The Beautiful Ballet: My Top 5 Favorite Ballet Scores

Written by Stephen J. Trygar
Cover Photo by Alexandre Tsuchiya on Unsplash

The ballet, with all its beauty and grace on the stage, has some of classical music’s most glorious and mesmerizing scores. Although my career has gravitated towards the promotion of opera due to being hired as the Academy of Vocal Arts’ Administrative Assistant, ballet will always remain my favorite facet of the classical music genre. Ballet demands a story being told through the music, and, of all the theatrical music categories, ballet is the form that can be listened to without need of the staging. My research of ballet music as a graduate student has introduced me to some of the art form’s most gorgeous scores, and I am excited to share with you some of my favorites.

5. A fából faragott királyfi (The Wooden Prince), Op. 13, Sz. 60

Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945)

Although The Wooden Prince never achieved the success and fame that Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, Sz. 73 (BB 82) received, it was successful enough for the Budapest Opera House to premiere his opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, Op 11, Sz. 48 (BB 62) (unperformed since it’s completion in 1911). The Wooden Prince, premiered at the Budapest Opera on May 12, 1917, uses a massive orchestra similar to it’s older, operatic sibling, but the influences of Debussy and Richard Strauss deceive the audience of its age. The ballet’s scenario was by the poet Béla Balázs, which originally appeared in the Hungarian literary journal Nyugat.

A young prince becomes enamored with a princess he has yet to meet. On his way to her, he is stopped by a fairy who makes a forest and a river rise against him and prevent him from reaching her. Upon realizing that his attempts of making it to the other side of the forest, he devises a plan to attract the princess’ attention; he hangs his cloak on a large staff and fixes a crown with locks of his hair to it. The princess catches sight of this “wooden prince”, and she comes to dance with it. To continue it’s scheme, the fairy brings the wooden prince to life, and the princess departs with the impostor. The prince, now in complete despair, falls to the ground in his undergarments. The fairy finally takes pity on the young man and dresses him in new finery. The fairy reduces the wooden prince to lifelessness again and unites the true prince with the princess.

My discovery of Bartók’s score for The Wooden Prince holds no special meaning in my progress as a musicologist; however, my first listen tthrugh the ballet left me awestruck. I had already been familiar with Bluebeard’s Castle; The Miraculous Mandarin; Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116 (BB 123); Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Sz. 106 (BB 114); and several chamber works. I had stumbled on the work several times for research projects in my masters degree program, but it was never a part of the research and often pushed aside. Every time I listen to this work, I find myself dumbfounded and amazed as to what Bartók was able to achieve stylistically. All the greatest musical traits of Debussy, Richard Strauss, Wagner, and Ravel are on full display together with a splash of Bartók’s chromatic flair. Although I have had extreme difficulty finding any staging of this incredible piece, I can assure you that the music alone is extraordinary, and the reason it has made it on my top 5 ballet scores list!

4. Josephslegende (The Legend of Joseph), Op. 63

Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)

Originally proposed by Hugo von Hofmannsthal to be a Zwischenarbeit (interim work) between the operas Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Richard Strauss’ ballet Josephslegende would become an independent work for the Ballets Russes. It was premiered at the Paris Opera on May 14, 1914 with a libretto by Hofmannsthal and Harry Clemens Ulrich Graf von Kessler based on the biblical tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed the ballet and was the originator of the title role (replaced after his marriage and estrangement with Sergei Diaghliev by Michel Fokine and Léonide Massine). The Paris premiere had been a substantial success and led to seven performances that year in London conducted by the composer and Sir Thomas Beecham, who had loaned the money to Diaghilev for the premiere.

Joseph, first sold by his brothers to passing merchants, was ultimately sold to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. He would become Potiphar’s personal servant and the household superintendent. Taking advantage of the situation, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, but he refused to commit adultery. Vengeful and angered by his refusal, she made a false accusation of rape to her husband, which resulted in Joseph’s imprisonment. Hofmannsthal’s and Kessler’s plot takes the original story out of biblical times and places it in Sixteenth-Century Italy. Furthermore, instead of the triumph of the rejected woman, Potiphar’s wife commits suicide out of embarrassment and ill morals.

Richard Strauss’ grand romanticism shines brightly through this heartbreaking tale of false love and rejection. The knowledge of the required orchestral forces alone certainly unveil the composer’s intentions of placing this ballet on the same level as it’s aforementioned operatic bookends, the opera Der Rosenkavalier, and many of the composer’s early tone poems. Much like tone poems, the story is told through the music. While ballet has the advantage of having dancing and pantomime, without the music there is no story. Josephslegende can seem a bit overwhelming as a ballet at first. Its lush orchestration fits well into the structure of a tone poem, but eventually, once you understand the narrative, its structure becomes clear. Upon first listen, I treated it like it was another Straussian tone poem, but it wasn’t until the very last two minutes of the work that I realized what Strauss had accomplished. Much like Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, Strauss had managed to tell the ballet’s story without the need of a stage. This ballet is truly one that needs to be listen to in order to be properly understood. From it’s sensuous opening bars to its glorious finale, this ballet moves me every time I hear it.

3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Joby Talbot (b. 1971)

On February 28, 2011, The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, and the Nationally Ballet of Canada premiered Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Based on the illustrious children’s story of the same name by Lewis Carroll, the ballet’s scenario was adapted by Nicholas Write, and the music was written by Joby Talbot. The commission to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland marked Talbot’s first full-length score for the Royal Ballet in 20 years.

The ballet’s story heavily follows that of Lewis Carroll’s with the added third layer (as seen in the finale) of a young girl having fallen asleep reading her copy of the book. Write inserts Lewis Carroll into the story by making him the instigator of Alice’s childish behavior, but eventually Carroll’s behavior becomes curious and transforms into the White Rabbit; the story then continues on as normal. If you are not completely familiar with the original story, I highly suggest reading both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. It will make Disney’s 1951 film seem like a rushed retelling of both books in the same 75 minutes.

When compiling my list for this blog, I had a difficult time deciding between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Talbot’s 2014 ballet The Winter’s Tale. While the score to this remarkable retelling of Shakespeare’s play is incredibly gorgeous, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland won due to the meticulous, world-evoking aesthetics Talbot writes. As Talbot and Wheeldon mention in a promotional video for the Royal Ballet’s production, there is a sound world that Wonderland demands, and his score, for me, nails it on the head. It truly is one of the most magical scores I’ve yet to witness. This score is truly difficult to talk about because of how well it sets the story into a particular world that has not only been adapted many times, but one that everybody envisions differently.

2. Сказ о каменном цветке (The Tale of the Stone Flower), Op. 118

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

Prokofiev’s eighth and final ballet, The Tale of the Stone Flower, was written between the years of 1948 and 1953. Although it was completed before his passing in March of 1953, it was not premiered in time and was done so posthumously in 1954. The scenario was based on the Russian Ural folk tale The Stone Flower by Pavel Bazhov. Together with the ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, Prokofiev returns to the Russian ballet tradition of Tchaikovsky’s time before the Ballets Russes reinvented it.

Danilo, a weakling and scatterbrain, is sent to study under the stone-craftsman Prokopich. One of his first tasks is to fulfill an order to make a fine-molded cup. Attempting to make it in the likeness of a thornapple, he makes a smooth and well-crafted cup; however, Danilo is dissatisfied with his final product. Seeing the disappointment on his face, an old man approaches Danilo to reveal the legend of the beautiful Stone Flower that grows in the domain of the Mistress of the Copper Mountain. Those who see the flower will start to understand the beauty of stone, but life will begin to seem dull. They become the Mistress’ mountain craftsmen forever. Retelling the legend to his fiancée Katerina, she begs him to forget it, but his longing wins. He finds the Mistress of the Copper Mountain and begs her to show him the Flower. She reminds him of his fiancée and warns him that he will never want to go back to his people. He insists and she shows him the Flower made of Malachite. He returns to the village, destroys his stone cup, and disappears forever.

Whenever I bring up this mesmerizing score, I always say this ballet “doesn’t sound anything like the composer ever wrote before this”. I say this full-hearted, knowing well that the score is saturated with many of Prokofiev’s stylistic signatures. At the same time, I do believe The Tale of the Stone Flower is in a league of its own. It has an ethereal quality to it that Prokofiev taps into momentarily in places such as the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, the finale of Cinderella, the aria “The radiance of the sky in spring” in his opera War and Peace, and other glimpses throughout his repertoire. I often feel as if The Tale of the Stone Flower is pushed aside and only mentioned as part of the trilogy of the Russian-ballet style ballets. All this aside, my listing it as my No. 2 is not out of pity. This score has so much heart poured into it. It is my own opinion that this ballet, although scored for immense orchestral forces, is incredibly fragile. There are numerous passages throughout the ballet that if played incorrectly or as just passing action, the imagery and narrative is shattered. If at all possible, I highly recommend listening to the recording I provide through Spotify. The quality of this performance is unmatched by any other recording I have found, and has been the only recording I continue utilize when listening to this ballet.

1. Щелкунчик (The Nutcracker), Op. 71

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

The premiere of Tchaikovsky’s third and final ballet, The Nutcracker, was, in essence, a flop. The ballet was part of a double commission with a one-act opera, Iolanta. Both Iolanta and The Nutcracker premiered on December 18 [O.S. December 6], 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The libretto was adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig by the ballet’s co-choreographer Marius Petipa. Petipa was assisted by Lev Ivanov in the choreography. Despite the failure of the ballet on the stage, Tchaikovsky’s 20-minute suite was an enormous success. The ballet eventually gained favor across the world around the late 1960, and it has become a staple in the ballet repertoire and a Christmas tradition.

Family and friends gather in the parlor to decorate the beautiful Christmas tree in the Stahlbaum home. Once the tree is completed, the children are sent for, who stand in awe of the sparkling decorations. While the Christmas festivities commence, Drosselmeyer, Clara’s godfather, brings gifts for the children. He brings out four lifelike dolls who dance to entertain the guests. Drosselmeyer has also brought Clara and Fritz a wooden nutcracker in the shape of a man, and while Clara takes a liking to it, Fritz breaks it. After everyone has gone to bed, Clara returns to check on her beloved nutcracker. Suddenly the clock strikes midnight, and mice begin to fill the room. While the room grows to an enormous size, a battle between the mice and gingerbread soldiers commences. The mice begin to eat the soldiers, but the nutcracker takes up arms with tin soldiers. Together with Clara, the nutcracker stabs and kills the Mouse King. The wounded nutcracker is transformed into a handsome Prince. He leads Clara through a moonlit pine forest in which the snowflakes dance around them, beckoning them back to the Prince’s home. They arrive to the Land of Sweets, which has been ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Prince’s absence. He recounts the fight with the Mouse King, and in honor of the young heroine, a celebration of sweets from around the world is produced.

I have had an emotional attachment to The Nutcracker for as long as I can remember. It’s warm Christmas tidings and magical atmosphere has left me mystified since I was a child. This is not the reason for my listing it as No. 1. I truly find the score to The Nutcracker to be the most astonishing and breathtaking score of the ballet repertoire. Tchaikovsky was able to make a score that is truly unique and unparalleled. Every time I listen to this score, I am transported to the world of Tchaikovsky’s creation, and although Tchaikovsky was not satisfied with his work, I can’t help but consider it music’s greatest triumph.

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Published by Stephen J. Trygar

I am a musicologist and music historian currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My primary focus is on theatrical music (opera, ballet, and incidental music) and symphonic music.

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