In 1862, the eminent London critic Henry Chorley expressed the need for a monograph on ballet music: “If we leave the renowned men of what is called classical art and [turn our attention] to the balletmakers…it may be found that there is much to delight in, something to learn.”
—Barrymore Scherer in The New York Times
Appreciating Ballet’s Music is an introduction and resource guide for both musicians and dancers as well as for people who simply enjoy watching ballet!
Written in non-technical language (without musical notation), the 17 essays introduce highlights in the history of music for theatrical ballet in the West—touching upon some forerunners of the style plus a few contemporary works.
Most importantly, annotated hyperlinks allow readers to instantly see and hear performances of ballets and music being discussed as well as to view artist interviews and related documentaries. Extensive section notes and the annotated bibliography suggest resources for ongoing further explorations.
Presented here is information about not only scores composed for specific theatrical dance works, but also about pre-existing concert music that was used by choreographers for some notable ballets. In regard to this, the late British composer/ conductor Constant Lambert observed:
The supply of true ballet music, then, being so inadequate it is only natural that at least half the ballet repertoire should be founded on music written for its own sake. When this music is suited to the dance in texture and rhythm, and not too introspective or philosophical in mood, it can often be as satisfactory as ballet music written for the purpose….But the question of arranging ballets to classical or non-dramatic music immediately raises the most important problem of all for the choreographer: How closely should the dancing follow the music?
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This collection is not a strictly chronological history. Some sections are structured topically—for instance on Orpheus, Romeos and Juliets, and Women in White. Yet taken altogether, the essays do indicate a passage of time and changes in styles of both music and dance over the centuries. The main focus is on earlier European ballet—from Renaissance court spectacles to outstanding stage works presented up until the mid-20th century. However, many of the performances highlighted are by contemporary American artists.
To pick up the story of music for theatrical dance in the United States, readers can explore my collection of first-hand essays written by choreographers, performers, and composers in Making Music for Modern Dance: Collaboration in the Formative Years of a New American Art (Oxford University Press).
The information presented in Appreciating Ballet’s Music is drawn from published histories, biographies, and reference materials, as indicated in the notes for each section. The descriptions of specific dances and music (unless otherwise attributed) are my own impressions, based on viewing DVDs as well as online films, listening to CDs, studying scores, and attending live performances.
The late choreographer George Balanchine and his book’s co-author Francis Mason suggested that: “Ballet in many cases can show us how to appreciate music….Dancing is always pointing to music, showing it, making it visually interesting. If our eyes are entertained, we begin to listen in a new way.”
The reverse can be true too: that by becoming more familiar with its music, we may find new enjoyment in seeing ballet’s dances.
James City County, Virginia, 2021
Epigraph quotation is from Barrymore Scherer, “Three Composers Who Knew What Dance Needed,” in The New York Times, March 27, 1983.
The quotation from Constant Lambert is from his essay “Music and Action” in Caryl Brahms, Footnotes to the Ballet (London: Peter Davies Ltd., 1936) p. 171.
The quotation near the end is from George Balanchine and Francis Mason, Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, p.694.
abbreviations throughout: IED indicates International Encyclopedia of Dance. (See Bibliography for full publication information.) New Grove indicates The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
dance books and DVDs: A publisher/vendor that specializes in dance books and DVDs (also streaming some of them) is https://www.dancehorizons.com/ (Dance Horizons/Princeton Book Company, Publishers).
streaming CDs: Whenever “streaming” or sampling of CDs or purchase by track is indicated, unless otherwise specified, the source should be understood to be https://www.amazon.com/
Wikipedia sources: Though with unattributed authors, yet this not-for-profit organization provides unusually good articles about music and dance, plus biographies of composers and dancers. Readers are urged to contribute support for their efforts—and quite a few links are provided where helpful in the following essays.
recommended DVD: An exceptional DVD that can serve as a basis for approaching this entire art is American Ballet Theatre: A History, a 2015 film directed by Ric Burns and presented by PBS for their American Masters series. It is not a history in the usual sense; rather, its thrust is through slow-motion film clips to offer a sense of the beauty, the emotion, and the hard work involved in making ballets. Especially helpful for people who do not have a background in dance, the film is also something wonderful to see for people who are familiar with ballet. It is about much more than this one company! DVD available through amazon.com. Or to see an excellent preview and to purchase for online viewing go to this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sT-QyuTUCP4
on watching and listening: The distinguished dance critic Edwin Denby wrote a short article titled “A Note to Composers” in 1939 for Modern Music in which he suggested some basic things that anyone might like to notice about the relationship between music and movement in dance performances. It is reprinted in a most enjoyable collection, Dance Writings, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (University of Florida Press, 1986) pp. 62-63. An excerpt:
If [anyone] watches the dancers and listens to the music at the same time, he will see how the visual rhythm frequently goes against the acoustic one. He can see how the choreographer runs over the end of a phrase, distributes effects and accents sometimes with, sometimes against the pattern of the music….
He will see that the dance accents frequently do not reproduce the accents of the musical phrase, and that even when they correspond, their time length is rarely identical with the musical time units…The variations of energy in dancing around which a dance phrase is built are what make the dance interesting and alive; and they correspond to a muscular one, not an auditory one….
A dancer onstage is not a musical instrument; she is—or he is—a character, a person. The excitement of watching ballet is that two very different things—dancing and music—fit together, not mechanically, but in spirit.