Try to imagine orchestral line-ups without the exhilarating dynamism of The Firebird or the visceral power of The Rite of Spring, arguably the most important classical work of the 20th century. While there is no question that music is essential to ballet, it is sometimes less acknowledged that the opposite is also true in its way. Sure, the symphonic repertoire could get along without the inclusion of ballets, but it would be a decidedly poorer and less colorful musical universe.
“I come from the symphonic world where the most important thing is the presentation of what we consider to be the most important masterpieces of classical music, regardless of where they come from. And over the years, several pieces of ballet music have filtered up to the top of that list,” said Scott Speck, artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Joffrey Ballet.
Starting Sept. 22 with the Symphony Ball and continuing through the 2017-18 season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and one visiting artist) will perform complete or edited versions of five of the most celebrated ballet scores ever composed, including those for Swan Lake and Petruschka. In addition, the orchestra will perform four other dance works, including on-stage musical accompaniment for a screening of the celebrated Gene Kelly film, “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Early ballet music was written primarily to serve the needs of choreographers and was often forgettable, but all that changed in the 19th century with the arrival of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). The Russian composer wrote music that was eminently danceable but also stood solidly on its own, with an innate inner logic and drama. “Tchaikovsky flipped the ballet world on its head by making, in some cases, the music even more memorable than dance,” said Speck, co-author of Classical Music for Dummies. “There’s a real vulnerability, there’s a real emotional expressivity that goes way beyond what had been customary in ballet music before him.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Speck said, is their “unending fountain of incredible melodies.” As an example, he cites The Nutcracker, an adaptation of a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann that has gone on to become a beloved Christmas classic around the world. The conductor has led the work more than any other composition in his career, and he never grows tired of it. “It has a different unforgettable melody every minute for two hours,” he said.
Tchaikovsky set a standard, making it essential that the music for all subsequent ballets be brilliant in its own right. Following in his steps and creating their own dance masterpieces have been such subsequent composers as Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky.
While all ballet music was obviously written to accompany a choreographic work, the best of these scores hold enough appeal on their own to be performed by orchestras either in their entirety or via suites, abbreviated sets of highlights. “That’s the hallmark of all great music that you want to perform in concert, that it makes total sense strictly from a musical point of view,” Speck said. “You don’t need anything visual in order to have the complete experience.”
In fact, certain ballet scores are performed more often than the dance they were to accompany. That is certainly the case with The Rite of Spring, which the Ballets Russes debuted in Paris to considerable scandal in 1913. Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography was subsequently lost until the Joffrey Ballet created a reconstruction of it in 1987, which was later remounted in 2013.
In 2017-18, the Chicago Symphony and one visiting artist will perform complete or abbreviated versions of some of the most celebrated ballet music ever written:
- Sept. 22 (Symphony Ball), Suite from The Sleeping Beauty (1890), Tchaikovsky. The Sleeping Beauty is considered to be the greatest of the ballets choreographed by Marius Petipa, who served as ballet master of the Russian Imperial (Mariinsky) Ballet from 1871 through 1903.
- April 5-7 and 10, Daphnis and Chloé (1912), Ravel. This nearly hour-long “choreographic symphony,” as the composer dubbed this romantic one-act ballet, is the longest of his works and among the most admired.
- April 19-21, Suite from Swan Lake (1877), Tchaikovsky. The original production of this now-celebrated work was a failure, and the composer died before a second staging in 1895 by Petipa and Lev Ivanov put it on the road to becoming an enduring classic.
- May 5 (Family Concert), Suite from The Firebird (1910), Stravinsky; Selections from Swan Lake. Stravinsky was just 28 when Sergei Diaghilev commissioned him to write the score for The Firebird, which was based on two Russian folk tales, and the fresh, evocative work made the little-known composer an overnight success.
- May 20 (SCP Piano Series concert by Yefim Bronfman), Three Movements from Petrushka (1921), Stravinsky. Created as a solo piano work for his friend Arthur Rubinstein 10 years after the ballet’s premiere, these movements were closely based on the famous dance. But Stravinsky made clear that they were not transcriptions.
Other dance works that will be presented in 2017-18: