Best ballet music: the finest ballet scores of all time

What's the best ballet score of all time? Freya Parr explores leading contenders

Best ballet music
Published: June 1, 2022 at 11:49 am
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What makes a great ballet score? Often, there’s a lot more to consider than in a standard symphony. It needs to tell a clear story, highlight the differences between characters and provide an accompaniment – or even a partner – to the dancers on stage. But it also needs to be able to stand alone, to exist and thrive as its own entity. The musical language needs to be rich and colourful enough that we can hear the story unfold without needing visual prompts.

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Best ballet music of all time

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

Is Swan Lake ballet’s greatest love story? There’s a good case to be made for it. The tragic tale begins with Prince Siegfried finding a beautiful swan, which transforms into Princess Odette. She explains that she has been turned into a swan by the evil Baron Von Rothbart and that the spell can only be broken if someone who has never loved before swears an oath of undying love to her – which, naturally, the prince does instantly. Later at the palace, Odette enters and Siegfried dances with her and asks for her hand in marriage. But it’s not Odette – it's Odile in disguise, the black swan and daughter of Von Rothbart. Siegfried goes to the lake to find Odette, but there is nothing to be done now that he has broken the vow. They decide to throw themselves into the lake and die together.

Based on stories from Russian and German folk tales, the plot of Swan Lake is impactful enough – before you even consider Tchaikovksy’s glittering, timeless score. It’s truly symphonic, and has created some of the most iconic moments in the history of dance. The ‘Dance of the Cygnets’ is instantly recognisable, as the four dancers move together in perfect unison with the music, which sees the melody passed seamlessly between strings and wind instruments. It’s one of the greatest marriages of choreography and music.

We named Tchaikovsky as one of the best ballet composers of all time.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

In 1935, Prokofiev moved to the Soviet Union to chase a lucrative offer – to write any opera or ballet he wanted. The story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was his choice. He saw this ballet as his homecoming, wanting to arrive with a bang – and, hopefully, to dethrone the Soviet Union’s current darling, Shostakovich. Unfortunately, logistical issues and a change in personnel (the Bolshoi’s leader Vladimir Mutnikh was arrested in Stalin’s Great Purge) meant the ballet was forced to be postponed. Despite these challenges and several rejections from ballet companies, Romeo and Juliet was later adapted into three orchestral suits and 10 piano pieces, which reached the public sooner than the ballet itself and have retained a hugely popular status among classical music lovers.

Prokofiev’s hand is felt throughout the score of Romeo and Juliet, with various motifs borrowed from his other symphonies.

We named Prokofiev as one of the best ballet composers of all time.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

To this day, there’s not a music student in the land that hasn’t heard the story of the raucous premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Headlines reading ‘The Riot at the Rite’ are ten a penny. Audiences were just not prepared for the violent, elemental work, which was nothing like anything that had come before it.

Besides the raucous audience reception, the ballet’s story is dark. Stravinsky describes how the concept for the ballet first came to him: ‘I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.’ Stravinsky wrote it for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, a troupe of dancers with whom he had a longstanding collaboration.

The score is spiky, accented and disturbing. Although the music, imagery and culture we have been exposed to since The Rite of Spring’s premiere should have taken the edge off it, Stravinsky’s score sounds just as groundbreaking today as it did then. Instruments are pushed to their limits, playing in extreme registers, balancing hard accents and complex jagged rhythms – and that’s before you even take in the voodoo-like choreography slicing up the stage.

We named Stravinsky as one of the best ballet composers of all time.

Adolphe Adam’s Giselle

Giselle might be one of the more technically challenging ballets for dancers themselves, but its continual outings suggest that it remains as popular as ever with audiences.

The ballet pivots around the eponymous character of Giselle, a beautiful peasant girl who falls for the nobleman Albrecht, who hides his identity to appear as a villager to try and romance Giselle. Upon discovering Albrecht’s disguise, Giselle dies of heartbreak. While the first act centres around this complicated dynamic, the second act is dominated by the ethereal Wilis – a group of spirits of maidens who died after having been betrayed by their lovers. They summon Giselle to join them in taking revenge on the men who have wrong them, forcing them to dance to death. Her love for Albrecht frees him from their grasp – and saves her from becoming one of them. It’s a classic romantic – and Romantic – ballet.

Like every good ballet, Adolphe Adam’s score is packed full of familiar leitmotifs, which return time and time again to remind us of the various characters, plot points or emotive threads. As Giselle and Albrecht’s relationship is blossoming, motifs are tossed back and forth between the woodwinds as though the instruments are chatting among one another, just as the protagonists are doing on stage. The score is written in a bel canto style, with plenty of hummable lines and references to European styles of dance music, such as waltzes and polkas.

We named Adolphe Adam as one of the best ballet composers of all time.

Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker

Partway through the compositional process of The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s sister Alexandra died, leaving him bereft and unable to go on. ‘I feel absolutely incapable of depicting the Kingdom of Sweets in music,’ he wrote. But clearly it didn’t leave him paralysed for too long, as he went on to produce one of his greatest works – and, arguably, the sound of Christmas. The pit is transformed into an orchestra of toy instruments, with the celeste taking centre stage in the now iconic ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’. The instrument was relatively unknown in Russia when the ballet was first premiered, and Tchaikovsky had imported it with absolute secrecy to save its impact for opening night. Clearly it was a secret worth keeping, and these days you can hardly move in the film music world without bumping into the celesta.

Like many of the ballets featured in this list, The Nutcracker takes its lead from fairytales. In this case, the libretto is adapted from ETA Hoffmann’s 1816 short story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Clara is given a nutcracker for her Christmas present, and as she falls asleep and starts to dream, the nutcracker brings her into a dream world in which he fights with the mouse king. The nutcracker then turns into a prince and takes Clara into the Land of Snow, where they are met with dancing snowflakes, and the Land of Sweets, where they are introduced to the Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s a fantastical story of a child’s vivid imagination, with all the colour – both visually and musically – you could wish for.

Plus, The Nutcracker is one of the ballets that has cropped up in endless pop culture references, from The Simpson’s Christmas Stories to Fantasia, even with Duke Ellington creating his own Nutcracker Suite.

Some would argue – myself included – that the mark of any great ballet is that it has been adapted into a Barbie film, which is the case for both Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

We named Tchaikovsky as one of the best ballet composers of all time and The Nutcracker as one of the best Christmas ballets ever - and a must watch for the festive season

Stravinsky’s The Firebird

Stravinsky cemented his reputation with this colourful ballet, written when the composer was just 28 years old. Taken on by choreographer Sergei Diaghilev as a relative novice, Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird launched him onto the scene. His plan was to make the ballet as Russian as possible, combining famous figures from a handful of different Russian fairytales, using folk melodies to represent the ballet’s various characters. The Firebird is just one of these characters, its arrival symbolised by a blistering crescendo through the orchestra. Its legend is at the centre of the story, a create whose feathers protect the earth with their beauty.

We are plunged into a fantasy world in which Prince Ivan Tsarevich – another figure from Russian folklore – must save his princess from the evil sorcerer Kashchei, with the intervention of the Firebird. Despite Shostakovich’s relatively novice status at the time of writing, The Firebird set the tone of his ballets to come. The characters of Russian folklore come to life against a backdrop of atmospheric, otherworldly Russian folk melodies.

We named Stravinsky as one of the best ballet composers of all time.

Kaija Saariaho’s Maa

We’re all now very familiar with the genius of Kaija Saariaho’s works for stage, thanks to the enormous success of her operas. Many don’t know that her stage career actually began with a ballet.

First performed by the Finnish National Ballet in 1991, Maa has an abstract, non-narrative plot, with dancers responding to the immediacy of Saariaho’s raw musical material. Translating from the Finnish for ‘earth’, ‘Maa’ brought the composer back to her homeland after studying and working in other parts of Europe.

The number seven plays a key role, with seven musicians playing seven movements, which each break down into seven subsections. She blends electronic textures and tape manipulation with organic instrumental and natural sounds such as footsteps, wind and water. ‘At that time, I was working a lot with the idea of metamorphosis,’ Saariaho told the Irish Times in 2013. ‘So it became a thematic thing: crossing the space, opening the door, two sides of the windows, different spaces.’

Saariaho’s carefully planned musical structures provided a jumping-off point for choreographer Carolyn Carlson, whose methods pivoted around improvisation. Within the score, musicians are asked to perform technically challenging passages, using extended technique to explore the full potential of their instruments.

We named Kaija Saariaho one of the best opera composers of all time

Max Richter’s Woolf Works

Another contemporary offering from Wayne McGregor and the Royal Ballet, Woolf Works was a ballet triptych inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, set to an original score by Max Richter. Themes and emotions from three of Woolf’s novels are used as the inspiration for the three ballets, Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves, with fragments from her letters and diaries interwoven throughout, voiced by actor Gillian Anderson. Like much of Richter’s work, the score blended orchestral and electronic textures.

The ballet explores Woolf’s biography in tandem with an examination of society at the time. The score was later released as an album by Richter on Deutsche Grammophon, titled Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works.

Multiverse

Wayne McGregor conceived new work titled Multiverse, set to original scores by Steve Reich: It’s Gonna Rain and Runner, both of which come in at around 15 to 20 mins each. It’s Gonna Rain is a word-based tape work (1965), juxtaposed with a newly commissioned score Runner, which is an intense composition for strings, piano, wind and percussion, written without a break between its five movements. While the tempo remains the same, each movement is based on different note duration, meaning that the pace ebbs and flows. It received its world premiere by the Royal Ballet in 2016. Reich’s experimentations with phasing and repetition are highly adaptable for the dance stage, something McGregor was keen to convey. The project as a whole was designed to reflect the geopolitical crisis of the time, with Reich’s score representing our repeating histories and the unstable present.

Wayne McGregor is no stranger to classical music, having collaborated with a raft of contemporary composers such as Nico Muhly, , Ólafur Arnalds, Michael Gordon, Jon Hopkins, Jamie xx and Michael Berkeley on projects. He’s also set new dance works to existing works from the core classical repertoire, such as JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue, which was used for the basis of his 2018 production Bach Forms.

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Authors

Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.

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