Classical Music: Ballets and Ballerinas

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

In classical music, a ballet is a story that’s told in music and dance, with no speaking and no singing. In the old days of ballet, the dance was the only important thing. The composer’s job was to write music that let the dancers show off.

Musical considerations such as drama, pacing, and even beauty of sound were secondary to the spectacle of the dance: young men and women with great legs. Accordingly, early composers didn’t put much effort into their compositions for ballet — after all, it was just background music.

But then Peter Tchaikovsky came along. Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) wrote such stunning music for such ballets as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker that people could no longer take the “background” music for granted. Starting with his ballets, some people started listening to ballets for the music alone.

Tchaikovsky’s ballets are the most popular and beloved in the history of ballet. Soon, other composers began to take a cue from him. Two other Russian composers in particular, Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) and Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), got into ballet composing in an equally big way.

Gradually, their ballet music became popular even without the dancing. Prokofiev’s ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella are regulars on the ballet stage, but their musical scores are also popular with concert audiences. And although not all the ballets of Stravinsky are regularly performed by dancers today, you can still hear the music everywhere. Orchestras all around the world are constantly performing The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring.

Just as in an opera, where the action comes to a pause and a character sings an aria to express her feelings, ballet has moments where the ballerina dances to express her feelings — either alone or with her male consort (or cavalier) in a dance form known as the pas de deux.

At these moments, the plot stops. But these moments are some of the most exciting in ballet because they’re the most expressive. Just as the arias are the highlights of an opera, these dances form the highlights of a ballet.

Between these “arias” for ballet dancers, the music of the ballet is often written to mimic the action onstage. Most ballet music is, therefore, by its very nature programmatic — which means “storytelling.” This music tells a story in a detailed, direct way — even more so than a tone poem does. In a tone poem, the music conveys a particular mood, or perhaps a particular scene. But in a masterful ballet, nearly every note of the music corresponds directly to a particular motivation and action onstage.

In orchestra concerts, ballet music comes in two different forms. First are complete ballet scores, which are usually uncut and consist of exactly the music that was written for the dance. These scores can be difficult to follow unless you understand what the “action music” between the expressive dances is describing. As you listen to a complete ballet in concert, therefore, do your best to find out the details of the story beforehand (usually by looking in the program book).

Then there are ballet suites. A ballet suite is a collection of the most expressive highlights from the original ballet, with all the filler omitted. As a result, ballet suites tend to be even more exciting than complete ballets. When you listen to a ballet suite, it’s less essential to know exactly what’s going on in the story. The music itself is expressive enough.