La Sylphide

The Scottish bridegroom James first fell asleep on the stage of the Paris Opéra in 1832, to music of Jean Schneitzhoeffer. He was awakened by a “sylphide” or fairy with wings who wanted to lure him away from his bride Effie, with all the characters’ movements directed by Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni (1777-1871).Though the story by Adolphe Nourrit was sad, yet the characters showed up four years later on a stage in Sweden, silently dancing their tale to music of Herman Løvenskjold, choreographed by August Bournonville.

The role of the Sylphide was created in Paris by Marie Taglioni; James, by Joseph Mazilier. For the Copenhagen version, Lucile Grahn was the sylphide, and the choreographer August Bournonville danced the role of James. The fictional characters repeated their story in many countries, showing up in America in 1964 still dancing to the Swedish music, but by then arranged by Edger Cosma for American Ballet Theatre. As recently as 2018 Peter Martins remounted the Danish choreography and music for New York City Ballet.

The 2004 Paris Opéra Ballet performance on DVD offers choreography adapted by Pierre Lacotte after Taglioni to the original score, which begins with a shimmering orchestral overture. As the curtain opens, the scene is in a Scottish village home, with the young man James (dressed in traditional Highland kilt) sleeping in an armchair on the morning of his wedding day. Two important things strike us immediately: first that the locale of Scotland was, to the French at the time, considered “exotic,” partly due to the popular translations of Sir Walter Scott’s novels set in the misty Highland areas. The second thing is that all is not “normal.” There is a sylph, or fairy with wings, sitting on the floor next to James! A calm violin melody begins the story, as the sylph awakens James with a kiss and immediately tries to lure his thoughts away from his bride-to-be Effie. The winged fairy’s efforts are interrupted, however, by the arrival of neighbors all dressed up, and the sylphide disappears up the chimney.

After the sylphide goes up the chimney, Effie the bride gets to dance with her bridegroom to gentle inviting music, and their friends join in—despite the disruption caused by the witch Madge showing up unwanted at the hearth. She proceeds to read palms, punishing James for his unwelcome attitude by foretelling for him a bad future and suggesting that his rival Gurn will instead become Effie’s husband. Of course James is furious with the witch.

Despite the witch marring the morning, the gentle music resumes, mostly in strings, with effective little ornamentations in the melody lines. The various sections of music give an impression of conversational talking as the dancers by turns mime their emotions and formally dance together. There is a particularly nice dance with the wedding pair encircled separately by their friends. A cheerful country gathering is certainly suggested by the orchestra, which consists of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion, harp, and strings (1st and 2nd violins, violas, cellos and bass).

However! A few strident chords signal that the sylphide is back, in the window frame this time, now framed musically by a romantic theme that has a questioning tone, mirroring James’s confusion. He succumbs to emotion and partners the sylphide in an adagio, to a Romantic cello melody, interspersed with more strongly marked music that might encourage him to cast the sylphide aside. But she is both pleading and determined, and does a strongly defined waltz.

Just as the action never lets up, so too the music is continuous. This is not a score of separate pieces to traditional closed forms. And there is judicious use of counter-melodies that lend a very satisfying full sound to the orchestra as well as a sense of continuous flow. At moments the use of flutes serves to suggest a pastorale setting, as does the use of drone harmonies in the bass parts. Horns and trumpets are used as announcements of an important event—in this case, the bride and bridegroom dancing side by side. The oboe then becomes more romantic in suggestion, but alas, the sylphide appears again, this time visible only to James. Regardless of her, he and the other men do a vigorous dance together, and the important thing about the music is that it be super steady so the dancers can end their pirouettes and land from their bravura jumps precisely.

The neighbors—including young children—start to pay their respects.  But what is this? The sylphide flits between James and his bride Effie, to the sweet sounds of a cello. Confusing indeed! However, James manages to dance a virtuoso solo, with accompaniment from the trumpet, and Effie has her variation en pointe to the sound of flute. The sylphide, though, chooses to be slow and graceful to the full string strains of the orchestra. She nabs James’s ring from him and runs out the door. Distraught, he follows to end Act I.

Act II features the large corps of look-alike sylphides, who sometimes fly. To shorten this telling of the story: the witch Madge offers James a magic scarf that will help him “catch” the sylphide who has so intrigued him. It does, but the scarf is poisoned and first makes the sylphide’s wings fall off, then kills her. A sad end indeed, with the ethereal, ephemeral creature being unobtainable.

Before the deadly use of the scarf, most of the act is devoted to pas de deux dances by James and the Sylphide, and to lovely group dances with the entire corps of women in white all on pointe, forming and reforming their lovely group poses. A particularly beautiful section near the end is when James dances with all the sylphides, to the sounds of a solo horn and subsequently to plucked then tremolo strings. But things end quickly: after the expired sylphide is carried away by her companions, James hears a wedding celebration—of all things!—for Effie and his rival Gurn. James collapses. Curtain comes down.

the first composer

Some ballet companies in the last half-century have gone back to the original score by Schneitzhoeffer. But who was he anyway? For openers, here are bare bones facts, starting with the information that the composer had a sense of humor and allegedly had visiting cards printed saying: “Schneitzhoeffer, pronounced Bertrand.”

Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer (1785-1852) was a French composer and conductor at the Paris Opéra, starting out as a chorus master there. Before composing La Sylphide, he had already written a symphony and musical scores for other ballets: Le Séducteur du Village choreographed by Albert in 1818; Zémire et Azor choreographed by Deshayes in 1824; Mars et Venus choreographed by Blache in 1826; La Têmpete  choreographed by Coralli in 1834; and Le Sicilien choreographed by Anatole [Petit] in 1827. Some of Schneitzhoeffer’s contemporaries involved in the theater considered his score for La Sylphide a masterpiece. Unfortunately this wasn’t followed by other stage works. We know that the composer was quite ill in the last years of his life and wrote no more ballets. Wish we knew more.

It is very difficult to find any information in English about how this musician worked in the theater, but in his book The Romantic Ballet in Paris, Ivor Guest offered a translation of an anonymous review of La Têmpete from the Gazette musicale, in which the writer commented on difficulties faced by all composers for ballet in those times:

Schneitzhoeffer’s music seemed to us remarkable wherever the composer was allowed to enjoy a little freedom. However, we have to criticise him for not introducing sufficient variety into the energetic passages that the plot so frequently demands. But do we really know whether he was allowed to do anything else? There is no task more irksome and at the same time unrewarding than having to compose music for a ballet. For once he has finished, he may be made to do a piece all over again. He may be satisfied with what he has skillfully composed and developed, when the choreographer appears and he is made to cut it here, expand it there, scrap a whole passage, or even rewrite the entire piece. Then the dancers turn up at rehearsal and demand a different orchestration—trombones here, the big drum there, in places where the composer had perhaps written for flutes against a pizzicato accompaniment. The poor composer! For a man of the calibre of those whom Italian choreographers carry in their baggage, this role of a slave is not a very difficult one, for that is the task he has been trained for; but where the musician is a distinguished composer such as M. Schneitzhoeffer, he is, in all sincerity, to be pitied for being landed in such a dreadful situation.

Elsewhere Ivor Guest quotes another critic who found the score to La Sylphide excellent and an example of what might become a more important branch of music if only talented composers would take it up. Surprising to our sensibilities, however, was the critic’s complaint that Schneitzhoeffer had not used longer excerpts from borrowed melodies and done more with them! (It was common practice then for choreographers to request that their musicians insert specific tunes from operas or other sources because they felt doing this would bolster the dramatic intent and please their audiences with familiar melodies.) However that may have been, the new original music was certainly an appreciable contributor to what Ivor Guest called La Sylphide: “a turning point of the greatest significance in the history of the choreographic art. That ballet was to usher in a golden age—one of moonlight and ethereal spirits—that retains its magic to the present day.”

the ballerina

Of course a tremendous amount of the credit for this ballet’s original success (which soon led to 146 performances) is due to the dancer Marie Taglioni (1804-84), who was trained and coached by her father the choreographer Filippo Taglioni. Although she was not the first to dance on her toes, she was the first to astonish audiences with the skill of her dancing en pointe for expressive effect. But it was more than that. Again quoting Ivor Guest, here is his translation of a French writer who had seen La Sylphide when the character had just been created by Marie Taglioni, and he understood that she had changed ballet forever from former days:

Imagine our joy one evening when, unsuspecting and by pure chance, like finding a pearl by the roadside, we were presented not with the danse noble, but with a simple, easy, naturally graceful Taglioni, with a figure of unheard-of elegance, arms of serpentine suppleness and legs to match, and feet like those of an ordinary woman, dancer though she is! When we saw her first, so much at ease and dancing so merrily—like a bird in full song—we just could not understand it. “What has become of the danse noble?”  asked the old men….She has given us a new art, she has initiated us into a new pleasure, for she has completely reformed the ballet of her day.

On top of the exceptional performances, among the things that made this ballet usher in a new era was the introduction of the gauzy white costumes with skirts mid-calf. Also new developments in gas lighting helped to create scenes of mystic woods, and invention of better apparatuses created the illusion of flight. In addition, an important visual aspect of the “Romantic” style was the distinctive posing with carriage of the arms—perhaps originating from Felippo Taglioni’s intent to make his daughter’s long arms appear more gracious onstage.

the Paris score

One thing that stands out about the music for the Paris version is the effective use of so many “little” notes—rapid passages often notated as sixteenth-notes, providing motor-like momentum and kinetic energy for the dancers. The score is also full of attractive melodies, all seemingly closely coordinated with the sections of the choreography. There are many lovely sections of pure dance music, and in between, more freely dramatic music to underscore something that is happening in the plot. You might think about soundtracks of movies in our own times—how they will not be to the fore of our consciousness, yet how they will certainly contribute a scary or happy feeling depending upon the action. Such specific suggestions as “thunderstorm music” go back a long way: one fine non-theatrical example is in Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony. Similarly, in ballet, the sounds of storms and so forth need not be rhythmic or last any specific number of measures.

The phrasing of the dance sections, however, is all very straight-forward, often conforming to the convention of eight-bar sections found in traditional folk dances all the way to music used for exercises in ballet studios of our own time.

In La Sylphide, there are some folk-like dances to suggest the gathering of the Scottish neighbors for a wedding feast.  James also uses those expected phrase patterns—but to do complicated jumps, crossings of feet, and leaps. Although La Sylphide did in fact usher in an era where the female dancers en pointe usurped more than their previous share of audience ardor and attention, yet at least the males did display considerable virtuosity, both in solos and as a large group together.  And of course the music had to clearly support all that.

The character of James has some admirable solos, and for some of them it can be noticed that the musical beat, instead of going along in those fast sixteenth notes, will be less subdivided, for instance, into stronger eighth notes. However, the “neighbor” men and James also can be seen moving in most virtuosic classical balletic tradition, to very fast light music. And one is reminded that the emphasis of classical ballet is basically up-up-up into the air, in contrast to modern dance, where the weight is down-down-down to earth.

the Danish version

The ballet itself quickly started to fly around the world. La Sylphide was mounted in Copenhagen for the Danish Ballet in 1836 by August Bournonville (1805-1879), with a brand-new musical score commissioned from the then-20-year old aristocratic Norwegian-Danish composer Herman Severin Løvenskjold (1815-1870). Commissioning a new score was affordable for the company; acquiring the Parisian one was not. The two Danish artists collaborated again subsequently, for Fantasies in 1838, and for The New Penelope in 1847. The Bournonville-Løvenskjold version of La Sylphide has continued to be performed down to our own times in many places around the world, and can be seen on DVD as well. Listen for snatch of “Comin’ Through the Rye.”

It is interesting to compare the two musical versions—Schneitzhoeffer’s for Paris and Løvensjold’s for Denmark—in terms of style of the music itself and the effects upon the dancing. The conductor/author Baird Hastings felt that the Danish score was superior. But in reviewing a French production starring Rudolf Nureyev in 1981, Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times was unequivocal in comparing the two versions: “The scores are different with the original music here by Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer of higher calibre than the more sentimental one in the Danish ballet.”

After viewing both versions several times on film, I have to agree with a preference for the Paris version’s music—though the Danish setting offers reason to watch also. The latter is the version which Peter Martins (who is from Denmark  himself) restaged for New York City Ballet. He says it is the first ballet that he ever saw, and that he danced in it when he was a student at the Royal Danish Ballet School—later growing up to portray the lead role of James. Noting closer ties, Martins liked to report that the composer was his “mother’s sister’s husband’s grandfather!”

The heart of the Danish version of this ballet—as with other “ballets blancs” to come, is the scene where the corps of supernatural sylphides line up and dance in unison and in various grouped patterns. In the Danish score, the use of harp, violin solo, and flute timbre as well as the actual lightness of the melodies suggest airy spirits. Then James comes along again, and the composer saw fit to give him more vigorous instrumental accompaniment, including with cymbals. The instrumentation  differs from the Paris orchestra in having 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones—otherwise the same double woodwinds, harp, percussion, and the usual strings.

The plot continues the same as with the Paris version: beautiful dancing with all the sylphides. In a little while after the willful sylphide is wrapped in the scarf by James, yes, the wings fall off. As she slowly dies, she gives James back his ring, and is carried off by her companions and the stage contraptions, into the sky. There is a parade in the background, for Effie the bride hasn’t lost any  time (once convinced that James was unfaithful in love) in accepting the proposal of his rival Gurn on what was to have been her wedding day to James—who collapses on the spot. The green witch is gloating and makes James get up to witness the festivities. He collapses again and the curtain falls as the orchestra delivers an appropriately dark mood at the end.

* * *

Another ballet with a tragic ending that will be considered in this section, Giselle, is known as the epitome of the ballet blanc (white ballet) from the Romantic age in France. It also has one of the most effective (though simple) musical scores in theatrical ballet, composed by Adolphe Adam.

But first we’ll skip ahead to a 20th century ballet inspired by La Sylphide. Viewers who notice the patterns of groupings in Act II of La Sylphide may also recognize some similar aspects in the choreographic and emotional styles, though the music is totally different, being orchestrations of existing piano music by Chopin instead of—as for La Sylphide—original music specially composed for the ballet.

notes and further explorations:


The 2005 French DVD of La Sylphide is recommended, on TDK label, with the Paris Opéra Ballet performing choreography adapted by Pierre Lacotte after Taglioni. Aurélie Dupont as the sylphide, Mathieu Ganio as James, and Melanie Hurel as Effie. Emanno Florio conducts the 1832 music by Schneitzhoeffer. An added special is a very interesting interview with Lacotte about the research he did in order to mount his revival in 1971. He examined Taglioni’s ballet slippers, looked at the comments written on original scores, had access to private archives, studied fashion history, and more in order to be able to offer the “perfume” of those times. He mentions that her father the choreographer may have thought Marie Taglioni’s arms looked too long if held straight down, and so devised the pose of crossed arms that became a signature of Romantic ballet. The lead dancer also comments about the fact that the dancers had to wear corsets, and when they lifted their arms, their bodies would automatically lean forward a bit. Lacotte’s wife Ghislaine Thesmar (who recreated the role of the sylph in 1971) also makes comments. A beautiful film all round, and it makes clear how very closely related the music and the choreography and pantomime were coordinated.

In her IED entry on La Sylphide, dance historian Susan Au comments that:

Pierre Lacotte’s “reconstrucion,” filmed in 1971, is the best-known reconstruction of Taglioni’s choreography. In addition to the materials used previously, he also consulted Filipio’s annotated musical scores, sketches, performance notes, and class notebooks.  This is the ballet performed with the  score by Jean-Madeleine Schnitzhoeffer, choreography by Philippe Taglioni in 1832, restaged by Pierre Lacotte. 4 parts online. The DVD is on the TDK label, performance by the Paris Opera National Ballet and Orchestra, conducted by Ermanno Florio.

The Kultur DVD filmed in 1988 of the Royal Danish Ballet features Lis Jeppesen as the Sylphide; Nikolaj Hübbe as James. Conductor is Poul Jørgensen. This uses the 1836 score by Løvenskjold. Complete ballet available for viewing online: Now as artistic director, Nikolaj Hübbe directed his third production of La Sylphide. This company description includes very brief teaser clip of the dancers, plus information about the 2020 performances. The music director of English National Ballet discusses the Danish score to La Sylphide.

Robert le diable:

It should be noted that the tenor Adolphe Nourrit drew his inspiration for the story of La Sylphide partly from Charles Nodier’s 1822 work Trilby. Nourrit had been the lead tenor in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1831 opera Robert le diable,which in Act III has the souls of formerly bad nuns dancing in veils. This dramatic scene (which included Marie Taglioni  performing choreography by her father Filippo Taglioni) initially inspired the tenor to write his libretto for La Sylphide.  The opera was also noteworthy for its use of gas lighting, and according to Harold Schonberg (The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd ed.,New York: W.W. Norton, 1997) p. 240, in its first eight years, Robert le diable was performed multiple times at 1,843 theaters! If you enjoy horror films, there is an Opus Arte DVD of the opera performed stunningly by the Royal Opera, conducted by Daniel Oren, featuring Bryan Hymel, and with purposefully grotesque choreography by Lionel Hoche.

For pictures and background go to  Paris Opera performance of Robert le diable conducted by Thomas Fulton. Dances end of part II. The music is quite beautiful, and the opera was considered a breakthrough in its time. Mounted in three parts. Ballet of the nuns, starring Ghislaine Thesmar and Yosu Zabala. Piano accompaniment.  Orchestral performance only, showing painting that Degas did of the Ballet of the Nuns as seen from the orchestra pit.  Good introduction to the opera itself. Excellent informative article  by Anna Kisselgoff about the Meyerbeer opera, which is widely considered to be the work that launched the era of the “ballet blanc,” or white ballets with women in gauzy costumes performing as fantasy beings in various misty romantic settings!

Ann Hutchinson Guest and Knud Arne Júrgensen put together a book that highlights Labanotation for the entire scene: Robert le Diable, The Ballet of the Nuns (Netherlands: Gordon and Breach Publishers, 1997). Historical introduction followed by notated musical excerpts presented with the corresponding Labanotation (based on study of the Danish choreographer August Bournonville’s notes), information on performance, posed photographs of dancers, and then a full piano score. Brief clip of Ann Hutchinson Guest (age 100 plus) dancing to “Lovely…Just the Way You Look Tonight.” 6 minutes, worth watching the intro to her 2 minute dance. She married the outstanding dance scholar Ivor Guest and in her own career became expert on dance notation. Obituary of Ann Hutchinson Guest and description of her work in notating dance.


A detailed telling of the ballet’s story is in the 1977 edition of Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, pp 603-12. For information about the various revisions and performances of La Sylphide, see IED v. 6, pp. 57-59 article by Susan Au.

A most welcome book of music is French Romantic Ballets, edited and introduced by Robert Ignatius Letellier (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2012). It contains piano arrangements of movements from La Sylphide, Giselle, and Le Corsaire. For the composer Schneitzhoeffer, there are six arrangements from La Sylphide by Adolphe Adam (the composer of Giselle) and eight more by Antoine Aulagnier.

The quote from the French periodical was from Sept. 21, 1834, as translated in Ivor Guest, The Romantic Ballet in Paris (Hampshire, HK: Dance Books, 2008) p. 242. This is an exceptional dance history book that is especially good at conveying a sense of the personalities as well as the physical dance image of the leading ballerinas. The first chapter could be of interest to both dance and music students as an overview of the period and style. The quote from the second critic is from Guest, p. 216. The description of Marie Taglioni was by Jules Janin, as translated by Guest on p. 214, and is well worth reading in its entirety. Ivor Guest’s concluding comment about La Sylphide is on p. 213.

Ivor Guest died in March 2018 at the age of 97. Born in Kent, England, he was a lawyer by profession, but became a passionate scholar especially knowledgeable about the history of ballet in both Paris and London. He was chairman of the Royal Academy of Dance in London for 23 years and managed to write many books—all of them highly recommended—very readable and full of interesting information and stories.

Baird Hastings (1919-2007) was best known as a conductor—founder of the Mozart Festival of New York. He served in the Army, studied at the Paris Conservatory, was a Fulbright Scholar, and later earned a diploma in conducting at the Salzburg Mozarteum. He was a founding editor of Dance Index and wrote more than 400 articles plus 10 books about music. The reference above to his opinion about the La Sylphide scores is on p. 95 of Baird Hastings, Choreographer and Composer: Theatrical Dance and Music in Western Culture (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983).

For August Bournonville’s complete libretto of La Sylphide, translated into English by Patricia N. McAndrew, see Selma Jeanne Cohen, editor, Dance as a Theatre Art (Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 2nd edition, 1992), pp.77-85.

For a performer’s experience of dancing in the Bournonville version, see Baryshnikov at Work: Mikhail Baryshnikov Discusses His Roles ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), pp. 85-95. He particularly mentions some of the technical aspects of the role of James. Concerning the music for this version, he commented:

The world of La Sylphide is a wonderful whole, with its great dancing from a great tradition and with its marvelous score. The music is very good dance music in the first place, and beyond that it contains a secret.It is naive, but it has sudden and startling depths. It is also dramatically very accurate.

In respect to La Sylphide traveling around the world rapidly, a brief but interesting account of its 1837 staging in Russia by its choreographer Filippo Taglioni, danced by his daughter Marie, is in Roland John Wiley, A Century of Russian Ballet: Documents and Accounts 1810-1910 (Alton, UK: Dance Books Ltd. 2007 republication of work originally published in 1990 by Clarendon Press). Essay pp. 81-89 especially reflects the admiration in which the dancer was held by Russian artists and audiences. (Father and daughter were there from 1837 to 1842.)

Wiley’s book, p. 23, also offers in translation an 1851 Russian opinion about composing for ballet, by A.P. Glushkovsky, himself a ballet master:

Some balletmasters, commissioning a composer to write music for a ballet, grant him complete discretion to compose what he wants. The excellent composer can, of course, write music wonderful in all respects to a given libretto if one considers the music separate from the ballet. But when it must conform to the requirements of ballet and of dances, this music may turn out to be quite unsuitable. For the music to be well matched with the acts of a ballet, the composer must have the same knowledge of the art of ballet production as the balletmaster himself. As this occurs so rarely, it is best if the balletmaster takes part in the composition of the music.

“talking music”

In regard to inserting borrowed melodies, some readers who want to pursue more scholarly musical investigations might be interested in reading Marian Smith, Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). In chapter  4 she talks about the use of air parlant—talking music—in ballets, where not only did the dancers’ pantomimes take the place of spoken language; sometimes the specific words that originally went with the borrowed musical excerpts were meant to indicate drama in the ballet. Other times, composers would just borrow snippets that seemed useful for any particular moment. For instance, on p. 107, for Schneitzhoeffer’s score to La Sylphide, the author lists excerpts from one of Bach’s fugues, from Gluck’s opera Orphée et Euridice; from one of Paganini’s variations, and other sources. However, it does seem that an admirable aspect of Schneitzhoeffer’s score is the way his dramatic sections really do “tell” the audience something about what is happening emotionally. Combined with the dancers’ facial expressions, hand movements, and other “body language,” the plot and situations are moved along without words.

Marian Smith, a musicologist at the University of Oregon, has also edited the collection La Sylphide: Paris 1832 and Beyond (London: Dance Books, Ltd., 2012). Of particular interest to advanced music students and musicologists is chapter 4, “Schneitzhoeffer’s music for La Sylphide” by Matilda Ann Butkas Ertz. The author did rare research, studying the full orchestral score in Paris, the original libretto, and violin rehearsal scores that had information about the relation of the music to what was happening in the dance. She provides her own analysis of the music itself, with a few notated excerpts of themes, and also a brief comparison of Schneitzhoeffer’s score with the one written by Løvenskjold for the Danish Ballet. Among the unusual information she provides are charts of “borrowed” music, including the exposition themes from one of Bach’s fugues to accompany the witches brewing.

Marian Smith also has an essay titled “The orchestra as translator: French nineteenth-century ballet” in the following volume ed. by Kant. Of relevant interest are her explanations on p. 140 about what airs parlants were in the context of ballet. She has an observation which some readers may want to take as a suggestion for future research (p. 146):

Indeed, the great store of French ballet music remaining untouched in the archives could be profitably mined even more, for the necessary qualities of danceability and narrative vigour originally invested in the best of these scores remain as vibrant today as they were when the music was composed.

Romantic ballet style:

Marion Kant, editor The Cambridge Companion to Ballet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Part III on the Romantic ballet is particularly pertinent, with the above mentioned essay as well as “Deadly sylphs and decent mermaids: the women in the Danish romantic world of August Bournonville” by Anne Middlehoe Christensen. Also see “Romantic ballet in France: 1830-1850” by Sarah Davis Cordova.

For a particularly eloquent introduction to the spirit of Romantic ballet in Europe (beginning in 1830), see Carol Lee Ballet in Western Culture, pp. 135ff section titled “The Aesthetic Shaping of the Romantic Ballet.” She touches upon the influence of poetry of the time.

Les Sylphides

Not be confused with the sylphides in Scotland, these are much more recent beings. Though they are Romantically similarly dressed and do have wings, yet they don’t show us how they can fly, and prefer to dance on the ground with a poet, to the music of  piano pieces, by Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) as orchestrated by several composers.

The dancers first appeared onstage wearing Polish costumes at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, to the movements directed by Michel Fokine, in 1907, with the barest of scene-setting, under the title Chopiniana. They moved to Paris under the aegis of Serge Diaghilev in 1909, and have been on the move ever since, pleasing audiences across several continents, but with no specific subjects at all, and no scenery; just motion and emotion related to the music, and now all the women in identical white in the style that Marie Taglioni established for La Sylphide.

What the predecessors of Les Sylphides originally danced to, in more folk-style costumes, were these Chopin pieces orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov:

Polonaise in A, op. 40, no. 1—set in a ballroom
Nocturne in F, op. 15—presented as a dream of Majorca
Mazurka in C sharp minor, op. 50, no. 3—a Polish wedding celebration
Waltz in C sharp minor, op. 64, no. 2—a pas de deux
Tarantella in A flat op, 43—a Neapolitan folk scene

Visually what was seen onstage was Chopin sitting at the piano, suffering hallucinations, including dead monks arising from their graves in the rain. The composer found relief in the nocturne. Next came a Polish wedding of a young woman to an elderly man whom she did not love. The good news is that the younger man she really loved found her just in time, and they escaped. Then came the waltz, and finally the Italian folk dance of tarantella, performed by the choreographer’s wife Vera Fokina and a large ensemble.

In the revised version, other dances were added, with new orchestrations by Maurice Keller, and instead of folk style costumes, the women were now all in identical white: fitted bodices, bouffant skirts mid-calf, white tights, and all on  pointe shoes. The sole male performer was dressed simply in a white shirt with “poet’s sleeves,” white tights, and an elegant black velvet  tunic.

In this version, Les Sylphides has come down to us. The choreographer Fokine wrote in his memoirs that he considered it “the first abstract ballet” without a specific story, but rather projecting an atmosphere and emotions in direct relation to the classical music. In setting Chopin, Fokine was doing for ballet what the pioneer modern dancer Isadora Duncan had done for her barefoot style. And this was a tremendous change from the traditional relationship between music and theatrical dance. This “abstract” relationship led to a full flowering in the works that George Balanchine choreographed for New York City Ballet over the course of decades.

The setting of Fokine’s—which was so inspired by La Sylphide of the past—also ushered in a new attitude expected of the performers. Fokine felt that the male star Vaslav Nijinsky understood perfectly what his role should be: not to smile and please the audience with virtuoso steps, but rather to portray a dreamer, a youthful poet. In the old days, wrote Fokine:

It was previously essential that all male variations include double turns in the air and end with a preparation and a pirouette. But the most important difference between the new and old classic dance was in the expressiveness. Previously, the dancer emphasized in all his movements that he was dancing for the audience’s pleasure, exhibiting himself as if saying “Look how good I am.” This was the substance of each variation in the old ballets. Even, at each new rehearsal of Les Sylphides,  I had to tell the dancer:

“Do not dance for the audience, do not exhibit yourself, do not admire yourself. On the contrary, you have to see, not yourself, but the elements surrounding you, the ethereal Sylphides. Look at them while dancing. Admire them, reach for them! These moments of longing and reaching toward some fantastic world are the very basic movements and expressions of this ballet.”

The choreographer set his new dance in three days! It was produced by Sergei Diaghilev for the 1909 Paris season of Ballets Russes. The featured soloists were Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Maria Baldina, and Vaslav Nijinsky.

Recalling his choreography years later in his memoirs, Fokine wrote:

When I looked at the etchings and lithographs of ballerinas of the romantic period—Taglioni, Grisi, Cerrito, and others—I clearly saw that their dancing and goals were entirely different from those of the present. For theirs was not the demonstration of physical strength but of pure poetry.

Fokine’s choreography has been handed down through several generations. It is a beautiful ballet still, though many who have played some of the piano pieces and know Chopin’s works as listeners find the orchestral versions less satisfying—even strange because the pieces are so intrinsically pianistic and the orchestrations may seem to lack a certain percussive quality that one gets from the piano. Moreover, the orchestral performances sometimes lack that basic sense of rubato (literally stretched or elastic timing) with which great pianists have traditionally infused their renditions of Chopin pieces.

Considering this, the New York City Ballet presented a revival of Chopiniana staged by Alexandra Danilova based on Fokine’s original choreography, with Gordon Boelzner providing all the music on piano. When Ballet Review reporters asked the ballerina why she was not using the orchestrations, whether that was a “radical” thing to do in view of the tradition, Danilova replied:

But it is not, if you think that from the beginning it was done with piano. Chopin never orchestrated. And in Paris people said it was illogical to orchestrate Chopin when he wrote strictly for piano.

There have been a number of orchestrations over the last century, but the Chopin pieces normally follow this order: (The new version omitted the Polonaise, though in some performances and films this is used as a purely instrumental introduction). The dances now are:

Nocturne in A flat, Op. 32, No. 2
Waltz in G flat, Op. 70, No. 1
Mazurka in D, Op. 33, No. 2
Mazurka in C, Op. 67, No. 3
Prelude in A, Op. 28, No. 7
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2
Grande Valse Brillante in E flat, Op. 18

In his handbook to Ballet Music, the music librarian Matthew Naughtin reports that for the 1909 performances of Les Sylphides, Serge Diaghilev commissioned new orchestrations for all the dances except for the Waltz in C sharp minor. The new settings were by Anatoly Lyadov, Sergei Taneyev, Nicolai Tcherepnin, and Igor Stravinsky. However, nowadays the commercial editions usually use orchestrations made by the British composer Roy Douglas in 1936.

Roy Douglas died in 2015 at the age of 107. Allegedly he had been so disgusted by previous orchestrations of Les Sylphides that he redid the music for the entire ballet, even turning down the outright fee of 10 pounds for the work. The royalties he earned instead added up substantially over the years. Originally a pianist, Roy Douglas branched out and also performed percussion with orchestras including the London Symphony. More to the point here, he also played for various ballet seasons, including as many as 80 performances of Petrouchka along the way. He also began orchestrating professionally and composing his own works, so when it came to Les Sylphides, he had quite a background with instruments. You may not see the name Roy Douglas on printed programs for ballet performances, but it seems likely that for Les Sylphides nowadays you may be hearing his orchestrations played. (See endnotes for information about hearing his arrangements.)

Another surprising story about Les Sylphides orchestrations: in 1941 American Ballet Theatre commissioned new orchestrations by the British composer Benjamin Britten, for a fee of $300. This setting was used by ABT until the late 1970s when the music was thought to be lost. Miraculously, in 2013 ABT conductor David LaMarche discovered a conductor’s score, then unearthed the instrumental parts behind some old steamer trunks in the company’s warehouse. The parts were printed by computer and first used in the company’s performance on November 1, 2013. So far, a film with these orchestrations does not seem to be available.

However, the older filmed American Ballet Theatre performance linked below is still quite beautiful. For those who have never seen this ballet, this is a must, since it is so famous. The ballerinas are even wearing wings! And it must be observed that though there are soloists spotlighted, certainly the major  “star” of Les Sylphides is the entire cast, in the way the dancers assume so many different groupings in tableau poses; in the way they disband and re-gather, line up in syncronization, offer varying travel steps, phrase their movements in relation to the music (but not mimicing or “Mickey Mousing” the sounds) and extend their hands and arms in that distinctive “Romantic” style that gives such a different flavor compared to “classical” ballets from the late 19th century.

Quoting a French critic from the year of Les Sylphides’ premiere, the leading writer Cyril W. Beaumont provided this in translation:

Les Sylphides is a series of dances executed in a landscape by young girls wearing Taglioni dresses, and by a dreamy youth, a poet if you will, who seems to savour, in the midst of this diaphanous enchantment, the refined delights of an artificial paradise. You cannot conceive anything more ethereal, more seraphic, and more voluptuous than the evolution of all those fragile forms, of all those happy shades in the emerald-green reflections of the moonlight….it is difficult to think of Chopin’s music in connection with a ballet, but in this particular case, which suggests a dream, an hallucination, the choice is defensible and almost legitimate.


But what of Chopin’s music in his own time? He wrote many stylized piano pieces based on dance forms. And according to the author Eric McGee, his sensitivity to mazurkas, waltzes, and polonaises was partly a result of his having danced these himself in urban Polish ballrooms at least from the age of 15.

Fryderyk (Frédéric) Chopin (1810-49) was often pictured  by later Victorian artists as a frail long-haired poet of romantic music, suffering from terminal tuberculosis, seated at the piano playing for his longtime mistress the writer George Sand, surrounded by a select but adoring set of wealthy admirers.

His early life, however, was anything but that caricature. He was born near Warsaw. With rigorous studies not only in piano but also in harmony and counterpoint at the Warsaw Conservatory, this Polish musician was already performing a concerto in public at the age of 18, and continued his studies until 1829. Soon he embarked on travels and concertizing: Dresden, Prague, Vienna, and Stuttgart, where he was when he learned that the Russians had captured Warsaw. He decided to settle in Paris, where he taught piano to members of aristocratic families as he gradually decreased his public concerts precisely to concentrate on his compositions—which he sold to publishers. However, he continued to perform for small “salon” gatherings in private homes. He had a very good income from all this. Additionally, his friends gave accounts of his entertaining them by playing the piano for them to dance.

Chopin’s most prolific period was from 1836 to 1847—precisely the time of his liason with the novelist George Sand. After their separation, the composer’s health did get worse, and when he died, thousands mourned at his funeral.

Aside from a couple of pieces for flute and cello, his music was entirely for piano (including two concertos with orchestra), and many of the early works were intended for his own virtuosic performances, but later some were written for his own students. Since then, piano students all over the world have learned and loved his pieces—which are particularly pianistic in regard to hand patterns, challenging in interpretation, full of beautiful melodies, and always crowd pleasers for those virtuoso musicians who can perform them well. Abstract music sufficient in itself, with no set format, each piece growing out of the composer’s imagination: preludes, nocturnes, etudes, impromptus, ballades, fantasies, scherzos, a barcarolle, variations…and yes, three sonatas.

But for a composer whose image was projected as someone sitting on a bench, he was extraordinarily drawn to dance, and though his own compositions were not intended for the ballroom, yet they are based on the rhythms, flow, and style of the forms: waltzes, polonaises, mazurkas, tarantella, and one bolero.  He wrote no music for the theater; no ballets.

Especially with his stylized waltzes and mazurkas, Chopin explored a wide range of tempos, moods, ornamentation, and melodic possibilities. With the waltzes there is always that oom-pah-pah pattern of bass and two offbeats. The left hand of the mazurkas also offers a definite triple meter with a varying strong second or third beat in the melody—but the patterns are more varied than in the waltzes, and though there is often a typical dotted rhythm in either left or right hand, that is not always the case. These florid waltzes and mazurkas—along with the bravura polonaises—offer endless fascination for pianists and listeners. And after Isadora Duncan and Michel Fokine broke the sound barrier and showed it was not only possible but also acceptable and wonderful to dance to Chopin’s music—well! That has never stopped happening.

Robbins ballets

Among the favorite modern settings of Chopin’s music are three ballets by Jerome Robbins: his hilarious 1956 work The Concert with live pianist onstage performing; the more poignant and beautiful Dances at a Gathering, also with the pianist onstage, premiered in 1969; and In the Night, from 1970.

The Concert is particularly amusing because of the way it explores how listeners’ minds may wander while they are at a concert of classical music, but also because it touches on the extensive presence of Chopin in the training of ballet students—and how the music is no guarantee that everyone present will get the physical movements right! Meanwhile, the pianist onstage valiantly goes on playing despite whatever is happening around him or her. Some of the pieces were arranged for piano with orchestra by Clare Grundman (a leading band composer of his time). The pianist’s entry was also choreographed by Robbins to be part of his general spoof of manners and rituals of both musicians and audiences.

Jerome Robbins subtitled The Concert as “The Perils of Everybody” and added his thoughts to the New York City Ballet program notes:

One of the pleasures of attending a concert is the freedom to lose oneself in listening to the music. Quite often, unconsciously, mental pictures and images form; and the patterns and paths of these reveries are influenced by the music itself, or its program notes, or by the personal dreams, problems, and fantasies of the listener. Chopin’s music in particular has been subject to fanciful “program” names such as the Butterfly Étude, the Minute Waltz, the Raindrop Prelude, etc.

Dances at a Gathering was premiered by New York City Ballet in 1969 with the company’s fine pianist Gordon Boelzner playing the solos onstage, as  ten dancers—male and female—gifted the audience with a growing sense of beauty, feeling, and a caring sense of community.

While he was thinking about his ballet, Robbins said he listened to many recordings, of different pianists playing the same pieces—mostly Artur Rubinstein and Guiomar Novaes and some Alexander Brailowsky.

The subtle sense of rubato in performances by these musical artists is something that may be missing when Chopin is used for ballet. “Rubato” is a kind of expressive, delicate flexibility in the timing of phrasing, not destroying the basic sense of meter, but rather affecting the way the melody is performed.

Understandably, most dancers may prefer to have an absolutely dependable beat if they are to perform certain choreography. (For example, it would be difficult to execute leaps and jumps in the air if one could not be sure of when the musician was going to give you a downbeat for your landing.) However, if musicians and ballet masters work together in rehearsal and the dancers can become familiar with the use of rubato here and there (especially typical at the ends of phrases in many Chopin pieces), then it can be lovely if such correspondences can be developed between music and movement (for instance in closing a port de bras or arm movement to end in a stationary pose). Frequently the sense of breath is involved. This is one aspect of performance that classical ballet artists mention when they talk about “musicality” in dancers—something worth cultivating.

Robbins opted not to have the Chopin pieces orchestrated. And it can be noted that his original pianist, Gordon Boelzner, had worked with the New York City Ballet a long time, and was able to provide both the musicality and the phrasing that the dancers expected for the specific choreography.

In an interview, Jerome Robbins said he had been asked “What is the relationship between Les Sylphides and your ballet?”

His reply: “Well, I guess we used the same composer.”

But wait. There was more. It seems that when the choreographer was pestered about what the ballet was “about,” he wrote this letter to Ballet Review, in 1972 asking that it be printed in capital letters:


notes and explorations:


The DVD of Les Sylphides most highly recommended is the 1984 performance on American Ballet Theatre at the Met: Mixed Bill, on the Kultur label. It is conducted by Paul Connelly, with the lead dancers: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Cynthia Harvey, Marianna Tcherkassky, and Cheryl Yeager. It can be noted that the tempos are kept quite steady within each section—though there may be changes between the sections.  This is the same ABT performance conducted by Paul Connelly, with Mikhail Baryshnikov as the poet, surrounded by so many outstanding ballerinas.

DVD: 2012 ICA Classics/BBC restored 1956 b&w film, orchestration, Roy Douglas. “Philharmonia Orchestra” conducted by Robert Irving. He and dancers do have some nice rubato phrasing, “agogic accents” and other touches, Ballet master Peter Wright. This is the Kirov Chopiniana. Kind of blurry, but still beautiful. These are the dancers of the Maryinsky Theatre, performing at the Abu Dhabi Festival in 2013. Sylphides sure get around!

DVD, View Video label.  Bolshoi, orchestrations by Glazunov. short clip of Maria Tallchief and Royes Fernandez, at a slow tempo.


Michel Fokine’s directives to his dancers are from Fokine: Memoirs of a Ballet Master, translated by Vitale Fokine, edited by Anatole Chujoy (Boston and Toronto: Little Brown & Co., 1961) p. 132. His recollection of his inspiration is on p. 129, and on pp. 130-131 he recalls the performances of the specific dancers.

Another book of interest: Cyril W. Beaumont, Michel Fokine and his Ballets (London: Dance Books, 1996 reprint of work originally published in 1935). Beaumont was one of the leading writers about ballet. The quote from a 1909 critic in Le Journal is on p. 51.

Going back to the Ballet Russes premiere of Les Sylphides in 1909, with dancers Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Alexandra Baldina, and Vaslav Nijinsky.

Alexandra Danilova’s comment appeared in Ballet Review, v. 4/5 (1973) as quoted in Balanchine and Mason, Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, p. 614.

The information about the orchestrations is drawn from Matthew Naughtin, Ballet Music: A Handbook (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) pp. 357-359.

Chopin: A brief report by Nancy Marie Brown,“Dancing to Chopin” about the findings of musician Eric McKee’s research into Chopin’s experiences of dance forms and playing for dancers. Also see McKee’s most interesting book Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz: A Study of Dance-Music Relations in ¾ Time (Indiana University Press, 2011), chapters 4-6 on Chopin. Lengthy online biography of the composer. Raises the point that Chopin’s experience of Polish dance forms was of “urbanized” ballroom types rather than “folk.”


An excellent description can be found in Denis Agay, editor, Teaching Piano, vol. 1 (Yorktown Music Press, 1981) pp. 32-33:

Rubato  or tempo rubato indicates a flexibility and elasticity of tempo, subtle deviations from the basic metronomic pulse. We distinguish two kinds: melodic rubato,  in which the melody is played freely against the steady, unchanging pulse of the accompaniment, and full or structural rubato,  in which the melody and accompaniment move together in coordinated modification of melody….

A certain flexibility of tempo is inherent in the performance of nearly all types of music, except perhaps those which are predominantly poloyphonic or strictly dancelike and rhythmic in character….In all cases, even in pieces of a romantic and sentimental nature, rubato should be employed with taste and restraint; the player should never lose sight of the work’s style, structure, and desirable median momentum.

orchestrations of Les Sylphides:  This is just the music as arranged by Roy Douglas.  Performance by Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

For more information about the composer/orchestrator Roy Douglas, see this obituary article. Here is another recording of Roy Douglas arrangement, played beautifully by Berlin Radio Symphony.  This is a report about how the missing orchestrations by Britten were found. A recording of Britten’s orchestration of the E flat Chopin Waltz as he scored it for ABT. Very nice indeed! Other movements from this recording (Joseph Levine conducting American Ballet Theatre Orchestra) can be heard via amazon and MP3.

Robbins ballets:

The program notes by Jerome Robbins were quoted from Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Ballets, p. 123. The Concert is included on a BelAir DVD of the Paris Opera Ballet Tribute to Robbins, which also includes In the Night. Many viewers found that performance didn’t compare to the New York City Ballet. Of course: best to see it live! The same goes for Dances at a Gathering: no DVD of New York City Ballet performing all of it. But for a very special overview of Jerome Robbins and his chroreography, there is an excellent Kultur DVD titled Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About, reissued from the original American Masters telecast on PBS.

The letter from Jerome Robbins was published in Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, pp. 159-69.

Dances at a Gathering used mostly Chopin mazurkas and waltzes, but also several etudes, a scherzo, and a nocturne. A most interesting interview  about this ballet was reported by Edwin Denby for Dance Magazine and was reprinted in Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Ballets, pp.150-58. The Robbins quote is from p. 158. On pp. 150-51 Denby commented:

As one dance succeeds another—the ballet lasts about an hour—you are fascinated by the variety and freshness of invention, the range of feeling, and by the irresistibly beautiful music which the dance lets you hear distinctly—its mystery too….The music and the dance seem to be inventing each other.

As audience members, we each have our own feelings and responses to “Dances at a Gathering” and to the choreographer’s published “explanation” as quoted in the above essay. However, it is unusual to be invited in to one of the performer’s experiences of being onstage in this work. In her beautifully written memoir, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Jenifer Ringer devoted an entire chapter to expressing some of the rich meanings that she discovered. (See Dancing Through It, Penguin Books, 2014, pp. 232-234). Concerning her relationship to the performances of Chopin’s music, she commented (p. 238):

I loved the challenge of trying to force my body into the parameters of the musicality and initially had to put a great deal of concentration into getting the choreography exactly right. Soon, however, it became second nature and I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. And there was nothing like the feeling that I was dancing right on top of the music, visually exposing the rhythms for the audience so that they could appreciate the music on a whole different level. I often danced that solo with the feeling of some force propelling me from behind,  pushing me forward so that the music never got away from me. It was exhilarating.

The most complete biography of Robbins is by Deborah Jowitt, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005). For her account of the creation of The Concert, see pp. 352-54. Film of the Paris National Ballet performing the entire Robbins ballet The Concert. Pianist is Vessela Pelovska. This is a good description of The Concert, a review by Jack Anderson in The New York Times, April 7, 2002  And to indicate that The Concert  still amuses audiences, here is an article from The Washington Post about Suzanne Farrell’s Ballet performance in the Kennedy Center, written by Sarah Kaufman, September 6, 2014. A film of particularly exquisite pas de deux performance from Dances at a Gathering. Marianela Nunez and Federico Bonelli of The Royal Ballet. Robert Clark, pianist.

CDs of pianists:

Among 20th century pianists particularly known for their interpretations of Chopin pieces were Artur Rubinstein, Alexander Brailowsky, and Claudio Arrau. Listeners can still enjoy remastered CDs of Rubinstein’s recordings (he did almost Chopin’s entire works). And the complete RCA recordings of Brailowsky’s Chopin have been remastered and released on CD in 2018.

From a later generation of pianists, Maurizio Pollini projects a very beautiful, clear style for Chopin—and there is a 9-CD boxed set of his Chopin recordings on
Deutsche Grammophon.


The French composer Adolphe Adam (1803-56) wrote the entire orchestral score for the ballet Giselle in a matter of weeks, and it was premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1841 to great acclaim. His beautiful and dramatic music continues to propel this emotional story of a peasant girl who loves to dance despite her weak heart; a disguised noble who courts her though he is actually engaged to a duke’s daughter; a forester who would like to marry Giselle himself and reveals the duplicitousness of the noble; and a group of female Wilis in white—vengeful spirit creatures who were engaged to be married but died before the ceremonies and who now have the power to compel any man who ventures into their part of the woods at night to dance to his death.

The ballet was inspired by a poem of the German poet Heinrich Heine; the libretto for the theatrical work was written jointly by Théophile Gautier and Vernoy de Saint-Georges. The role of Giselle was first performed by Carlotta Grisi, and though he was not credited in the programs, it was widely known that her common-law husband Jules Perrot choreographed all her solos. The rest of the dances were set by the ballet master of the Paris Opéra, Jean Coralli. The role of Loys/Albrecht was originated by Lucien Petipa (brother of Marius Petipa, who later became so famous as a choreographer in Russia, and who himself made reconstructive changes to the choreography of Giselle in the 1880s and kept the work alive when it was discontinued from the repertoire for a long time in Paris).

Through the years there have been various cuts made for performances of this ballet. But an addition that has remained in place is the interpolated Peasant Pas de Deux in Act I, which has always been done to Johann Friedrich Burgmüller’s Souvenirs de Ratisbonne. This composer sought to cash in on the instant fame of his six-part section by selling it to a publisher for 1000 francs, so the sheet music was issued with Giselle in large type. A lawsuit ensued; the publisher was required to indicate that the pieces had been interpolated into the ballet. Adam sold his entire score to another publisher for 3000 francs.

Adolphe Adam said that he found ballets particularly enjoyable to compose, and it does seem as if memorably beautiful or dramatic melodies would just pour out of him.  His scores for theatrical works were very popular during his lifetime and included at least 44 operas and 14 ballets! Despite this success, upon reading his memoirs, what stands out are his financial concerns. He had a quarrel with theatrical powers that be and so thought to start a rival theater in Paris, investing a huge sum of money in November of 1847. Because of the 1848 turmoils, only a few months later Adam was destitute and could not even pay for his father’s funeral. However, in a few years he managed to pay down all his debts, by turning to journalistic writing, teaching at the Conservatory, and by composing more music. His output was enormous, including not only the operas and ballets, but also sacred works. Perhaps his most-recorded, most-performed piece is Canticle de Noel, or “O Holy Night,” sung so often and so-loved at Christmastime around the world.

It is tantalizing that we can hear so little of Adolphe Adam’s music now. From among the ballet works listed in the notes below, just about the only other one still performed in addition to Giselle is Le Corsaire.But what has become of his opera Le chalet, which forty years after its premiere in 1834 had received its one-thousandth performance?  Or what of a ballet that he composed for Marie Taglioni in 1836, La fille du Danube? Or what of La jolie fille de Gand? We can hear a lovely recording of the opera Si j’étais roi, but what was it like onstage?However, thanks to a 2019 French film, we can see  Le postillon [coachman] de Lonjumeau, which Adam composed five years before Giselle. It was a popular work especially among tenors who could astonish audiences with the high notes, and was performed in a number of European cities outside of France. But by 1894, the light-hearted opera had been performed 569 times at the Opéra Comique! The second opera that can be viewed now is Le Toréador ou l’accord parfait. (See end notes for information about both DVDs.)

The composer was only 53 when he died. He had certainly had a full life. The son of a pianist who taught at the Paris Conservatoire, Adolphe was surprisingly not encouraged to become a professional musician. Yet he did, at age 17, enter the Conservatory as a student, studying organ, counterpoint, and composition. His most influential teacher was Francois Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834) who was successful himself as a composer for light opera and vaudeville theater—and it was in that path that Adam also set out professionally.

Along the way Adolphe Adam married the sister of Pierre Francois Laporte, the manager of the King’s Theater in London—where some of the composer’s works were produced while he stayed in England for a time. Eventually his operas and ballets were applauded in Russia and Germany as well as in France and England—and then widely around the world. Giselle came to Boston and New York in 1846. And the ballet found a 20th century transformation as Creole Giselle set in the bayous, presented most beautifully by Dance Theatre of Harlem, now preserved on film. The most illustrious performers of his time starred in Adam’s theatrical works, and today Giselle is considered, as the ballerina Violette Verdy wrote, “the role of a lifetime.”

One varying aspect to consider about the plot is how Giselle dies. In the original performances she falls by stabbing herself with the noble’s sword; in subsequent London performances eight years later she expires from heart failure brought on by dancing. But in either version, first she goes mad upon the revelation that her apparent peasant would-be lover is actually not what he seems, and has most certainly been untrue to his vow.

A convincing case for the stabbing is made by Peter Wright, who produced modern performances of Giselle for the Royal Ballet and other companies. He points out that the reason Giselle is buried in a forsaken wooded area is precisely because she has committed suicide—and that act (considered sinful) would require her being buried in unhallowed ground. And so at the very end, when Giselle saves her lover from death, her spirit also seems saved as it retreats to her grave, hopefully no longer under the power of Myrtha the Queen of the Wilis.

In addition to the story and the dancing, something emotionally exceptional about this ballet is the way that both the choreographer and the composer used leitmotifs (recognizable little melodies—analogous in the dance to distinctive repeated physical movements—that refer to previous situations in the ballet). First, to express Giselle’s exuberant dancing, then her plucking the petals of a daisy to test “he loves me…loves me not,” then the joyous dance that she does with the man she then knows only as Loys, then her waltz with peasants. These distinctive musical motifs and physical dance patterns are transformed to express the poignant tragedy of Giselle’s madness—and then in the second act, when she too becomes a Wili, to recall the former love she held as a human being, and how that love continued enough after death for her to protect Loys (actually now known as Albrecht). It is her encouraging him to dance that saves his life, for though he is exhausted, Giselle keeps him moving until dawn, when the power of the Wilis cannot touch him, and they fade. Albrecht is left alone at Giselle’s grave with a flower she had given him.

All these themes do raise the question of just how is it that musical motifs, melodies, and even non-melodic patterning can help suggest to us definite action and emotions? Are emotions basically generated by the varying kinds of physical movements in the dance itself? Or in the case of this ballet, is the choreography so related to the music that we can’t separate them? Or is it the kind of “leitmotif” effect of the dance patterns themselves, which, as the story progresses are transformed to remind us of past events while expressing new meanings? And how much of this is due to the orchestration—for instance, the use of the viola for the heart-rending adagio near the end of Act II? Or the oboe to suggest questioning? Or tremolos in the highest ranges of the violins? Or the touch of a drone bass just before the peasant dance? Or the use of harp and flutes when the Wilis come out? Or the clarinet and the viola when Giselle and Albrecht are in their final love adagio? Just some things to think about.

Especially amazing is the fact that Adolphe Adam’s themes are so very simple, yet so extremely emotional and able to generate foreboding or poignant remembrance. The transformation of the musical material through the course of Giselle’s story helps to move audiences to tears: themes originally light and loving are experienced differently in the mad scene, and still differently when the the departed spirit is seen moving in choreography that is recognizable as a transformation of previous dances performed when Giselle was alive.

* * *

A translation of an 1841 critic’s assessment of the music of Giselle gives us a whiff of the reaction to the ballet when it was new:

This composer…has this time accomplished a real feat. His ballet is particularly noteworthy for its elegance, for the freshness and variety of its melodies, for its bold and novel harmonic combinations, for a zest which grips you from the very outset and is maintained to the end.

And writing in 1944, Cyril W. Beaumont expressed these feelings:

As we listen to-day to these haunting melodies composed over a century ago, we quickly become conscious of their intense nostalgic quality….The music of Giselle still exerts its magic. It is no less potent than the Wilis in its power to captivate and enchant those members of the audience willing to surrender to its mood.

notes and explorations:

the composer:

The titles of Adolphe Adam’s 14 ballets are listed below. For a listing of his operas and other works plus more details about his career, see New Grove entry for Adam written and compiled by Hugh Macdonald. Convenient lists/charts/information about both ballets and operas are included at the end of the Wikipedia biography of Adolphe Adam.

La chatte blanche, Faust, La fille du Danube, Les mohicans, L’écumeur de mer, Giselle, La jolie fille de Gand, Le diable a quatre, The Marble Maiden, Grisélidis, Orfa, Rilla, La filleule de fées, Le corsaire.

A warmly appreciative entry about Adolphe Adam was written for the IED by the conductor Richard Bonynge, who commented on the composer’s “extraordinary melodic gifts and sure instinct for the stage,” going on to suggest that Giselle is “arguably the greatest of all Romantic ballets and perhaps the most perfect of all ballet scores.” Bonynge’s own recording of the ballet, on Decca, garnered high praise from reviewers.

Recently published: Robert Ignatius Letellier and Nicholas Lester Fuller, Adolphe Adam, Master of the Opéra-Comique, 1824-1856 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2023). Vol. I includes an English translation of Adolphe Adam’s autobiography, which he had not intended for publication, plus a “Notice on the Life and Works of M. Adolphe Adam by M.F. Halévy.” Then there is individual information about his 44 operas—with performance facts, plot summaries, and contemporaneous reviews. There is also an enormous number of color plates illustrating specific opera singers in costume, plus notated musical excerpts.

Particular stand-outs among Adam’s operas were first of all Le Chalet (1834) which by 1922 had seen 1,547 performances! Then perhaps his most successful opera, Le postillon de Lonjumeau (1836); Le Toréador, written in six days in 1849; and Si j’étais roi (1852).

Vol. II by the two authors, also published in 2023, is titled Adolphe Adam, Master of the Romantic Ballet, 1830-1856. Again, with a generous number of color plates picturing specific dancers in costume. For each of the 14 ballets (presented in chronological order) included are facts of original production, synopsis of plot, samples of contemporary reviews, plus listings for scores and recordings if available. Both volumes belong in any serious library for music or dance. Back matter offers extensive bibliography of score publications and arrangements plus index listings separately for scenarists, choreographers, designers, costumers, and dancers.

For the ballets, first attention should of course go to Giselle  (1841). Then perhaps  La Jolie Fille de Gand (1842); La Fille du Danube (1836), and Le Diable á Quatre (1845).  Adam’s last ballet score was in 1856 for Le Corsaire (covered in chapter 9 of this website).


Highly recommended is the Dance Theatre of Harlem Creole Giselle DVD on Kultur released in 1988 starring Virginia Johnson as Giselle, Eddie J. Shellman as Albrecht, Lowell Smith as Hilarion, and Lorraine Graves as Myrtha. Directed by Arthur Mitchell. A film—so they could add nice touch of when Giselle gone mad raises fingers in pledge as Loys/Albrecht had, there is a flute flourish that occurs in Act II when Wilis gather, and there is also a fleeting visual premonition of Wilis in the sky. Danish Radio Concert Orchestra, conductor, Tadeusz Wojciechowski. Orchestrations by Milton Rosenstock.
Can’t tell if this is a licensed mounting, but it is American Ballet Theatre with Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in a performance conducted by John Lanchbery. Unfortunately, it seems to be available only on VHS and laser disc. This mounting is very blurry and sound not good, but nevertheless one’s breath can still be taken away by the Act II dancing. Timing and tempos seem perfection, along with the pure beauty and artistry.

Opus Arte 2014 DVD  recommended, with exquisite performances by Natalia Osipova and Carlos Acosta. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Boris Gruzin. This is a production by Peter Wright. Some musical revisions by Joseph Horovitz.

Peter Wright also produced the Royal Ballet performance available on the 2016 Opus Arte DVD, this time starring Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov, conducted by Barry Wordsworth, who on extra clip demonstrates effect of tempo on dramatic effect.–FVqDeLByY  Portrait of Giselle, documentary by Anton Dolin, 1982 with many ballerinas!

Deutsche Grammophon DVD of American Ballet Theatre, with Berlin Opera Orchestra conducted by John Lanchbery. Carla Fracci, Erik Bruhn. Choreography by David Blair. Also recommended though older. (See next listing.) Same as above: a film, 1969 of ABT, with Carla Fracci & Erik Bruhn. Berlin Opera orchestra conducted by John Lanchbery. Choreography by  David Blair, film by Hugo Niebeling.Done as a movie—with first character entering a real cow; real horses coming in with the hunting party, the impression of a real village. All that aside, the dancing is wonderful.

Fonteyn and Nureyev: The Perfect Partnerhsip on Kultur. 1962 b&w film of just the pas de deux from the last act. Historic and beautiful.

It is really too bad that out of the 44 some operas that Adolphe Adam wrote, it seems that only two are currently available on DVD so we can enjoy them now. But this is worth seeing: on Kultur label, Le Toréador ou l’accord parfait, a comic opera performed by three singers and orchestra of the Théatre Impérial de Compiegne Theatre Francais de la Musique.  Orchestre Francais under Albéric Magnard. Singers: Ghyslaine Raphanel, Matthieu Lécroat, and Franck Cassard. In the lineage of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, this has beautiful orchestral background for wonderful vocal lines, mostly of the entertaining type, including several trios based on the well-known song “Ah! Vous dirai-je maman.” Nowadays, we don’t think stories of unfaithful husbands are necessarily funny—but this one is, of a retired toreador who is very old and has married obviously to obtain his wife’s dowry and has a light and entertaining plot that you don’t take seriously. However, there is also a very beautiful soprano aria which in translation expresses something to the effect of “Ah, fairytale days, why do you no longer exist? What has become of fairyland, with its sylphs and errant knights?” Thinking of the composer’s Giselle and the previous ballets with sylphs, the aria is noteworthy.  This is the 2004 performance of Le Toréador that can be viewed online, with English subtitles.

The Opera and Orchestra de Rouen Normandie filmed an enjoyable performance of Le Postillon de Lonjumeau in 2019 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Available on NAXOS DVD. Conducted by Sébastien Rouland and featuring Michael Spyres as the tenor with the truly beautiful voice, and Florie Valiquette as his wife (well, in the comedy plot, as his two wives). The stunning costumes by the famous designer Christian Lacroix delight the eyes, along with the color-coordinated sets. The libretto by Adophe de Leuven and Léon-Levy Brunswick served partly as a friendly satire on opera itself, including romantic plots and parts sung by chorus members.  Recommended for those who want a sample of the light operas that helped to make Adolphe Adam so successful as a composer. Quite different from his ballet music.  (No dances in this one.) 2 hours, 18 minutes.  This is just the overture to Adam’s 1852 opera Si j’étais roi, showing score as the audio moves along. It is quite good and has such a beautiful pizzicato melody.

audio recordings:

Letellier and Fuller in their book (p. 585) recommend two recordings of Giselle conducted by Richard Bonynge. The first 1990 recording may be difficult to find now, performed by the National Orchestra of the Monte Carlo Opera, reissued in 2018 on CD by Australian Eloquence. The second, by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Decca, 2017) should be easy to purchase. The authors observe (p. 582):

Both Richard Bonynge’s recordings produce the score as Adam wrote it, with no cuts and all the required repeats. Cuts were made in the autograph in crayon or in a different ink, but almost certainly not by the composer. Bonynge also recorded the work in the original orchestration (most performing editions used in opera houses are in various sorts of modernised versions), using parts freshly copied from the autograph. The Burgmuller Peasant Pas de Deux  was added to the original score at the premiere. The only piece recorded not by Adam is the Waltz Variation in E minor in Act 1 and the waltz version of the love music that concludes the Grand Pas de Deux in Act 2, added in Russia in the late 19th century by Ludwig Minkus, which have become an integral part of the ballet as performed today.

The authors go on to point out the sections of Adam’s score that were recorded for the first time: pas de deux in Act 1; church music in the middle of the mad scene; Myrthe’s variation at the beginning of Act 2; entrance of Albrecht in Act 2; a fugue in Act 2; and at the very end, entrance of the court.

Both music and dance students may find it enjoyable at some point to listen to the Royal Opera CD. With the orchestra playing just for musical listening, there are little places of rubato, and some tempos that seem to differ from what dance performers are apt to want.  It is also interesting to discover how even brief aural motifs can remind us of choreographic moments we may have seen onstage or on film.  Recording of La jolie Fille de Gand, one of Adolphe Adam’s popular ballets, performed by the Queensland Symphony. Amazon also offers a recording by the Queensland Symphony of La Filleule-de Fees, a complete ballet by Adolphe Adam. Audio only also accessible via You Tube.

There is a CD of Le Toréador on London label, performed by Sumi Jo, John Aler, Michel Trempont, with Orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Richard Bonynge. A complete libretto in French with English translation alongside is included.

A much longer opera by Adam was Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, which was very popular in its time. There is a CD set issued on EMI performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo and chorus, directed by Thomas Fulton. Complete libretto included, with both French and English texts.


In the IED there are two pertinent articles: First, Susan Au’s entry on Giselle includes information about cuts made in various productions and about some of the outstanding dancers who have portrayed the lead roles. Also information about reconstructions by Marius Petipa in Russia. (She says his 1884 revision was most influential.) Pointedly, she also writes that Giselle was intended as “middle-class entertainment.” The second IED entry of interest is on Adolphe Adam himself, written by Richard Bonynge.

The story of Burgmüller’s publication is in Ivor Guest, The Romantic Ballet in Paris (Alton, UK: Dance books, 2008), p. 357. His entire chapter 20 on “Giselle: Gestation of a Masterpiece” covers many details of how the ballet came to be and the dancers who originated the roles.

For a brief overview of the notated leitmotifs, see Robert Lawrence, The Victor Book of Ballets and Ballet Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), pp. 214-20.

A piano score was published by Compozitor, St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2009.

A most welcome book of music is French Romantic Ballets, edited and introduced by Robert Ignatius Letellier (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2012). It contains piano arrangements of movements from La Sylphide, Giselle, and Le Corsaire. For the composer  Schneitzhoeffer, there are six arrangements from La Sylphide by Adolphe Adam (the composer of Giselle) and eight more by Antoine Aulagnier.

In French, the composer’s brief memoir plus some of his journalistic essays: Adolphe Adam, Souvenirs d’un Musicien (Elibron Classics, 2005 unabridged facsimile of the work published in 1884 by Calmann Lévy).

Violette Verdy with Ann Sperber, illus. Marcia Brown, Giselle: A Role for a Lifetime (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1977). A lovely book perhaps especially nice for teenagers and aspiring professional dancers. This former New York City Ballet ballerina—later director of the Paris Opera Ballet—gives her very personal telling of the ballet’s story, of the  challenges the lead role presents, her experience of the music, and her recollections of some of the outstanding performances of the past. The black and white drawings are charming illustrations that express the stage settings and story beautifully.

Geoffrey Ashton, Giselle (Woodbury NY: Barron’s Stories of the Ballets series, 1985). A short book devoted entirely to this ballet, with interesting illustrations and chapters that cover the plot, the style of Romantic ballet, the origins of this one, the music, the choreography, the designs, and the “survival” of the work.

Cyril W. Beaumont, The Ballet Called Giselle (Alton, UK: Dance Books, 2011 republication of 1944 work). By a leading British dance historian. Provides
historical and biographical information, including a script of the ballet and a chapter about the music. The final quotations in this section are from p. 56 from La France Musicale of July 4,1841, credited to Escudier; and then the author’s own assessment, p. 58.

For details about the life and career of the choreographer, highly recommended is Ivor Guest, Jules Perrot: Master of the Romantic Ballet (London: Dance Books, 1984). The entire book is very readable. The author’s preface begins:

Of all the choreographers who contributed to the extraordinary flowering of ballet around the middle of the nineteenth century, none enjoyed a more extensive or more influential reputation than Jules Perrot. Although very little of his choreography has survived, his works form a significant part of the bedrock of tradition on which ballet, as we know and enjoy it…rests.  Shows the Degas painting of Perrot leading a ballet class. Brief bio of the choreographer & list of works.

Marian Smith, Ballet and opera in the Age of Giselle (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000). A musicological study. For those who might be particularly interested in the cuts and changes made over time, see chapter 6, pp. 166-200. There is also a complete libretto in the appendix, pp. 213-39, first in French and then in English.

An account of Filippo Taglioni’s mounting of Adam’s La Fille du Danube plus the complete libretto can be found in Roland John Wiley, A Century of Russian Ballet, (Alton, UK: Dance Books Ltd., 2007 republication of original work published in 1990 by Clarendon Press) pp. 87-103. Wikipedia bio of the composer lists all his ballets and operas, with information on librettos etc. 

Swan Lake

Swan Lake with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) is one of the all-time popular classical ballets, and therefore should be on every enthusiastic theater-goer’s lifetime “must see” list—along with the composer’s two other ballets, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

the composer

Where did Tchaikovsky learn to write such kinetic ballet music that inspired so many bravura and emotional performances over so many years?

Born near the Urals in Russia, Tchaikovsky did not come from a musical family. His father was a mining engineer and determined, at an early age in the boy’s life, that his son should study the law—which Pyotr did, earning a degree late in his teens and becoming a clerk. However, even as a young boy Tchaikovsky apparently experienced music constantly going through his head. So by 1862 he felt driven enough to leave off clerking and enter the music conservatory in St. Petersburg.  After four years he earned a degree and was himself employed as a teacher in the new Moscow conservatory, simultaneously embarking on a career as a composer of concert works.

His early symphonies incorporated some magnetic melodies in the style of Russian folk tunes. By his last, sixth symphony, Tchaikovsky plumbed such depths of emotion that the work lives up to its epithet Pathétique. In between he composed constantly: the three ballets, piano and violin concertos, ten operas including Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, some songs, chamber music for strings, and short piano pieces. During much of his most productive years, the composer was the beneficiary of financial support from a patroness, Nadezhda von Meck (on the unusual condition agreed upon, that they were not to meet in person). She made it possible for Tchaikovsky to stop teaching and devote himself to the creation of musical masterpieces.

The composer became well-known outside of Russia through his tours as a conductor—including to the United States in 1891 to lead his own works during the grand opening of Carnegie Hall in New York City. Nowadays, American audiences are apt to hear Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (originally in commemoration of the defeat of Napoleon) to accompany the grand finales of firework displays on the Fourth of July.

It is pertinent to mention that from Tchaikovsky’s very first opera, he made a piano duet arrangement based on the opera’s “Hay Maidens Dances.”  So his full-length ballets were not the composer’s only music for theatrical dancers. There is, for another example, an important ballroom scene in his later opera Eugene Onegin, featuring a grand polonaise. In a recent filming of a Bolshoi performance, though their formal dresses are floor-length and intended for very human social interaction, the women are all in white!

Swan Lake, however, can be considered the culmination of the 19th century “ballet blanc” that featured mystical stories about magical feminine beings.

the creation of Swan Lake

The commission that Tchaikovsky received to compose this musical score came from the director of the Imperial Theatres in Moscow, Vladimir Petrovich Begichev. The final libretto was written by Begichev and Vasily Fedorovich Geltser. Swan Lake  was premiered in 1877 in Moscow’s Imperial Theatre as choreographed by Julius Wenzel Reisinger (1828-92) with the Bolshoi Ballet.

This now-classic work seems to have had its seed in a modest home entertainment that Tchaikovsky wrote for his sister’s children during a holiday in 1871, drawing upon very ancient myths which featured enchanted swans.  Four years later, when the composer was commissioned for the Bolshoi, he reportedly may have used some melodies from his family project. But there definitely was some music from his second opera Ondine (most of which he had destroyed). Tchaikovsky had saved the final love duet and transcribed it for violin solo and cello for the pas de deux in Act II of Swan Lake.

During the preparations for the premiere of the ballet, apparently some of the dance artists grumbled that this rich orchestral music was “undanceable.” Some of the instrumentalists apparently did not learn their parts adequately. One of the company’s leading ballerinas left, and another one traveled to Moscow with the purpose of having the choreographer there (Marius Petipa) and the composer (Ludwig Minkus) devise an alternative to what Reisinger and Tchaikovsky had created. Tchaikovsky was upset and insisted that he would not allow the music by any other composer to be interpolated into his score. So he composed an entirely new section which pleased the ballerina.

That pas de deux music was lost after the final Moscow performance, but luckily for us, in 1953 violin rehearsal sheets plus some orchestral parts were found in of all places, mixed in with Adolphe Adam parts for a 1912 performance of Le Corsaire. There was enough material found so that the especially beautiful section could be reconstructed, and it is included in the 2008 published study score listed below in the notes. (In 1960 George Balanchine set this music, with the simple title Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow.)

* * *

Despite all the challenges, the first performance of Swan Lake took place, conducted by Stepan Ryabov, after the orchestra reportedly had only two (that’s right: two) rehearsals. The production was kept in the repertoire for six years. Reisinger left the theater in 1879, and two revivals were staged by the next ballet master, Joseph Peter Hansen, bringing the total Moscow performances to 41.  Considering that the “normal” number of performances for a new ballet in those days was 18, then 41 for Swan Lake was not terrible. And the total performances in the first eleven years was even better: 70. But the score was not kept intact.

the story

For those new to Swan Lake, the basic story as now presented is this: Prince Siegfried’s mother tells him it is high time he got married and that there will be a ball to introduce some beautiful prospective brides. Meanwhile, the prince spends time socializing with his friends and then goes hunting.  Fortunately he does not shoot down a beautiful bird—who turns out to be the Swan Queen Odette, enchanted by the wicked Rothbart (or Rotbart, Red Beard) so that she and her retinue will be human only at night, and every day turn into swans. Until, that is, a man who has not loved before declares his lasting love for her. Siegfried promptly does just that after partnering her in one of the most beautiful pas de deux sequences ever devised, to Tchaikovsky’s music which entwines solo cello and solo violin most lovingly, after a long introduction by the harp.

The 1895 choreography to this scene was created by Lev Ivanov, perhaps building on some of Reisinger’s initial “swan movements.” But the lakeside scenes as choreographed so masterfully by Ivanov (and handed down generation to generation) are believed to be the only examples of his choreography still performed pretty much as originally set.

But back to the story: Next day at the ball, no young lady shakes the prince’s vow, until, that is, the wicked Rothbart appears with his daughter magically transformed to look exactly like Odette, and as “Odile” does an enticing solo, incorporating some motions of Odette’s prior dance. In just about all the versions known, the roles of Odette and Odile are danced by the same ballerina. So that is a real challenge: to be vulnerable and beautiful in one act in white; to be vivacious and maliciously plotting in black in another act. Siegfried is taken in by the disguise, and upon Rothbart’s prodding, vows to marry Odile. Lightning. Thunder. The evil ones disappear in smoke. Instant remorse. Curtain.

The next scene has Siegfried returning to the lake of swans, for a highly emotional pas de deux with Odette, and the corps of swan maidens also expressing their grief at their presumed fate.

* * *

Now come the story variations: in some versions, Rothbart causes the lake to flood, thus killing all the swans including Odette, and in agony Siegfried throws himself in too. The most tragic ending leaves it at that. Other productions add the explanation that by his sacrifice and love, Siegfried causes the death of the evil magician and the release of the swan maidens from their enchantment. Another apotheosis has first Odette leaping into the lake, followed by Siegfried; then the couple, though deceased, go off into the sunset to a place of eternal love, sometimes in a boat with a swan figurehead, sometimes shown against the sun as a symbol of sublime eternity. In the Kirov version, also used in China, Siegfried attacks the magician (who now appears in the form of an owl) and tears off the owl’s wing, thus killing him and restoring Odette and all the swan maidens to human form permanently. In another version, Siegfried carries Odette to safety from the flood, and this act of love destroys Rothbart and his spell. In Nureyev’s DVD, Rothbart carries off Odette, and Siegfried raises his arm in despair.

A totally different production changed Rothbart into a black queen whose power kills Siegfried at the end, but leaves the Swan Queen alive. Perhaps worst of all is a version which condemns Siegfried to marrying the magician’s daughter. Punishment indeed for breaking his vow!

A semi-tragic ending may seem most consistent with the story, and with the remorse that Siegfried  experiences: both he and Odette die. It also would seem consistent with the music at the end (which changes from minor key to a more cheerful major setting of the main melody) that such indication of pure love and forgiveness might lead to spirits reuniting after death, but with the swan maidens being freed to become wholly human again.

critical reviews

Before his commission for Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky was already considered Russia’s leading composer of symphonies and other concert works. Swan Lake was his first staged full-length ballet, and—given to extreme sensitivity ever since childhood (especially after his mother died when he was 14)—he felt deeply some of the post-performance criticisms in the press. Unfortunately, a few of those press reports have led historians to characterize the premiere as a “complete disaster,” “failure,” and so on.  But as further research suggests, things were not necessarily all that bad.

For openers, Roland John Wiley in his detailed book Tchaikovsky’s Ballets reported: “On one point, all were agreed: the principal attraction was Tchaikovsky’s music.” The author furthermore highlighted an opinion of Nicolai Kashkin, who had prepared a piano arrangement of the composer’s original (holograph) score and was well aware of the challenges of composing for ballet:

Mr. Tchaikovsky did not strive toward the role of reformer in ballet music; his  ballet, like any other, is subordinated to the conditions of the ballet master, to a familiar succession of various pas, solos, and ensembles. The difference lies in the mastery of technique, the elegance of harmony, the melodic inventiveness, etc., things that comprise the elements of Mr. Tchaikovsky’s talent. In this respect the music of his ballet stands apart from the music of others, as there is almost no example in which such a powerful artist dedicated his talent to this kind of composition, the unfavorable conditions of which present too many inconveniences to the musician.

Summing up the reviews he found, Wiley wrote:

In general we must conclude that the scales of criticism tipped in Tchaikovsky’s favor. And we, a century later, know what he did not know then: how unwarranted was his sensitivity to the supposedly trifling success of Swan Lake.


A cheerful historical note is that the composer was very pleased when in 1888 there was a performance of just Act 2 in Prague, choreographed by Augustin Berger and conducted by Adolf Cech. Subsequently, Tchaikovsky did have in mind the project of revising his entire musical score to address some of the changes others wanted. Unfortunately he never was able to do that.

After the composer’s death in 1893, there was a desire to have a large musical tribute to him. And so when St. Petersburg choreographer Marius Petipa was consulted, he suggested that his assistant Lev Ivanov remount just the second act of Swan Lake—the scene by the lake, with all the swan corps and pas de deux dances. Ivanov’s setting made such a remarkable impression on the audience members that Petipa determined to revisit Tchaikovsky’s score and remount the entire ballet, splitting the choreographic work with Ivanov (who mounted Acts II and IV, both the lakeside scenes). The composer’s brother Modeste gave some help with the revisions of the libretto.

For this revival, Petipa also had tremendous assistance from his long-term composer/conductor colleague Riccardo Drigo. This experienced specialist musician made many adjustments—mainly cuts, it seems—so that the overall score acquired a pace more suited to a theatrical dance performance. Those interested in reading about the details of changes to the score are directed to Roland John Wiley’s book.  For now, suffice it to say that the version that Drigo worked on is still used by ballet companies around the globe.

The Petipa/Ivanov choreography of Swan Lake had its premiere in the Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg Russia in 1895. Inspired by this version, companies in other countries have been mounting performances ever since.

Changes made to Swan Lake over time involve the dances themselves, especially in respect to length of sections and the order of presentation. The national dances, for instance, may be presented in Act III as scored, but some directors have opted to put them in Act I.  Some dances may be omitted entirely.

It seems that Act IV is shortened in some productions, omitting some beautiful Russian folk-like music which accompanies the gathering of all the swans before they learn of the tragedy.

Tchaikovsky’s score

A tremendous help in figuring out just what music is heard in particular leading productions is Matthew Naughtin’s book indicated in the notes below. He identifies some music that is not in the original score—arrangements of some of Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces, including his “L’Espiegle,” Valse Bluette and Un poco de Chopin.

The first thing heard in the original score is the orchestral overture, which introduces initially an inversion of the predominate Swan Lake theme—instead of going up, the pitches go down; subsequently the well-known threatening melody is played. In at least one staged version, the overture is backdrop for a “back story” depiction of how the lake was created by the tears of the mother when Rothbart enchanted her daughter. More usually, the orchestra plays the overture without dancers.

Then in most cases, despite possible changes in order, come  many lovely waltzes, traditional presto codas, strong duple sections for the men’s virtuosic feats, suggestive accompaniment to the pantomime in which the prince is so uneasy before the ball, trumpet fanfares, formal marches for the entrance of royalty, and a few “national” dances: Spanish bolero (with castanets); Hungarian czardas (traditional slow section then very fast); Neapolitan 2/4 beautiful cornet solo; then 6/8 tarantella; a Russian dance, a Polish mazurka, and a polonaise, all with their distinctive rhythmic patterns.

In the lakeside scene, there is a particularly gripping 6/8 that sounds like “going away music” to accompany all the swan corps as they move simultaneously in temps lié—a move on one foot, sort of hopping, while the whole body is in arabesque. You’ll know it when you see it. At another point in the drama, there are a few moments, one when the corps is gathering, during which there are some quasi-fugal entrances (the same melody repeated higher or lower and in different instruments). Another memorable section is the bouncy music for the “cygnets,” who hold hands and dance in unison—a popular excerpt.

Tchaikovsky respected the traditional format of pas de deux sections: adagio with male and female; male bravura solo; female on pointe; then presto coda to show off technique of both dancers. Another tradition maintained was the use of 8-beat phrases in many of the set forms. Now and then he also introduced melodies akin to Russian folk songs: something his audiences liked.

Speaking generally about Tchaikovsky’s entire score, what audiences mainly continue to like and recognize are his beautiful melodies, his suggestive motifs, his rich orchestrations, his masterful harmonic progressions, his rhythmic patterns that impel dance movement while still allowing dancers to be the focus of attention, and his musical characterizations of specific personalities, situations, and moods.

For those able to read musical notation, it can be most interesting to study the orchestral score and discover the care that Tchaikovsky lavished on details of both formal composition and orchestration. Nice touches such as having a cornet play the Neapolitan melody in a straight-forward manner and then double-tonguing in the virtuosic manner that Italian musicians like to do! Or trills in the flutes to give color to string melodies. Or an extended harp flourish to introduce something important. Or near the end, the mournful tone quality of the oboe for the Swan Lake theme, then more threateningly played by four horns in unison, then picked up by the entire orchestra and placed in a high register. Then there are the imitative musical entries in the instruments as the swans are also making their own patterned entrances. (The changing geometric patterns are particularly amazing in Nureyev’s last act choreography as filmed on the Paris Opera DVD.)

Tchaikovsky was certainly meticulous in regard to doublings, little ornaments, dynamics, articulations, and supporting the important points in the dramatic events. One compositional technique he used that is very effective in building tension or excitement towards a climax is to repeat a short motif in sequences, getting higher and higher in pitch—slowly, and often with a crescendo (getting louder). Time for the male danseur to lift the ballerina in a final pose…and for the audience to wildly applaud yet again for this beautiful ballet with all its women in white!

notes and explorations:


A study score was published in Kalmus edition in 2016; one by Serenissima Music in 2008 (this is an unabridged reduced format of the large conductor’s score published by Kalmus from Boca Raton, FL). There are study scores available for the orchestral suites. Dover Publications has a large size volume with full orchestra scores of just the suites from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.

A spiral-bound piano score, 2012 by Polonius Sheet Music (no credit or address given). A reprint of the Jurgensen 1900 piano score has also been reprinted by Create Space Independent Publisher. The Kalmus edition reprinted by Alfred Music, 1985.


 It can be especially interesting to watch several of these versions. Not only do the lead performers project their particular styles and portrayals; some of the dances are presented quite differently, or omitted. And something to notice is the effect of the various tempos chosen, whether brisk or medium or drawn out—and also the effect of the orchestral attention to articulations.

American Ballet Theatre, 2005 DVD from Dance in America series filmed at Kennedy Center. Choreography by Kevin McKenzie after Petipa and Ivanov. Kennedy Center  Opera House Orchestra conducted by Ormsby Wilkins. With Gillian Murphy and Angel  Corella. Herman Cornejo as Benno, prince’s friend.  A superb film to watch. First choice!

Among the historically noteworthy performances was the excerpt of just the Black Swan duet when Rudolf Nureyev partnered Margot Fonteyn for his first London appearance after his defection from the Soviet Union. The partners went on to bow for 39 curtain calls when they performed Nureyev’s version of the entire ballet in Vienna! Deutsche Grammophon DVD filmed in Vienna in 1966, with Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Vienna State Ballet, Vienna Symphony conducted by John Lanchbery, so the musical performance is wonderful.

Royal Ballet, with Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell, Kultur DVD, filmed in 1982. Choreography by Petipa and Ivanov, with additions by Frederick Ashton and Rudolf Nureyev. Sadler’s Wells Orchestra conducted by Ashley Lawrence. Interesting to see the tempos that Makarova required: much slower than other ballerinas, making her motions quite drawn out—still musical in her terms, but some melodies may not seem to “sing” quite the same way they do when the tempos are slightly more flowing.

Royal Ballet many years later, this time directed by Anthony Dowell. Opus Arte, 2009. With Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares and Christopher Saunders. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Valeriy Ovsyanikov. Includes an informative interview with Anthony Dowell (in which he touches upon the contemporary slowing of adagio tempos), and a discussion by four ballerinas who portrayed Odette/Odile. Dowell brought in some children as young swans, and set the ballet in the time of Tchaikovsky—what he considered an elegant period in Russian court life. Other touches are a maypole, a clever use of stools upon which some dancers are held on pointe, and bells on the men’s costumes for the Polish dance—adding nicely to the orchestral sounds. Odette remains in a tutu; the swan corps are in more flowing skirts.  Orchestra sounds very good.

NKH/Decca/BBC film made in 2006 of the Maryinsky Ballet with Ulyana Lopatkina (who was beautiful in the double role of Odette/Odile), and Danila Korsuntsev as the prince. The Maryinsky in St. Petersburg has an historical link to the 1895 production of Swan Lake; this one draws on the 1950 revival by Konstantin Sergeyev and they preserve a happy ending but have other changes, most noticeably a jester introduced by Alexander Gorsky in 1901. Unfortunately he can seem a distraction from both the prince and the corps dancers. Valery Gergiev (leading this score for the first time in the theater) conducts in his idiosyncratic manner with fluttering fingers. But the conductor (who during peaceful and less political times was quite popular with audiences)  did seem to be very supportive of phrasing for the dancers. Rothbart portrayal especially good as half human, half owl.

The unsigned liner notes suggest:

Drigo’s revisions and adjustments did not detract from the originality of Tchaikovsky’s score; on the contrary, Drigo’s interventions helped highlight all the more clearly the splendid complexity of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music.

performances online: This is a mounting of the same Dance in America performance by American Ballet Theatre as listed above for DVD. Introduced by Caroline Kennedy. Interview with Spanish-born dancer Angel Corella in 2001 in which he talks about his career, listening to music, and ABT.  Angel Corella talks in 2010 about his Spanish background and dance.  Fifteen minutes of curtain calls at Angel Corella’s farewell performance in Swan Lake! Kirov Ballet. In this Russian version, evil loses; Siegfried tears off Rothbart’s wing; you may think Odette has died, but she lives again. Viktor Fedotov conducts a beautiful musical performance; the costumes are lovely, the sets attractive but not distracting; and the dancers worthy of the multitudes of  views indicated for this online film. Jester included in this Sergeyev version based on Petipa and Ivanov. Two ballerinas credited as Odette/Odile.  Royal Ballet, Makarova & Dowell. Same as the above DVD. In this version, Odette jumps in the lake, but with sort of traditional end, as the music turns major, Rothbart dies, and to music played on a harp, Odette and Siegfried go off in a boat pulled by a figure of a swan.  Corinth film, 1957 in Russian, with Bolshoi Ballet, Maya Plisetskaya, Nikolai Fadeyechev. Conductor, Yuri Fayer.
An old film and somewhat blurry. Some camera shots oddly were made from behind the dancers, looking out to audience. But you can scroll to particular sections if you want to get a sense of the Bolshoi mid-20th century and this famous ballerina. Roberto Bolle and Svetlana Zakharova in Act 2, filmed at La Scala. Maryinsky Orchestra conducted by Victor Fedotov. Vladimir Bourmeister, ballet master. The same pair, Black Swan section. Done to the “lost” pas de deux music. Lupe Serrano and Jacques d’Amboise in the Black Swan pas de deux.  This is not terribly clear, but it is a 14-minute clip of Sylvie Guillem performing the black swan pas de deux. Several hundred thousand people have watched it so far! Report about Sylvie Guillem’s retirement after 30 years of performing.  portrait of Sylvia Guillem, made when she was 48. part 2: life after ballet, environmental concerns in Senegal; modern dance and her experiences of relating to different styles of music. Not to be sacrilegious, but this is the funniest caricature of a ballet ever: Rudolf Nureyev and Miss Piggy do Swine Lake to the actual beautiful music of Tchaikovsky.

Rudolf Nureyev’s setting for Paris Opera Ballet available only for screening via amazon. Notable for the extensive dances for male groups and prince’s solos. Vello Pähn, conductor. 2006. No scenery, so women in white stand out against dark background, their changing patterns seen beautifully from above.  Explanation of Nureyev’s plot of a dream. La Scala Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s mounting of Swan Lake, 2016.  Scene from Eugène Onegin—the grand polonaise, with the women all in white!

musical recordings: And this is an early Tchaikovsky dance, from his first opera 1869 opera Voyevoda. The recording here is titled “Dance of the Chambermaids,” performed by the USSR State Symphony under Evgeny Svetlanov. Highlights only. Ernest Ansermet, who was an outstanding conductor for ballet, leading the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Even though the recording was made in 1958, all the nuances are well preserved, and the articulations and dynamics sound tasteful and beautiful, even though you are not seeing dancers.

There are a number of recent CDs available. See listings on amazon and pick your favorite orchestra and conductor! Among those favored by listeners for the complete ballet are Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony on Decca; Andre Previn with the London Symphony, on EMI (two availabilities, one is 7-disc set); and Michael Tilson Thomas with the London Symphony on SONY.

For just selections or Tchaikovsky’s suites from his ballets: Mistislav Rostropovich and the Berlin Philharmonic, on Deutsche Grammophon; Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia orchestra on EMI; and Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic on Decca.

about pantomime in ballet:

Pantomime was long a tradition in earlier narrative ballets, but also played an important part all the way to Tchaikovsky’s ballets. Pantomime offered mute gestures that conveyed dramatic intent. One aspect of this would be stylized movement drawn from everyday life that could convey emotional or specific meaning. But certain gestures came to have conventional symbolic meanings that audiences would readily understand—a kind of coded sign language. For example, circling the hands around the face would connote “beautiful.” Making fists and then crossing the wrists would indicate “death.” Rolling the wrists above the head would an invitation of “let us dance.”

A pertinent comment was made by the distinguished ballet conductor Constant Lambert:

Tchaikovsky’s miming scenes are always admirable because he is content to establish only the general atmosphere of the scene, and does not try to emphasise imaginary words in operatic recitative style. [from his essay “Music and Action” in Caryl Brahms, Footnotes to the Ballet (London: Peter Davies Ltd., 1936), p. 170.] A good example of pantomime in Swan Lake, demonstrated and explained by the Royal Ballet.

about Lev Ivanov’s setting:

Translations of reviews of some of the first performances of Lev Ivanov’s choreography for Swan Lake in Russia can be found in Roland John Wiley, The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov: Choreographer of The Nutcraker and Swan Lake (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). Here is one, from p. 172:

The staging of dances in Swan Lake is the work of the balletmaster L. I. Ivanov and does him great honor. Mr. Ivanov revealed a great deal of the finest, most elegant taste. To all the dances the balletmaster imparted a noble stamp, a consistent style.

Speaking about the lakeside scenes, Wiley states that they are “the only examples of Lev Ivanov’s choreography still performed today much as he created them.” [p. 180]  And summing up his perspective of the choreographer’s work, Wiley suggested:

To the extent it is typical of his entire choreographic output, Swan Lake (together with the classical pas in The Nutcracker, where his choreography may also survive) can only inspire in us the desire to see what else Ivanov created. [p. 183]

The author offers a tempting overview of Ivanov’s other dance work, including a listing of his earlier performances as a leading dancer himself, followed by descriptions, reviews, and libretti of the choreographer’s other ballets. Along the way, one encounters unfamiliar names of composers other than Tchaikovsky, including Baron Fitinhof-Schell, Alexandre Friedman, A.V. Kadlets, and Baron V. G. Wrangell.

Tchaikovsky’s patroness:

To My Best Friend: Correspondence between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck, 1876-1878, edited by Edward Garden and Nigeo Gotters; translated by Galina von Meck. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Very private letters between the composer and his benefactress, full of declarations of esteem and gratitude on both sides (unusual because they had agreed never to meet). Pertinent letters here are #101, 108 163, and 164, in which Tchaikovsky writes about the process of composing on his own initiative and “to order.” Also, on pp. 85-86 he comments about seeing Delibes’ ballet Sylvia: “It is really a masterpiece of its kind….Its elegance, its wealth of melody and rhythm, and its brilliant orchestration are unprecedented in a ballet. Without any false modesty I tell you that Swan Lake can’t hold a candle to Sylvia. I was utterly enchanted!”

additional  information and sources:

The story that one reads too often and that has been repeated over time about “interpolations” into Tchaikovsky’s score being a cause for its original “failure” is apparently just that: a story repeated. Both the scholar Roland John Wiley in his book indicated below, and Carl Simpson (who wrote the preface to the Serenissima study score published in 2008) provide comments convincingly suggesting that Tchaikovsky’s ballet score was presented whole in 1877.

The composer’s brother Modeste Tchaikovsky suggested that Stepan Ryabov was not used to leading complicated scores, as quoted in Roland John Wiley, Tchaikovsky’s Ballets (Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1985), p. 48. However, Wiley goes on to offer a rather impressive resume of this musician’s experience from the age of 18. When promoted, he conducted 23 out of 43 new productions over the course of 25 years—reflecting, as Wiley points out:

…a measure of competence, as do his concert performances of Wagner and Tchaikovsky in the 1890s. He was the first member of the Moscow ballet to complete a half century of service.

And providing another view in support of the conductor, Wiley quotes Tchaikovsky’s contemporary, Nicolai Kashkin (p. 49):

Mr. Ryabov fully deserves praise for that correctness of tempo and attentiveness with which he followed the dances….As for the orchestra, it played inaccurately, and often some instruments did not play at all. In this, it is true, there is nothing surprising since there were, as we heard, only two rehearsals.

Wiley’s references to reviewers are on pp. 52-55. Those who can follow the study score might be interested especially in his musical analysis in chapter 2. The comment about possible interpolations is quoted from p. 59.

Another source of basic information about the practical ordering of the ballet versions is in Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

Typical of castigation heaped upon the original choreographer Julius Reisinger is this quotation from Chujoy and Manchester’s The Dance Encyclopedia:

He is a rather contemptible figure in the history of classic ballet because in the opinion of his contemporaries and critics and, later, historians, it is on him more than on anyone else that the onus rests for the first production of Swan Lake. [revised 1967 edition, p. 760.]

In contrast, Carol Lee in her history Ballet in Western Culture p. 218 reports that Reisinger had a distinguished career as a character dancer as well as choreographer. She further comments (p. 217):

According to other accounts, the bad press generated at the time of its premiere was probably politically motivated, due to the fact that the choreographer was a foreigner.

She also suggests that Tchaikovsky, at the peak of his career, would:

…never have collaborated with a ballet master of less than exceptional ability. They had worked closely and even traveled together to Germany where they visited the remote Schloss Hohenschwangau and its mysterious mountain lake of swans. The beautiful site and the castle’s ballroom became the actual inspiration for the ballet’s realistic and ephemeral decors.

Cyril W. Beaumont, The Ballet Called Swan Lake (Alton, UK: Dance Books, 2012 republication of the work first published in 1952), chapter 21, “Seventy-Five Years of Swan Lake” provides considerable information about the many restagings of the ballet. Although Wiley was able to do subsequent research, yet perhaps still of interest to some readers would be chapter one on the origins and first version of the ballet, and chapter 3 on Tchaikovsky and his compositions. On p. 49 he writes that Tchaikovsky thought the Prague performance was “splendidly staged.”

Beaumont was among the historians who suggested that the choreographer was responsible for the lukewarm first performances. His opinion was that Reisinger was:

of mediocre talent, who was clearly baffled by the unconventional music. Rejecting the symphonic conception and carefully built-up harmonious whole, Reisinger  tried to adapt Tchaikovsky’s score to the long-established convention of a series of divertissements in a fairy tale setting, varied with spectacular processions. A sufficient comment on Reisinger’s sense of style-atmosphere is the fact that he wished Tchaikovsky to compose a Russian Dance for Odette. [p. 13] Brief biography of first choreographer for Swan Lake. A substantial article giving biographical information about the composer and his works.

In the first performances, Pauline Karpakova was in the lead role. By the fourth performance, the role was taken by Anna Sobeshchanskaya. In the more successful subsequent 1895 production, Odette/Odile was danced by Pierina Legnani, and Pavel Gerdt was Prince Siegfried.

Ann Nugent, Swan Lake (in the Stories of the Ballets series, Woodbury NY: Barron’s, 1985). An attractively illustrated book for theater-goers who want a short introduction to   the ballet. Includes chapters on the libretto and score, first performance, 1895    production, and revivals into the 20th century. In the plot, offers the version where Odette and Siegfried drift away on a golden boat towards a place of eternal love.

Carol J. Binkowski, Opening Carnegie Hall: The Creation and First Performances of America’s Premier Concert Stage (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012). A fascinating account of the building and opening of America’s foremost concert hall, with day-by-day coverage of the gala concerts including works and conducting by Tchaikovsky.

A considerable amount of information about original productions of Swan Lake and those subsequent to the Petipa/Ivanov premiere in 1895 can be found in George Balanchine and Francis Mason, pp. 585-603.

Another source of information about stagings outside of Russia is the entry for Swan Lake in the IED.

A detailed and sympathetic saga of the creation, premiere, and later stagings of Swan Lake can be found in D. Sidney-Fryer, The Case of the Light Fantastic Toe, (2018) Vol. III, pp. 1505-1566. Pointedly, the author does not call the first production of Swan Lake  “a failure,” but rather “a compromised success.” Alastair Macaulay gives a preview of American Ballet Theatre’s summer performance of Swan Lake in 2018. He provides an excellent overview and observes that the adagio to the cello and violin “has been called the most beautiful moment in ballet.”   The choreographer Ma Cong talks about his new ballet Tchaikovsky—the Man Behind the Music, presented by the Tulsa Ballet in 2019. Brief comments about the same work by artistic director Marcello Angelini. A performance by the Tulsa Ballet had been live-streamed at the time of its premiere.  the story behind the ballet, and here is the Tulsa Ballet’s description of their new work: 

While Tchaikovsky was celebrated for his professional success and popularity, the societal constraints of life in 19th century Russia created constant inner conflict between his private life and the public persona society required of him. This World Premiere delves into the complicated personal life of this acclaimed musician and features a stellar creative team that includes composer Oliver Peter Graber (Dorothy & the Prince of Oz), Russian historian Daniela Kolic, New Zealand’s top designer Tracy Grant Lord, and Resident Choreographer Ma Cong, and Artistic Director Marcello Angelini. The musical score will feature a blend of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works along with other influential composers of the time, as well as some brand new music by Oliver Peter Graber.

The Tulsa World critic James D. Watts Jr. hailed the new ballet as “simply, a triumph.”

The Dying Swan

Michel Fokine, choreographer of Les Sylphides in 1909, had been equally inspired and efficient previously in 1905 when the dancer Anna Pavlova (his frequent partner, and friend from their student years) asked him to choreograph a solo for her for an upcoming concert to be given by the chorus of the Imperial Opera in the Hall of Nobles. The choreographer (who played mandolin and balalaika quite seriously in groups), happened to have been playing Camille Saint-Saëns’ piece The Swan, and it occurred to him that this might make a good vehicle for the dancer. In a matter of mere minutes, it did…it did…it did—to the point of becoming a legendary “ballet blanc” in the Romantic tradition.

Though Pavlova danced briefly with Diaghilev’s company in Paris, when Vaslav Nijinsky started getting the greater share of attention, she soon left to form her own touring company, and her portrayal of The Dying Swan was seen, memorably, by audiences all over Europe and America for many years. Fokine commented that “This dance aims, not so much at the eyes of the spectator, but as at his soul, at his emotions.”

The tone of the cello solo serves to evoke such emotion—sometimes accompanied by piano, sometimes by harp. The piece is one short movement from Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1886 suite Carnival of the Animals composed for two pianos and orchestra.

Michel Fokine, as mentioned, played the melody on his mandolin. For a time he was a member of several respected orchestral groups in St. Petersburg, on both mandolin and balalaika. In addition, as he chronicled in his memoir:

I loved music to the degree that not only playing but just listening to it or even handling scores and inspecting orchestrations became a great joy to me. What also helped me was that I wrote a great deal of music. In the beginning I would transcribe parts for our amateur gatherings. Later I would orchestrate entire works for them. The writing of notes has helped me in the study of rhythms. Later on, when I was composing my ballets and dances, I not only retained the music in my mind but could visualize it in its written form—which assisted me enormously in my orientation and memorization.

…From my amateur musician days, some things were transferred to my ballet-master activities—such as the piece by Saint-Saëns which I learned to play on the mandolin, and to which I later composed “The Dying Swan” for Anna Pavlova.

So that’s how the choreographer came to use existing music for The Dying Swan. As for the dance, it is easy to wonder whether the movements of modern ballerinas who perform Swan Lake have been influenced by Fokine’s choreography for this brief, unrelated solo dance from more than a century ago. Or how much was Fokine inspired by specific choreography in the older Swan Lake as choreographed by Lev Ivanov?

The Dying Swan was only one of Fokine’s early ballets for which he was congratulated in regard to his choice and setting of music. There were to be many more success stories, as extolled by Cyril Beaumont in his 1938 Complete Book of Ballets:

As a choreographer he is certainly the greatest living exponent of the very difficult art of dance composition. His acute sensitivity to music is extraordinary. If a ballet by Fokine be examined as it has left the hands of its creator, it will be found that the relation between the music and movement is inseparable and complete, so much so that it is difficult to believe that any other form and sequence of movement could so perfectly express that particular phrase of music.

the composer

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1924) was born in Paris and early on was recognized as an unusual prodigy with talent not only for music, but with wide-ranging interests. He entered the Paris Conservatory at age 13, concentrating on organ, and upon leaving there took up a post at a church that had 26,000 parishioners. There, just playing for some 200 weddings a year gave him a handsome income. The composer Franz Liszt called him the greatest organist alive! He also taught in Paris and was active in promoting a younger generation of modern French composers.

And what of other music by Camille Saint-Saëns? Are there any other famous ballets to match The Dying Swan that can be seen today? Not really. Although there is a complete recording of his ballet titled Javotte, it is now virtually unknown as a theatrical performance work. First produced in Lyon in 1896, Javotte was a ballet with 31 short sections lasting a total of about an hour. It was originally choreographed by the Algerian-born dance artist known popularly as “Madame Mariquita,” with success. Subsequently it had performances in Brussels, Berlin, Barcelona, Milan and St. Petersburg. Finally in 1909, fresh choreography was created for the Paris Opéra Ballet by the recently appointed ballet master Léo Staats.

The story reminds one of La Fille mal gardée, with a rural village setting. Except in this case it is not only a daughter (Javotte) but also the young man she loves (Jean) who are not trusted by the young lady’s parents. And like the earlier ballet, in this one too the heroine, locked up, is shown doing various chores—except that she wrecks the room and escapes through the window with Jean. There are many cheerful village dances and several beautiful pas de deux sections, with of course a happy ending.

Describing the ballet’s music, in his recent book Saint-Saëns and the Stage, the author Hugh Macdonald lamented: “How could such a piece lie so long unheard, even by those who hold Saint-Saëns in high regard?”

Indeed. The Paris Opéra had remounted Javotte in 1935, keeping it in the repertoire until 1962. And again, to quote Macdonald: “But today it is not even talked about in the ballet world, let alone performed, a sad fate for an enchanting and exhilarating score.” Apparently there is no film of any performance. However, at least the music can be heard via CD. (See end notes.)

Saint-Saëns also included some lengthy ballet sections in his operas. Among his music that has survived to partner live staged performances is the Bacchanale in Samson et Delila—the intended lascivious section prior to the temple falling down. Another opera, Ascanio, includes a ballet section with 12 dances that, again, at least can be heard on CD. The opera itself has a very complicated plot featuring the Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini—and for those interested, there was a 2017 performance in Geneva from which at least the music was released on CD. Other of the composer’s operas with ballet include his Henry VIII and Étienne Marcel.

In his book, Macdonald emphasized the importance of ballet in the French operas of the time:

A word of advocacy is necessary for the ballet music in these operas, since it is an easy target for the scissors wielded by opera companies that cannot afford dancers and by audiences with little taste for the spectacle. At the Paris Opéra, opera and ballet enjoyed equal status as art forms and commanded an equally large following in the public. Large operas that included ballet satisfied all parties, since pure spectacle was an acknowledged part of the attraction. For the composer, ballet provided opportunities for virtuosity, both in orchestral playing and in resourcefulness of colour, especially if exotic lands were the setting or exotic entertainers such as gypsies were called for. For Saint-Saëns, the ballet was important, not something to be left to the last moment, and he was proud of the variety and vitality of his ballet music….It is a pity that he wrote no more than one stand-alone ballet, Javotte, too little appreciated today as a masterly ballet score.

Despite such high praise, among all the works of Saint-Saëns it is only The Dying Swan from over a century ago that audiences of today continue to see as a stand-alone ballet to his music.

notes and further explorations:


As he described in his memoirs, Michel Fokine was quite adept as an amateur musician. See Fokine: Memoirs of a Ballet Master, translated by Vitale Fokine, edited by Anatole Chujoy (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1961) pp. 63-64. Fokine’s description of how he created The Dying Swan is given on p. 222.

Cyril Beaumont’s  quote from 1938 Complete Book of Ballet, p. 557.  For those who have never heard a balalaika orchestra, there are a number of CDs available as well as some programs via You Tube, including this one by the Ossipov Balalaika Orchestra. A distinctive and riveting sound.

Balanchine and Mason [p. 194] call The Dying Swan “Perhaps the most famous of all dramatic solos for the ballerina.”


The Dying Swan has become one of those ultimate solos to which ballerinas aspire. Here is one performance by Svetlana Zakharova filmed in 2010:

Here is Natalia Makarova in 2007:  This is b&w film of Pavlova herself. She first performed it in the United States in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and over her career, perhaps 4,000 times!  Galina Ulanova in 1956.

Maya Plisetskaya and her composer husband Rodion Shchedrin:  Maya Plisetskaya, former Bolshoi ballerina, with harp.

A special DVD: Maya Plisetskaya: Diva of Dance, on Euro Arts. The former Bolshoi ballerina (born in 1925) was interviewed in 2005 and mentioned:  “To listen to the music is the most important thing.”  The DVD also includes her dancing the solo role in Béjart’s setting of Boléro (discussed here in chapter 14).
And again, Maya Plisetskaya, with cello and piano this time, at age 61 performing in Japan. She passed away in 2015 at the age of 89.  Obituary of the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015) in The New York Times, written by Sophie Kishkovsky.

The ballerina’s memoir (completed in Russian in 1994) was published in English: I, Maya Plisetskaya, translated by Antonina W. Bouis (Yale University Press 2001). She commented that portrayals of birds were among her outstanding dances: The Dying Swan (regarded as one of her “signature” roles)  and Swan Lake (which she performed some 800 times over 30 years).  John Clifford mounted a film of Plisetskaya at age 32 performing Swan Lake.  Black & white 1964 documentary of this prima ballerina assoluta’s training and career, with clips from various stage performances. Includes her comments about technique and music.

Plisetskaya’s story includes some horrors—the political execution of her father on totally false charges, and her mother being sent to the Gulag with an infant, for refusing to sign papers calling her husband a traitor.  For some time it seems that just about everything the dancer did was followed by the secret police, and she was not allowed to travel outside of Russia for many years. Her reasons for later staying in Moscow seemed to center around her husband,  her deep feeling that the Bolshoi stage was her artistic “home,” and plain fear.

Although the name of Plisetskaya’s husband, Rodion Shchedrin, (b. 1932) may not be widely known in the U.S., he is considered a foremost Russian composer of his generation, and had orchestral performances with the Chicago and Pittsburgh Symphonies as well as with the New York Philharmonic. By way of introduction, a 2012 Arthaus DVD set offers interviews, clips of performances, plus an entire orchestral concert. And amazon lists over 100 recordings of Shchedrin’s works available at this time.

The composer wrote a book of Autobiographical Memories (first edition, 2008, paperback translated into English by Anthony Phillips, published in Mainz by Schott, 2012). Covers not only the composer’s career and works, but also what life in general was like in the Soviet Union. Shchedrin includes comments about some excruciating aspects—such as people “disappearing” [p. 143]; published indication that when he and his wife were newly-weds, a “listening device” was likely installed in their bedroom [p. 85]; or that as late as 1988 he had been restricted from traveling to Washington D.C. to hear the premiere of one of his own compositions conducted by Rostropovich [p. 179]. Nevertheless, he could express this mixed observation [pp. 60-61]:

Of course, we all grew up and were educated within the hideous environment of a destructive totalitarian country. Fear gripped everyone without exception. The brave and the stupid rotted in the cemetery or suffered in the Gulag. Millions of innocent people were sacrificed. And yet Bach was still Bach! Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky were played on every side, and very well played too….So popular were Prokofiev’s ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet that the only way to get a ticket for them was by knowing the right person….

Youth is youth, whatever tempests of terror rage about one’s head. We were discovering for ourselves the wonderful world of art, great music, the mastery of musicians playing their instruments, the illimitability of the sky at night, the wonder of a spring come upon in the forest, the dazzling whiteness of snow, the magical sounds of the wind.

And so as the years went on, within the system Shchedrin was nevertheless able to compose a large body of both instrumental and stage works. Among the ballet scores that he composed for his wife was the full-length Anna Karenina, which Plisetskaya both choreographed and performed. For now you can see a stunning performance that also features Alexander Godunov and dancers of the Bolshoi, at   Available on Video Artists International 2004 DVD, the ballet was filmed in 1974. The Bolshoi Theater Orchestra was conducted by Yuri Simonov.

You Tube offer clips from Alexei Ratmansky’s recent setting of Shchedrin’s score for Anna Karenina¸ as performed at the Maryinsky Theater. Here is one:
Amazon lists a full video, but availability depends on your location.  The Maya Plisetskaya/Rodion Shchedrin Foundation offers bios plus some brief performance clips.

The double arts of Shchedrin and Plisetskaya can also be seen on a 2008 Kultur video of The Little Humpbacked Horse filmed in 1961, choreographed by Alexander Radunsky. (The original score had been written by Cesare Pugni for the 1864 production choreographed and with libretto by Arthur Saint-Léon.)

Based on a fairy story by Petr Yershev,  the ballet’s plot is simple: as in many traditional fairy tales, the youngest of three sons isn’t too bright, much put-upon by older brothers. But thanks to the appearance of a magic humpbacked horse, he overcomes many obstacles, finally marrying a beautiful queen and becoming king himself. In the film (done with cinematic effects, not entirely on a ballet stage), Ivan was danced by Vladimir Vasiliev, and Plisetskaya projects a prancing horse with hoofed hands.  Shchedrin’s score is cheerful, kinetic when called for, atmospheric when appropriate, with readily obvious and well-crafted musical characterizations. English narration helpful for viewers. The underwater scene is especially nice.

A more recent choreographic setting to Shchedrin’s score was made by Alexei Ratmansky for the Maryinsky Ballet, and an intriguing review of their performance at the Kennedy Center in 2017 can be seen at  A complete performance of Ratmansky’s delightful version filmed by the Maryinsky Ballet and Orchestra in 2013, using Shchedrin’s score. No swans. Just horses and people.

other Saint-Saëns dances: Here is an 8-minute film of the Danse Bacchanale from Samson et Delila performed as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial celebration in 1983.

There are some You Tube clips that unfortunately are marred by the audience talking over performances of choreographic settings of the entire Carnival of the Animals­—a work which of course can lend itself to children’s programs. The reviews for Christopher Wheeldon’s 2003 setting for New York City Ballet indicate that it was more for adults.  Anna Kisselgoff’s review of the Wheeldon premiere.

Alexei Ratmansky’s more family-oriented version of Carnival of the Animals was mounted in 2003 by the San Francisco Ballet. Writing in his Culture Vulture column, Larry Campbell called it a “most charming ballet…matches the wit of the music with clever choreographic ideas….Ratmansky has created clever miniatures that are performed with flair by the SFB dancers….This piece would be a great introduction to the ballet for anyone, especially children.”

Very popular with listening audiences is Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, orchestral work which includes xylophone to help evoke skeletons dancing at midnight. S. E. Henderson 2010 rendering via computerized skeletons in group choreography.

online oddity:

For listening enjoyment is an unusual movement from Carnival of the Animals, “Aquarium,” for glass armonica, the instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin, and for which Saint-Saëns intended this piece of music! At Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, master player Dean Shostak performs the mesmerizing music with a video.   His live programs at Colonial Williamsburg include new related inventions such as a glass violin. This CD includes the Aquarium piece.   Unidentified musician in clip performance of Aquarium. Robert Tiso plays on real glasses. article about the instrument.

CD:  On Decca, CD or by track online. Nice selection includes The Swan, Carnival of the Animals, Organ Symphony, and Danse macabre.

Another compendium with Carnival of the Animals and Danse macabre. Charles Dutoit conducting in London.

online musical performances of The Swan: Chamber orchestra and two-piano performance, Carnival of the Animals. Zagreb Music Academy fine performers! The Swan starts at 21 min. 19 seconds. Lovely! The Swan Project created during the virus pandemic: 24 student cellists from around the world in turn play The Swan.  Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs The Swan with pianist Kathryn Stott, 2015.

a side trip purely musical treat: Artur Rubenstein performing the G minor Piano Concerto  with Andre Previn and the London Symphony. Filmed in 1975 when the pianist was 88 years old! Might the 6/8 sound like a tarantelle?

other Saint-Saëns ballet music:  This is flutist James Galway playing, with pianist, the Air and Variations ballet section from the opera Ascanio.

The ballet numbers from Ascanio can be heard in a 2011performance by the Orchestra Victoria conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire, on Melba label. The same musicians also recorded the six ballet dances from Étienne marcel.

The ballet music from Henry VIII was recorded in 1995 by the Rasumovsky Sinfonia for a  Mogrelia CD.   A surprising and lovely compilation performed by the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra under David Robertson, includes a suite from the ballet Javotte. The sections are: fete au village I. Ensemble II. Bourree III. Vespers. La reine du bal IV. Cortege et Marche triomphale V. Grand pas de deux VI. Danse des Coryphees VII. Final.

Another lovely performance of Javotte is on the Alliance label, also available from amazon by track. Queensland Orchestra under Andrew Mogrelia. One enthusiastic listener commented:

Unusual for Saint-Saens and among his finest work, this rare ballet music is alive for me in a way I don’t experience with his other work. Richly inventive it unfolds in sections, while clearly related, seem to offer something new. It is
clear, focussed, detailed, exotic, vibrant, varied and melodic.

more about the composer:  biography of the composer.  Leon Botstein talks about Saint-Saëns, his music, and his times in France, in connection with the Bard College Festival of Music in 2012 featuring this composer’s works.

A related book was published by Princeton University Press, also in 2012: Jann Pasler, Camille Saint-Saëns and His World, comprised of a series of essays and documents.

A highly recommended recent book is Hugh Macdonald, Saint-Saëns and the Stage: Operas, Plays, Pageants, and Ballet and a Film (Cambridge University Press, 2019). The quotation concerning ballets in French opera is from p.384. For information about Javotte, see pp. 266-273. For a description of the twelve ballet dances within Ascanio, see pp. 210-212. The author comments:

These were designed as a feast for the eye with costumes and outdoor setting fully representing the Renaissance French court at its most magnificent, and a feast for the ear since Saint-Saens refused to treat ballet music as in any way inferior or routine. In fact, some of the opera’s best music is found here.