azande tribe, and tells of the wife of the tribe’s chieftain, Sahdji, and her affair with his nephew and successor, Mrabo.
Grant Still’s rich orchestral score, which also features a chorus, borrows melodies, instrumentation, rhythms and textures from Central African music.
Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
Russian composer Prokofiev set the greatest love story ever told to music for St Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky Ballet) in 1935.
The demanding ballet was first performed in 1940, and features the enduringly popular ‘Dance of the Knights’, also known as ‘Montagues and Capulets’ – famously used as the theme tune for TV’s The Apprentice.
Alvin Ailey: Revelations
The late American dancer, theatre director and choreographer Alvin Ailey collected and arranged African-American spirituals, song-sermons, and gospel songs – the culture of which Ailey described as “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful” – into a modern ballet work in 1960.
Revelations has been performed around the world, and remains one of Ailey’s best-known works.
Kaija Saariaho: MAA
Finnish composer Saariaho’s 1991 ballet MAA makes the list for how dreamlike and evocative it is.
The modern ballet doesn’t have a plot as such, and instead sees music and dance used to interpret the everyday sounds of doors and gates, among other things, as the work takes us through journeys stepping across water and into new worlds.