The Best of Ballet Music

PROGRAM NOTES by Steven Lowe

Invitation to the Dance

November 18, 1786, in Eutin, near Lübeck
Died: June 5, 1926, in London
Work composed: 1819; orchestrated by Berlioz 1841
World premiere: June 7, 1841, in Paris, François-Antoine Habeneck conducting

A crucial figure in the evolution of German Romanticism, Carl Maria von Weber was a classic workaholic whose obsessive devotion to his craft undoubtedly contributed to his early death. In 1819, Weber composed a piano suite he called Rondo brillante. Inspired by the wildfire popularity of the “new” waltz that spread through Europe following the Congress of Vienna in 1812, the composer pieced together a delectable sequence of tunes varied in mood, character and key, but unified by a prevailing 3/4 meter. It was not, however, until Hector Berlioz chanced upon Weber’s opus that it gained a niche in the repertoire. The French composer was a consummate master of the orchestra, and his arrangement, re-titled Invitation to the Dance, is as much Berlioz in its sonorities as it is Weber in its tunes.

Berlioz had first encountered Weber’s music in a performance of Der Freischütz in 1824. Fifteen years later, the Paris Opéra asked Berlioz to compose ballet music for a scheduled performance of Weber’s opera. The result was Invitation to the Dance, in which Berlioz used his orchestration skills to emphasize the difference between the pensive introduction and postlude with the engaging and emotionally varied central waltz section.

Excerpts from Swan Lake

Born: May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Viatka District
Died: November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg
Work composed: 1875–76
World premiere: March 4, 1877, at the Moscow Bolshoi Theater; Stepan Ryabov conducting

Tchaikovsky’s three ballets—Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker—form an unrivaled trilogy of great 19th-century dance scores. In August 1875, Tchaikovsky began work on Swan Lake, his first essay in the ballet arena. He was spurred by two friends and colleagues, Vladimir Begichev, stage manager of the Bolshoi Ballet, and Vasily Geltser, one of the company’s star dancers. Though the score progressed quickly, outside duties delayed completion of the ballet until the following spring. In retrospect, it may seem odd that the estimable Bolshoi dancers found the score uninteresting musically, with some of the troupe claiming it to be undanceable. Traduced by poorly conceived sets, unimaginative choreography and poor playing from the orchestra, Swan Lake’s premiere was not one for the ages. After 1883, when the increasingly tattered costumes apparently fell apart, Swan Lake essentially dropped from the repertoire until after the composer’s death. It has become, of course, a certified classic both as a complete ballet and in various excerpted versions.

The selections performed in this performance begin with the opening scene from the second act of Swan Lake, which is based on the haunting oboe “swan theme” that serves as a Leitmotif throughout the ballet. Once heard, this melancholy, even ominous tune sticks in the memory; it is the theme that immediately identifies Swan Lake. The next number in this performance is the Waltz from Act I, which is danced during the celebration of Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday. The remaining episodes—including the White Swan Pas de Deux and numbers from the fourth and final act of Swan Lake, demonstrate Tchaikovsky’s unerring sense of dance-inspired movement, melodies that delight ear and heart, and harmonies that underscore the balanced doses of beauty and despair brought to thrilling life in this fairy tale.

Excerpts from Cinderella

Born: April 23, 1891, in Sontzovka (now Krasnoye), Ukraine
Died: March 5, 1953, in Moscow
Work composed: 1940-44
World premiere: November 21, 1945, in Moscow; Yuri Fayer conducting

Following the much-delayed triumphant premiere of his Romeo and Juliet by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad in 1940, the company commissioned Sergey Prokofiev to provide music for the tale of Cinderella and her, shall we say, “dysfunctional family.” If the Soviet/Nazi non-aggression pact of 1939 seemed to give the Russians “peace in our time,” then the early 1940s were not an auspicious time to focus on a fairy tale. Nonetheless, Prokofiev was excited by the prospect and launched headlong into the project early in 1941. On June 22, the Nazis invaded Soviet Russia, surprising most of the country’s population. Prokofiev had already finished the first two acts of Cinderella by that time but had to put the ballet on the back burner. He shifted his focus to marches and other military-type music, as well as his magnum opus, the opera War and Peace.

Despite the horrors of the war, Prokofiev resumed work on Cinderella in 1943, completing the orchestration the following year. In the meantime, the Kirov’s prima ballerina Galina Ulanova—for whom the title role was created—transferred her allegiance to the Bolshoi, which gave the first performance in 1945. A year later, Prokofiev received the Stalin Prize for his new score.

The excerpts begin with the Introduction to Act I, in which themes representing Cinderella are presented. The first theme, wistful and somewhat anxious, describes her lamentable role as the de facto servant of her stepsisters; the second, broad and filled with passion, anticipates her future happiness with the Prince. Naturally, the Quarrel music for her stepsisters conveys their inner and outer ugliness as manifest in incessant bickering. The shimmering Fairy Godmother and Winter Fairy music suggests her beneficent and supernatural essence. The following sections, all related to the Ball and magic slippers, convey the beauty and spirit of dance, enhanced by occasional premonitions about what will happen at midnight. One notes how the original themes presented in the Introduction appear transformed, reflecting the magic brought by the fairy godmother. As we all recall from the much-told tale, Cinderella forgets about the admonition concerning midnight, and at the fateful hour the orchestra becomes a ticking clock, Cinderella flees in alarm, dropping a slipper in her frantic haste.

La Valse

Born: March 7, 1875, in Ciboure, France
Died: December 18, 1937, in Paris
Work composed: 1919–20
World premiere: December 12, 1920, in Paris; Camille Chevillard conducting

Despite short stature and a poor constitution, Maurice Ravel managed to enter the armed forces in World War I, only to be discharged for medical reasons. Following the war, the composer gave delayed utterance to an idea he had held in check for several years: a musical homage to Johann Strauss. Originally intending to call it Wien (“Vienna”), the bad taste left by the war led him to change the title to La Valse. In any case, the immediate motivation to write the work came from a commission from the renowned impresario Sergei Diaghilev, for whom Ravel had composed Daphnis et Chloé in 1912. When completed, Diaghilev declared the new work “a masterpiece, but not a ballet.” Thus, the work had to wait until 1929 for staging by Ida Rubinstein.

Though filled with loving reminiscences and gestures of appreciation to the “waltz king,” La Valse is anything but a breezy romp in 3/4 time. Powerful undercurrents of darkness permeate this brilliant score, bearing witness to the haunting memories of the dreadful war years. The lilt of the waltz metamorphoses into a threatening and assaultive sequence of dissonant chords and rhythmic dislocations, bringing the work to a disquieting close.

© 2006 Seattle Symphony

Back to Performance Information