Through the ages, musicians and dancers have practiced different methods of merging their arts.  For some theatrical dances, fresh music would be composed specifically for staged works. The music might come first, or the dance might come first. Or the choreography and the composition might evolve in tandem. In other cases, music might be “borrowed” from past ballet or dance performances. Or more recently, the music for a choreographed dance might be an extant piece that had been originally composed as a concert work to be listened to by itself. But in each case, the intended result would be that the  movement and the sound be experienced at the same moment in time as an indivisible whole—something quite different from just the dance in silence, or just the music without any dance.

Though several systems of written symbols were later developed to help conserve patterns of choreography, yet for the history of dance going back many centuries before, we have to rely on clues inherited from visual art, descriptive writing, and assumptions based on folk dances as practiced today. Even then we probably can form no more than a general sense of styles.

Similarly for earlier dance music, since much of it was improvised (even though often using familiar tunes as a basis), we can’t know exactly what sounds musicians were providing for dancers long before ballet styles came on the scene.  However, because written notation for sounds was invented before any system to record movement, we are able to go back considerably earlier in time when it comes to accuracy and details.

Revisiting the past

Once the choreographer George Balanchine was asked whether it was proper for older classical ballets to be revised by present-day choreographers. His reply: “Yes, I don’t see why not, if the choreographers have respect for the original music and the intention of the work as it has come down to us.” He then pointed out that many people think of “revivals” in terms of recreating the original steps, which we often cannot know—and that over time, the ballet movements and even the music may be changed by dancers, ballet masters, conductors, and choreographers.

So in this series of essays, every attempt is being made to present information about the original productions of the dances discussed. But the performances we may see—both live and on film—will obviously not be the same as what was seen by audiences centuries ago or even a few years past. And in some cases, contemporary choreographers have created their own “take” not only on the music, but also on the stories and whatever else may have been handed down and known about the original choreographic stagings.

Concerning questions about reconstruction, the dance historian Angene Feves made this warning observation in her IED entry on the subject:

The study and reconstruction of dances from the past requires one to overcome vast distances across national boundaries and centuries of time. The process of trying to understand the dance movements and the world of past dance masters necessitates decades of one-sided communication with teachers long dead in a patient attempt to understand not only what they said but also what they omitted saying. For some dance reconstructors, long after they have discovered how to execute [certain steps], the fierce question of how to understand the words and the steps of others—to dance in their shoes—remains.

Although it is always interesting to discuss scenery as well as costumes, technical training, theater buildings, famous dancers, cultural attitudes, political events,  and how people gathered to eat, still the focus here will be on the music: its role, its instruments, its styles, and the composers along with their various ways of working with dancers. To provide some historical perspective, the first few essays offer a fast—very fast!—journey through time before ballet, starting with representative religious pageantry and informal pastoral plays and including samples of the very first Western dance music that has survived in writing.


note on revivals:

Balanchine’s remark on reviving older classics is from Balanchine and Mason, p. 781.
This is a most informative tribute to Angene Feves (1937-2014) written by Sandra Noll Hammond and published in the Dance Chronicle in 2014.

musical notation:

Though in these essays musical notation is not being used, yet there are some hyperlinks to online websites that offer images of some beautiful calligraphy of early  notation for musical sounds all the way to full orchestral scores for recent ballet music. Even if readers cannot “translate’” the earlier written symbols into musical sounds, yet some examples are very interesting to see and we can admire many of them purely as art work. Over the centuries different systems were invented, and aspects of various ones were developed and accepted into common use. Even in Chapter 1 here, some amazing images are accessible via the hyperlinks. A fascinating brief introduction to the beginnings of musical notation around the globe. Some Babylonian systems dating as early as 1400 BCE. And this is a performance of what is thought to be the earliest extant piece of written notated music, a hymn to the wife of the moon god!  An arrangement of the same ancient melody, purely instrumental here, by Michael Levy.