La Fille mal gardée

Before the 1789 premiere of La Fille mal gardée (the poorly-guarded daughter), main characters of ballets and dance entertainments were most apt to be gods and goddesses, or kings and lesser nobles—but hardly “common people.” Consistent with the formal tone of courtly portrayals or powerful mythological characters, the music for early ballets was also apt to be very strong in both themes and instrumentation. Many of the set forms of court social dances were elaborated for theatrical purposes. Indeed, going back to the time of France’s Louis XIV, his main musician Jean-Baptiste Lully composed and conducted the very noblest-sounding works. The king himself was a fine dancer and participated in performances for many years.

However, as the revolutionary spirit spread around Europe, so too did a desire on the part of non-aristocratic audiences for theatrical portrayals of cheerful everyday situations on the one hand, and for a different kind of music to go along with the new ballets. Skipping ahead a bit here, in France, the “Three Glorious Days” in 1830 that ended the Bourbon monarchy also ended the Court control of the Paris Opéra, and for the first time it was run by an independent director who could be responsive to the tastes of a growing urban business and middle class.

But then surprisingly, with the rise of literary and artistic “Romanticism” especially inspired by German poets, there was also in theatrical ballet during the first half of the 19th century a passion for airy, ethereal, creatures who lived in the mists of the woods, and who were anything except “everyday” people. They weren’t even people! And they didn’t dance to strident or courtly music, but rather to sounds that were at times soft and mysterious, but ever gracious and beautiful. (However, some characters who were real country folk continued to be portrayed dancing to lively folk-style tunes and pleasant orchestral compositions.) All those mist-covered creatures and their country neighbors (“real people”) will be introduced in the essay, “Women in White.” For now, here is more about La Fille mal gardée, its peasants, and its music.

This ballet, which continues to be performed in our own times, was first presented onstage in the beautiful theater of Bordeaux, France in 1789 with choreography by Jean Dauberval (1742-1806). The music consisted of tunes that were popular at the time, and the characters were farmers, depicted theatrically in nice clean work clothes, and at harvest celebrations.

The ballet itself immediately became popular, and by 1828 one of Dauberval’s students restaged it in Paris with music arranged by the then well-known opera composer Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833). That score still retained some of the popular tunes—even some taken from Rossini operas—but Hérold composed new music as well, which began traveling the world with the dancers. The American premiere was given in 1828 in New York, and as the dance historian Lillian Moore reported, by a miraculous chance the orchestral parts survived and are now safely in the Performing Arts Library there. The famous Fanny Elssler (1810-44) danced only once in the United States, presenting La Fille mal gardée in New York in 1842 at a special benefit for the “Fund for the Relief and Support of Decayed Artists.” (Yes!)

In 1864 another new score for La Fille was written for Berlin performances by Peter Ludwig Hertel (1817-89) and this was also used in Russia. The German performances were choreographed by Paul Taglioni (1808-1884), who came from a family of illustrious dancers. (The son of the highly successful Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni, Paul was also brother to Marie Taglioni, who came to epitomize Romantic ballet after her performances in La Sylphide as choreographed by her father. More about her in another essay!)

Continuing into the 20th century, La Fille was performed by Alexandre Shiryaev, partner and ballet master for Anna Pavlova and her touring company, in 1914. The program for their appearances at the Manhattan Opera House in New York credited the production to Dauberval, but as arranged by P. Zailich. Subsequently, in 1937, Pavlova’s partner Mikhail Mordkin staged La Fille for his own touring company, in Flint, Michigan. And the famous Russian choreographer Bronislava Nijinska mounted it for the very first season of American Ballet Theatre in 1940.

Moving on, in 1960 choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton returned to the original Hérold score (which had been rediscovered by dance historian Ivor Guest) and engaged music director John Lanchbery to arrange it for the Royal Ballet in London. This version of the ballet has become immensely popular, and the word most associated with it is “brilliant.” It seems that though urban theater-goers of today no longer see real peasants, people continue to enjoy this portrayal of romanticized rural life from the 18th century, either in the theater or in the comfort of home with a well-produced DVD that features Lanchbery’s charming musical arrangement. The gentle orchestral sounds in this version always seem just right for the dances, with amusing musical punctuations that relate directly to various small dramatic touches onstage.

The story is an uncomplicated comedy. In Ashton’s production the whole ballet opens with a chorus line of hilarious chickens dancing—always sure to bring smiles to the faces of all ages. The scene is in a farm yard, obviously, and the heroine Lise goes about such chores as churning butter and spinning yarn, but more importantly, always on the look-out for her beloved young man Colas. Unfortunately, her mother wishes for her to marry the simpleton son of a  wealthier farmer (hence the mother is “guarding her daughter”).  Of course there are some obstacles along the way, but there is a happy ending, even for the simpleton son (who has a funny duet with an umbrella).  There are lovely pas de deux scenes for the two lovers, with ribbons playing a noticeable role, even as a cat’s cradle. Ribbons come in again during the community harvest dances, with a maypole, and as symbolic horse reins. There is also a flamboyant clog dance by the mother (who is portrayed by a male dancer), and the male harvesters together perform a lively stick dance.

* * *

In several written essays music director John Lanchbery told the fascinating story of how he arranged the music for Ashton. First of all, they were able to get a photocopy of the 681-page Hérold score that was in the Paris Opéra library, with 33 separate numbers. Lanchbery felt the music by Ferdinand Hérold to be “light, charming, full of melody, and very French.” Upon examining the later score by Hertel, however, he was disappointed, finding it to be far too short, and of “lamentably poor quality, the work of a hack flung together at top speed and so Teutonic as to be quite out of keeping with the story’s atmosphere.”

When the work of arranging began, Lanchbery said:

The great weakness of Hérold’s score was its lack of continuity, which I corrected to some extent by linking one number to the next wherever the action of the ballet required it, instead of having a series of disconnected pieces. But an even stronger method of knitting the work together was my frequent use of motifs for the principal characters. This “stock-in-trade” of ballet scores since the time of its inception in Adam’s Giselle was sadly lacking in Hérold (though Hertel, being post-Giselle, employed it to some extent). The material for all these motifs (with the exception of the love-pleading of Colas, which I had to write) was there in the Hérold score begging to be used, a wealth of attractively appropriate melody.

The musician goes on to describe some of the challenges of orchestration, and the fact that Hérold had used almost entirely strings. This was freshened up to include more winds and a touch of horns and percussion. Finally, he confesses, he uses a tuba solo for the simpleton’s big solo dance, though it was “strictly speaking, an anachronism, though it could perfectly well have been played on an ophicleide of the period.”

the arranger/conductor

Because his name is going to show up again and again throughout these essays, this seems a good time to introduce the London-born musician John  Lanchbery (1923-2003). For some fifty years he was outstanding as a conductor, arranger, music director, and composer for ballet, first at Sadler’s Wells; then the Royal Ballet under Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan (from 1959-72); for a few years with American Ballet Theatre; and then with the Australian Ballet. He also collaborated with other artists around the globe, including the director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson, who remarked:

If I’ve had any success with my full-length ballets, it’s due to the inspiration that Jack so brilliantly gave me with his music. When you asked him for a romantic pas de deux, something evil, something funny, or a beautiful variation of a ballerina, he knew exactly what to give you. It was total knowledge about ballet and music, love and dedication to the art coupled with an inborn talent.

As an arranger, Lanchbery knew how to make subtle changes that kept the flavor of another composer’s work intact. He knew how to utilize all the instruments of the orchestra for best theatrical effect, having studied violin since the age of eight. He received excellent training at the Royal Academy of Music, but other ingredients of his work were good humor, an innate knack, and sheer imagination. His earliest work with the Metropolitan Ballet in London required him also to play the piano for rehearsals, so he developed an understanding of what dancers need to support their movements, not only in terms of the music’s form, dynamics, melodies, tempo, and style—but also in regard to its emotional content in relation to whatever the movement combination is for the moment.

For the works covered here, John Lanchbery will be indicated as both arranger and conductor of the music on many of the DVDs. Early in his career he also did the background music for crime movies! Also for two well-known films about ballet: The Turning Point and Nijinsky. (Both now on DVD.)

For the family ballet Tales of Beatrix Potter (still available on DVD), Lanchbery both arranged older pieces and composed new music for characters such as Jeremy Frog and Pigling Bland. For human characters, he did extensive work on scores for La Fille mal gardée and La Bayadère, going back to original sources. For Frederick Ashton he delivered masterful scores for The Dream (based on music by Mendelssohn); A Month in the Country (based on Chopin); The Two Pigeons (Messager) and other favorites with audiences.

As many musicians in the field of ballet would be quick to testify, composing and conducting for ballet is not something that most other musicians can do well—or do at all. It takes a special kinetic sense, a wide knowledge of styles, and obviously a deep and empathetic understanding of how dancers move, plus enormous sensitivity to their timing moment to moment.

Furthermore, through the centuries another reason why specialists developed was simply because leading classical composers often felt that they garnered more prestige, and more financial remuneration from symphonic works and especially from opera. Even the gifted collaborative composer Adolphe Adam barely spoke of Giselle at all in his memoirs (written in French) or his other ballets. Instead, his focus and desires were mostly on opera, and because of horrible timing, also due to his financial losses related to investing in a theater.

But John Lanchbery? After his military service in World War II, in addition to his work with dancers in England, he traveled to collaborate with others in Paris, Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Houston, and even cities in Russia, Japan, and China. In 1991 his artistic accomplishments were recognized with his being awarded the Order of the British Empire.

La Fille mal gardée with Lanchbery’s arranged score continues to have performances and applauding audiences every time the chickens come out. 

Notes and explorations:

the original choreographer:

The French choreographer Jean Dauberval, who first mounted La Fille mal gardée in 1789, had been trained as a dancer at the Paris Opéra Ballet School, where he worked himself up to ballet master by 1771. He was in charge of ballets in Bordeaux starting in 1785, and deeply influenced by the teachings of Jean-Georges Noverre (see next section about Mozart), he was one of the very first choreographers to showcase dancers as ordinary people, without bulky costumes. One of his own students was the Italian dancer/choreographer Salvatore Viganò (see upcoming section on Beethoven).  

viewing performances:

The Royal Ballet has three different performances of La Fille mal gardée  available on DVD.  Most recent is from 2015 on Opus Arte label, featuring Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae, with Barry Wordsworth conducting. Other dancers are Carlos Acosta and Marianela Nunez in 2005, also on Opus Arte, with Anthony Twiner conducting. And third is a Kultur DVD filmed in 1981, starring Lesley Collier and Michael Coleman, conducted by John Lanchbery himself. All are enjoyable to see!  This is a brief clip showing rehearsal work by the Royal Ballet and comments about the ballet from the dancers.  A further inducement to see the entire DVD: the amusing clog dance. Will Tuckett as Widow Simone. John Lanchbery conducts the Vienna Symphony for the Basel Ballet’s performance of La Fille mal gardée starring Valentina Kozlova, choreographed by Heinz Spoerli. Also available on a 2006 DVD on Universal label. Other featured dancers are Chris Jensen as Colas; Otto Ris as the mother; the choreographer himself as father of the silly son, portrayed by Martin Schläpfer (who contributes some extraordinary character dances). All in all, a charming production with especially delightful segments for both women’s and men’s corps, including a scene in a field of grain, and one dance to an unseen chorus singing. The pas de deux sections are simply lovely. Music based on both Hérold and Hertel scores was arranged by Jean-Michel Damase.

Among other musical arrangements made by Lanchbery for Ashton, an Opus Arte 3-DVD set of the Royal Ballet includes André Messager’s score for The Two Pigeons, originally choreographed in 1961, conducted by Barry Wadsworth. Also in the set is The Dream, based on Shakespeare with music by Felix Mendelssohn as arranged by Lanchbery. Features Bennet Gartside as the donkey Bottom and Steven McRae as Oberon (considered one of the most difficult male roles in ballet repertoire). Conducted by Emmanuel Plasson.  Ashton’s full length ballet The Dream to Mendelssohn’s music, arranged John Lanchbery, American Ballet Theatre. Conductor, Ormsby Wilkins. Pacific Symphony Orchestra.  Insights into Frederick Ashton, program hosted by Royal Ballet’s artistic director Kevin O’Hare, 2021 program presented by the Frederick Ashton Foundation upon its 10th anniversary.  Part 2, Ashton Rediscovered, Past, Present, and Future.  Links in the Chain is an engaging film that includes voice of Frederick Ashton as well as brief clips of him actually dancing. And lots of dancers shown in performance and rehearsal, giving us samples of what it is to have different casts. Including parts of La Fille mal gardée.


Ben Stevenson’s comment on Lanchbery,  the Houston Chronicle of February 28, 2003.

For a loving tribute to John Lanchbery, from the Australian Ballet, go to: Offers information about earlier versions of La Fille mal gardée.  About the Lanchbery/Ashton version. Includes run-down of all 30 sections with specific information on the music—whether composed or arranged by Lanchbery and sources from composers Martini, Rossini, Hertel, and Donizetti.

For a detailed account of composer Ferdinand Hérold’s life and work, see  New Grove.

The quotes from John Lanchbery are from Ivor Guest, editor, La Fille mal gardée (Alton, UK: Dance Books revised republication of work originally published in 1960 by Dancing Times Ltd.) pp. 17; 18-19. The book includes essays by choreographer Frederick Ashton, music arranger John Lanchbery, and designer Osbert Lancaster, plus information on productions in America and Russia. The information about the fund for Decayed Artists is drawn from this book. Ivor Guest himself provides a lengthy essay on the history of this ballet set against the French Revolution. (Chapter 8). Chapter 7 offers an enthusiastic recollection of the version for Anna Pavlova, written by Winifred Edwards (Vera Fredova). The credits for Pavlova’s company and that of Mordkin are taken from chapter 9 (p. 79) of Lillian Moore’s essay “La Fille mal gardée in America.” And finally, Ivor Guest in chapter 11, “New Light on the Original Production” identifies at least surnames of the dancers who created the roles in Bordeaux: Lison (the daughter) was danced by the wife of the choreographer, billed as Mademoiselle Théodore; Lison’s parent, the farmer Ragotte portrayed by the male dancer M. Brochard; Colas, by M. Eugène Hus, who was also assistant ballet-master. Together John Lanchbery and Ivor Guest also wrote an article on “The Scores of La Fille mal gardée” in Theatre Research, Vol. III (1961) pp.32-42, 121-134, 191-204.

Mozart’s Little Nothings

In music history books, why don’t we see the big names in classical music as composers for ballets? Why weren’t Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms up there listed in the printed theatrical programs of their times?

Well, though Bach wrote many instrumental suites with movements based on court dance forms, yet his were probably intended more for listening. And though a number of modern choreographers have used Bach’s music for setting new works, it seems that this composer did not write a theatrical ballet. As for Brahms, though he for a time earned a little money playing in cafes where people danced, and though he composed wonderful Hungarian dances, and though modern choreographers such as Balanchine have set wonderful abstract ballets to his waltzes—again, it seems he did not write for the stage. But Beethoven? Yes: he wrote two scores for ballet that will be described a little later.

And Mozart? Well, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) was disappointed by what happened with his ballet score for Les Petits Riens (literally The Little Nothings). He had traveled from Salzburg to Paris in 1778 hoping to achieve a commission for an opera, when the choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre enlisted him to compose some music for a short ballet. The 22-year old Mozart thought this might be a good step towards later securing arrangements for composing an opera.

Les Petits Riens was to be a brief ballet presented (as had long been the custom) between the acts of an opera. But come the performance, Mozart’s name was not even announced or on the program; he was paid nothing for his lovely orchestral pieces; and there were six movements by other composers added without his consultation.

The young composer did not achieve any commission for an opera. On top of that, he had a more dire reason to be distressed, because his mother (who had accompanied him to Paris) died just a few weeks later. Mozart returned despondent to his father in Salzburg. After six performances (which were enjoyed by the audiences), this “little nothing” was in fact forgotten for nearly a century, the score believed lost until discovered in the Paris Opéra’s library in 1872.

But Mozart’s music is charming, with an overture plus twelve dances ranging from adagio to allegro in tempo, and including several gavottes and a pantomime, altogether lasting about 21 minutes (without the movements by other composers). The score called for double winds: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets; plus timpani and strings.

The ballet consists of a set of brief unrelated scenes, really a bit of fluff.

First, Cupid is asleep on a table, but hides underneath it when some men and women enter and start to play cards. However, Cupid cannot contain himself and teases the people, who catch him in a net and put him in a bird cage. In the second scene, there is a game of blindman’s buff. In the last scene, Cupid convinces a shepherdess to dress as a male shepherd and flirt with two shepherdesses—who promptly both fall in love with “him,” only to be disillusioned when the purported shepherd shows off her bosom. In the original Paris performances, this part apparently evoked calls of “bis,” meaning “again” from some members of the audience! As the ballet ended, lovers who were previously out of sorts got reunited, and those who had no lovers found some.

Noverre had cast some leading dancers of the time in the roles. So despite the lack of publicity for the composer, Les Petits Riens was counted as a success.  This little ballet really was one of the last of what we call Classical style theatrical musical presentations. Yet the dancing and costumes in the Mozart/Noverre scenes may have looked closer to Baroque dance than to La Fille mal gardée.

Apparently Mozart wrote another ballet, Le forgeron travaille, about a blacksmith and his wife, but unfortunately, what have survived are only manuscript sketches, with Mozart’s stage directions.

Theater-goers are not likely to see Les Petits Riens staged today. Some unusual opportunities were offered a few years ago when Catherine Turocy and the New York Baroque Dance Company presented it as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. The dancers wore 18th century costumes and had the special accompaniment provided by the Concert Royal—which uses period instruments and tuning that together give a mellower sound than we are used to with modern orchestras. (See notes for the company’s website.)

Peter Martins also used Mozart’s score but set his own choreography (not trying to be historical in style) for the New York City Ballet. For the most part, however, lacking live performances, people must be content with just hearing Les Petits Riens on CDs.

So that’s the story of Mozart’s stand-alone ballet music. However, there is a great deal more to be explored about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the dance in his life and creative work.

ballroom dances

Probably one of the most popular images of Mozart is the 1763 portrait by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni, showing the already celebrated prodigy standing in front of a keyboard, elegantly dressed, smiling confidently. Yet especially after his family moved into a former dance master’s house in Salzburg, the young Mozart was also apt to be not the one making music, but among those on the dance floor, since his family did host some private ball gatherings. He enjoyed dancing immensely, and later on as a young man frequented both public and private ballroom gatherings, especially when he was located in Vienna—apparently (as indicated in his letters to his family) being rather particular about the dance abilities of the young women whom he was willing to partner. Upon one occasion later on, he and his wife Constanze hosted a ball in empty rooms next to their apartment—from 6 p.m. until 7 a.m.!

Toward the end of the composer’s short life, when no longer an admired prodigy, he lacked a substantial court appointment that might have guaranteed him and his family a dependable income. However, one position he did hold was as chamber composer to Emperor Joseph II, with a salary of 800 gulden (compared to the 2,000 paid to his predecessor Gluck). His duties consisted entirely of composing ballroom dances to be played by orchestras. Consider, for example, this listing of  dances  that Mozart wrote in his last year. (The K. stands for the entries in the chronological catalog of Mozart’s works assembled by Ludwig Köchel in 1862.)

6 menuets, K. 599
6 German dances K. 600
4 menuets and 4 German dances, K. 601
2 contredances, K. 603
2 menuets, K. 604
2 German dances, K. 605
contredance, K. 610
German dance, K. 611

These are interesting since they are among Mozart’s most mature works. However, there are some 200 dances in total that he composed over his lifetime.

As this short list suggests, the most popular ballroom dances in Vienna were the aristocratic menuet, the more lively German dance (related to folk ländler and the waltzes to come), and the contredanses (related to the English country dances of the 17th century). The instrumental combination that Mozart most used called for double winds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons) plus 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings—without violas. The omission of violas was a very normal custom then for ballroom dance music. Additionally, sometimes Mozart would add touches of sleigh bells or a piccolo imitating birdsong or a hurdy-gurdy to surprise and please the dancers—touches he very likely learned from his father. (See endnotes about Leopold Mozart’s peasant wedding and sleigh bell entertainments for Carnival.)

There were also a few times when Wolfgang Mozart performed as a pantomime dancer at balls himself. For one account, the music historian Bruno Nettl translated a letter that Mozart wrote to his father in 1783:

On the Monday before Ash-Wednesday, we performed our masquerade at the ball. It consisted of a pantomime which took up half an hour during the intermission. My sister in law was the Columbine, I played the Harlequin, my brother in law was Pierrot, an old dancing master (Merk) had the role of Pantalon, a painter (Grassi) was “Dottore Graziano.” Both the invention of the pantomime and the music were from my pen. The dancing master was kind enough to drill us and I may tell you that we played quite prettily. I enclose the announcement which was distributed by a masked person, disguised as a postman among the masked participants.

It would be amusing to see what the composer looked like in his Harlequin portrayal.  We will never know, but six years later Mozart’s brother-in-law Joseph Lange started a portrait that immortalizes what the composer looked like in daily life. However, of course it is the body of written music that truly immortalizes Mozart. That includes 41 symphonies, 24 string quartets, 21 piano concertos, 17 masses, 5 violin concertos, concertos for clarinet and other winds, chamber music for winds, solo sonatas for piano, sonatas for violin and piano…and more! Aside from his little ballet and the short pieces intended for ballroom dances, there are many movements in Mozart’s concert works that are based on dance forms, intended not for dancing, but rather for listening. For example, some of his symphonies and chamber works have a menuet as the third movement.

Then there are dance sections in Mozart’s operas. Perhaps the most notable is the scene from Don Giovanni in which an aristocratic menuet  in 3/4  meter is being danced by upper-class characters, while simultaneously  others perform a social contredance in 2/4  time, and a peasant dance in 3/8 is seen. And each of the three dances with their own little orchestra playing simultaneously! This scene is often cited as both a visual and musical tour-de-force.


Mozart’s 1781 opera Idomeneo will be described at some length here, not only because it is unique among his operas in having a substantial suite of dances added at the end, but also because there is a contemporary filmed production that includes costumed dance in the entire opera, very effectively enlarging upon the dramatic story itself.

As already noted in regard to Gluck’s operas, it was customary then to add a dance at the very end (which may or may not have had any relation to the story of the opera). And so in Mozart’s early Idomeneo, the end  was originally intended to be a separate dance performance. The opera, with an Italian libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco after Antoine Danchet’s Idomenée, was premiered in Munich with its ballet. In recent performances the ballet is usually omitted.  But to cite the historian Bruno Nettl about Idomeneo: “Its ballet music, surely among the best of Mozart’s compositions, should be heard more frequently.”

One modern performance which not only includes the final ballet but also incorporates dance importantly at dramatic points in the story is one captured for DVD from the 2008 Styriarte Festival staging in Graz under the direction of the late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his son Philipp. Soloists from the Zurich Ballet perform choreography set by Heinz Spoerli. (See the endnotes.)

In this presentation, the elder Harnoncourt (well-known for performances of early music) starts his orchestra, the Concentus Musicus Wien, playing the powerful sounds of Mozart’s overture.  This purely musical opening is used to present a back story to the opera, as silhouetted dancers enter and simulate the battle between Greeks and Trojans. Blue-skinned Neptune (god of the ocean) then enters as soloist, and with other male dancers gives a portent of the ship disaster, and the war’s aftermath of Trojans being taken prisoner as slaves. Only then does the opera proper begin, with the captured Trojan princess Ilia lamenting the loss of her father and brothers in the war—and also, alas, the fact that she loves Idamente, son of the enemy king Idomeneo.

Meanwhile, at the coast, Idamente the prince laments the loss of his father in a reported shipwreck, only to discover him alive. The king, who dares not speak of it, had made a deal with Neptune that if he were to survive the shipwreck, he would sacrifice the first person he met. Thus the tragedy is set up (similar to the Biblical story of Jephtha).

Back in town, the chorus members all in plain dark grey robes portray returning Greeks reuniting with their families. But instead of having the singers just stand there on the side, the directors simultaneously brought on more blue-skinned male dancers and Neptune himself, as a reminder to the audience of what had happened at sea—while the chorus sings “Let Neptune be honored.” Two dancing couples also enhance the words being sung, about times when the waters are calm. (And perhaps the sparkly-clad two women can be understood as a reference to the choral mention of nymphs.) Finally, a bloodied male ceremoniously brings in the head of a sacrificed bull. So the ballet choreography really serves to add another continuing dimension to the opera.

In the second act, a delightful musical touch was added by having the instrumentalists who play natural horn, historic oboe, wooden flute, and bassoon all come onstage and accompany Ilia as she sweetly sings to the king about how she feels Crete is now her home. She is cheerful and obviously does not yet know that the king and his old teacher decided that the best way out of the deal with Neptune is to send the prince far away with Elettra—who soon appears in alluring dress, large hat, and with multiple suitcases ready for the journey, already plotting how to capture Idamente’s love.

But suddenly the backdrop turns shades of green, and weaving through the citizens of Crete who are gathered to say farewell, there appears a monster—in this case, portrayed by a conglomerate of individual dancers with heads covered as if by camouflaged second skins. Nobody leaves Crete. Instead, as Neptune whips up the sea and the monster starts killing people, the citizens huddle and ask “Who is the cause of all this?” Idomeneo confesses that he alone is the culprit, but he does not explain how or why.

The last act begins with a respite from all the calamities as Ilia, alone in a field, sings to the flowers about her love for Idamente—who appears and announces he is going to fight the monster, wander alone and seek death for himself. The princess persuades him to do otherwise, and they discover that each truly loves the other. Enter Idomeneo and Elettra, and all four sing in a quartet of various despair.

Things get first better because the prince does indeed kill the monster, then worse because the populace and the prince are all convinced that the promised sacrifice to Neptune must take place. Ilia rushes in to offer herself instead. Just in the nick of time, a deep voice offstage announces that love is causing the gods to bestow mercy: Idomeneo must abdicate; Idamente must become king and marry Ilia—and the professional soloists from the Zurich Ballet must all don modest modern white apparel and perform to the ballet music specially composed by Mozart as celebration for a happy ending!

Mozart’s suite begins with a vigorous chaconne—an old form (structured on a repeated or “ground” bass) that had become a traditional way to end operas in France. Mozart’s chaconne might be considered more of a rondo because the repeated melody is usually high, with sections of different material interspersed. At the beginning and whenever the strong main theme recurs, a group of men dancers in plain white shirts and leisure pants are onstage, at times linking some repeated movement patterns with the repeated musical phrases. Their movements are vigorous, including lifting each other. The Neptune soloist (now in white, as are all the dancers at this point) has several bravura solos, and in quieter moments, two couples dance.

The initial chaconne movement ends quietly, leading directly into a Larghetto choreographed as a pas de deux. This in turn leads directly into a reprise of the chaconne, beginning with another solo for the lead male dancer. A dolce (“sweet”) section is heard while the couples dance, and when the music resumes being loud, the male soloist resumes his part as well, joined in a Largo section by two other men. Another couple section; another male solo raises his arms summoning (as had Neptune previously) all the men. Now in white, they repeat certain swaggering movements with hands on hips to remind us of how Neptune’s retinue had danced previously. As the music keeps swelling, the entire cast gathers, all wearing celebratory smiles, with the former Neptune soloist centerstage.  A loud, grand finale!

In the published score of Mozart’s ballet suite for Idomeneo, there are three more movements, but it is understandable why these were omitted in the 2008 Graz performance, for they might seem somewhat of an anticlimax: a passepied with quiet sections in minor mode; a gavotte marked p (p = piano= soft); and a passacaille starting off sotto voce (literally “under the voice” or very quiet) progressing again to an even quieter dolce ending. This would have given a subdued finish after so much tension in the opera.

This was the only opera for which Mozart wrote such a finale—marking his first great operatic success. And looking back historically, Nikolaus Harnoncourt observed: “Mozart lost his heart to this opera.”

Indeed, though Idomeneo did not have many full performances during Mozart’s lifetime, to be able to compose more operas was among the strongest desires of his heart. Here is a list of what he was able to accomplish theatrically after Idomeneo:

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, 1782
The Marriage of Figaro, 1786
Don Giovanni, 1787
Cosi fan tutte, 1790
La Clemenza di Tito, 1791
The Magic Flute, premiered September 1791 (and the composer died in December )

None of these subsequent operas had a final ballet suite. Some of the dance sections within Mozart’s operas simply provide local color to help establish a background or location. And in some moments when there are many people onstage, the hustle and bustle may be described more as choreographed movement rather than dance. However, one scene in The Marriage of Figaro has a real fandango, and that presents a propitious moment for Susanna the maid to pass a false love note to the Count (part of the plan with the Countess to shame the unfaithful Count).

Obviously because of the theatrical expenses and so many people involved in operas, Mozart always had to wait for commissions. Even though he  managed to present concerts of his own symphonies and concertos, he needed to be concerned with finances. He and his wife Constanze had six children (only two of whom survived to grow up); the two parents also dealt with various health conditions; and Vienna was not an inexpensive place to live. Moreover, only a small proportion of Mozart’s music was published during his lifetime (when there were no copyrights or performance rights).

After Mozart’s death in 1791, his wife Constanze was able to arrange for publication of many works, and she also astutely kept the original manuscripts, which over time became very valuable. Consequently, along with a small pension from the Emperor, she was able to take care of the two surviving sons (the older one then age 7 years, the younger only 5 months) until she was remarried in 1809, to Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, a Danish diplomat who had even before that lived with the family, became a loving father to Constanze’s two sons, and embarked on writing a respectful biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, published in 1829 (three years after Nissen’s own death).

Mark Morris and Mozart Dances

To see theatrical dance performed to Mozart’s music on a full-length, grand scale, the world would have to wait a long time, until it became generally acceptable to dance to classical concert music. Mozart’s works often were considered somehow “too holy” to be used by choreographers. But among the outstanding ballets that were set to music by this composer was George Balanchine’s Mozartiana, an orchestral suite of music by Mozart, arranged by Tchaikovsky.

A landmark use of Mozart’s music for theatrical dance was the full evening performance of Mozart Dances choreographed by Mark Morris. Performed by his company on the stage of the New York State Theater, it was filmed and telecast in a 2007 PBS program in their series Live from Lincoln Center. The dance was aurally partnered by three piano works performed by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under Louis Langrée, featuring piano soloists Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki. The pieces were Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K. 413; the Sonata in D major for two pianos, K. 448; and the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K. 595. This stunning work has not been released on DVD, but there are several very brief excerpts that can be viewed on You Tube.

In 2016 The New York Times celebrated yet another performance of this choreographic work (which had toured around the world) with a bold headline over Alastair Macaulay’s review: “Choreographers Should Stay Away From Mozart.  Except Mark Morris.”  The article then began:

Throughout “Mozart Dances,” Mark Morris emerges as the most artfully musical choreographer alive. He has so many resources, devices and qualities with which to respond to a score: steps, gestures, patterns, fantasy, charm, humor. Most choreographers should steer clear of Mozart (Haydn and Beethoven, too) because the work can make the dances look crude. But Mr. Morris lets us know (boy does he let us know) how keenly aware he is of the many aural layers here, and the subtle relationship between details and the overall architecture.

Uwe Scholz and the Great Mass

Finally, for a totally different modern ballet, set to sacred music by Mozart, one could probably not find one with more profoundly emotional impact than The Great Mass, choreographed in 1998 by the late Uwe Scholz (1958-2004) and performed by the Leipzig Ballet. It can be seen on a DVD filmed in 2005 in memoriam. (Also online. See endnotes.)

The German dancer/choreographer Uwe Scholz studied first under Marcia Haydée, then on scholarship at the School of American Ballet. Upon finishing his studies, he joined the Stuttgart Ballet, then at age 26 becoming director of the Zurich Ballet for six years. Then finally he directed the Leipzig Ballet from 1991 until 2004. His total output as a choreographer may have numbered as many as 100 dances!

At the heart of the music for his magnificent ballet to Mozart is the unfinished Mass in C minor. To this, the choreographer added sections with music by modern composers Thomas Jahn, Gyorgy Kurtág (with Játékok and Bach transcriptions), Paul Celan, and Arvo Pärt. Set mostly against plain black background (sometimes with mirrors adding stunning effects), the ballet touches the depths of both awe and questioning, with full chorus and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Balázs Kocsár.

Without mimicing the music, yet the choreographer related to it tastefully. Sometimes if there were two soprano soloists, there would be two women dancers; if two sopranos and a tenor, then onstage two woman and a man; if fugal entries occurred in the music, then there would be groups stating their own unmistakable “subjects.” The use of formations, of arms, of walking on a blue-lighted cross path to strong dotted rhythms, of Bach’s Prelude in C, of poems whispered as if to the distraught male soloist, of a light descending during the “Credo” or “I believe” section, of grouping and regrouping, of whirling white dresses and strong groups of men, of stillness, of fluttertonguing flutes to accompany terror, of playful musical chairs, of a magnificent chorus supporting many scenes and emotions suggested onstage, of all the young amazing dancers as real people bidding final farewell to their obviously beloved choreographer…all build up to an overwhelming whole.  This ballet with its music by Mozart and others is a major work well worth seeing and hearing.

notes and explorations:

Les Petits Riens:  This is the website for Catherine Turocy and the New York Baroque Dance Company, which was commissioned to mount Les Petits Riens in 1986 for the Oklahoma Mozart Festival. They have an impressive list of other ballets from times past that can be performed on locations as contracted.  Jennifer Dunning’s 1987 review of Baroque Dance Company in  Les Petits Riens at the Mostly Mozart Festival, in The New York Times. Hofstra University student performance of Les Petits Riens as directed by Catherine Turocy. Anna Kisselgoff’s review of Peter Martins setting for New York City Ballet in 1988.

The Hartig Ensemble in Prague have this ballet in their repertoire. Costumes look gorgeous. Go to

Description of reactions to the Paris performances of Les Petits Riens is from Paul Nettl, The Dance in Classical Music (New York: Philosophical Library, 1963) pp. 73-74.

The dancers featured in the 1778 performance were two leading ballerinas of the day, Marie-Madeleine Marie Guimard and Allard, with their partners Gaétan Vestris and Jean d’Auberval (who choreographed a Fille mal gardée in 1789).

A recommended CD that includes both Les Petits Riens and the ballet music from Idomeneo is a 2014 release on Decca Eloquence label, performed by Vienna Mozart Ensemble under the direction of Willi Boskovsky.

Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields recorded Les Petits Riens in the 1970s and EMI remastered their take and released a CD in 2002. Their order is: Ouverture; Largo; Gavotte; Andantino; Larghetto; Allegro; Gavotte; Adagio; Cornemuse; Gavotte; Pantomime; Passepied; Gavotte; Andante.

A pleasant CD with Les Petits Riens was recorded in 1990 by the Symphony Nova Scotia under Georg Tintner, released on the Naxos label. The CD includes some of Mozart’s late German dances, menuets, and contredanses.

dance perfomance:

The following filmed links are for brief excerpts from historic-style performances of Les Petits Riens (full credits were not mounted). Included here because there are so few opportunities to see this ballet performed live. “Les Petits Riens” par la Compagnie de danse baroque l’Eventail Part 1, La Belle Danse Part 2 Les Petits Riens excerpt Part 3 excerpt La Belle Danse.  Part 4, La Belle Danse.

Les Petits Riens score: Suggested viewing and listening: orchestral score is shown scrolling in syncronization with recording by the Vienna Mozart Ensemble conducted by Willi Boskovski. Their performance also available on CD.

A full orchestral score is available in the Kalmus edition (1933).

Mozart’s other ballet:

In Paul Nettl’s book Mozart  (Paris: Petite Bibliotheque Payot, 1955) there is a five-page piano arrangement by René Frank as a suite, indicated recently discovered, of music for a ballet Le forgeron travaille,  with six short movements.

portraits of Mozart: A downloadable image of the portrait of Mozart as a six-year old, by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni Article about verification of Mozart portraits.  Article about the portrait of Mozart by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange.  yet another image of the portrait by Joseph Lange, plus yet another article about the veracity of various other portraits.

CD of dances:

There are a number of available CDs of Mozart’s dances, but here are two that might serve as a good introduction: Mozart: Tänze und Menuette, Wiener Akademi under Martin Haselbock, on Novalis label, recorded 1990; and on Philips, Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields. A question to wonder about: just exactly what were the expected tempos for these types when people were actually dancing?

Idomeneo: This is a 5-minute clip from the ending ballet of Idomeneo as choreographed in 2008 by Heinz Spoerli, with soloists from the Zurich Ballet, and with the Concentus Musicus Wien under direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Go to for information. Better, watch the whole DVD. A 6-minute clip gives a glimpse of the style of the Concentus Musicus Wien production. The first soprano to sing portrays Idomeneo’s son, Idamente. Idomeneo, king of Crete, wears crown; young woman loves his son; so does Elettra the unloved.  Website for musical information about the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt  (1929-2016). During his illustrious career, Idomeneo was his “first and only” time as both conductor and director of an opera.  Obituary in The New York Times.

It seems that the only DVD of Idomeneo that includes the ballet is the 2009 Styriate one directed by Nikolaus and Philipp Harnoncourt, with the former also conducting. Soloists from the Zurich Ballet perform dances choreographed by Heinz Spoerli. The male soloist portraying Neptune plus solos in the finale was Arman Grigoryan.  The orchestra is the Concentus Musicus Wien. A bonus track documents the making of Idomeneo. The 2-DVD set includes a book in both German and English with synopsis; complete libretto in Italian (with link to English translation provided online); a color picture gallery; profiles of the cast; an interview with Nikolaus Harnoncourt; and an historical essay about Mozart’s work and its first performance—including the composer’s difficulties with having to teach the castrato singer how to sing practically every note. Very highly recommended.

There are a number of other DVDs of the opera available—but without the ballet sections. A particularly unusual performance, with the orchestra in a square onstage pit and the singers in more modern/abstract dress, walking around it dramatically, is on 2006 Decca label, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington; Salzburger Festspiele. It should be noted that Mozart wrote the part of the prince Idamente specifically for the male castrato singer Vincenzo dal Prato. Because of the high range, it is nowadays sung by female sopranos. In this particular DVD, Magdalena Kozena is particularly believable and dramatic. After the 1781 performances, Mozart rewrote the opera with Idamente as a tenor, but although some of the revisions were performed in concert, that version was never staged as an entire opera. The last 15 minutes of the Graz performance, just the ballet. Zurich Ballet performing choreography by Heinz Spoerli.  Biography of this leading Swiss choreographer.

scores to Idomeneo:

Orchestral score of the surviving ballet sections for Idomeneo is available in Kalmus edition. According to Grove, only five of the original dances are extant.

A full orchestral score of the opera is available from Dover Publications, with vocal text in German & Italian. But none of the ballet music is included. Available for sale to collectors:  a bound facsimile of Mozart’s score for Idomeneo. A special treasure.

Mark Morris and Mozart: Alastair Macaulay review in The New York Times of Mark Morris Mozart Dances at Lincoln Center, August 25, 2016. Macaulay’s 2007 review. link to Mark Morris Dance Group with listing of past performances of Mozart Dances. Includes brief information about the music, written by Kenneth La Fave.  Tantalizing clips. Peter Sellers comments.

Mozart Mass:  The complete performance of Uwe Scholz’s choreographic setting! Two hours. One viewer commented: “It’s beyond beautiful.” Website through which you can rent or purchase film of Uwe Scholz (1958-2004) complete Mozart Great Mass, Leipzig Ballet, 2005. excerpt.

The Great Mass, ballet by Uwe Scholz with the Leipzig Ballet and Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig under Balázs Kocsár, on a EuroArts DVD. Recorded 2005.

biographical information:

The information about Mozart’s salary in 1787 is from Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of Great Composers, 3rdedition (New York Norton, 1997) p. 102. This author (long-time music critic for The New York Times)  also pretty well expressed an opinion that many musicians hold about Mozart—that “he can be put forward as the most perfect, best equipped, and most natural musician the world has ever known.” [p. 110.]

The information about Mozart’s last dances is from H.C. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years, 250thanniversary edition (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1989) p. 216.

The description of Mozart’s pantomime is from Bruno Nettl, The Story of Dance Music, p. 227. The quotation  about Idomeneo is from p. 225.

For those who want more biographical information about Mozart, see the New Grove. A source for those who want more detail by topic is The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, ed. Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge and New York: 2007).

A nice illustrated introduction for young people was republished by the National Geographic: Marcus Weeks, Mozart: The Boy Who Changed the World with his Music (Washington, D.C., 2013; first published by Marshall Editions in 2007).


A subject that seems to upset male music historians very much is the question of Constanze Mozart’s character. Even the recent New Grove entry for Mozart (section 4) suggests: “Early 20th-century scholarship severely criticized her as unintelligent, unmusical and even unfaithful, and as a neglectful and unworthy wife to Mozart. Such assessments (some still current) were based on no good evidence, were tainted with anti-feminism and were probably wrong on all counts.” However, many sources nowadays accept the opposite: that the marriage was a happy one, and that negative accounts might have been based on initial misgivings on the part of Leopold Mozart.

Though people will never know the answers to some questions about Constanze and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for sure, nevertheless one book which is very much worthwhile reading and considering is by the late Australian writer Agnes Selby (1933-2016). Herself a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust born in Slovakia, Selby and her family apparently spent nearly a year hiding in a ditch to avoid capture. After World War II, the family moved to Australia, and because of their daughter’s musical education, Agnes became interested in learning more about Mozart’s wife, and did extensive  research.

Agnes Selby’s biography is Constanze, Mozart’s Beloved (Vienna: Hollitzer, 2013 revised edition of the work first published in 1999 by Turton & Armstrong Pty in Wahroonga, Australia). The book’s quotation of letters from her sons as well as material from other first-hand sources suggests that until she died at the age of 80, Constanze was diligent in promoting Mozart’s music, through her travels and organizing of live concerts. She apparently was aware that audience tastes can change quickly (Beethoven and Rossini were new favorites in public attention), and despite difficult negotiations with publishers, she managed to both publicize and save  some wonderful compositions for posterity.

the father:

Popular knowledge of Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) may perhaps begin and end with “Oh yes: father of Wolfgang Amadeus and his sister Nannerl. Taught music to both of his children; sought out aristocratic connections to further promote the performing career of the young prodigy Wolfgang. And, er, didn’t he oppose his son’s marriage?”

But what of the music that Leopold himself composed? Well, for those who might like to hear some of it, there is a delightful CD recorded in the 1970s by the Ensemble Eduard Melkus, on Archiv Galleria label. It includes Leopold’s Peasant Wedding and Musical Sleigh-ride plus a Sinfonia burlesca, performed on original instruments that include some surprises: a hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes, bells in addition to strings, horns, oboes, bassoon, trumpet, timpani and cembalo. The five sections of the first piece offer a march and two minuets, and a light-hearted invitation to celebrate and dance. The second work has 19 movements including a “Deutscher Tanz.” The Sinfonia has one movement identified as a menuet, but in all this music there is a surprisingly sense of being for “popular” consumption in contrast to the aristocratic purposes that we may associate with the dances by Wolfgang. This is appealing music meant for middle class entertainment, composed before Wolfgang was born, for Carnival. Well worth listening to now, this CD suggests that although he earned his living primarily through his orchestral violin playing, the elder Mozart was also master of writing pleasing, kinetically-inviting dances. Here is another recording of the Peasant Wedding, performed by the Capella Savaria under Pál Németh. Leopold Mozart’s Sinfonia da Caccia (hunt, with four horns).

Josef Starzer:

On the same Ensemble Melkus CD with the Leopold Mozart works are ten dances by the Austrian composer Josef Starzer (1727-1787), who wrote scores for at least 20 ballets, including for his collaborations with the ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre (the subject of this essay’s next section). The recorded dances are from unpublished manuscript sources for ballets, and are (judging by the initial bouncy sounds, which in contrast to Leopold Mozart’s music seem much more formal), bound for the stage. And indeed it was! One can only wonder why we don’t know more of this composer’s music. In his time, he was a very successful collaborator for ballets in Vienna and Russia, including for the then highly admired ballet masters Franz Hilverding, Jean-Georges Noverre, and Gaspero Angiolini.

For a little more information about Starzer, see the IED entry by Ole Nørlyng. To hear at least a few brief selections of his music, do an online search for You Tube mountings. Here are some pleasant ones: Four dances.  And this is quite a lovely divertimento for orchestra. Performed by the Camerata Bern under Thomas Füri.

Noverre’s Vision 

Although he may not have fully approved of choreographers having to fit their ballets to existing music, Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), would probably have been pleased by the way that both Mark Morris and Uwe Scholz incorporated natural movements and emotional expressions into their theatrical dance works set to Mozart’s music.

Noverre, who has been introduced here for his collaboration with Mozart on Les Petits Riens, was first a dancer and then a ballet master who created new works not only in his native France, but also in England and Austria. He is often cited as being the initiator of ballet d’action, which brought dramatic stories and movement to the forefront in place of purely decorative dancing.

Partly because of something Noverre himself lamented—the lack of a reliable written method for preserving choreography—none of his ballets are known through performance today. However, his place in the history of dance is considerable because of his essays titled Letters published in 1759 and then revised in 1803. His pointed observations about ballet were aimed mainly at the practices in Paris during his own time, but because he was so philosophical in laying out a general aesthetic framework, Noverre’s essays can be helpful to artists today. He explored many topics concerning production, technique, and performance, but also about the musical components of ballet. In his preface to the 1803 edition, Noverre wrote about his own method of creation in relation to musical collaboration:

Before selecting melodies to which I could adapt steps, before studying steps to make them into what was then known as ballet, I sought subjects either in mythology, history or my own imagination which not only afforded opportunity for the introduction of dances and festivals, but which in the course of the development of the theme, offered a graduated action and interest. My poem once conceived, I studied all the gestures, movements and expressions which could render the passions and sentiments arising from my theme. Only after concluding this labour did I summon music to my aid. Having explained to the composer the different details of the picture which I had just sketched out, I then asked him for music adapted to each situation and to each feeling. In place of writing steps to written airs, as couplets are set to known melodies, I composed, if I may so express myself, the dialogue of my ballet and then I had music written to fit each phrase and each thought.

A advocate of choreographers developing expansive knowledge of many of the arts—and of musicians also becoming more sensitive and paying attention to the details of dance—Noverre suggested:

The maitre de ballet who ignores the study of music will ill-phrase the melodies and understand neither their spirit nor their character. He will not combine the movements in the dance with the measure of the music with that precision and acuteness of hearing which are absolutely necessary, unless he be gifted with that sensitive ear which is more generally the gift of nature than the result of art, and which is far superior to that which may be acquired by study and practice.

The ability to select good music is as essential a part of dancing as the choice of words and the art of devising happy phrases to eloquence. It is the time and tone of the music which fix and determine all the dancer’s movements. If the playing of the airs be expressionless and devoid of taste, the ballet, like its model, will be dull and uninteresting.

Owing to the intimate affinity between music and dancing, there can be no doubt, Sir, that a maitre de ballet will derive marked advantage from a practical knowledge of this art. He will be able to communicate his thoughts to the composer, and, if he join a liking to knowledge, he will write the music himself or supply the composer with the principal ideas which should inspire his work; these being expressive and varied the dance cannot fail to be so in its turn. Well-composed music should paint and speak: dancing, in imitating its sounds, will be the echo which will repeat everything it articulates. If, on the contrary, it be mute, it will tell the dancer nothing and he cannot respond to it: thence all feeling, all expression, is banished from the performance.

In addition to making suggestions about the training of ballet masters, Noverre turned his attention to the skills that dancers themselves might be expected to hone, notably in making connections between the timing of the music and the technique of executing steps with awareness of the accompanying sounds. Noverre was apt to be quite critical of current practices—which certainly did not enhance his popularity with people in the field! For example:

Even if the most mediocre dancers be acquainted with a great number of steps (truly ill-arranged and, for the most part, combined nonsensically and with bad taste), it is less common to find among them that accurate ear for time, a rare but inborn advantage which gives character to dancing, affords life and value to the steps, and invests every movement with vigour and animation.

There are ears which remain out of tune with, and insensible to, the most simple and most striking music; there are a lesser number of them which feel the time, but cannot seize upon its niceties; lastly, there are others which appreciate naturally and easily the movements of the most difficult melodies.

Not limiting his criticisms to dancers, Noverre could also come down pretty hard on musicians and especially on the conductors’ use of batons. But additionally he did have encouraging words to say about the combination of music and dance:

This natural and innate taste for music brings in its train a similar liking for dancing. These two arts are brothers and go hand-in-hand; the tender and harmonious accents of the former excite the agreeable and expressive movements of the latter; their combined effect offers animated pictures to  our eyes and ears; these senses convey to the heart the interesting pictures which have moved them; the heart in turn communicates these images to the soul, and the pleasure which results from the harmony and intelligence of these two arts captivates the spectator and makes him experience the most seductive pleasure.

Lovely, inspiring thoughts! But then Noverre couldn’t help himself:

A dancer without an ear resembles a madman who talks ceaselessly and at random, with no sequence in his conversation, and who articulates disconnected words devoid of common sense.  Words only serve to inform intelligent people of his madness and extravagance. The dancer with no ear, like the madman, makes ill-combined steps, and is always astray in his execution; he continually runs after the time and never catches up to it. He hears nothing, everything is contrary to him; his dancing has neither logic nor expression; and the music which should direct his movements, order his steps and determine his temps, serves only to betray his incapability and imperfections.

The study of music can, as I have told you already, remedy this defect and afford the organ of hearing more sensitiveness and accuracy.

Noverre’s visionary thoughts inspired some artists in his own time, including his apprentice Jean Dauberval, choreographer of La Fille mal gardée—and later, Salvatore Viganò, who for a time danced with Dauberval and went on to create his own choreography in collaboration with Ludwig van Beethoven.

notes and explorations:

Noverre’s essays:

Quotations are all taken from Jean Georges Noverre, Letters on Dancing and Ballet, translated by Cyril W. Beaumont  (Brooklyn: Dance Horizons, 1966 republication of the work originally published in London in 1930) pp. 4-5; 36-37; 128-29; 130.

In the 18th century, a maitre de ballet was the person we now call ballet master, also  choreographer. And “composition” referred to what we now call choreography.

Noverre’s letters really are worthwhile reading in their entirety. The short chapters of the collected letters cover the following topics:

  1. He was opposed to perpetual symmetry, heavy costumes, and masks—things that were unnatural.
  2. Dancers should be allowed to be individuals onstage. There should not be outrageous juxtapositions, such as rope climbers in the middle of a serious story.
  3. He stressed the importance of supporting characters.
  4. Noverre urged aspiring ballet masters to study history, poetry, or whatever else it is that they intend to represent onstage.
  5. Those choreographers in charge must understand the workings and possibilities of stage machinery.
  6. Dance artists should pay attention to the way ordinary people around them moved. Costumes should be in harmony with the colors of the scenery.
  7. In his discussion of virtuoso dancing technique, Noverre also abhors showing off when it has no connection to the sense of the drama of the entire ballet.
  8. He offers observation on the place of ballet in the operas of his time.
  9. He is against masks!
  10. Gestures should not be like marionettes!
  11. Of a dancer’s ideal physique and proportions.
  12. Technical challenges: turnout, flexibility, strong backs.
  13. The need for dance notation.
  14. Discusses his own works.
  15. The importance of teachers.  Information on both his life and work.

Beethoven’s Prometheus

Most people think of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1821) as a composer of major orchestral symphonies and instrumental sonatas. But he also wrote two excellent scores for ballets. And though the choreographer Salvatore Viganò (1769-1821) went back to ancient mythology for his story of Prometheus presented in 1801, yet the 30-year-old Beethoven’s commissioned score was very recognizable for his distinctive symphonic style heralding the Romantic era in 19th-century European concert music.

Crafted partly according to Classical methods of composition (with a sonata allegro form in the introduction and one minuetto section), the music for Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (Creatures of Prometheus) otherwise glowed with a new freedom that departed from set dance forms and offered an evocative emotional backdrop to match the unfolding story presented onstage. The score is  melodically inventive, kinetically-charged in rhythm, with strong dynamic accents, changes of tempo and texture, effective use of syncopation, all providing passion and power in support of the various dramatic sections as well as sweet timbres for lyrical movement.

The masterful orchestration features rich sonorities with interesting countermelodies. There are beautiful solos for flute, clarinet, oboe, and cello plus Beethoven’s only orchestral use of harp and of basset horn. The full instrumentation calls for double flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons; basset horn; 2 brass horns; 2 trumpets; timpani; and usual strings.

People who listen to the music performed by itself may feel they are hearing a great Beethoven symphony. In part, they are! For Beethoven two years later used the proud theme of the ballet’s finale for his Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” (Actually the musical material was drawn from two contredanses that Beethoven had previously composed.)

After the ballet’s grand Viennese premiere in 1801 (before the Empress Maria Theresia) some critics felt the music was too “learn-ed” for a dance, and some felt “antagonized” from the very first chord. Yet upon studying the score, it becomes clear that Beethoven was extremely imaginative in providing accompaniment for specific scenes and action, with music that is supportive for the dancers, and suggestive to audience members as well. Proof of its appeal: there were initially 28 performances in Vienna. Beethoven was disappointed in the choreography, and when Viganò presented his new version in Italy, he expanded the plot to encompass the entire Prometheus myth in six scenes,  cutting most of Beethoven’s music while adding extant scores by other composers (including some by the choreographer himself).

In modern times, Beethoven’s original score has rarely been presented for an onstage ballet.  Nevertheless, it can be heard in concert performances and with recordings. Today’s listeners continue to react to Beethoven’s  grand finale of the ballet music with adjectives such as “exultant” and “glorious” and to some of the lyrical melodies as “sublime.”

the choreographer

Salvatore Viganò  (1769-1821) was one of the most outstanding dance artists of Beethoven’s time. An Italian, he was the son of a dancer/choreographer, and also the nephew of the well-known composer Luigi Boccherini (with whom he may have studied composition for awhile himself). Because of this double talent, during his career Viganò actually composed or arranged music for some ballets that he himself choreographed. His career took him to various locations around Europe, but from 1813 until his death he was ballet master at La Scala in Milan.

Viganò was noted for the way he injected rhythmic pantomime into his choreography and tied both gesture and dance movements very closely to the music. This sensitivity seems to have been complemented in the way Beethoven composed music for Creatures of Prometheus, and in Beethoven’s surviving manuscript sketchbooks there are indications of how the creative work progressed in relation to the story line. Apparently Beethoven did indeed follow Viganò’s original scenario very closely, based on the myth of how Prometheus (the bringer of fire) brought two statues to life.

the story

A handbill from the premiere outlined the plot of the ballet:

The Greek philosophers who knew Prometheus depict him as a lofty spirit who, finding the human beings of his time in a state of ignorance, refined them through art and knowledge and gave them laws of right and conduct. In accordance with this source, the ballet presents two animate statues who, by the power of harmony, are made susceptible to all the passions of human existence. Prometheus takes them to Parnassus to receive instruction from Apollo, god of the arts, who commands Amphion, Arion, and Orpheus to teach them music; Melpomene and Thalia, tragedy and comedy; Terpsichore and Pan, who introduces them to the Pastoral dance which he has invented; and from Bacchus they hear his invention—the Heroic Dance.

The work’s overture begins with mighty-sounding chords played by all, followed by a lyrical melody, and progressing in sonata-allegro form just as Beethoven’s early symphonies did. After the overture comes a section marked “Tempesta” in the music, in which Prometheus is first seen fleeing from the wrath of Zeus, carrying the Olympic torch that he had stolen. Slower sections accompany the awakening of the statues to life, with some halting rhythms to suggest the tentativeness of anybody’s first steps—let alone those of former statues! In contrast, there is fast joyful music to express the feelings of Prometheus upon seeing his clay creations come to life.

As the score moves along and Prometheus decides to take the creatures to Parnassus for their education, there are some beautiful solos for flute accompanied by harp; clarinet and bassoon to accompany the Muses; and a cello solo to mark Apollo’s entry. Tragedy, however, in anger demonstrates death by stabbing Prometheus. A Pastorale movement evokes a rural setting with Pan offering some medical expertise to bring Prometheus back to health, and there is a contredanse for fauns. A notable section features oboe and basset horn (a rarely heard instrument). A brisk march touches on the theme of war, but there is a peaceful and loving pas de deux of the newly-mobile man and woman.

Throughout the various musical sections, there are juxtapositions of strongly accented loud chords and delicate melodies, fast-flowing string accompaniment, interesting modulations in key centers, inner harmonic chords in the winds and brass that keep the momentum going, doubling of instrumental parts that produces that distinctive “Beethoven sound,” and an extended coda (closing) section which the composer already knew how to make so exciting.

biographers’ views

Commenting on the place Prometheus in the span of Beethoven’s career, one of his biographers, Robert Haven Schaeffer, wrote:

It was appropriate that Beethoven should have written the Prometheus music at the time when he himself was about to become the Prometheus of music. For this man was destined to bring clearer light, greater warmth, and larger freedom to a groping art, too often chilled and fettered by fashion, and to expiate his benign audacity through terrible suffering.

The “terrible suffering” endured by Beethoven was progressive deafness, beginning  several years before 1801 and in his last years leaving him completely without hearing. He did not enter into any further dance collaborations, though during his career, he did write some pieces in dance forms—notably his Ecossaises for piano and German Dances for orchestra. Additionally, the third movement of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony No. 6 is “Merrymaking Among the Country Folk,” a delightful evocation of rural dancing.

Concerning the theme in the finale of Prometheus, the earlier biographer Anton Felix Schindler (who had also been a close associate of the composer) reported some surprising opinions of the musical establishment who objected to a reuse of the melody:

Those who condemned the symphony asked how one melody could be a dance in one place and the commemoration of a hero in another. This melody had been used much earlier in a collection of quadrilles, and somewhat later we find it again as the theme of the opus 35 variations. This repeated use of a single theme presented in the unaltered form but for different purposes is the only example of its kind in the Beethoven literature.

Addressing some other contemporary criticism, this time about Beethoven’s music offering too much “tone painting” mirroring, Schindler quoted a contemporary Professor Amadeus Wendt who touched upon the subject:

We do not by any means intend an apology for descriptive music or for “musical painting,” for which Beethoven, like his teacher Haydn, seems to have a propensity; no, except for a few instances of playfulness, Beethoven remains what a musician can and must be: a painter of passions. And just as passion is not necessaily without thought, so the moods of a fantasy that the composer of genius captures in musical tones may become the object of visual images. He sees the scenes whose atmosphere he is portraying, and the clarity with which he sees his tone pictures as they are inspired and developed may easily become so distinct that he feels he has portrayed something visible, something even with a geographical location.

Perhaps most surprising, Schindler gave this account of the vehement reactions to the first chord of the Prometheus ballet.  (Reactions which now seem rather ridiculous, since perhaps the chords can easily sound like an announcement: “Attention! We are about to begin telling a story!”) Anyway, here are Schindler’s comments:

We know that after the ballet was laid aside in 1802, the Prometheus music was never heard again during the composer’s lifetime. The overture, however, was very popular and, like the Mozart overtures that were easy to play, was performed over and over again that year by Viennese orchestras. I relate this seemingly trivial circumstance only to show what an adverse effect a single chord (in this case, the opening chord of the overture) can produce. It is indeed a matter to be noted when one chord is able to arouse irreconcilable enmity within the ranks of the musically learned.

Beethoven used to say that any members of the corps of old Viennese music teachers who did not already consider themselves his enemies were sufficiently antagonized by this one chord to join the rest. Not only that, but some of these old masters…feeling that Beethoven, like a foolhardy knight, had insolently thrown a gauntlet in their faces, declared themselves henceforth his sworn foes. Moreover, they kept their oath: grammarians are known for their enmities. They continue beyond the grave to persecute the object of their wrath.

some modern settings

Despite such petty critiques, “beyond the grave” Beethoven’s music has only increased in fame. And though the ballet Prometheus did not enter any regular repertoire, nevertheless there have been performances with fresh choreography from time to time.

Perhaps it is precisely the fact that Beethoven’s score was tied so specifically to Viganò’s scenario that makes it a challenge for choreographers to mount new versions.  According to Stanley Appelbaum, the modern revival that most closely seemed to conform to the original was the 1933 production directed by the Hungarian-Italian choreographer Aurel Milloss (1906-1988), titled Le creature di Prometeo.  Another artist who mounted a revival was Serge Lifar, in 1929 for the Paris Opera Ballet. That staging garnered both praise as “a triumph” and outrage because Lifar had changed the scenario to enlarge the part of Prometheus, which he himself portrayed. However, Lifar’s version garnered enough admiration to get him appointed director of the Paris Opera Ballet!

In a later modern setting, British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton departed from tradition, making Prometheus look like Beethoven, and with other touches that apparently didn’t go over too well with audiences. So this is a ballet that might better retain a close alignment with the mythological story.

However, perhaps one of the more unusual modern choreographic settings of Beethoven’s score was in 2007 by the Pennsylvania Dance Theatre with choreography by the German-born dance artist Andre Koslowski, who included elements from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (written just a few years after Beethoven composed his ballet, and subtitled The Modern Prometheus). So the connection was there.

an earlier Beethoven ballet

Most people are surprised to learn that Beethoven wrote a short ballet prior to Prometheus, and to consider that, we must try to imagine the composer as a young man. Unlike Mozart, it seems that Beethoven did not very much like to dance himself (though he left written evidence that he took both dance and riding lessons in Vienna, where he settled permanently in 1792). Before that, he had already composed his first ballet score, with a subject related to horses.

The Ritterballet (Ballet of the Knights) was meant to evoke equestrian tournament celebrations from former times. It was envisioned by Count Ferdinand Waldstein with the dancing master “Herr Habich” and first performed in 1791 at the Redoutensaal in Bonn. The movements were: march, German song, hunting song, romance, war song, drinking song, another German song, and coda. Oddly, Beethoven was not given credit then, and the ballet was presented as if created entirely by Count Waldstein, though there is some speculation that the Count (one of Beethoven’s supportive patrons) might have in fact contributed a few melodies. Beethoven obviously remained friendly, for one of his best piano sonatas is the dedicated  “Waldstein.” (In passing, it can be noted that near the end of his life, modern choreographer José Limón was working on a dance set to this sonata. It was later finished by Daniel Lewis and presented by the Juilliard Dance Ensemble. See endnotes.)

But back to the Ritterballet. More of a pageant than a ballet, it may have been performed with spoken texts between the dances, and it seems that the guests wore old German style clothing to further contribute to their sense of experiencing traditions from the past. So there really is not much basis for an authentic revival, though several artists have presented the music with their own choreography (for instance, Rudolf Laban in 1927). Now at least this charming music can be heard in modern recordings online. Well worth the listening.

modern choreography to other Beethoven works

Continuing to compose music until the end of his life, Beethoven—like most performing musicians and composers—could “hear” music simply by looking at a published or manuscript score, and also in his mind could “hear” music before he set his notation on paper. So partly thanks to ongoing income from several patrons, and to his business arrangements with publishers, he was able to continue writing even while deaf, and his mature works included many sonatas for piano and for violin and piano, concertos, more symphonies, a sacred mass, secular songs, the opera Fidelio and perhaps his greatest masterpieces, the last string quartets.

There is one quartet movement that if you close your eyes and listen intently, you may feel you are hearing the closest thing to heavenly music. And indeed, to the third movement of his string quartet opus 132. Beethoven added the title “Holy song of Thanksgiving of a convalescent, to the Deity.” It was written after the composer’s recovery from a serious illness which he had feared would be fatal. It is extraordinary to hear, though not something to dance to.

That said, some of Beethoven’s other concert works have been used by choreographers. Among them was the 20th century American barefoot dancer Isadora Duncan. Perhaps spurred by a comment from the 19thcentury German opera composer Richard Wagner calling Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 “the apotheosis of the dance,” Duncan performed to that orchestral work, in Carnegie Hall no less.

Years later, in 2000, the American choreographer Twyla Tharp set choreography to the same symphony, for the New York City Ballet. Not something to be done lightly, as Tharp seemed to indicate in a most interesting film focused on her choreography for Beethoven’s Seventh.

Finally, an exceptional setting of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was done by the late Uwe Scholz. A link to a performance by the Stuttgart Ballet is included in the notes below.

And so it can be fairly said that though Beethoven composed only two scores specifically commissioned for ballet, yet his music continues to fuel some exciting theatrical dance performances!

notes and explorations:


Concerning Beethoven’s dance and riding lessons, information taken from Paul Nettl, The Dance in Classical Music (New York: Philosophical Library, 1963) p. 143. See also pp. 144-46 for more information about the Ritterballet. In his chapter on Beethoven [pp. 143-162] he also discusses the composer’s stand-alone music for dances, in summary commenting [p. 160] that  “Beethoven’s dance rhythms still delight the world.” This is an uncredited but fine orchestral performance of the Ritterballet. Listeners think it must be a recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  Deutsche Grammophon recording. Staatskapelle Berlin later recording. Quite brisk tempos, but a very pleasant performance of Ritterballet.  Website for the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, which has a considerable collection. Site can be translated and searched for specific materials.

An orchestral score of the Ritterballet published in the Performers Edition (2008) is available online.

Prometheus information:

The original cast for the premiere included the following: Maria Casentini, the female “creature”; the male was portrayed by the choreographer himself, Viganò; Bacchus, by Ferdinando Gioia; Prometheus, by “Herr Cesari.”

Dover Publications published a large orchestral score to The Creatures of Prometheus in 2008, with historical introduction plus detailed  plot description by Stanley Appelbaum.                                                                                          

For information about both Beethoven ballets, also see Horst Koegler’s entry in the IED [V. 1 pp. 402-403]. The article includes a listing of the original 1801 Vienna cast, and listing of 20th century revivals.

Worth noting is the composer-conductor Humphrey Searle’s opinion that: “Prometheus was certainly an important step forward, not only for Beethoven himself, but in the whole history of ballet music.” [in his book Ballet Music, p. 32.]

For Frederick Ashton’s synopsis of his own choreographic setting, see David Vaughan, Frederick Ashton and his Ballets (London: Dance Books, 2nd ed. 1999), pp.368-70,

For further information about Salvatore Viganò, see the entry in IED by Claudia Celi [V6, pp. 337-339].  She points out that the choreographer not only studied composition; he also learned to play the violin. The author also calls the Prometheus ballet “an exaltation of music and dance,” yet apparently critics of the time felt that Viganò’s later production in Italy was better than the first. Some of the additional extant music was by Joseph Weigl, Haydn, and Viganò himself. Celi also provides a short synopsis of the story for this expanded ballet.

An online search resulted in zero recordings of music by Viganò. Too bad! It would be interesting to hear what this choreographer wrote for his own ballets.


The Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras recorded the music for the complete Prometheus ballet in 1994, reissued on Hyperion in 2005. Beautifully done!

There is another fine CD with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, on Telarc label.  Another CD, on NAXOS, is performed by the Melbourne Symphony under Michael Halász. And on Deutsche Grammophon is a recording made in 1987 by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (as usual with them, no conductor).

online:  Brief trailer, Hartig Ensemble, choreography by Helena Kazárová. Filmed in 2016. Very inviting! Their website: Concert performance of Prometheus music. A Concert Suite in Four Movements Orchestre de Chambre Pelléas Benjamin Levy, conductor Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 9 August 2014. A Green Room Creatives Production. This provides a superb introduction to Beethoven’s music. Advantage of seeing the orchestral performers and knowing what instruments are being played.

more information:

The translation of the Prometheus handbill was by Neil Butterworth, included in his notes for the Helios CD. Also see David Hurwitz, “The Creatures of Prometheus” review in Listen magazine, March/April 2009, pp. 57-58.

Ludwig van Beethoven is so well-known that no extended biographical information is being included here. However, it is always nice to be reminded of main facts, and highly recommended is Wendy Thompson’s Illustrated Book of Great Composers (London: Anness Publishing, 2004). The New Grove provides many more facts plus list of works. A very good introduction to the composer’s life and works.  Illustrated. Wikipedia does not credit its authors.

The  quotation about Beethoven’s suffering  is from Robert Haven Schauffer, Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music (New York: Doubleday, 1934) p. 76.

For the closest thing to a unique first-hand account, there is a new annotated edition of Anton Felix Schindler, Beethoven As I Knew Him (Dover Publications, 2011). English translation by Constance S. Jolly. This is based on a revised 1860 edition by the author, who was a combination of pupil, secretary, and servant for Beethoven. The editor, Donald W. MacArdle, provides extensive notes in which he corrects factual errors (many in dates etc.) and questions some of Schindler’s reporting about various people in Beethoven’s life. pp. 92-93 reactions to the first chord. p. 62 quotes a letter written by Beethoven in 1801 in which he mentions that for the past three years his hearing had been growing weaker.

Schindler’s information about the appearance of the “Eroica” theme is quoted from p. 118. The excerpt from Amadeus Wendt’s essay “Beethoven’s Musical Character” is from pp. 182-83 of Schindler. The essayist is ecstatic in describing his further reflections upon Beethoven’s music!

An informative chapter abut Beethoven is in Paul Nettl, The Dance in Classical Music, pp. 143-162. It includes a summary of the six scenes in Viganò’s later Italian setting of Prometheus.

other settings: This dedicated website reports Lifar’s version of Prometheus as a “triumph.”  He had taken over the work that was originally started in Paris by Balanchine—who became ill with serious lung situation and had to be replaced. The entry by Marie-Francoise Christout in the IED mentions “outrage” on the part of librettists, about Lifar’s changes. However, that production certainly served to enhance Lifar’s career with the Paris Opera.

In 2014 the Pennsylvania Dance Theatre was renamed Tanz Theater Andre Koslowski. For information:  Listed for 2007 is a film by Tony Coray of the Prometheus ballet. Douglas Meyer was the music director.

dance to other Beethoven works:

For Isadora Duncan’s essay “Dancing to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony,” see Katherine Teck, Making Music for Modern Dance: Collaboration in the Formation of a New American Art, pp. 11-15. For information about Twyla Tharp’s setting plus a one-minute video excerpt. A long film about Tharp’s choreography is available for viewing  by permission at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts. Here is the catalog description:   Anna Kisselgoff’s ecstatic 2000 review of Tharp’s setting, in The New York Times. George Jackson’s review of a 2004 revival of Leonide Massine’s 1938 choreography, performed by the Cincinnati Ballet. Stuttgart Ballet performs Uwe Scholz choreography to Beethoven’s Seventh. Part 1. Both choreography and performance are stupendous! begins the adagio. Part 3. Information about the late choreographer Uwe Scholz.   Review in The New York Times by Gia Kourias, of a 2012 performance of the Waldstein dance, by Juilliard students.

memorial  information: In honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, there were special events and exhibitions. This travelogue by Michael Cooper describes his trip retracing the life of the composer. A most enjoyable article to read, with photographs, a quotation from a poignant letter that Beethoven never sent to his brothers, an image of the manuscript for his Ninth Symphony, and other information about the life and work of this master.

Orbs: Well, despite my questioning choreographic setting of Beethoven’s late string quartets, here is a review of exactly that: Paul Taylor’s Orbs.  An earlier review of Orbs, reporting that the Beethoven late quartets used are opus numbers 127, 133, and 130. Not, however, opus 132 A heart-felt article about Beethoven’s op. 132 string quartet, by the violist of the Pacifica Quartet.