Melodies in Motion: The Composers Behind Ballet Masterpieces

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is J.D. Mooney and I am ProMusica’s Creative Content Coordinator. Since September, I have been working on ProMusica’s social media, digital ads, and email marketing. I have been a creative person for as long as I can remember, and one of my main creative outlets has always been dancing. While originally a trained Irish competitive dancer, I have spent most of my life dancing jazz, musical theatre, and commercial styles of dance (and thoroughly enjoy watching ballet). Since becoming more knowledgable about classical music at ProMusica, I have been interested in researching how some classical composers approached creating scores for ballets.

Famous orchestral composers including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Adolphe Adam, worked alongside distinguished choreographers and directors to tell stories using graceful movements and classical melodies. In this exploration of iconic ballets and their creative composers, we dive into the collaborations that have created some of the most iconic masterpieces for performing arts. From mice battling toys in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker to the iconic love story about “two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona” in Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, learn more about your favorite ballets and their composers.

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake:

Largely inspired by German and Slavic folk tales, Swan Lake tells the story of a prince who falls in love with the Swan Queen Odette, who is under a spell and can only take human form between midnight and daybreak. This was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, which premiered in 1877, and includes 33 numbers scored for a large orchestra. During the ballet’s early stages, the music was viewed as too complicated for dancers, but after Tchaikovsky’s death, the music score and choreography was altered while remaining faithful to the original work. This ballet is known for its symphonic themes, that repeat throughout the music, as well as the dramatic “pas de deux” (a ballet duet typically between a man and a woman) between the prince and the Swan Queen.

Credit: The Kirov Ballet

Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker:

One of the most beloved ballets, which is performed annually by ballet companies all over the world, is The Nutcracker. This two-act ballet tells the story of a girl’s Christmas Eve and her nutcracker that comes to life and takes her to the Land of Sweets. Tchaikovsky wrote this ballet while traveling through Paris, where he discovered the celesta (a bell-piano) which became one of the main instruments in the ballet’s iconic Sugar Plum Fair theme. This ballet is filled with choreography and music that evoke the holiday spirit such as a party scene, a battle between toys and mice as well as The Land of Snow.

Credit: The New York City Ballet

Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet:

Composed between 1935 and 1936, this ballet demonstrates Prokofiev’s ability to capture Shakespearean tragedy through music. Prokofiev’s original score was initially rejected by multiple ballet companies as the music was said to be “impossible to dance to.” Prokofiev eventually decided to turn the ballet into two orchestral suites and the ballet finally premiered in the at the Mahen Theatre, Brno (a city in Czech Republic) in 1938. The enduring popularity of this ballet is attributed to the romantic score, dramatic moments between Romeo and Juliet (i.e. the balcony scene), and its comedic battle scenes.

Credit: The Royal Ballet

Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty:

This classic story about a girl who pricks her finger and falls into an enchanted sleep was brought to life by Tchaikovsky and French ballet master, Marius Petipa. Tchaikovsky and Petipa worked closly together to compose the music for this ballet in only 40 days. This is Tchaikovsky’s longest ballet as it runs three hours, however, it is nearly always cut down when performed now. The ballet has a repeating musical theme that the evil fairy Caraboose, which is contrasted with the themes of the good Lilac Fairy. It gained popularity after its first full-length version premiered in London in 1921.

Credit: Classical Ballet & Opera House

Adam’s Giselle: 

While not as popular as some of the previously mentioned ballets, Giselle, another romantic ballet,  tells the story of a peasant girl who falls in love with a nobleman disguised as a commoner. When she discovers the truth, she dies of heartbreak and comes back as a ghost who seeks revenge on men who betray women. Adam is best known for his work composing ballets and operas, rather than concert music, and he wrote this ballet over the course of only two months. The score is known for its use of haunting yet romantic melodies.

Credit: Classical Ballet & Opera House

The work of the composers mentioned in this article, along with many others who were not mentioned, help the choreography come to life and tell a story. We encourage you to check out ballet companies and orchestras in your community to hear this artistry live. Pro-tip: if you like Tchaikovsky’s scores for ballets, we recommend you check out the last concert of our 2023-24 season, Vadim Gluzman Plays Tchaikovsky.