Russia has a longstanding relationship with ballet, and is the country to have produced the greatest ballerinas throughout history. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Russian ballet companies toured the world, which meant that young Russians saw dance as their route to international fame and success. The country’s obsession with the dance form is why so many Russian composers wrote music for ballet, and why we have them to thank for some of the greatest ballet scores of all time.
You won’t be surprised, therefore, to see so many Russian composers appearing in this list…
Tchaikovsky‘s first ballet score Swan Lake was based on stories from Russian and German folk tales – a rich source of inspiration for his subsequent ballets too. Swan Lake‘s premiere, given in 1877 by the Bolshoi Ballet, paved the way for Tchaikovsky to write The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, both of which have remained at the forefront of ballet repertoire.
All three ballets are firm favourites during the Christmas period, particularly The Nutcracker. This annual tradition was started by the San Francisco Ballet, who gave the premiere performance of the complete ballet on Christmas Eve in 1944. The company has staged a performance of the ballet every Christmas season since.
Find out more about Tchaikovsky and his works here
Prokofiev began his composing life as a pianist, writing works for the piano and orchestra. It was upon meeting Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes company, that he began to explore composing for dance. Diaghilev encouraged him to write ballets that were intrinsically Russian in style and celebrated the national spirit. It was the 1921 production of Chout that helped put Prokofiev on the global stage as a ballet composer. Stravinsky called it ‘the single piece of modern music [he] could listen to with pleasure,’ while Ravel described it as a ‘work of genius’.
Diaghilev continued commissioning Prokofiev and several ballets followed: The Prodigal Son and Le pas d’acier.
Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev’s best known ballet score, was commissioned by the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad and was based on Shakespeare‘s play of the same name. He later adapted the music from the ballet into three suites for orchestra and a solo piano work.
During the course of the Second World War, Prokofiev wrote the score to Cinderella.
Find out more about Prokofiev and his works here
Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes worked not only with Prokofiev: they also commissioned Stravinsky’s three ballets: The Firebird (1910), Petreushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).
Stravinsky wrote The Firebird at just 28 years old, after his fellow Russian composer Lyadov turned down the commission due to time restraints. It was premiered at the Opera de Paris to critical acclaim. Stravinsky later revised his score for concert performance.
Stravinsky is best known for The Rite of Spring, his third ballet for Diaghilev, which caused uproar at its premiere in 1913. The story sees the protagonist chosen as a sacrificial victim to the sun god Yarilo and dancing herself to death. Audiences were appalled by the dissonant approach to composition from Stravinsky.
Although these three ballets remain Stravinsky’s best known in the classical music world for their experimental orchestral writing, he also went onto write several others, including Petrushka and Pulcinella.
Find out more about Stravinsky and his work here
As well as writing the tune to what we know know as ‘O Holy Night‘, the 19th-century French composer Adolphe Adam also composed for opera and ballet. Giselle has remained hugely popular across the world since its premiere in 1841, when the title role was performed by the Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi as her Paris debut. She remained the only ballerina to perform it at the Paris Opera to perform it for years afterwards.
It is considered one of the more technically challenges dances to perform. Adam used several leitmotifs throughout the ballet, associated with different characters, plotlines or concepts. Giselle herself has a leitmotif, as do several of the other key roles.