Rightly or wrongly, it is an old saying that some of the best “Spanish” music was written by French composers. Think of Georges Bizet’s well-known 1875 opera Carmen. And to generations of listeners, Boléro does not sound French, but certainly evokes the Spanish soul.

the commissioning dancer

Ida Rubinstein (1885-1960) commissioned Boléro from the French composer Maurice Ravel in 1928 for her dance to be choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. Born into a wealthy Russian family, Rubinstein was not a highly trained dancer but nevertheless was able to create an unusual career for herself. She was seen as exceptionally beautiful, and some of her performances were considered quite risqué. For example, Fokine choreographed The Dance of the Seven Veils for her, and during a private showing, she indeed proceeded to show a lot—removing most of the veils as her dance progressed. Perhaps because of her beauty she was engaged to be a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1909. Among her lead roles were those in Cleopatre (to music by Tcherepnin and six other composers) and Schéhérazade (to music by Rimsky-Korsakov). After two years with Diaghilev, she left to form her own company, which in 1928-1929 had Nijinska as choreographer in Paris.

Rubinstein had the unusual wherewithal to commission new scores—most notably Boléro from Maurice Ravel, but in addition including Igor Stravinsky’s Le Baiser de la fée. She was also able to enlist outstanding dancers, including for a time Frederick Ashton (who was to become choreographer for the Royal Ballet). Ida Rubinstein disbanded her company in 1935.

the score

But back to Boléro. The score results in one big crescendo going from a very quiet drum pattern that incessantly accompanies several melodies repeated over and over while adding different instrumental colors, getting louder and louder and then suddenly changing the key at the very end (from C major to E).  This gradual buildup of dynamics over the insistent drum pattern and recurring melodic phrases is what provides a soundscape of tremendous tension for theatrical dancers.

Based on a moderately slow 18th century ballroom dance in triple time (typically with a triplet rhythm on the second beat of each bar), Ravel’s bolero is a fairly easy score to follow. There is a very clear one published by Dover, and if listeners follow along visually and put on a good CD such as the one conducted by Charles Dutoit, the 15-minute double experience may be particularly rewarding.

It should be stressed that Ravel felt very strongly about this piece not being played faster than he indicated. The first printed edition had a metronome marking of 76 to the quarter note. The composer thought to reduce that to 66, but for the later printing what was settled on was quarter note = 72 at most. The crescendo effect is much greater if the tempo is slow and is maintained unvaryingly.

that Spanish flavor

Where did the composer’s inspiration come from? At first it was understood that for Ida Rubinstein he would just reorchestrate some existing piano music by the Spanish composer Albéniz, only it was discovered that the rights to orchestrate had been granted to another musician. So then Ravel tapped out a rhythm on the piano and apparently had an “aha” moment, thinking how interesting it would be to limit the sounds to that rhythm and just two melodies. The composition was done over the course of the following months.

However, long before Boléro, there were some deep-seeded Spanish influences. The composer had been born in a Basque fishing village near Spain, and his mother had grown up in Madrid. While the composer was young, she would sing Spanish folk melodies to him. So that “flavor” was familiar in Ravel’s early experience.

Even without dancers, Ravel’s music by itself can evoke strong emotion and a sense of Spanish style. Some extra amazement was provided to concert audiences fortunate enough to hear and see the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra play Boléro without a conductor (which is how they have always done their performances). Viewers online can witness another amazing performance: a film of a Spanish “flashmob” playing the piece outside.  (See notes.)

However, such performances of Ravel’s composed music also bring to mind some spine-tingling performances of traditional Spanish folk styles—for instance by a group called Flamenco Puro seen in in New York City quite a few years ago. They provided their own music live with guitars, castanets, the sound of boots and shoes, their singing voices, and most unforgettably, their gutteral “primal screams.” The “real thing,” in comparison with artistic compositions by French musicians. Nevertheless, Ravel certainly conveyed what we accept as Spanish flavor. And Boléro has certainly impelled dancers to create some memorable theatrical choreography.

choreographed dances

A filmed revival based on Nijinska’s original choreography can be seen online. She obviously sought, through casting ballet dancers in character shoes, to evoke traditional Spanish dances while at the same time latching onto the overpowering character of the new music.

In Nijinska’s version the central woman dancer is on a table, stern-faced but, especially with her arms, suggesting a tense and formal eroticism in a way we readily recognize as Spanish in style. She wears a traditional long skirt and a flower in her hair. There are both men and women sitting around the table, at times adding a few claps to the sound. The male contingent together offer variety and increased tension, at one point going onto the table and stabbing their knives into the wood, and stamping out unison rhythms with their boots.  At the climax, they raise the woman dancer, who takes a prone position that reminds one of the final raising of the Chosen One in The Rite of Spring as choreographed by Nijinska’s brother Vaslav.

Other choreographers have set their versions of Boléro—including a stunning one in 1961 by Maurice Béjart that can be seen online with Sylvie Guillem in the lead role. To say that it is quite different from Nijinska’s is to put it mildly! And finally, there is also the pas de deux that Roland Petit set. (A highly recommended online performance is listed in the end notes.)

Boléro seen on the small screen of a computer may lack the punch of live performance, but the three versions suggested will at least prove the point that the same musical score can evoke radically different choreography. Nijinska’s recalled traditional Spanish dance. Maurice Béjart’s is thoroughly modern, without any Spanish clichés whatsoever. It is extremely visceral as an artistic expression. And Roland Petit’s is a unique pas de deux here and there suggestive of traditional Spanish dance but blended with classical ballet and his own imaginative style.

notes and explorations:

orchestral score:

Dover Publications has available in one volume full scores (large size) of Boléro plus three other orchestral works by Ravel: his Rapsodie Espagnole, Mother Goose Suite, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,  and  Pavane for a Dead Princess. All have been used for theatrical dance.

online performances:
Maria  Alexandrova stars in this revived setting of Bronislava Nijinska’s choreography.
This is Maruice Béjart’s modern setting of Boléro, with Sylvie Guillem as the soloist on the table. Her repeated arm gestures are stylized and help to create the tension that is in the music. Fascinating!  Images of Ida Rubinstein,  report on Christian Holder’s show about life of Ida Rubinstein  info on the dancer’s musical collaborations This is Maya Plisetskaya performing Béjart’s Boléro with the Ballet of the 20th Century, in 1975 when she was 50 years old! Balearic folk dance group performs a bolero with live instrumental accompaniment. An Aragonese version.  Lucia Lacarra and Massimo Murru perform Roland Petit’s choreography. A fantastic pas de deux! Performers in black leotards; Lacarra en pointe. The choreographer seems to have been acutely responsive to the rhythms. An extraordinary performance of music by a French composer, choreography by a French artist, performed on a barge in Marseille. A most intriguing blend of classical ballet, Spanish style movements, and Petit’s own contemporary style.

DVD:  Documentary of Maurice Béjart’s life on Kultur, Béjart! Did You Say Bejart?

Spanish Flashmob! Outdoor plaza performance of Boléro by the Banda Simfònica d’Algemesí in 2013.


The 1999 Decca CD with the Montreal Symphony conducted by Charles Dutoit is a nice one to have because it also includes some of Ravel’s other music that was used for dances: La Valse, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Valses nobles et sentimentales, the complete Ma Mère L’Oye plus some other works. For libraries and collectors, Decca also has issued the complete works of Ravel on 14 CDs with performances by different musicians. The words to the vocal works are included in a booklet.


For further information about the creation of Boléro  as a ballet, see Lynn Garafola, La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern (Oxford University Press, 2022) pp. 249-254.  The author reports, p. 253 that “The critics went wild over Boléro.”  On p. 261 mention is made of the composer Ravel conducting two performances in Vienna.

The author also relates some telling opinions that Rubinstein’s dancers had regarding their leader when past her prime. See pp. 258-59.  And on p. 251 Garafola herself observes that: “it must have been galling to have all one’s hard work—and the talent and hard work of so many others—depend on the whims of a grande dame who wanted only to step into one or another spectacular vision of herself.” This is a review of Flamenco Puro performances. Has an interesting list of art music boleros composed by other musicians, and an introduction to the Cuban bolero, which is quite different, being essentially a vocal love song.  Anna Kisselgoff’s obituary of the choreographer Roland Petit.   Biography of the composer.

Don Quixote (Kitri’s Wedding)

Here’s a musical score suggesting Spain, but written by a Viennese composer and choreographed by a French dance artist, both working in Russia. This full-length ballet is among the relatively little music by Ludwig Minkus that has survived from the time of his collaboration with Marius Petipa. Don Quixote was premiered in 1869 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Years later, bringing their Russian traditions to Western Europe, and across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, both Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev mounted revivals that can be enjoyed today on DVD. (See notes.) The ballet focuses on just one episode from the long saga by Miguel Cervantes. So we are getting the Spanish story via a few international filters.

Not only the music, but also the folk-like costumes and the poses and many step combinations all serve to evoke the Spain of Barcelona when it was a small port town. Don Quixote has more or less a walk-on part, chasing imaginary giants in a windmill and honoring Kitri, who loves a young barber named Basilio (whom the Don champions). Kitri’s father, of course, wants her to marry a wealthy old fop, and much of the dancing is simply for fun—with a happy ending as you may guess.

The music does not seem to borrow directly from Spanish folk songs. Instead, there are little touches that serve to set the location—particularly in the upbeat flourishes and the use of fast 3/8 and 6/8 meters, as well as Spanish-type waltzes. There are sounds of castanets here and there. And in the opening of his filming, Baryshnikov carries a guitar just in case you wonder where you are.

One scene that departs from trying to evoke a Spanish flavor and introduces purely classical techniques along with some clear and beautiful music, is a vision that Don Quixote has. The corps members appear in tutus and pointe shoes; several soloists are highlighted; and the beautiful Queen of the Dryads also makes an appearance to amaze Don Quixote.

Back in the village, there is a matador skilled at jumping, his colleagues, a bar maid, and all the usual flirts. Everybody is rooting for the barber, who saves his colossal virtuosity for the final pas de deux with Kitri. If anyone wishes to study only one section of the music more closely, a good choice would be that final grand pas-de-deux, with its waltz, 2/4 sections, beautiful adagio, and coda that allows the dancers to finish in a flamboyant climax. This entire pas de deux is sometimes performed alone out of context during mixed ballet programs.

filmed performances

Rudolf Nureyev filmed his restaging in an airplane hanger in Australia in 1972, so on the restored DVD version there is no sound of applause for the fine performances given by him (as Basilio), Australian-born Robert Helpmann (as Don Quixote), Lucette Aldous (as Kitri) or members of the Australian Ballet.

At the time, John Lanchbery was music director of the Australian Ballet, and he also did the enormous job of reorchestrating the Minkus score, interpolating extra music as required by the dance, conducting the orchestral performance itself, and adjusting the tempos in places so as to support what the dancers are doing. Again, there is enough pseudo-Spanish flavor to be convincing, and the vision scene plus the grand pas de deux are pure classical music and classical ballet. Throughout, Lanchbery and his orchestra deliver an animated and well-accented backdrop for the dance and the story.

What is mainly different about the Nureyev version is the inclusion of more of the story of the Don himself, the way the tavern scene is presented, and the expansion of the gypsy section—where the music for one dance sounds appropriately folk-like.

Finally, there is a DVD from the Bolshoi Ballet with two intriguing performances: one black and white filmed in 1968 starring Maya Plisetskaya and Maris Liepa, with choreography by Alexander Gorsky (after Marius Petipa). Youri Fayer conducted the Bolshoi’s own orchestra. The other is a 1978 performance in color with dancers Nadezhda Pavolova and Vyacheslav Gordeev, and a fine supporting cast who offer a remarkable evocation of Spanish styles. Alexander Kopilov was the conductor, and again the choreography was Alexander Gorsky’s based on Petipa.

Something one can’t miss in the older film is the enthusiasm of the audience. In fact, they were clapping so loudly during Plisetskaya’s initial solo that the music is hardly audible! In fact, her leaps with her back bends and head thrown back were something special to see—as well as the balletic positions she and “Basil” struck at the ends of phrases. The lifts coinciding with the musical climaxes were spectacular. All in all, both films give us a glimpse of the kind of performance of classical ballet popular during the Soviet era. They even had Don Quixote enter on a white horse and Sancho Panza on a burro. The matadors with  capes added Spanish flavor indeed, while the adagios were simply lyrical and not of any particular nationality.

In the later color film, the Bolshoi went all out in the tavern scene, with a flirtatious woman dancing on a table and circus type entertainers. In the second act, gypsies add more exotic flavor. The last act is mounted more as a formal court wedding scene, but it really is one reprise after another showcasing all the various dance soloists and combinations that had gone before. A very long but very enjoyable ballet. The music of Minkus remains sparkling, and certainly does spur the dancers to evoke Spanish styles of dance.

notes and explorations:


Kultur DVD from 1983: Mikhail Baryshnikov’s production of Don Quixote for American Ballet Theatre. He not only restaged the choreography after Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky; he danced the lead male role. Also starring were Cynthia Harvey, Richard Schafer, and Brian Adams. Paul Connelly conducted, and the orchestrations were redone by Patrick Flynn. This is a 19-minute excerpt from the above performance.

Quite different is Rudolf Nureyev’s 1972 film of Don Quixote also starring Robert Helpmann, Lucette Aldous, and the Australian Ballet. It was restored and released on a Kultur DVD. Orchestrations were done by John Lanchbery, who also conducted, and he at times also had to make interpolations of additional music created by himself. Bonus tracks document how the film was made. A 9-minute clip of Nureyev’s version, here featuring Sylvie Guillem as Kitri. A brief clip that shows the Spanish style in group dance. A delightful performance of the finale of Act I, Royal Ballet with Marianela Nunez and Carlos Acosta. For the excellent full performance by the Royal Ballet and these two stunning dancers, there is a 2013 Opus Arte DVD. One viewer commented: “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life!” The choreography was also by Acosta. Music arranged by Martin Yates, who also conducted the performance. All in all, a highly enjoyable DVD to watch because of its story line plus the enthusiastic and virtuosic dancing by the entire cast. Extra film includes comments by Acosta, the conductor/arranger, and others from the Royal Ballet, plus clips of some rehearsals—during which the dancers were coached in both clapping and playing castanets!

Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta (b. 1973) gave a heart-rending account of his early training and life in his 2007 autobiography No Way Home: A Dancer’s Journey from the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World (Scribner edition 2009). Among the unusual stories is of how he as a nine-year-old street break dancer was just about to spin on his head as part of his audition for ballet school that his stern father wanted him to attend precisely to get his son off the streets. Carlos was often a truant from school and would have preferred to be a soccer player,  but by the age of 16 he had won the prestigious gold medal Prix de Lausanne and it became clear what his career path could be.

Acosta’s last position after 28 years of dancing was as a principal with the Royal Ballet in London. He also choreographed ballets to acclaim and started his own company in Cuba in 2016.  Since January 2020 he has been artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. His brief bio can be found on their website: David Frost visited Carlos Acosta in Cuba in 2012. Interview reviews Acosta’s career and offers some brief clips of Acosta dancing, including his gold-medal winning performance for the Prix de Lausanne in 1990. Stephen Sackur interviewed Carlos Acosta in 2019 when he was still principal with the Royal Ballet, discussion covering many topics including classical style and the outlook for new ballets.

For a sample of Acosta’s dancing, there is a 3-disc Opus Arte DVD set titled Carlos Acosta Dances Royal Ballet Classics. These are La Fille mal gardée, Romeo and Juliet, and Don Quixote. Additionally, a google search for “Carlos Acosta videos”  turns up many brief You Tube clips of his other performances.

And there is a 2007 Visual Artists International DVD with a 1978 Bolshoi performance that was shown in HD in many movie theaters. Includes scenes from 1964 performance with Plisetskaya and Liepa.


Ludwig Minkus, Don Quixote piano reduction edited and introduced by Robert Ignatius Letellier (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2010).  Reprinted from the 1892 Moscow edition. Index identifies interpolations of music by composers other than Minkus: Vasily Solov’yev Sedoy for “Carmencita” and Sailor’s Jig, Reinhold Glière for the dance of Espada, Anton Simon for Spanish dance, all for scene 2; Valery Zhelobinsky for the gypsy dance in scene 3; Ricardo Drigo for the Queen of the Dryad’s variation in scene 4; Anton Simon’s variation for Dulcinea/Kitri also in scene 4; and Eduard Napravnik for the fandango in scene 6; and Drigo for second soloist in scene 6.

For a detailed comparison of the earlier Russian scenarios, see Robert Ignatius Letellier, The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008) pp. 86-102. For an extremely detailed musical analysis with notated excerpts, see pp. 214-77.

For performance details about the scores and order of various scenes of Don Quixote, see Matthew Naughtin: Ballet Music: A Handbook, pp. 198-208.

The plot for the ballet was drawn from the 16th century novel by Miguel de Cervantes. A recent translation by Edith Grossman is available in Ecco paperback (New York: Harper Collins first edition 2001). The saga of Basilio, in the original not a barber but a shepherd, appears pp. 577-596. The love of his life is named Quiteria, and the wealthy would-be husband, Camacho. As in the ballet, Basilio feigns a deadly stabbing, begs for death-bed marriage, then recovers and leaves joyfully with his now legal wife after Don Quixote threatens dissenters by brandishing his lance and giving a speech backing true love.

The novel introduces an enormous feast for the intended wedding hosted by the wealthy man, but most interesting are the descriptions by Cervantes of the music and dances—including a sword dance by 24 young men; a group dance by beautiful teen-aged “maidens” accompanied by a bagpipe; and what the author calls “an ingenious dance, the kind that is called a spoken dance” with mythological characters and nymphs. The “sweet, confused sounds of various instruments” were provided by flutes, tambors, psalteries, flageolets, tambourines, and timbrels.

Witness to the ongoing popularity of Don Quixote with music by Minkus were the Kennedy Center performances given by American Ballet Theatre in April 2022. The ballet version was staged by retiring artistic director Kevin McKenzie along with Susan Jones, based on choreographic traditions from Petipa and Gorsky. The musical score was arranged by ABT’s principal conductor Jack Everly. Reviewing the performances in the Washington Post, Sarah L. Kaufman called everything “exhiliarating.”

The Three-Cornered Hat

Here is another simple story with a foppish would-be lover, resulting in an entertaining dance. The libretto by Gregorio Martínez Sierra was based on a play by the poet Pedro Antonio de Alarco. It was choreographed by Léonide Massine for  Diaghilev’s  Ballets  Russes  and  premiered  in  Madrid  in 1917, with music scored for chamber orchestra by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). After the war was over, Falla redid the score for full orchestra and the ballet had its London premiere in 1919 with Ernest Ansermet conducting.

The music had been commissioned from Manuel de Falla by Diaghilev.  Costumes and sets were by Picasso, giving the ballet a particular abstract quality. It can seem sort of timeless despite the 18th-century three-cornered hat  worn by the governor who thinks he is trying to seduce a miller’s wife. He doesn’t succeed and is made fun of by all the neighbors instead (because actually the miller and his wife had been playing a trick on the governor).  That’s the basic plot—well, perhaps with a few more details here and there, like the miller being arrested on false charges ostensibly to get him out of the way, and the governor being pushed into the river and getting his clothes all wet.  The choreographer himself originally performed the lead role of the miller, and the part of the miller’s wife was originally danced by Tamara Karsavina.

It was the composer Igor Stravinsky who suggested that Diaghilev and  Massine, on a trip to Spain, go meet the composer Manuel de Falla. They did. Moreover Massine filmed a leading flamenco dancer, Félix Fernández García, and from him learned the basics of how to dance in that style. Diaghilev and Massine also heard a concert performance of one of Falla’s works for chamber orchestra, translated: The Magistrate and the Miller. This prompted Diaghilev to have the composer expand the piece into a ballet score. The result: El Sombrero de Tres Picos, or The Three-Cornered Hat, or Le Tricorne.

In preparing to create his choreography, Massine studied paintings by El Greco, Goya, and Valesquez. Additionally he felt that through witnessing bullfighting, he came to  understand the ferocity in dances such as the farruca, commenting: “I realized that it was essentially the same elements in the Spanish temperament which had produced both their dances and their national sport.”

Inspired by his experiences in Spain, Massine used authentic flavors of fandango, farruca, jota, and flamenco dance, but added his own special classical style. The result was widely considered to be the choreographer’s best ballet, and it continues to be revived.

performances captured

It is fascinating to compare three performances that can be seen on film: one by the Paris Opera Ballet, with sets and costumes by Picasso, restaged by Lorca Massine, and with David Coleman conducting. Listening for what was specifically “Spanish” in the full orchestra score, we can hear characteristic fast repeated notes, triplet rhythms, trumpet announcements, strong accents; a mezzo-soprano singing a few passionate words—also evoking a caged bird; and just a certain flavor that can be easily recognized. In the dance, there are poses with head turned, hand on hip; or hands over the head. Then there are the swirling of skirts, the pantomime of bullfighting,  and sharp sudden moves.

A contrasting performance to enjoy is a much more modestly staged one (with few sets necessary), featuring Antonio Márquez and his company from Spain wearing traditional clothing rather than costumes, and with character shoes and boots that make it possible for the audience to hear the fantastic rhythms being rapped out in an exciting way. The dancers also clap sharply with the orchestra accents at certain points, and add further sounds to the performance with their castanets. All this is tightly bound to an engaging orchestral performance right behind the dancers, played strongly by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at a Prom concert conducted by Juanjo Mena.  The Falla score comes exceptionally alive in this rendition, and the combined performance is quite riveting. You don’t have to ponder about what is “Spanish.”

An interesting combined look was available in a 1997 filming of the Antonio Márquez company but this time onstage in Madrid with the Picasso sets, and though you could see the boots and character shoes at work, the sounds were barely transmitted. But the choreography was all there.

For an introduction to just the music, the CD listed below on the Musically Speaking series is highly recommended. It includes recordings of the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Gerard Schwarz performing Manuel de Falla’s orchestral work Nights in the Gardens of Spain as well as the full musical score of The Three-Cornered Hat. Additionally there is a second disc with the conductor verbally introducing aspects of the music and of the composer’s life, with liner notes by Paul Schiavo. Gerard Schwarz begins by commenting: “Whenever I think of Spain, the first composer I think of is Manuel de Falla.” Calling him the foremost Spanish composer of the 20th century, the conductor felt that “Falla’s music mirrors the spirit of Spain.” This in contrast to what he called the “musical souvenirs” written by French composers!

the composer

As far as highlights of Manuel de Falla’s  life are concerned, here are a few facts: he was born in Cadiz in 1876 and had his early instruction on the piano from his mother. After the family had moved to Madrid, Falla entered the Royal Conservatory there, at the age of 20. He was greatly influenced by the composer/researcher Filipe Pedrell, who had been delving into the traditional folk music of Spain. As the writer Paul Schiavo observed in his liner notes, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588:

Physically and politically isolated, Spain developed a folk culture unlike any other in Europe. Moorish influences combined with those of Spain’s large gypsy population to produce music and dance forms that seemed exotic to the rest of Europe. The sounds of the guitar, of flamenco rhythms and of cante jondo, the impassioned gypsy vocal improvisations stylistically descended from Moorish music—all these and more combined to produce a folk music that is essentially and unmistakably Spanish.

Following his formal musical studies and his informal exposure to Spanish performers, Falla spent seven years in Paris, where he earned a sparse living by playing piano for dance groups and theaters. Importantly, however, he met the composers Debussy and Ravel and imbibed a great deal about what musicologists now label “Impressionistic” styles of orchestration, which could be characterized as mainly very rich and lush.

The first world war prompted Falla’s return to Spain, where in 1915 he wrote his ballet score for El Amor Brujo, which was commissioned as a gypsy piece by the flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio. It became quite famous internationally in 1928 when the dancer known simply as La Argentina toured it in performance. Concert audiences today quickly recognize an excerpt: the “Ritual Fire Dance,” which is often heard in concert performances.

In 1919 both the composer’s parents died, and with his sister he moved to Granada (near the Alhambra), living a quiet life until 1939 when he was invited to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Frail health kept Falla there until he passed away in 1946, leaving an unfinished opera that he had been working on.

musical details

Pinpointing some specific effects that make Falla’s music evoke Spain, conductor Gerard Schwarz suggested the following: imitation of guitars by using pizzicato (plucking) in the strings as well as quivering tremolos and bowing next to the bridge; scoring high winds to imitate gypsy flutes; punctuating chords in the manner of flamenco guitar players; favoring the ancient Phrygian modes instead of later major and minor scales; and the embellishments known as “cante jundo” which was a gypsy style that could be translated “deep song.”

Perhaps most important here, is the fact that Falla’s music and the dancers themselves presented traditional dances in The Three Cornered Hat—including the seguidilla, the farruca, the fandango, and the jota. (See links for filmed examples by traditional dancers!)

notes and explorations:

DVD: Paris Opera Ballet version with the Picasso costumes and backdrop give a good idea of what the original Diaghilev performances were like. DVD titled Picasso and Dance and includes not only The Three-Cornered Hat but also Le Train Bleu. On Kultur.

online performances: The 2013 Prom concert performance of The Three-Cornered Hat by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena, with dancers at the front of the stage. Very exciting! The complete ballet, offers flamenco flair, but follows Massine choreography. Dancers are the Antonio Márquez company from Spain. The dancers’ foot stomping is allowed to be heard as part of the music. No fancy stage setting, but appropriate costumes add to the totality. 43 minutes.

Again, Antonio Márquez and company, but this time onstage, with the National Orchestra of Spain, and backdrops by Picasso, in a 1997 filming. For now, the You Tube mounting has just been taken down. Something to look for in the future. This is very exciting: an audio performance by Ernest Ansermet (who led the premiere) conducting the Orchestre de la Suisee Romande, while the score passes automatically in front of you! With the important parts highlighted in light grey so you can see what is standing out through your ears. A lovely performance by the orchestra, and clear score. This is a purely orchestral performance, in video, by the Barcelona Orchestra, so you get a genuine Spanish style! Nice if you want to see which instruments are playing at any particular moment.


The London Symphony Orchestra made a recording conducted by Gerard Schwarz, of excerpts of The Three-Cornered Hat plus Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, on the “Musically Speaking” label, with as a bonus, the conductor speaking about the works. Very highly recommended. Delos, 1987.


Writing in 1942, the critic Edwin Denby suggested:

Three-Cornered Hat remains one of Massine’s masterpieces as a choreographer and one of his best parade numbers….He almost alone of ballet dancers seemed formerly to have something of the edge of the great Spanish dancers, something of their brilliant attack and unpredictable rhythm. Spanish dancing at its best is ‘hot’ in the jazz sense. But it can be argued that ballet Spanish needn’t be ‘hot,’ since its own non-Spanish rhythm is its inherent characteristic.”  [Dance Writings, p. 113.]

The comment from Massine is as quoted in Leslie Norton: Léonide Massine and the 20th Century Ballet , p. 66. The book’s coverage of the ballet is on pp. 61-68.

traditional dances: For a look at a traditional seguidilla performed by Grupo Folklórico Abuela Santa Ana, Spain, 2011.

For an absolutely fascinating performance of the farruca: Vida Peral taught this traditional male dance to 10 men, who perform first in unison and then one by one in flamboyant individualized solos, to the clapping of the others. Musicians are onstage for opening and closing group sections. Notice suggestion of matador capes at the end. Filmed in Amsterdam in 2013. Just splendid! For information about flamenco dancer/teacher.  An informal demonstration of the couple fandango dance filmed in Colombia with two beautiful barefoot dancers and a nice verbal introduction (with translation) of what they will be doing.  La Calandria, group of men and women in traditional dress, danced a jota as part of the 2011 fiesta in Torre del Compte. Live musicians, but also notice dancers also play castanets. Notice tempo gets faster!

Picasso’s stage curtain:

For non-New Yorkers, it may come as quite a surprise to learn that for 55 years, Picasso’s stage curtain for this ballet hung in the Four Seasons restaurant! It was not removed until 2014, amid much controversy and concern for the fabric, and moved to the New York Historical Society. For a report, here is a link, followed by another link to images of the art itself:

El Amor Brujo  Just the Ritual Fire Dance; Ballet Alhambra. The ballet El Amor Brujo, (Love, the Sorcerer) part 1 only. A 1959 film with Massine himself performing the part of the spectre. Ends with Ritual Fire Dance. Choreography, Martinez Sierra. part 2. An absolutely beautiful Spanish style pas-de-deux. Tense story! Gypsy woman’s lover was killed in a fight and he pursues her as a spectre. Her new lover Carmelo devises a plot that lures the dead one away, and so he can marry Candelas. Celebration by villagers. Singers. Male dance group stupendous.

A Spanish Composer in America

It is doubtful that any other composer today could evoke the spirit of Spain in music more brilliantly than Carlos Surinach. As a composer writing in the Spanish idiom, he is one of the most peculiarly adroit that sunbaked land has ever produced.

—Oliver Daniel, 1958

The composer Carlos Surinach (b. Barcelona, 1915; d. New Haven CT in 1997) said that while growing up and studying music, he somehow felt that he would like to be the inheritor of Manuel de Falla’s tradition in respect to Spanish  classical music and dance. Instead, after he came to the United States in 1951, he found himself collaborating with many leading modern dance choreographers. And as one of them—none other than Martha Graham—told him: “I don’t want you to think it’s the Spanish angle that makes me like you; it’s the theatricality!” Yet upon hearing even a few openings of his many large orchestral or chamber works, the listener is apt to recognize that it is—ah, yes: Spanish! And indeed, though by 1972 he had long been in the United States, in recognition of his work, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of Isabelle of Castile.

Surinach’s earlier experiences in Spain had included being taught the piano by his mother and attending the Barcelona Conservatory. Later on he was appointed conductor of the Barcelona Philharmonic Orchestra, also performing as a pianist and conducting opera. As his career unfolded, among his purely orchestral works were a number with Spanish titles and flavors: Sinfonietta Flamenca, Fandango, Paens and Dances of Heathen Iberia, and Flamenco Meditations.

Citing Cervantes, Surinach liked to suggest: “If you’re Italian, you sing. If you’re German, you play an instrument. But if you’re Spanish, you start dancing right after you’re born.”  The composer himself did not study dancing, but as a boy of 12 or 14 in Barcelona, he was taken to the ballet by his mother. Surinach especially recalled seeing Anna Pavlova, and the Diaghilev company performing Petrouchka, Les Sylphides,and Spectre de la Rose.

The first ballet for which Carlos Surinach wrote his own music was for Paul Goubé, from the Opera Comique in Paris. Titled Monte Carlo, the ballet was premiered at the Coliseum in Barcelona on May 10, 1945. By 1959 the composer, settled and successful in New York City, became an American citizen, and composing for theatrical dance became an important part of his career.

The modern dance world loved the music of Carlos Surinach. His original scores for Martha Graham were Embattled Garden (an amusing story about Eve, Adam, and Adam’s first wife Lilith); Acrobats of God (a musically colorful and dramatically good-humored treatment of a choreographer and her dancers, with Graham herself performing among the cast); and The Owl and the Pussy Cat (based on the light-hearted poem by Edward Lear). The composer was particularly tickled to recall it was his idea to write a tango for the pig who marries the owl and the pussy cat! And reminiscing in 1986, Carlos Surinach was quite sure (because of the company touring) that by then there had been over 1,000 performances of the Martha Graham works that included his music.

For Paul Taylor, Surinach wrote an original score for Agathe’s Tale in 1967. The choreographer had been listening to recordings of medieval music and had those sounds of ancient instruments in his mind, but Surinach, thinking as a practical matter, gave him modern instruments so the piece could be played anywhere. Taylor had given Surinach an outline on paper of what he wanted—and the resulting collaborative theatrical work became #43 in the company repertoire.

 For Pearl Lang’s dance titled Apasionada, the extant music of Surinach’s Concertino for Piano, Strings, and Cymbals was used, and the composer conducted the premiere. For John Butler’s dance La Sibila, the extant Concerto for Piano, Strings, and Cymbals was used (also for a ballet in Israel called Celebrants). But Surinach wrote a special score for Butler’s David and Bathsheba (which was televised with Carmen de Lavallade portraying Bathsheba).

The Spanish flavor was deliberately sought by some.  For example, Alvin Ailey spoke to the composer about how he would like to do a dance based on Garcia Lorca’s The House Bernarda Alba, for the Joffrey Ballet. Surinach suggested that two of his works might be linked together for Ailey’s Feast of Ashes. The two were Ritmo Jondo and Doppio Concertino.  The first had been performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as a concert work. The choreographer Doris Humphrey heard it and asked the composer if he could revise it somewhat—which he did, for her Deep Rhythm choreographed for the José Limón Dance Company (and later rearranged by Limón). Feast of Ashes became quite a success, with over 500 performances by the Joffrey Ballet, and more subsequently when presented by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Speaking with radio station WQXR’s Robert Sherman, the composer disavowed “authentic” Spanish passages:

I write what I have in mind and try to make a piece entertaining. There may be an illusion of authenticity, but that’s not what I’m concerned about. Ritmo Jondo, for instance, is obviously inspired by flamenco dances, and it sounds very Spanish, but it has not a trace of actual gypsy music.

What are some of the things that made Surinach’s music seem both Spanish in flavor and so full of riveting theatricality?  To point out a few aspects: in Ritmo Jondo there is his use of percussion and xylophone as well as hand-clapping; there is that trumpet announcement; there are those melodic clarinet flourishes, and piano sections with fast repeated notes. There is in his music often driving kinetic rhythm—sometimes as in the second movement of Doppio Concertino all on one pitch, played by trumpet. At times there will be relentless use of ostinato (underlying short repeated patterns).  There are percussive group punctuating chords in the midst of interesting wandering melodies written very idiomatically for respective instrumental solos (especially in this piece, a double concerto for piano and violin). The dissonances also make for tension and a sense of moving forward, and the composer’s choice of modal scales creates a certain atmosphere to begin with.

After the composer’s death, an excellent concert and symposium about his dance music was held in New York City. Among those who spoke about dancing to Surinach’s music was Carmen de Lavallade (who had starred in John Butler’s telecast modern dance David and Bath-Sheba with a score by Surinach).  She and others who had worked directly with the composer spoke of his elegance, his consideration for the dancers—and above all, his skill in providing sounds that had kinetic impact. (See link below for recordings of the proceedings.)

notes and explorations:

The opening quotation by Oliver Daniel was from his article in The Saturday Review of December 6, 1958.

online dance performances: A tantalizing 4-minute clip of Embattled Garden rehearsal.  Enough to show this is not the usual Biblical story! onstage clip. Valley Winds 2015 concert, excerpt from Carlos Surinach’s Ritmo Jondo, with Inés Arrubla in flamenco style solo dance. Brian Messler, conductor.

online music: Robert Whitney leads the Louisville Orchestra in their 1953 recording of Carlos Surinach’s Sinfonia Flamenca. Surinach’s Paens and Dances of Heathen Iberia, performed in 2012 by the Portland Youth Philharmonic under David Hattner.  Overture to Feria Magica by Carlos Surinach, performed by the Louisville Orchestra under Robert Whitney; recording released on the orchestra’s own label. Another Louisville performance: Surinach’s Melorhythmic Dramas (1966) conducted by Jorge Mester. Doppio Concertino, performed by the Bronx Arts Ensemble under Pablo Zinger. Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha plays 3 Canciones y Danzos by Carlos Surinach.  Flamenco Cyclothimia, Israel Charberg, violin; Pablo Ziinger, piano.


Three Dances by Martha Graham, on 1969 Pyramid film. The last is Acrobats of God, with the choreographer herself performing among the cast. Enjoyable to see, though an old film.  And this is the DVD of Doris Humphrey’s Ritmo Jondo.


Ritmo Jondo, Bronx Arts Ensemble, Paul Zinger both conductor and pianist. New World Records, 1996. Also includes Three Spanish Songs and Dances, Three Songs of Spain, Three Berber Songs, Tientos, Tres Cantares,  and Hollywood Carnival.

Also on New World Records, 1993, same musicians playing Doppio Concertino and other pieces: Flamenco Cyclothymia, Concerto for String Orchestra, and Piano Quartet.

On First Editions, recorded 1954, 1956, 1965, and 1967, Surinach pieces performed by the Louisvile Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney and Jorge Mester. Works included: Melorhythmic Dramas, Symphonic Variations, Feria Magica Overture, Sinfonietta Flamenca. The last two pieces were commissions from the Louisville Orchestra.

information about  Surinach:

The quotation from Robert Sherman’s writing came from his liner notes to the New World CD titled Carlos Surinach: Ritmo Jondo, performed by the Bronx Arts Ensemble. (It has other compositions with an unmistakable and gripping Spanish flavor.)

I interviewed Carlos Surinach in his Miami home on April 30, 1986, and my profile was included in Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance: Reflections on a Collaborative Art (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989) pp.36-40. He made quite a point of describing how various pieces could be used by several choreographers for their own dances. I had first met Mr. Surinach in the early 1960s when I worked in the concert music department at BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), and to this day retain my impressions of him as being such an elegant and formally courteous person, with such an expressive and distinctive voice, and a delightful sense of humor! At that time, he lived in New York City and was, in addition to his work as a composer, very active as a conductor of contemporary orchestral and chamber music.

Carlos Surinach’s BMI archival collection is housed in the New York Public Library. Additionally, he left a legacy of a commissioning program to fund the creation of new works by former winners of BMI Student Composer Awards, to be in collaboration with musical groups that have had a strong record of performing contemporary music. A panel and concert event at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, March 31, 2005, focused solely on the dance music of Carlos Surinach and modern dance in New York City.  It was both informative and riveting, with live musical performances including a concert version of Embattled Garden.  On the panel were dancers Carmen de Lavallade and Stuart Hodes. A 2016 dissertation by Robert Wahl for the University of California, titled Fleeing Franco’s Spain: Carlos Surinach and Leonardo Balada in the United States (1950-75), with brief biographies and analysis of music by these two Spanish-born composers.

A black and white film from the telecast dance David and Bathsheba choreographed by John Butler can be viewed upon request at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts. Very gripping! Kisselgoff 1978 review in The New York Times of premiere of The Owl and the Pussy Cat, performed in the Metropolitan Opera House with Liza Minelli as the narrator. If you want to see a film of Feast of Ashes, here is information. Clive Barnes 1971 review of Joffrey Ballet performance of Feast of Ashes, including a few nice comments about the music.

Acrobats of God was published in both full score and piano reduction by Associated Music Publishers. This beautiful tribute to Paul Taylor, written by Deborah Jowitt, mentions the first review she did of a Taylor work: Agathe’s Tale, which had an original score by Carlos Surinach.  Announcement of Miami Dance NOW 2016 performance of Ritmo Jondo, which had been choreographed by Doris Humphrey for José Limón’s company. brief info on Paul Goubé, choreographer for whom Surinach wrote his first ballet score.