Ballet composers come from all walks of life. There are Russian composers, German, American, French, Italian, so on and so forth. We would like to take this time to introduce you to four composers who are well known and influential in the world of ballet
This Austrian composer of ballet was not only influential in his home country, he spent a great deal of time earning his rights in the ballet world while in Russia. Besides writing ballets that were moving and working with some of the most well renowned personalities in the art, he was also a violin genius and educator.
His tenure at the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres in Russia as Composer of Ballet Music enabled Minkus to not only generate original works in ballet that were choreographed by Masters Arthur Saint-Léon and Marius Petipa. Besides original works Minkus did a great deal of work inserting new material in ballets that already existed.
Minkus was born in the Innere Stadt district of Vienna in Austria on March 23, 1826. His parents were originally Jewish but converted to Catholicism when they moved to Austria from their native Moravia, which was once a country in the Czech Republic.
At the age of four Minkus began private violin instructions and at twelve began his studies in music at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, a prominent school in Vienna. His composing of ballets began when he was a pupil.
In 1852 Minkus became the head violinist with the Vienna Court Opera but wouldn’t stay long. The very next year this ballet composer relocated to St. Petersburg in Russia to conduct the serf orchestra for Prince Nikolai Yusupov and he would remain in that position for the next two years.
Minkus’ ballet composition career came in 1862 when Arthur Saint-Léon commissioned the musician a violin solo to be inserted into Orfa, a ballet with a score written by Adolphe Adam. This is where the collaboration between Saint-Léon and Minkus began but this is not where it would end.
Saint-Léon called on Minkus to compose a work for the Grand Ballet. He came up with La Flamme d’amour, ou La Salamandre, which premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre on November 24, 1863. This piece had several other showings specifically for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg and at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre under the title Fiammetta, ou L’amour du Diable.
Later the two worked together at the Théâtre Impérial del l’Opéra on La Source. This work completed seventy-three performances from opening night on November 12, 1866 until ten years later when it closed. This pair would continue to collaborate through the rest of that decade.
Another ballet legend Minkus worked with was Marius Petipa, whom he came to know through his association with Saint-Léon. The two would work on ballets such as Don Quixote, La Camargo, Le Papillon, Les Brigands, Les Aventures de Pélée, Le Songe d’une nuit d’été and La Bayadére.
In 1891 Minkus and his wife left Russia for good and relocated back to their home in Vienna. It was here where he penned his final compositions, Die Maskenfest, Die Dryaden, and Rübezahl. His wife passed on in 1895 and he followed her a long twenty-two years later dying of pneumonia in 1917 at the age of ninety-one. He had no children and was survived only by a niece.
This composer of ballets on our list hails directly from Russia. Born a lifetime later than our last writer Prokofiev’s family were agriculturalists and his mother played the piano and was the first music teacher Prokofiev had. She would also take him to Moscow to attend the opera.
In 1904 Prokofiev began attending the conservatory in St. Petersburg. He would stay there for ten years and won the Anton Rubinstein Prize for his first work, which was not a ballet but a Piano Concerto No.1 in D-flat Major. Once graduated Prokofiev began to focus his studies on ballets by Igor Stravinsky. It was also at that time when he became familiar with ballet master Serge Diaghilev.
This friendship would become very significant for Prokofiev and influence his work for the next decade or more.
In 1914 Prokofiev composed the ballet Ala and Lolli specifically for Diaghilev but the legend rejected his work. The next year he wrote The Tale of the Buffoon Who Outjested Seven Buffoons but later rewrote it at The Buffoon, which was commissioned directly from Diaghilev.
Prokofiev also worked in the world of opera. Before graduating from the Conservatory he wrote the infantile Maddalena he would go on to compose The Gambler in 1915. This composer was known for his ability to combine striking power with delicate librettos.
While he mostly produced non-ballet works in 1917, when the revolutions in Russia were at their peak, Prokofiev was fairly prolific. He would begin writing the original opera The Love for Three Oranges. The next year, with the revolutions raging, Prokofiev decided to take is talent overseas for a concert. He would spend the decade and a half traveling and making music on foreign soil.
These years, characteristically referred to as his “years of wandering” Prokofiev tried to stay connected with his Russian roots even though he was unable to return home. In 1918 he played in Tokyo and Yokohama while traveling to San Francisco. He made his way to New York City and eventually wound up working for the Chicago Opera Association where he was commissioned to write comic buffa and this would be when he completed The Love for Three Oranges. This piece would go on to be produced in his home, now called the Soviet Union, and in western Europe.
It wasn’t until he spent time in southern Germany that Prokofiev began to, once again, compose ballets, specifically those with one act. Le Pas d’acier was performed for the first time in 1927 and two years later his original composition The Prodigal Son would have its premiere.
Prokofiev would return to his home in the late 1920s and eventually stay for good. He left his home in Paris and focused on creating works that would become important in the culture of the Soviet Union. It was at this time he composed his masterpiece Romeo and Juliet in 1935.
Dying from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953 there still remained a great deal of unfinished works in his repertoire. He was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1957 for his Symphony No. 7, which is the highest honor a composer can receive in the Soviet Union.
Our third composer on the list today hails from Italian descent. Born on May 31, 1802, Pugni was an important composer of ballets for Her Majesty’s Theatre in London until the year 1950. From there he would travel to the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg and work for the next twenty years.
Having composed nearly one hundred original ballet scores as well as adapting other works makes Pugni arguable the most productive writer of ballets to ever live. Born in Genoa Pugni studied composition and theory at the Milan Conservatory of Music. While there he studied under Alessandro Rolla and Bonifazio Asioli. It was here where he would pen his first piece Elerz e Zulmida in 1826.
Once graduated Pugni traveled to Paris and was appointed director of the Paganini Institute where he would have a succinct association with Bellini. It was here where Pugni composed works The Marquitante, The Marble Maiden, Stella, ou Les Contrebandiers, and The Devil’s Fiddle.
He went on to work with Jules Perrot in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Pugni was prolific, as we already mentioned, and it said he wrote in fury. Customers who commissioned works would find his compositions a bit crude musically because he wrote in a such a hurry.
In 1851 Pugni moved to St. Petersburg and was given the title of staff composer at the Imperial Ballet. He would stay on there for the next nineteen years and complete compositions for thirty-five ballets. A few of these works include La Esmeralda, The Little Hump-backed Horse, Daughter of Pharaoh, Catarina, ou La Fille du Bandit, and Armide. Pugni died in Russia in 1870.
Manuel de Falla
Our final ballet composer hails from Spain and was born on November 23, 1876. De Falla would go on to become one of Spain’s most influential composers of the twentieth century. De Falla’s portrait would put on the 100-pesetas currency in 1970.
In 1889 de Falla studied piano with Alejandro Odero and learned technique from Enrique Broca. He became briefly interested in literature and founded the literary magazines El Burlón and El Cascabel at the age of fifteen.
At the turn of the century de Falla began to study at the Real Conservatorio de Música y Declamación in Madrid. It was here he would continue his piano lessons with José Tragó and study composition with Felipe Pedrell.
He would complete his composition Melodia while studying at the Conservatory in 1897 and would be awarded first prize in his school’s piano competition. It was at this time that de Falla would compose his first complete works Romanza para violonchelo y piano, Nocturno para piano, Melodia para violonchelo y piano, Serenata andaluza para violin y piano, and Cuarteto en Sol y Mireya.
Seven years later de Falla would move to Paris where he would remain until 1914. It was here where he was introduced to Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Florent Schmitt, Isaac Albéniz, and the famous ballet master Sergei Diaghilev.
In 1911-1912 de Falla traveled to London, Milan, and Brussels to perform. While traveling his was looking for a venue to premiere La vida breve, which he wrote after moving to Paris.
Still, it wasn’t until he returned to his home in Madrid where de Falla composed his only two ballets. In 1915 he penned El amor brujo, which includes the well-known Ritual Fire Dance. Two years later he would complete the ballet The Magistrate and the Miller’s Wife, which was reworked to be titled The Three-Cornered Hat. This piece would be produced by Serge Diaghilev with costumes designed by Pablo Picasso.
De Falla moved to Granada in 1921 and stayed there for more than a decade. It was there he composed the puppet opera El retablo de maese Pedro, which was the first time de Falla used a harpsichord in the composition.
In 1939 de Falla relocated to Argentina and continued composing. He became an educator while there but died of a heart attack on November 14, 1946. He was buried back home in Spain and is entombed in the Cádiz cathedral.
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