Le Corsaire

A pirate with a bandana on his head, his bare-chested slave, and a beautiful slave woman in a tutu: not the usual candidates to be featured in a ballet at the Paris Opéra in 1856, but that’s who the choreographer Joseph Mazilier and his co-librettist Jules Henri Vernoy de Saint-George put center stage to dance to the music by Adolphe Adam. Also bring on more pirates, a pasha, eunuchs, sailors, odalisques, and more ballerinas in tutus—and you have a colorful adventure, quite different from the story of the misty mysterious Wilis in white for whom the composer had written Giselle a few years earlier.

The subject of Le Corsaire was suggested by the exotic imagery of Lord Byron’s 1814 poem, but the ballet plot really is not one that involves the audience emotionally. Instead, we’re there to watch an unreal story unfold, beginning in the bazaar of a Turkish port sometime in the past, with lots of excuses to showcase technical virtuosity of both men and women dancers.

Very briefly, the plot involves love at first sight between a pirate and a slave girl who is about to be sold on the market to a fat pasha. There is a rescue, betrayal by one of the pirates, recapture, re-rescue, fighting, murder, and escape. Along the way is a spectacular pas de trois with the pirate leader, his male slave, and the young slave woman loved by the pirate. For extra excitement and theatrical stagecraft, add a shipwreck. For extra beauty add children and ballerinas dancing among flowers with a real fountain flowing in the backdrop.

Two famous figures in the history of French ballet portrayed important roles: Marius Petipa was Conrad the noble pirate; Jules Perrot was the pasha who held captive Conrad’s love, Medora. And through the years, great ballerinas would dance that role of the heroine Medora, including Marie Taglioni, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Olga Preobrajenska (just to add a few exotic-sounding names).

In the days of this ballet’s creation, it was quite customary for leading dancers to request changes in the music to better highlight their flashy technical skills. That may have happened to Adolphe Adam’s score for Le Corsaire, or perhaps the changes that Petipa made in 1863 and other subsequent mountings by different choreographers also required different music. So as the ballet was revived through the years, there were substitutions of some sections with music by other composers—Prince Petr Oldenburg, Riccardo  Drigo, Cesare Pugni, Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell, Léon Minkus, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Glière, Dvorák, And most importantly, Léo Delibes was asked to write a divertissement, which became the lovely flower garden scene.

By 1976, Margot Fonteyn and Rudulf Nureyev were garnering twenty minutes of applause in New York for their performance of just the pas de trois presented as a pas de deux. This showpiece was developed with just the male slave and the ballerina for Act II, by Agrippina Vaganova, and then also in the 1930s by the Soviet virtuoso Vakhtang Chabukiani. Alternate music for the female variations was a waltz by Anton Simon, orchestrated by Drigo (from Don Quixote, variation of the Queen of the Dryads); or else a waltz from La Bayadère, by Minkus; or a waltz by Pugni.

But getting back to the pas de trois version, now we can watch American Ballet Theatre’s stupendous filmed production with Ethan Steifel, Julie Kent, and Angel Corella. All quite a few steps away from ephemeral females with magical powers! Say good-bye to Romantic ballet and wispy Wilis in white. However, don’t say good-bye to fantasy or classical ballet technique as far as the women in Le Corsaire are concerned. And do say hello to large groups of energetic men who perform vigorous and breath-taking classical ballet combinations.

The story is supposed to unfold in Turkey sometime a long time ago when they had slave markets. (We’re not talking reality here: granted, in 1856 there were still slaves in the United States and Brazil, and serfs in Russia. But this ballet had nothing to do with history or social conditions of the time.) The slaves in the ballet are well-dressed, as are the pirates, the pasha, everybody, really. The townswomen wear character shoes and pseudo folk dress. Other women wear tutus and pointe shoes or else the harem pants of odalisques. There are also some young children colorfully dressed and carrying  arcs of flowers.

There is nothing “exotic” about the music, though the settings as staged are usually very much so, including a pasha’s palace and a pirates’ grotto. The musical score, on the other hand was created to accompany very classical dance segments. Though there are some good “narrative” sections to go with some pantomime of kidnapping, killing, love at first sight, and other important events, the purpose of most of the music was to support the virtuosity of the dancers who were highlighted in solos, duos, trios, and symmetrical group choreography. There are some sections which look like folk dances that really could have been in any ballet. And there is some nice instrumentation, such as a harp solo that was composed for a specific player; rich clarinet sounds for romantic love scenes, threatening timpani, and more.

In the second act of Le Corsaire, there is a busy moment where lots of pirates are coming onstage, and in the music there is a surprising series of fugal entries—more complicated in compositional technique than one would expect to hear normally in a ballet. However, this does not last past the entrances of a few instrumental voices; then something exciting is going to happen onstage, and different music is needed.

Surprisingly enough, it is a harp solo. And not for fairies or swans. Suddenly, the pirate’s male slave leaps onstage, ending his entrance with a striking kneeling pose, arm extended up. Then follows an absolutely beautiful adagio melody, played on the clarinet, for the lifts and poses performed by the male slave along with his master the pirate and the pirate’s beautiful slave lady love. This music was not part of the original Adam score. Instead, it is an interpolation of an orchestration of a piano piece titled Rêve de printemps (Dream of Spring) by Riccardo Drigo—who was Petipa’s in-house composer and who for years conducted premieres by that choreographer. The next dance—the male variation by the slave—was also by Drigo, taken from his score for Trilby. What followed, a very cute 2/4 for the ballerina, was composed by Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell, originally for Cendrillon. The coda was also by Drigo, from his score for Pygmalion.  Nowadays this pas de trois section is often excerpted and performed as part of mixed ballet programs. It always brings down the house!

For exact identification of all the music in the entire ballet of Le Corsaire, readers can consult Matthew Naughtin’s handbook listed in the notes below. He also identifies all the various choreographers and dates of their revivals. This may well be the most complicated ballet to describe in regard to musical content! But among the important interpolations was the lengthy one by Léo Delibes, the flower garden dream scene of Act III, which is sometimes excerpted and presented as Le Jardin Animé.

The fact that the music throughout much of the ballet is by several different composers doesn’t seem to detract from the pleasure of audiences. The important thing is that the pieces hold together because they are in a similar style. For the dancers, the important thing is that the specific motifs and meters and tempos and phrasing and cadences are “in tune” with the very exacting classical steps they execute, even within a plot that is not exactly gripping.

By way of contrast, in 20th century reviews by music critics, the rich score that the famous composer Ravel wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—Daphnis and Chloé—was chastised as being “too interesting” and “distracting.”

So there you have it: sometimes the music for ballet may be most practical if it adjusts and supports the dancers moment by moment. Choreographers have pointed out that—unlike in a symphony or sonata where the “exposition” is “developed” and then returns—in dance, life doesn’t repeat, but rather unfolds. So a different kind of music is often helpful (though modern choreographers have set dances to symphonies with varying success—but that’s another story). For a long time in the 19th century, choreographers were not looking for famous concert composers to accompany their dancers. Rather, they wanted to be able to adjust musical aspects as the dances themselves were revised. For openers, as new dancers took over roles created by others, it often seemed a good idea to alter the choreography to highlight their talents or personalities, and along with that, to change the music here and there.

With that in mind, it seems appropriate to put in some especially good words for Riccardo Drigo, one of the composers whose music was interpolated into Adolphe Adam’s original score for Le Corsaire—with some splendid results, it can be observed.

There are several performances of the complete ballet of Le Corsaire available on DVD, and several enjoyable ones can be seen online.

notes and explorations:


Going back to the 1856 premiere, the lead dancers in Paris were Carolina Rosati, Mlle. Couqui, and Domenico Segarelli.

For details of the revivals in Russia staged by Perrot later by Petipa, and by others up to our own times, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Corsaire

Carol Lee explains briefly some of the European fascination with Middle Eastern poetry and settings. (Ballet in Western Culture p. 137.)

For details about the music dance by dance for the different choreographic versions, see Matthew Naughtin, Ballet Music: A Handbook (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) pp. 179-92. For the above essay, the identifications of substitutions were all taken from Naughtin’s book. He suggests that the 1997 version choreographed by Anna-Marie Holmes (based on the Sergeyev revival of Petipa’s own 1899 revival) is considered to be the standard  version in the West. However, regarding the Burlanka/Ratmansky 2007 production for the Bolshoi (based on Petipa’s 1899 version), Naughtin notes that it was billed as “the world’s definitive production.” So we can only wonder if anything at all has survived from Mazilier’s original choreography.

For details about the composer’s scores, highly recommended is this new source by Robert Ignatius Letellier and Nicholas Lester Fuller: Adolphe Adam, Master of the Romantic Ballet 1830-1856 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2023. This is Vol II; the first is about Adam’s operas.) The authors make an enormous distinction between Adam’s full score and the one with additions, the version used nowadays for stage performances. They list as the only available CD of the original version is the 1992 Decca recording by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge, reissued in 2018 by Australian Eloquence. However, the editorial information given for that CD is as follows:

The recording was a labour of love for the conductor, who has done more than anyone on record to revive the sounds of the 19th-century Parisian ballet. ‘It’s often laborious,’ he remarked in 1998 to Opera magazine about his work in preparing revivals of out-of-the-way repertoire, ‘locating the original score, getting the orchestral parts edited and copied, divesting it of later additions – all this before the process of learning and rehearsal begins.” Bonynge’s work in this case was quickly recognised as an invaluable contribution to our fuller appreciation of Adam’s music, and the recording remains the most complete ever made of Le Corsaire.

Listening to the CD makes for an interesting experience, hearing just the music separated from visual dance and pantomime. What stands out immediately is the orchestration—by turns very full and dramatic, or more sparse with lyrical gentle melodies highlighting winds. And the end of Act I includes a lovely horn solo that in Adam’s time would have been played on an orchestral hand horn. The harp is used beautifully for underlying patterned accompaniment in a number of places.

Hitting the CD player’s volume button quite a bit, one becomes aware of the dramatic implications of sudden stark fortissimo chords. And the changes of texture can make one ponder: what in the music invites us to imagine both dance and emotional drama? What in a flute duet might make us think of two slave women dancing to show off? Or what is there about rapid swooshing downward scale passages that might imply a shipwreck? Or why might four glorious harmonic chords suggest a radiant scene of rescue? Or do bass staccato patterns really have anything to do with pirates masquerading as pilgrims? Or do definitive loud cadences really suggest that the ballet soloists might have assumed final poses after masterfully performing virtuoso variations?

Confining one’s attention to just the sounds can also lead to wondering again about the common elements between the two arts of music and dance. Of course they share time and tempo and sometimes exact rhythm and meter and accents. But I recall with pleasure seeing a class of undergraduate dancers that I challenged to improvise  some physical “analogies” for texture, imitation, dynamics, counterpoint, purposeful rests, melody, dissonance, and so on. However, with a score such as Le Corsaire, it still is interesting to consider whether or how specifically musical sounds and patterns could ever suggest not only mood but also physical movement and emotional drama. Then one is reminded of the music (often improvised) for silent films a little later on…or the background scores written for films and TV nowadays.

Even though live performances of Le Corsaire continue to feature various arrangements and the large additions by composers Drigo and Delibes, the authors Letellier and Fuller encourage ballet lovers to also listen to a recorded performance of with the original scoring (p. 633-34):

The music of Le Corsaire shows Adam at the height of his musical powers. It is thoroughly symphonic throughout, with grandeur of conception, a fluent melodic inspiration, vivid orchestration, a harmonic richness, and a powerful rhythmic propulsion. There is a sure approach to structure, with brilliantly inventive character dances…and the unfolding continuum of the mime sequences, so important in this work….

Adam never wrote anything more magnificent.


American Ballet Theatre performance was filmed in 1999 for Channel 13 and the Dance in America Series. Now available in DVD from Image Entertainment. Spectacular performances by Ethan Stiefel (the pirate), Angel Corella (his slave), Julie Kent (the rescued slave maiden) and the entire cast. The Pacific Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Ermanno Florio.  Choreography was by Konstantin Sergeyev after Marius Petipa, with modern staging by Anna-Marie Holmes. Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the company, introduces the plot charmingly before each act, along with comments from members of the cast.

A color fiilm was made of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn doing the pas de deux version, with music by Riccardo Drigo, Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell, Anton Simon, Cesare Pugni, and Ludwig Minkus. The Royal Ballet Orchestra was conducted by John Lanchbery. Choreographed  by Nureyev. Available on DVD An Evening with the Royal Ballet, Kultur, 2001. (Expensive new, but used copies available online.)

One excited viewer commented: “Sublime. It doesn’t get any better than this.” Another said:

I attended the first performance ever of this pas de deux at Covent Garden. If my memory is correct it was November 2nd 1962. I have never forgotten the occasion. After the pas de deux, there was a roar of prolonged applause. I sat in the balcony stalls and could feel the balcony shaking from the stamping and screaming. Endless curtain calls were demanded.  What memories !

Another opportunity to see these two performers is available streaming via amazon, the documentary Fonteyn and Nureyev: The Perfect Partnership, filmed in 1985.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtU_pqpxvi4 This is a colorful complete 2014 performance of Le Corsaire  by the Samara Ballet Company in Russia. Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shameyev; choreography by Vasily Medvedev after Petipa. It starts right out in market place; in Act II, has several folk dances before the pas de trois.In Act III the Pasha pushes up a partition to reveal his “vision” of a garden—dancers in tutus, in classical symmetry. Includes waltz by Delibes, harp solo, other interpolations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpi1u1xH5as One of several clips of Bolshoi performance choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky.
The adagio is done as a duet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12Zu-XsbXQg
The garden scene with fountains: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzNlY8pQIjg
Films are poor quality but give an idea of the style.

DVD: Kirov Ballet on Kultur, 1989. This version has shipwreck first & pirates saved by Greek maidens, then sailing away safe at end. Pas de trois is stunning; vision of flowers nice too, with music by Delibes. Other music in addition to original scores by Adolphe Adam, was composed by Cesare Pugni, Riccardo Drigo, and Prince Oldenbourg. Kirov Theatre Orchestra conducted by Victor Fedotov. Original choreography by Petipa; this production by Pyotr Gusev and Oleg Vinogradov.

DVD: English National Ballet, Opus Arte, 2014, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, adapted from the Petipa/Sergeyev version.  This performance  starts right in at the marketplace, with shipwreck at end and only the two lovers left on a rock. The pas de trois and flower dream episodes are worth watching. This version has music by several composers, not only Adolphe Adam, but also Cesare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, Prince Pyotr van Oldenburg, Ludwig Minkus, Yuly Gerber, Baron Fitinhof-Schnell and Albert Zabel. The harp solo is especially nice. Orchestra of the English National Ballet conducted by Gavin Sutherland (who along with Lars Payne edited the music).

The staging by Anna-Marie Holmes for La Scala was filmed and is now available on DVD (C Major label), released in 2021. Again, this has all the add-on music by composers other than Adolphe Adam. Dancers are virtuosic performers indeed—both soloists and corps! Conducted by Patrick Fournillier.

La Bayadère

This is going forward in time a bit, to a ballet originating in Russia as choreographed in 1877 by Marius Petipa (1818-1910) who was French but worked in the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg and Moscow starting in 1862.  Prior to that, he had been a highly acclaimed dancer himself. But his legacy to posterity is as an outstanding creator of over 50 ballets, including La Bayadère set to music of Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917) and premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre. This ballet was kept in the repertoire of the Kirov Ballet and continues to enjoy export status not only in Europe, but also in the United States, where Natalia Makarova set her own staging for the complete work on American Ballet Theatre in 1980, with orchestrations and some reconstructions by John Lanchbery. At the Paris Opera Ballet, Rudolf Nureyev presented his restaging, and for this he secured a copy of the original score and had John Lanchbery do a whole different arrangement thought to be more true to the composer’s style.

Prior to that, the astonishing excerpt of the “Kingdom of the Shades” was offered by a number of companies—notably the Royal Ballet. There has never been anything like that segment, where an entire corps of thirty-six women in identical white tutus appear on the horizon of the stage set, and progress very slowly down an inclined plane, each repeating the exact steps and arabesques until everyone has reached the bottom and turned to arrange themselves in rows facing front. This is surely a breath-taking highlight as the ultimate ballet blanc and the simple, calm music by Minkus is highly effective. However, for a few moments our focus will be on the rest of the ballet, which offers quite a bit of what seemed “exotic” to audiences in Russia and the West—especially Act I.

The setting for this narrative ballet is India. The main characters: Nikia, a temple dancer or “bayadère” who loves Solor; the warrior Solor, who returns Nikia’s love; Gamzatti, the rajah’s daughter who is jealous because she is the one actually engaged to Solor; the also jealous Grand Brahmin whose love for Nikia was rejected; and an unnamed snake in a basket of flowers.

Maybe you’ve already guessed part of the plot: Gamzatti gives Nikia the basket; Nikiya gets bitten and dies. Next act is an opium vision that Solor has while smoking a hookah—and that is where the Kingdom of the Shades comes in, where the warrior at least in his vision again meets the deceased Nikia. Along the way in the previous act there was an astonishing male solo dance by a golden idol, added in 1948, choreographed by Nikolai Zubkovsky to music adapted by Pavel Emilievich Feldt. As a finale in some stagings, the wedding celebration of the rajah’s daughter must go on. Unplanned, though, is the fact that instead, the entire temple collapses in an earthquake (quite a challenge to stagecraft, but certainly effective). The punishment by the gods is that all the people are killed. The end. Or, maybe it isn’t: Solor and Nikia are seen reunited even after death, preferably against a glowing sky. (Nureyev omitted the last act.)

The music, though by a composer mostly unknown to Americans today—Ludwig Minkus—is truly both evocative and lovely. The adagios are especially noteworthy, and the orchestral score as arranged by John Lanchbery (in both of his versions) is beautiful throughout. The musical forms of some sections include the usual European types popular at the time and standard in classical ballets: marches, waltzes, mazurka, adagios, and fast brilliant 6/8s. Minkus did not use Asian folk music or scales to set the exotic venue; that suggestion was made largely onstage, through the plot, costumes, set, characters, and gestures—particularly with the arching of the bayadère’s back, and the angular poses of hands and elbows instead of smooth curves typical of classical ballet.

To help set the locale Solor enters in a march sequence, riding on an impressive elephant (on wheels, but life size), and there is a wagging tiger’s head, spoils from a hunt. In today’s productions, what might be considered the most exotic dances in movement (though not necessarily in the music) are the solos by Nikia and the golden idol. But there are other suggestions of Asia: a candle dance, women carrying jugs, bells on their ankles, the way a scarf is attached from the performer’s head to her leg, and the suggestive moves of the bayadères. Then not to be overlooked is the Hindu Indian tradition of Shiva—Lord of the Dance, who both destroys the world by dancing, and recreates it. In view of the ending of La Bayadère, that is something to keep in mind.

the composer

Though Minkus wrote some twenty ballet scores, unfortunately as is too often the case with music for theatrical performances, not much has survived in public or published form for us to see in the West. Sometimes manuscripts just got discarded when it was thought a performance run was over and done; sometimes paper got stored in theaters that suffered fires; sometimes political turmoil affected every part of life including the arts; sometimes certain pieces were not considered worth keeping for posterity since they were not expected to be revived. And in regard to publication, only the most famous ballets (by Tchaikovsky for example) achieved much distribution in published format.

However, the diligent author/researcher Robert Ignatius Letellier suggests that older scores by Minkus may yet be found in the archives of the Maryinsky Theater—particularly as the author was able to document quite a number of performances in Russia through the years. For now, we have La Bayadère, Paquita, part of La Source, and the entire still-popular ballet Don Quixote (which will be discussed in the section on Evocations of Spain).

What of the composer himself? As Letellier informs us in his extensively researched book, little is known about the man. He was born in 1826 in Vienna and after his retirement from Russian positions, returned to Vienna, where he died in 1917 at age 91. He was of Jewish heritage, but his parents were baptized into the Catholic church the day before their marriage—probably for political reasons. The composer through life had his name spelled many ways: Aloysius Ludwig Minkus had variants as Alois or Lois or Louis; Ludwig Feodorevich Minkuys; Léon or Luigi; Minikous or Moincous. So you might see any of these in references: same person.

The composer’s father was a wine merchant who opened a restaurant in which music was performed. The young son played the violin from the age of four and became known locally as quite a prodigy. Additionally, his first publication (at age 20) was a set of pieces for the violin (and there were more compositions for violin later in his life). Early on he also conducted an orchestra—an experience that served him well, for in 1852 he was lured to St. Petersburg in Russia, where for quite a few years he had dual responsibilities as principal violinist for the Bolshoi Theatre as well as conductor. In 1864 he was promoted to Inspector of the Imperial Theatre Orchestras in Moscow, where he was also a professor of violin. Additionally he was also officially ballet composer for the Bolshoi. From the early 1870s he moved to similar composing responsibilities for the Russian Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg and stayed there until his retirement in 1886.

Starting in 1857, Minkus was composing ballets for performances in both cities. So unlike other composers—Tchaikovsky, Delibes, Stravinsky, for example—who would later collaborate for certain scores and that’s all—Minkus was involved in the ongoing musical work of theatrical ballet. Not only did he compose ballets, play violin, and conduct performances; he was also responsible for the music library and even the instruments. Immersed so much in the activities of the theater, he had unusual opportunity to become aware of what the dancers and choreographers both wanted and needed in the way of musical support. He worked closely with the French choreographers Arthur Saint-Léon and Marius Petipa—both of whom created substantial numbers of ballets in Russia. But there were also some collaborative works performed in Paris. He was retired in 1886, with a very small pension considering his considerable work in Russia. He returned to Vienna with his wife. (They had no children.) Sad to say, after her death in 1895, Minkus became quite impoverished, especially when during World War I his pension from Russia was cut off.

The Vienna that nurtured Minkus as a musician had been full of music—particularly ballroom music of that time: waltzes, polkas, processionals. His familiarity with those forms and lilting styles undoubtedly made it easy for him to insert such music into what might have seemed like an endless stream of ballets.

What Minkus had created was a musical style full of beautiful melodies, careful and clear (though often seeming simple) rhythmic underpinnings in the accompaniment figures which are so important for impelling specific movements in classical ballet. Today, even in piano reduction his music is a joy to play and to hear, and with a full orchestra, onstage performances can take on various auras—some critics even calling such scenes as the Kingdom of Shades “sublime.”  And as the author Letellier observed: “the music in its rhythm, verve and beauty holds attention and engages the heart wherever it is heard.”

What was it like to be onstage dancing to this music? One account was given by Ekaterina Ottovna Vazem of the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theatre:

In the ballet my next new part was that of the bayadère Nikia in La Bayadère, produced by Petipa for my benefit performance at the beginning of 1877. Of all the ballets which I had occasion to create, this was my favourite. I liked its beautiful, very theatrical scenario, its interesting, lively dances in the most varied genres, and finally Minkus’s music, which the composer managed especially well as regards melody and its coordination with the character of the scenes and dances.

Indeed what makes the ballet music of Minkus particularly special is the way it supported the dance itself. The Kingdom of the Shades act is a good example of how, with pure, classical ballet, simple is often best. Another example: when the warrior Solar is doing tremendous fast leaps and turns in the air, one might think that these amazing masculine moves might need loud, busy, strong music. But no: to help the dancer, it seems that uncluttered texture is more helpful, with a simple melody, clear accompaniment figuration, and a very steady beat. There is enough excitement in what the dancer is doing without the music trying to match the virtuosity. Or take note of what Royal Ballet’s Tamara Rojo had to say: that in the second act of La Bayadère, everything must be perfect. You cannot wobble; you must land perfectly; you must take off perfectly; your lines must be perfect. (Unlike the case with the first act, where the dancers can take a bit of liberty in the flow of their “exotic” lines.) The fact that the music heard is relatively unadorned, unconfusing accompaniment probably makes that challenge easier.

The close partnership of movement and music in La Bayadère is an indication of how closely Minkus worked with Marius Petipa, who was one of the greatest choreographers in all of ballet history. Petipa’s brief memoirs, written in his older age when he was in effect being pushed out of the Russian Imperial Theatres, tell some amusing anecdotes from his earlier dancing days, of his run-ins with various bureaucratic directors, and of all the kindness and gifts he received from appreciative theater patrons. But at the end, he was deeply hurt by the way he was being nudged aside after so many years of creating over fifty ballets in Russia since 1847—including the masterpieces of La Bayadère, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake,and Raymonda  for openers.

But to at least list other Minkus scores that Petipa credited in his memoir:

Le Papillon
The Bandits
The Daughter of the Snow
Frisac the Barber
Night and Day
The Magic Pills
Les Offrandes a l’Amour
Kalkabrino (in 1891)

“Minkus’s music is so graceful, pliable, and melodious that it has been mined, repeatedly, by modern choreographers,” notes Joseph Gale in the International Encyclopedia of Dance. Going on to ponder why, then, is the music of this composer not better known, he suggests:

More of Minkus’s music would be heard today if choreographers could decide how best to use it; nineteenth-century ballets have become unacceptable because of their improbable plots. Their music, however attractive, is not easily arranged for contemporary use, barring the expense and effort needed to do so.

Yes, but first the scores themselves have to be rediscovered. Let us hope that more of the music of Minkus may be found in the archives of the Maryinsky.

notes and explorations:


Natalia Makarova’s staging (after Petipa’s choreography) of La Bayadère for the Royal Ballet (1991 performance) can be enjoyed on a TDK DVD, with John Lanchbery conducting. On a subsequent, 2009 DVD on Opus Arte label, the Royal Ballet’s Tamara Rojo portrays Nikia; Carlos Acosta is Solor; Marianela Nunez is Gamzetti; José Martin, the Bronze Idol. Equally starring are the members of the corps!

Rudolf Nureyev’s version for the Paris Opera Ballet can be seen on a 1994 Kultur DVD, with Michel Quéval conducting. There is indeed a noticeable difference between the orchestral sound in this arrangement and what Lanchbery did earlier. This second version somehow seems more polished, more restrained, yet with a fuller sound. A companion DVD Dancer’s Dream is a documentary of the Paris production, TDK, 2002.

The Bolshoi Ballet 2013 “new scenic version” by Yuri Grigorovich is on Bel Air Classiques DVD, conducted by Pavel Sorokin.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neaWSJxZEoI  This is a brief b&w but very amazing  film of Baryshnikov performing male solo from La Bayadère (shown twice) at the 1969 International Ballet Competition in Moscow, to enormous cheers and applause.


For a report on American Ballet Theatre’s production as performed in the Metropolitan Opera House in 1986 with Natalia Makarova, see Chapter 7, “La Bayadère: From Rehearsals to Curtain Calls” in Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp. 113-123

Barrymore Laurence Scherer, “Maligned Minstrel” is an article about Minkus that appeared in Ballet News, May 1980 just before American Ballet Theatre was about to mount the first complete U.S. performance of La Bayadère.His similar article, “Three Composers Who Knew What Dance Needed,” in The New York Times of March 27, 1983, was about Minkus but also about Cesare Pugni and Riccardo Drigo.

The best source of information about Minkus is Robert Ignatius Letellier’s book The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). He provides what biographical information he could unearth, but most importantly, the scenarios for known ballets by the composer, and very detailed musical analysis, with musical examples taken from several available sources. Additionally, there are listings of performances up to 2008, information on published editions, archives, books, recordings, and videos. Chapter on the musical style is worth reading (pp. 167-90). Also included is an English translation of the original scenario of La Bayadère by S.N. Khudekov (pp. 367-76). The final quote from this section is from p. 2.

Also edited and introduced by Robert Ignatius Letellier is a piano reduction of the music. (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009). Includes supplements by Pugni and from other ballets. Reproduced from a 1981 repetiteur’s score from Kiev; a copy of the original in the library of Covent Garden; and a 1980 manuscript of the Kingdom of the Shades section. Nice to have as a study score, though because of the binding and sparse reduction, not really usable at the piano with dancers.

https://petipasociety.com/ludwig-minkus/ This is the Petipa Society website’s inviting biography of the composer Minkus. [Unattributed but with a list of sources.] 

The Memoirs of Marius Petipa were translated into English by Helen Whittaker, edited by Lillian Moore (London: Dance Books, 1958).

The quotation from the memoirs of Ekaterina Ottovna Vazem is from Roland John Wiley, A Century of Russian Ballet: Documents and Eyewitness Accounts 1810-1910 (Alton, UK: Dance Books Ltd. 2007 republication of work originally published in 1990 by Clarendon Press) p. 286.

Joseph Gale wrote the entry for Minkus in the IED, vol. 4, pp.428-31. The quote is from p. 430. An extensive biography of Marius Petipa is in vol. 5, pp. 149-162, by Vera M. Krasovskaya, translated from the Russian.

Dancers in first performances: Ekatarina Vazem as Nikia; Maria Gorshenkova as Gamzatti; Nicolai Golts as the Brahmin; and Pavel Gerdt performed in the pas de deux as the young Solor, though the role was created on Lev Ivanov.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Bayad%C3%A8re#Early_productions For more detailed  information on the various productions of La Bayadère.

Polovtsian Dances

One of the exciting ballets presented by the Ballets Russes during their opening 1909 season in Paris was Mikhail Fokine’s setting of the Polovtsian Dances in their Act 2 excerpt from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, with full orchestra plus an offstage chorus singing “songs of praise to their native land,” and calling on slaves and warriors to dance in praise of their leader Khan Konchak. The ballet itself was such a hit that in their second season, Diaghilev’s troupe offered just the dance segment, also omitting the offstage chorus.

The composer had been unable to finish the opera before his death in 1887, but by 1890 a performing score was completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov, and dances were choreographed by Lev Ivanov for a performance in Russia.

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes never performed anything in Russia. Instead, his artistic thrust and contribution was to introduce Russian folk and modern art styles to Western Europe. With Polovtsian Dances he certainly succeeded in astounding French audiences, especially with the designs by Nicholas Roerich and the vigorous male ensemble dances—certainly a far cry from the French Romantic ballet’s former emphasis of women portraying Wilis and sylphs and so forth, who used male partners essentially for support of their arabesques.

“Makes my hair stand on end!” commented one recent viewer after seeing the Kirov performance online. Both the composer and the choreographer surely would have been gratified to know that.

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) was particularly known for his one opera Prince Igor and for orchestral works that featured Russian and exotic Oriental flavors. Perhaps not publicized  at the time, but mentioned in current biographies is the fact that he himself was the illegitimate son of a Russian prince. He always loved music, but became a respected professional chemist and founded a medical school for women. So his composing was done on the side.

His first symphony was successfully premiered in 1867, after which Borodin began seventeen years of working on his opera. As noted already, he never finished it. However, he did finish some beautiful string quartets which continue to be performed in concerts, and some of his lovely melodies were usurped by Broadway producers of the 1953 musical Kismet. (The opening chorus of Polovtsian Dances, for example, became “Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise.”) But thanks to DVDs we can hear Borodin’s music in the context of the riveting dance for which it was intended in Prince Igor. This excerpt is often included in orchestral concerts, but it is certainly more exciting to watch it performed onstage, or at least on film.

What the chorus is singing is essentially an expression of their love of their homeland, followed by a tribute to their tribal leader. The sets by Nicholas Roerich (who also designed the costumes for the 1909 performance) had served to transport the audiences to another time and another place, and to suggest a tribal camp. After their success in Paris, the Ballets Russes also offered their thrilling whirling and leaping performance in London a few years later.

Borodin based his libretto for Prince Igor on a scenario that he had requested from Vladimir Stasov, who in turn drew from an anonymous epic, The Song of Igor’s Campaign. The story was laid in the 12th century, telling of a  Russian prince’s war against Turkic tribes (the Polovtsians) who were interfering with trade routes.

How the opera was created makes a complicated story in itself. The score to Prince Igor might not have reached a performable state without the considerable attention by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In his memoirs, he wrote of working to help finish Borodin’s magnificent work, especially during the spring of 1885 when Borodin was still alive.  In a note to My Musical Life, the book’s editor includes an excerpt from a letter in which Rimsky-Korsakov indicated the sort of work he was doing:

I am copying the provisional piano score of Igor and am thus bringing it into order, and in the process I add and curtail bars here and there; I write the missing parts of the recitatives; I give the modulations their numbers; I transpose whatever is necessary; I arrange the part writing, etc. I have finished the  Prologue and First Tableau of Act I, intend to continue in the same way, and hope that by autumn Igor will be finished and the instrumentation will be taken up, and by springtime it may be delivered to the opera house. I imagine that Borodin will be captivated by my endeavors and will do something himself too, and in Act III his hand is also needed. A great deal is missing there.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s account of how he had to badger Borodin to do any composing is quite revealing. The former would ask, for example: “Have you finally transposed such and such a number of the opera score?”—“Yes, I have, I transposed it from the piano to the table.”

The urgency was that some of the Polovtsian dances had been announced and rehearsed for an intended performance at the Free Music School. “At last,” reported Rimsky-Korsakov:

…giving up all hope, I offered to help him with the orchestration. Thereupon he came to my house in the evening, bringing with him the hardly touched score of the Polovtsian dances; and the three of us—he, Anatoli Lyadov, and I—took it apart and began to score it in hot haste. To gain time we wrote in pencil and not in ink. Thus we sat at work until late at night. The finished sheets of the score Borodin covered with liquid gelatine, to keep our pencil marks intact; and in order to have the sheets dry the sooner, he hung them out like wash on the lines of my study. Thus the number was ready and passed on to the copyist. The orchestration of the closing chorus I did almost single-handed, as Lyadov was absent, for some reason. Thus, thanks to the concerts of the Free Music School, some numbers were finished partly by the composer himself and partly with my help, during that year as well as during the following season of 1879-80. At all events, had there been no concerts of the Free Music School, the fate of the opera Prince Igor  would have been different.

Very soon after Borodin’s sudden death in 1887, a most distraught colleague and Rimsky-Korsakov gathered up all the musical manuscripts of the deceased. Rimsky-Korsakov and the composer Alexander Glazunov decided to complete Prince Igor, some of which remained in piano sketches, some of which was fragmentary rough draft. Rimsky-Korsakov reported:

Certain numbers of the opera, such as the first chorus, the dance of the Polovtsy…as well as the closing chorus, had been finished and orchestrated by the composer….For Acts II and III (in the camp of the Polovtsy) there was no adequate libretto—no scenario, even….the synopsis of these acts I knew full well from talks and discussions with Borodin, although in his projects he had been changing a great deal….Glazunov and I settled the matter as follows between us: he was to fill in all the gaps in Act III and write down from memory the Overture played so often by the composer, while I was to orchestrate, finish composing, and systemize all the rest that had been left unfinished and unorchestrated by Borodin.

The story went around that some of what Glazunov was able to complete he did so because he was able to recall entire themes that Borodin had played for him. However, in an account published in 1896 Glazunov clarified some of what he had done:

The overture was composed by me roughly according to Borodin’s plan. I took the themes from the corresponding numbers of the opera and was fortunate enough to find the canonic ending of the second subject among the composer’s sketches. I slightly altered the fanfares for the overture … The bass progression in the middle I found noted down on a scrap of paper, and the combination of the two themes (Igor’s aria and a phrase from the trio) was also discovered among the composer’s papers. A few bars at the very end were composed by me.

Apparently some of the orchestration for the dance section previously had the assistance of another young composer, Anatoly Lyadov. Musicologists are still trying to figure out what might have been Borodin’s original intent, and which bars of the music were actually written by him.

But as an indication of how emotionally Rimsky-Korsakov was dedicated to this project, he told the story that there was a total eclipse of the sun “as if purposely coincident with my work on Igor, wherein the Prologue depicts a solar eclipse as an evil omen.” Despite that, the opera did reach performance and continues to have revivals including outside of Russia. Rimsky-Korsakov was pleased by the success it had. And a report of audience reactions to the Polovtsian Dances was given in Cyril W. Beaumont’s book on Fokine’s ballets:

The spectators were carried away by the wild throbbing frenzy of Borodin’s music, that maddening passion contrasted with periods of deep lassitude so characteristic of the Slav temperament. Fokine has exactly interpreted in his choreographic medium that marvelous evocation of 12th century Russia, even to the least modification of its themes and rhythms. The music and dances seem inseparable; it is impossible to believe that they ever existed apart.

notes and explorations:


A 2003 DVD of the entire opera Prince Igor is on Decca (originally Philips Classics) performed by the Kirov Opera and Ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev—who also had spearheaded a new performing edition. The liner notes present a brief history of the many problems presented by the unfinished state in which Borodin left his manuscripts—and the writers Marina Malkiel and Anna Barry also chronicle some of the questions that musicians have had over the years about the work that Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov did to finish the opera. For this modern performance, Yuri Faliek provided new linking sections. The choreography for  the Polovtsian Dances as handed down from Mikhail Fokine was retained.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ly8y_pPtLgY This is a performance of the Polovtsian Dances at the Maryinsky Theatre in 2003.

Bolshoi Ballet version was more stylized for theater, with French subtitles. A DVD of the entire opera Prince Igor as performed by the Bolshoi in 1981 was released by Video Artists International in 2010.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vysbIqjG6vc  Score with green bar moving along with music so you can follow.

If you are looking for an historically believable evocation of this medieval saga, then you might want to give a miss to the 2014 DVD by the Metropolitan Opera, which instead of tribal warriors features bare-chested modern men floating around in a field of poppies. One online viewer commented: “Horribilis.” For Anthony Tommasini’s review of the live performance, go to https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/arts/music/a-new-vision-for-prince-igor-at-the-met.html  from The New York Times.


For some details about the creation and revisions of Prince Igor, see the article by Richard Taruskin in The Grove Book of Operas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 2006 edited by Stanley Sadie, revised Laura Macy) pp. 494-98.

The letter from Rimsky-Korsakov to S.N. Krooglikov appears in the note 20 on page 276 of Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, translated from the fifth revised Russian edition by Judah A. Joffe; edited with an introduction by Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vienna House, 1972 edition of the work originally published in 1923). The account of last-minute work by Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, and Borodin is told on pp. 210-11.

The Glazunov quote was taken from the Wikipedia article on Prince Igor.

The closing quotation is from Cyril W. Beaumont, Michel Fokine and his Ballets (London: Dance Books, 1996 republication of work originally published in 1935) p. 46.

In his book The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) pp. 215-216, the author Roland John Wiley questions the inference by Michel Fokine that he was not too familiar or influenced by the choreography of Lev Ivanov. Yet Fokine had danced in many of Ivanov’s works, identified by Wiley, who goes on to say:

Fokine’s setting of the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, which won him great celebrity in the West, was, according to Alexandre Shiryaev, clearly indebted to Ivanov:

“We are accustomed to think that the entire credit for the composition of these dances belonged to Fokine. In point of fact he only strengthened, vivified, sharpened, and embellished various details of the motifs of the dances composed by L. Ivanov for the old production of Prince Igor in 1890. The latter I remember very well, as I took part in them, performing the solo with the bow.

“It is logical that Fokine would distance himself from the old, but to do so at the expense of a choreographer from whom he borrowed so liberally is manifestly ungracious. In doing this, he contributed to the obscurity of Ivanov’s rightful place in history.”


Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote in his memoirs that while he was in the middle of working on orchestrating Borodin’s Prince Igor, he got the idea to write an orchestral piece inspired by the ever-popular tales of Arabian Nights. In those, a sultan’s latest wife Schéhérazade tells her husband a riveting story every evening, stopping just at a crucial point so that he has to listen one more evening and therefore hold off on his intent of killing her. In the end, her 1001 stories prove to be so interesting that he relents, and Schéhérazade lives happily ever after—or at least she lives.

The orchestral work begins with an unaccompanied violin solo meant to suggest the heroine beginning to weave her tales. As listeners, we easily remember the melody, for it reoccurs as a separation between the suggested stories. Among the sagas that the composer sought to evoke through his music were Sinbad the Sailor at Sea; Tale of the Kalendar Prince; the Young Prince and Princess; a Festival in Baghdad; and the destruction of Sinbad’s ship on a rock atop of which is a bronze warrior—all stories to entertain not only the sultan, but probably thousands upon thousands of children and adults around the world, for centuries.

However, the composer was averse to assigning too definite a program, and after the first published edition, he did away with the headings. His reason:

In composing Sheherazada I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had travelled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each. All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements. Why then does my suite bear the name, precisely, of Sheherazada? Because this name and the title The Arabian Nights connote in everybody’s mind the East and fairy-tale wonders; besides, certain details of the musical exposition hint at the fact that all of these are various tales of some one person…entertaining therewith her stern husband.

The tale told in Mikhail Fokine’s ballet as presented by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1910 was something else again! Here is what the artist Alexandre Benois stated in his Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet:

Both the idea of transforming Rimsky-Korsakov’s poem into choreographic action and the entire stage version of the subject were mine. In arranging it I did not even keep to the author’s own programme, but invented something quite different….I do not think it necessary to justify myself for having digressed from the author’s [composer’s] intention….

All my directions down to the smallest detail were accepted without any controversy by Diaghilev and those who happened to be present. Bakst was absent from nearly all these [planning] sessions, and there was no question of his taking any part in the libretto, but it was decided from the beginning that the décors and costumes would be entrusted to him.

Having considered the ballet libretto his original creation, Benois was angered when at the premiere he opened his program and saw that credit attributed to Bakst. Subsequently, Benois wrote to Diaghilev that he was breaking from him for good, and though previously the artist-collaborator had referred to the Paris productions with the word “our,” from then on he talks of Diaghilev as being solely in charge. For details of behind-the-scenes quarrels between Diaghilev and his collaborators, read the book!

But getting back to the ballet itself: it is a most sensual dance of illicit love-making between a sultan’s many wives and the (usually) locked-up male slaves. It is a tale of revenge and dead bodies all over the stage at the end. But before that, there is a lengthy pas de deux with back bends, sinuous arm movements, and encircled bodies as the many wives and many slaves engage in an orgy of dance, wine, and eroticism, all meant to evoke an imaginary Mid-East harem, with its luxuriant backdrops and bejeweled costumes by Léon Bakst. There is a hobbling eunuch—and most importantly, an excuse for stupendous leaps and crouched landings by the “Golden Slave” originally performed by Vaslav Nijinsky. His voluptuous partner, now called Zobeide and for the times rather revealingly scantily clad in harem pants and jeweled bodice, was supposed to be Ida Rubinstein; but since she didn’t show up on time, the premiere performances were by Tamara Karsavina.

Rimsky-Korsakov was not to live to see all that. But in January 1908 before his death, the composer happened to have written a letter in which he expressed his personal opinion of the use of concert music to accompany theatrical dance, and was more prescient than he could possibly have known in regard to the use of his own music:

Concerning [Isadora] Duncan, I shall tell you that I have never seen her. Presumably she is very graceful, a splendid mime, etc.; but what repels me in her is that she foists her art upon and tacks it onto musical compositions which are dear to my heart and do not at all need her company, and whose authors had not counted upon it. How chagrined I should be if I learned that Miss Duncan dances and mimically explains, for instance, my Scheherazada, Antar, or Easter Overture! Musical works intended for dancing and miming must really be accompanied by the latter, and moreover, in certain decorative surroundings, but works not intended for it do not require any mimic interpretation, and in truth, it is powerless to interpret them. All in all, miming is not an independent kind of art and can merely accompany words or singing, but when it foists itself unbidden upon music, it only harms the latter by diverting attention from it.

The composer’s widow objected strenuously to Fokine’s choreographic setting of Schéhérazade, but apparently there was nothing she could do to stop the staging in Paris, because at the time there was no copyright agreement between France and Russia. Nowadays, in the United States and by international agreements, we have what are called “grand rights” under current copyright laws. These stipulate that any music still under copyright (through being in a fixed form either as a manuscript, published score, or sound recording) cannot be used for theatrical purposes (very definitely including any dance given in public, whether in a college showing or in the grandest performing arts center) without permission from the copyright holder. This could involve the composer directly, or his publisher, or his agent. In any case, choreographers have to apply for permission—which for students is sometimes given gratis or for modest fees, but which can involve substantial sums for professional companies if many performances are given over the course of years.

So: because the composer’s widow was not able to stop performances of Fokine’s Schéhérazade,   it continued to be performed and viewed with pleasure. Less so now, and perhaps only as a period piece. But several lavishly mounted performances can be seen on DVD, and these are interesting first of all as evocations of the interest in “exotic” settings that were applauded by former audiences in Europe. More interesting are the challenges that the choreography continues to pose for the dancers. There is quite a bit of pantomime (which at moments seems to have little to do with the music), but there are also several dances with both male and female groups. However, the highlight of this ballet certainly is the very lengthy pas-de-deux. Imagine what a sensation that must have created when theater-goers saw Nijinsky’s portrayal of the Golden Slave for the first time! And all those back bends and curvaceous arm movements on the part of Zobeide. It should be noted that one of the break-throughs made by Fokine was not limiting himself to the poses and steps of classical ballet. Rather, he sought to inject realism into his dances by greatly expanding, in this particular ballet, the movement of arms and torso, to suggest settings  considered “exotic” by his audiences then. Not at all what the composer had in mind!

the composer’s career

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote a delightful autobiography that has been beautifully translated, and the reader can come away from it with a very strong sense of what kind of person the composer was and what his work methods were, in addition to the flow of his projects and compositions. It is a very detailed book but a few specific bits of information are worth noting here, because Rimsky-Korsakov’s development as a musician was so different from that of most outstanding composers.

For openers, he was a descendant of Russian nobility. There was even a princess among the not-too-distant ancestors. His father was extremely wealthy, having inherited an estate with many serfs—whom he did totally free and subsequently employ for wages. Unfortunately, the father was swindled out of most of his holdings, but because he had also held the post of a Governor, he at least had a pension in older age. The place where the family lived was anything but a cultural center or a place to see theatrical ballet. Indeed, the composer recalled growing up in Tikhvin:

The town boasted neither violinists nor amateur cellists. For a long time the Tikhvin ballroom orchestra consisted of a violin, on which a certain Nikolay used to scrape out polkas and quadrilles, and of a tambourine, which was artistically played by Koozma, a house-painter by trade and a heavy drinker.

So the young Nikolai grew up not being particularly interested in music apart from a few unimpressive ventures into piano lessons. But early on he wanted—like his older brother—to go to sea, and so at the age of only twelve he was taken to the Marine Corps training school.  By the age of 17 he was graduated as a midshipman, and at 18 he was off on a two-year eight-month voyage on a clipper ship, ostensibly with the military purpose of interfering with British ships that might help the Poles who were revolting. The later-composer draws a marvelous picture of what he experienced at sea (especially in the chapter about 1862-65). The ship was docked for repairs at New York harbor for many months during the American Civil War, and the crew took advantage of the time to visit Niagara Falls, even the Grand Canyon. And shipboard crossing the Equator on the way home, they marveled at the phosphorescence of the tropical ocean. They went through hurricanes and high waves. So perhaps these experiences later inspired the composer when it came to portraying Sinbad and the ocean shipwreck in musical terms.

Officially, Rimsky-Korsakov was in the service for over thirty years (mostly on land), ending up as Inspector of the Bands for the entire country. Especially when he became one of the informal circle of composers under the encouragement of Mily Balakirev (who came to be popularly known as “The Mighty Five”—also including Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and César Cui) the young man began composing in earnest, teaching himself elementary harmony, counterpoint, and instruments, and much to his amazement in his low 30s was invited to teach at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg. He considered himself still somewhat of a “dilettante,” claimed he learned from his students and had to study hard to keep ahead of them—since he himself lacked conservatory training. But, he wrote, he felt it more important in his own creations to be able to hear and use intervals and chords rather than to give them analytic names. And so his output as a composer continued, with admirable success considering his late start. Fifteen operas (including Le Coq d’or or The Golden Cockerel), symphonies, some songs, some chamber music.

But no ballet scores!

notes and explorations:


2002 DVD suggested: The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky on Kultur Contains Schéhérazade. (See You Tube link below.) Also has Le Spectre de la Rose danced by Zhanna Ayupova and Igor Kolb. Plus a splendid performance of Polovtsian Dances. Orchestra of the Maryinsky Theatre conducted by Mikhail Agrest.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37nWgmDkgSY  This is the complete film of Schéhérazade as performed by Les Saisons Russes du XX1 Siecle. Ilze Liepa portrays Zabeida; Victor Yeremenko, the Golden Slave. This is the performance available on the DVD “Return of the Firebird” directed by Andris Liepa. The violinist is Sergey Stadler, with the Bolshoi State Academic Theatre Orchestra.


There are a number of CDs of remastered older recordings of Schéhérazade available but one that is still favored by many listeners is a SONY 2005 reissue of Fritz Reiner leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Another remastering is on Decca, of the London Symphony with Igor Markevitch. On Telarc, Sir Charles Mackerras also conducted the London Symphony. Another older recording now on CD, conducted by Leopold Stokowski is with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, on their label. EMI offers a reissue of Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra are on SONY. Andre Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic on the Philips label. And on and on. All the leading conductors, it seems, have wanted to record their interpretations! Also recommended is Andrew Litton and London Philharmonic, on Seraphim.


For Alexandre Benois’ account of Schéhérazade, see chapter VI of his book Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet, translated by Mary Britnieva (New York: Da Capo Press republication of the work originally published in London in 1941). The quotations here are from pp. 309 and 310.

Concerning Schéhérazade, Richard Buckle offered the opinion that “the Oriental work looks ridiculous today.”  Buckle, Diaghilev (New York: Atheneum, 1984) p. 201. And in their Ballet Goer’s Guide (p. 249), Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp agree: “It is a ludicrous work, and one whose text is now very suspect, but it contains characters who can be compelling.” p. 249.

If anyone wants to dip into a few of the Arabian Nights stories to get a feel for what inspired both the music and the ballet, there is a recent translation, published in three thick volumes.  (But you could start reading anywhere—just realize that the stories are split between several nights on purpose, precisely so Schéhérazade won’t lose her life.) Historical information about the collection is included in Volume II. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, translated by Malcolm C. Lyons with Ursula Lyons (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2008; paperback 2010).

The first quote from Rimsky-Korsakov’s My Musical Life, translated by Judah A. Joffe (New York: Vienna House, 1972 republication of the work originally published in 1923) is from p. 6. Other quotes are from pp. 291-94 and  from pp. 446-47.

The facts about the legal situation were taken from a translation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow’s remarks, as quoted in Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, Vol. Two, p. 1075. She said her only recourse was to protest via the press. On p. 1074, Taruskin describes how subsequently also without permission Diaghilev  “distorted” Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Le Coq d’or, making many cuts and presenting the work as a ballet-oratorio. In that case, Mme. Rimsky-Korsakov did go to court and was able to stop future revivals of the transformed work.

Not described in my essay here is information about Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg. Rimsky-Korsakov had supported the students at the time and afterwards temporarily lost his teaching position at the conservatory. Furthermore, a two-month ban was placed on performances of all his music. For information about that political event, here is brief article: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bloody-sunday-massacre-in-russia

These protests and demonstrations burst into many strikes, and to a new constitution in 1906 (but still with the Tsar in power). Political wariness was one reason so many top artists and dancers and musicians started leaving Russia around those times. But another reason was that the Tsar’s budgets for the theaters began to be cut, and the performers were attracted to Western Europe—especially Paris—by relative safety and more opportunities, even though the dancers still received very little pay. Another reason for the exodus was for artistic freedom—a reason that continued well into the 20th century with the sensational separate defections of super-star ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

A pertinent comment worth considering on the subject of using extant music for dance purposes is the following, by Eric Schwartz, director of music for dance at North Carolina University’s School of the Arts:

Rimsky-Korsakov’s quote about Duncan is really fascinating. I sympathize with this point of view (that dance can sometimes be almost parasitic when it attaches itself to great musical work). However, Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t live to see how many extraordinary counter-examples there would come to be (great dance amplifying the effects of great music). Still, even in the 21st century there is much care that must needs be taken with utilizing musical masterworks alongside dance.

Le Coq d’or:

In 1914 in Paris, Sergei Diaghilev presented just a few performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq d’or (The Golden Cockerel, based on Pushkin) as an opera-ballet with the singers on the side of stage and dances choreographed by Fokine. Subsequently the choreographer set the work as a one-act ballet without singers.

For an extended account of Michel Fokine’s two versions of Le Coq d’or, see his Memoirs of a Ballet Master,translated by his son Vitale Fokine, edited by Anatole Chujoy (Boston: Little Brown, 1961) pp. 225-233 about the 2014 opera; pp. 274-80 about the 1937 ballet version and heirs of the composer.

The libretto was by Vladimir Bel’sky, based on Alexander Pushkin’s “The House of the Weather Cock” which in turn was based on the American writer Washington Irving’s “Legend of the Astrologer” from his book The Alhambra.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Cockerel This gives a synopsis of the plot plus a brief history of early performances. Basically, a magic cockerel is introduced to warn the tsar of any impending dangers.

Writing in the online CriticalDance of June 6, 2016, Jerry Hochman reminded us of why the composer (who died in 1908) never saw his own opera staged:

Rimsky-Korsakov reportedly was inspired to compose The Golden Cockerel as a response to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), which was highly unpopular in Russia. It was a war that Russia decisively lost, and which exacerbated the unpopularity of the Czar Nicholas II – who was widely perceived as having gotten Russia involved in a vanity war because of his preoccupation with extending Russia’s sphere of influence into East Asian areas, like Korea, and which, combined with other issues, led to the first stirrings of the Russian Revolution. The opera satirizes the czar and the aristocracy, Russian imperialism, and the folly of the war, but tries to camouflage this by couching the stage action as a wizard’s hallucination. The Czar’s censor banned it anyway.

Despite all that, throughout the years since then, there have been quite a few productions of Le Coq d’or, which can be regarded as a cautionary moral tale for all ages, enfolded in a colorful fairy tale.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJnAkpqVDcc  This is the Bolshoi Theatre’s 1989 traditional production of The Golden Cockerel, in color, conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. Stupendous costumes and backdrops and lots of dancing. Sung in Russian (No subtitles, but if you read the plot first it is easy to follow.) The emergence of cockerel from an egg, under the direction of the astrologer, sets up the magic. Of special interest to hear the Queen’s Hymn to the Sun in Russian. Online viewers were most enthusiastic—calling the filmed production “glorious…spectacular…a  treat…unforgettable.” And one person commented: “Music lives in the Russian soul through every kind of historic trauma.”

A century after the Paris premiere of Le Coq d’or the Russian dance artist Andris Liepa mounted his version of the opera-ballet for London audiences. For a vivid description of what sounds like a charming production, go to https://bachtrack.com/review-coq-saisons-russes-ballet-july-2014  The review, written by Margaret Willis, provides some historical background plus a warm appreciation of the ballet as a fairy tale. A second opinion of the same production, written by music critic Mark Pullinger, points out the more usual satirical associations of the plot. But otherwise, a very positive impression of a rare performance.

A 2019 restoration of a performance telecast in 1971 featuring Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle and Enrico di Giuseppe. (In English). New York City Opera conducted by Julius Rudel. This b&w film is not bad visually, and the sound gives viewers an appreciation of the coloratura soprano’s historic role as the Queen of Shemakha. Her big solo entry is in Act 2 followed by duet with the doddering tsar and eventually his “dancing lesson” with other cast members, and then his proposal. Procession near end includes fantasy characters.

A most unusual production of Le Coq d’or can be seen on the 2011 Arthaus Musik DVD, a film of the 2002 Théatre Musical de Paris—Chatelet performance, done in Kabuki style with stunning sets and costumes and stage movement. Kent Nagano conducted; staging was by Ennosuke Ichikawa; choreography by Kanshino Fujima. With the Orchestre de Paris and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre from St. Petersburg. The opening clarinet solo sounds very exotic indeed—and surprisingly, it foreshadows the long aria by the successfully conniving Queen of Shemakha, who manages to have the Tsar promise her “everything” because he is so besotted with her. The first act is mostly declamatory singing, but the second act includes the Queen condescendingly directing the Tsar in how to dance, and the last act has a spectacular entry march of the Queen’s retinue of strange creatures. The whole production is quite fascinating to watch, and the movements of the singers are all clearly choreographed in Kabuki style, though not all “dance.” This film for now is available in two parts online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTTDFMR6mrk and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JO3gnPOipI0&t=0s

A contemporary fantasy take of the opera was filmed in 2014, now on DVD,  with the Maryinsky Orchestra and Chorus directed by Valery Gergiev. Looking at it in 2022 with admiration for the artistry, nevertheless one cannot help but wonder why the conductor and the Russian populace in general have not taken the moral to heart for their own times—when they have a tyrannical dictator who is indeed ordering invasions of his peaceful neighbors, killing them mercilessly, and destroying entire cities, claiming he has no choice.

That said, the performance and staging of the opera are quite intriguing, and the orchestra’s sparkling sounds were wonderful in tandem with the solo singers and chorus.This version begins showing a modern girl with a chicken backpack and tablet camera looking at a giant casket. Out steps the magician in snakeskin business  suit…and you’re off with this fairy tale that has such a deep moral, perhaps more timely now than ever. The fictional Tsar recalls how he so many times invaded the countries of his neighbors, making wars even when his own sons were killed, and now has a preference for staying home away from dangers himself, yet is still concerned with protecting his borders, being able to sleep in peace even while soldiers vent themselves on villages and farms. He is known for hitting out at everyone; he is wary of poison….doesn’t know what a legal document is, since he declares “My wish is my command.” At the end, when the king is pecked to death by the cockerel,  the chorus of subservient citizens (not mentioning any former invasions and wars on their neighbors) ask whatever should they do without their ruler.

Considering just the staging: the costumes include onion-domed hats; the seductress Queen is in a red mini-skirt and hails from an island that is halfway between the sky and the ocean and has no people on it. Maxin Petrov was the choreographer, and there are brief dances, but the characters’ movements throughout are quite stunning and dramatic.  English subtitles are excellent help.

More recently, in the United States, Alexei Ratmansky set Le Coq d’or as a ballet for American Ballet Theatre in 2016. Here is a 10-minute clip that certainly makes one want to see the whole performance. Begins with overture and astrologer, introduces the cockerel, the tsar on his throne, and court considering war. You will hear some of the main musical themes used later by the queen, and for the astrologer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qh6DXUpOa0

And here is a wonderful clip of studio rehearsals and interviews with dancers and Ratmansky about the choreography. Four minutes worth watching! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxvctDKiZr8

a modern take on the music of Schéhérazade:

An entirely different inspiration from Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and the Arabian Nights was taken by choreographer Alonzo King for his Lines Ballet of San Francisco. His version of Scheherazade  was captured for a 2012 ArtHaus Musik DVD. The musical score by tabla virtuoso Zakai Hussain included the use of a double-reed Persian instrument, and end-blown flute, plus familiar Western instruments violin and cello. The main melody from Rimsky-Korsakov’s score was sometimes played in doublings very much in Middle Eastern traditions, and there were some extended sections of driving percussion figures. But otherwise the combinations of timbres and original music serve to take one into a different imaginary world, sometimes quite hypnotically with evocative lighting adding to the supportive backdrops for this stunning work.

As for the dancers…! Laurel Keen as Scheherazade and David Harvey as Shahryar are dramatic, evolving from confrontation and his powerful ruling, to a final long duet in which she definitely has “got” him, so to survive. In between, the entire company perform non-narrative choreography that blends classical technique with contemporary moves.The women at moments stand on pointe on one leg, with the other in arabesque—with no traditional male escorts to support them. And with the men, there are moments when one flies through the air trustingly, to be caught and raised horizontally by his colleagues.  Riveting!

A typical impression was this review:

King’s company boasts the most limber, attractive, technically fearless set of performers to be found in any single-choreographer organization in this city. Somehow, these dancers seem a mite removed from common humanity, and it has been the choreographer’s objective over the past 28 years to test his company’s mortal limitations by embroiling them in a stretched classical language that challenges the dancers’ every sinew. –Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Chronicle,  Oct. 16, 2010

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fO4tPYC-JD4 A brief clip from the ArtHaus Musik DVD filmed performance of Scheherazade. Harp and cello play Rimsky-Korsakov’s melody, followed by some of Zakir Hussain’s original music, then with violin recapturing the melody. A CD is available from https://linesballet.org/


Smash hit from 1881! This extravagant theatrical mix of pantomime and classical ballet may seem unusual to our eyes today—especially since its theme is a celebration of scientific inventions. But as reported by Jennifer Homans in her history Apollo’s Angels (p.232ff):  “Excelsior was more successful than any Italian ballet ever, before or since.” There were 103 performances in the first year alone following its premiere in 1881 with original choreography by Luigi Manzotti (1835-1905) and a musical score by Romualdo Marenco (1841-1907). More than 500 people were featured onstage, plus an elephant! And for popular “exotic” appeal, a desert sand storm set the scene for attempted robbery, followed by a huge entertainment featuring a “Turk,” a “Chinese” man, and colorfully costumed dancers evoking traditional “Indian,” and “Egyptian” styles to mark the opening of the Suez Canal. This lavish concoction was exported and staged across Europe, and as far as South America and the United States.

How could we all not know about this? Well, to remedy that gap in our experience, a DVD of a 2002 performance was released in 2010 on the Arthaus label with the orchestra of La Scala providing the music for the Corps de Ballet of La Scala plus outstanding soloists.  Subtitles of very brief introductory section are given in English, French, and German. Two hours long, this colossal production was described this way on amazon:

In 1881 La Scala Milan staged a magnificent ballet spectacle. The aim was to present by means of a ballet all the great discoveries and achievements which had illuminated the late 19th century. The result was a choreographic, historic, allegoric, phantastic plot in two parts and eleven scenes, i.e. this was not a ballet in the classical sense. Excelsior is a kind of choreographic composition, which sings the praises of progress in science and accomplishments, in keeping with the era of supreme optimism. The steam engine, the Brooklyn Bridge, electricity, telegraph, the Suez Canal and the tunnel between Italy and France are all technical achievements, which are shown on stage. Despite its seemingly dreary subject matter it was a huge success when first performed, and enjoyed a run of 103 performances during that year alone.This production from 2002 at the Teatro alla Scala brings a riot of colour to Manzotti’s work. With 100 dancers on stage at a time, references to the golden MGM film era and Busby Berkeley-style dancing, it is guaranteed to intrigue and charm!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIqjn7apVBw  Excelsior can be viewed online with Italian soundtrack at the beginning. The credits for this modern production indicate Ugo Dell’Ara as the  choreographer. David Coleman conducted the work’s 1881 musical score by Romualdo Marenco, with arrangements by Fiorenzo Carpi and Bruno Nicolai. The spectacular  sets and costumes were designed by Giulio Coltellacci, and the director was Filippo Crivelli.

One viewer noted that this lavish theatrical work is rarely given in live performance,  and that “Roberto Bolle’s sublime presence is the icing on the cake.”  Bolle portrayed the “slave” in one featured pas de deux section (bringing to mind that famous scene from Le Corsaire). Isabel Seabra portrayed his partner “Civilization” and Marta Romagna the star role of “Light.” Also striking was the portrayal of the “Spirit of Darkness” character by Riccardo Massimi. Then there was the cast of other soloists and uncountable corps members providing a unique performance that included folk-like dances, pantomime, synchronization worthy of music-hall routines, and truly beautiful classical ballet.

We cannot tell, of course, what changes were made to the original score. But the orchestrations with lush countermelodies, dramatic shifts in mood, tempo, meter and underlying rhythmic patterns, add to carefully developed dynamic and phrasing climaxes. All very satisfying effects even to modern ears, and very supportive of the dancers’ moves. Delicate sounds for pointe work; harp and clarinet for a lovely solo; brass declarations reminiscent of the dramatic Italian operas of that time; shimmering strings to arouse suspense;  strong beats to accompany the virtuosic male jumps; and recognizable forms of waltz, galop, bolero, and polkas that brought to mind those of Johann Strauss Jr..

Basically, the plot has to do with the Spirit of Darkness, who at the beginning has Light in chains during the cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition.  But despite his attempts to rule over so much of life, he is thwarted during each era, baffled by various inventions—and overpowered by the cultural heritage from ancient times as well as by science, love, harmony, the arts, and technology—all symbolized by differently costumed corps groups.

The scenes of invention highlight the steamboat, the Brooklyn bridge, electricity, and the telegraph—with delivery messengers on pointe! The final achievement, portrayed by an all-male group of performers, is the successful completion of the Cenisio tunnel connecting Italy and France. After that, a grand apotheosis calls for row upon row of synchronized corps members dressed in various dazzling costumes and waving flags of many nations, to the music of brisk marches and galops. The star pas-deux dancers return to add to a glorious ending, along with the huge cast celebrating the ultimate victory of Light!

Quite an extravaganza, that reminds one of World Fairs which also featured inventions of civilization. And as the DVD booklet writer Peter Noelke observed about the optimistic view: “In never ending jubilation science, progress, brotherliness and love are united to the glory of the present and to an even greater glorification of the future.” In the theatrical production the Spirit of Darkness lost his power forever. Wish that had come to pass in real life, but in any case this filmed performance is most enjoyable to watch now.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romualdo_Marenco Brief information about the composer has a list of 18 ballets composed by him.

Further information, a synopsis, and quotation of a long review about the 1885 London performances can be found iin Cyril W. Beaumont’s Complete Book of Ballets (pp.524ff).

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/resources/pdfs/978-1-4438-4089-7-sample.pdf An online excerpt from the Cambridge Scholars 2012 publication of piano reductions to Excelsior and another of Marenco’s ballets, Sport. Compiled and introduced by Robert Ignatius Letellier. With pictures of both collaborators and some stage designs, synopsis of the scenes, musical samples, and an informative introduction in English. After the initial performances of Excelsior, observed Letellier:

Marenco’s music was spread all over the world by this success: it was always carefully moulded to the choreographic action, and was well written, with melodic verve, formal invention, and an overwhelming sense of rhythmic dynamism. The music is fast-moving and vivacious, rarely sentimental, and often induces a torrential sense of lyrical exhilaration.

For a little more information about the choreographer Manzotti and the composer Marenco, see Vol. 4 of the IED. The writers George Dorris and Alberto Testa had this to say about the music [p. 264]:

Although the music is often decried by modern critics, the sheer energy of Marenco’s score for Excelsior has been an important element in the ballet’s success….Marenco’s music was based primarily on his rhythmic vitality, catchy tunes, and vivid orchestration, but his works were carefully molded to support the choreographic spectacle. Popular dance rhythms, such as the waltz, polka, and galop, added vivacity, making the scores readily acceptable to large audiences. In this Marenco was typical of the craftspersons, many of them Italian, who provided music for choreographic spectacle before Léo Delibes and Petr Illich Tchaikovsky began to change the way composers regarded ballet music.