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We already know that the dancers are important when it comes the conveying of story in a ballet performance. Without the dancers there is no interpretation of the narrative that is set to wonderfully composed music.
It is this pairing of dance to music that truly enables the storyline to thrive. Without the music the dance would mean very little. It is in the rhythms and melodies that the ballet dance finds the glue to hold the connections needed to tell a tale.
That said, there are masters in the art of ballet composition we feel you need to know. So here are four of the most famous ballet composers to ever pen a tune designated for a ballet performance.
1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born on May 7, 1840 Tchaikovsky is behind some of the most recognizable titles in ballet today. The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty are all ballets written by this Russian Composer. He is partly responsible for the prestige Russian ballet has among its international counterparts.
Despite his talent for music Tchaikovsky studied for a life working as a civil servant. Music was not a viable option for employment at the time. Still, when he was offered admittance into Saint Petersburg Conservatory Tchaikovsky embarked on a musical education.
Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow in 1863 to take the position at the Moscow Conservatory at the professor of harmony. In 1868 his First Symphony was performed in Moscow and well-received.
Composing Swan Lake in 1875-76, the initial performance of this classic Tchaikovsky ballet was a flop and criticized badly. That didn’t stop Tchaikovsky when he was commissioned to compose another ballet. This attempt would turn into The Sleeping Beauty first performed in 1890. This was followed with the premiere of The Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892. No other composer on our list has a more well-known repertoire of ballet works as Tchaikovsky.
It is said that Tchaikovsky grappled with public demands to hide is homosexuality. So in 1877 he married Antonina Milyukova, an immature music pupil. Only weeks into the marriage Tchaikovsky abandoned his new wife and subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown. He is said to have tried to kill himself but survived.
Tchaikovsky retired from the Moscow Conservatory in 1878. He was able to do so due to the generous donations of Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow with whom he would never meet. Despite the lack of introductions, the widow financed Tchaikovsky monthly until 1893.
Our first composer on the list died on November 6, 1893 in St. Petersburg. It is said that he died of cholera but also reported that he finally succeeded in his suicide attempt following a trial over a sex scandal. Still, this is all speculation. Tchaikovsky is buried at Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Watch the best of Tchaikovsky today: the traditional The Nutcracker by the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company, and a stunning, unique rendition of Swan Lake by Alexander Ekman and The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet!
2. Adolphe Adam
Parisian born Adolphe Adam is our next composer on this “best of” list. His father, Jean-Louis Adam was a leading composer and a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. The senior Adam was insistent that his son follow a different career path than he still it was to no avail.
At the age of seventeen Adolphe Adam convinced his father to let him study music at the Paris Conservatoire. The elder Adam agreed as long as his son promised his musical endeavors would always remain a hobby and he would seek out another career.
In his early adulthood Adam composed works for vaudeville houses in Paris and played in the Gymnase Dramatique ensemble. To earn money Adam played the organ like most composers in France at the time.
His most well-known work Giselle is a romantic ballet performed in two acts. The premiere performance of this composition was staged at the Salle Le Peletier, home of the Paris Opera, on June 28, 1841. This performance was an instant success and this piece is still performed to this day.
Adolphe Adam has written many more ballets and thirty-nine operas.
In 1847 Adam opened his own opera house in Paris, the fourth one for the city at that time. He borrowed a good deal of money and named it the Théätre National. A year later the Revolution of 1848 forced the closing of his opera house and Adam found himself with considerable debts.
Adam dabbled briefly in journalism after that but began teaching composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1849 and continued to do so until his death. He is laid to rest at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
This composer is responsible for our holiday classic “O Holy Night”, which was originally titled “Cantique de Noël.” This traditional Christmas favorite is rumored to be the second musical number to ever be broadcast on radio.
3. Aaron Copland
Our first American composer on the list Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York to a conventional Jewish family whose ancestries are Lithuanian. Copland was the youngest of five children born to a family that emigrated to the United States via Scotland.
Copland’s mother was a piano player and taught her children how to play but it was his sister Laurine who truly helped Copland further his musical abilities. She would attend operas and bring back libretti for her younger brother to read.
At eleven Copland composed his first song for an opera setting called Zenatello. Still his first musical routine was performed at the Wanamaker’s recital, a department store. Copland studied with Leopold Wolfsohn from 1913 to 1917.
Despite his father’s wishes that he attend college, Copland decided to travel to Paris and study music. He was educated at the Fontainebleau School of Music under pianist Isidor Philipp and Paul Vidal.
Copland was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowship, 1925 and 1926 respectively, and these enabled him to live in New York City on the Upper West Side in the Empire Hotel. Copland would stay in the New York area for the next thirty years.
It seems that his most productive years were in the 1940’s when his ballet scores for Rodeo in 1942 and Appalachian Spring in 1944 established Copland worldwide as a premier composer. Both of these pieces were debuted as huge successes.
Besides ballet scores, Copland composed film scores for The Heiress, a 1949 film by William Wyler, and The Red Pony, a film version of the John Steinbeck novel.
In 1950 Copland left the US to study in Rome under the U.S.-Italy Fulbright Commission scholarship. This is when he composed Piano Quartet and Old American Songs.
Copland was commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to compose music for The Tender Land, an opera based on James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Our American composer was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival in California in 1957, 1958, and 1976. Copland is said to have influenced many major American composers including Leonard Bernstein.
Aaron Copland died from Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory failure in 1990. His enormous estate was used to create the Aaron Copland Fund for Composers. This program donates over six hundred thousand dollars every year to performing groups.
4. Aram Khachaturian
Our second Russian composer listed today was born on June 6, 1903 in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. He is quoted as saying he “grew up in an atmosphere rich in folk music.” He attributed these early influences to the shaping of his “musical thinking.”
In 1921 at the age of eighteen Khachaturian relocated to Moscow where his brother worked as a stage director at the Moscow Art Theater. Khachaturian began his musical career at the Gnessin Musical Institute the next year while studying biology at Moscow University at the same time.
Khachaturian wrote his first major work, the Piano Concerto in 1936. It was an instant success and secured him a place among the well-respected composers of that time. This is when Khachaturian began to gain international notoriety.
His ballet Gayane was composed by Khachaturian’s reworking of an earlier piece he wrote during a six-month excursion to Armenia. It is his incorporation of Armenian folklore that set Khachaturian aside from other composers.
Khachaturian started work on his most celebrated work Spartacus in 1950 and revised it in 1968. Our last composer on the list was awarded the People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1954.
Once he finished this final ballet Khachaturian focuses less on composition and dedicated more of his time to conducting, teaching, administration, and travel. He became an active member in the Soviet Peace Committee in 1962 and traveled to the United States in January of 1968 to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.
Khachaturian sat as Secretary of the Composers Union from the year 1957 until his death. He was also appointed President of the Soviet Association of Friendship and Cultural Cooperation with Latin American States from 1958. Khachaturian toured the world with his own works to thirty different countries including the Eastern Bloc, Italy, Britain, Latin America, and the United States.
Aram Khachaturian died on May 1, 1978, a month before his seventy-fifth birthday. He is entombed in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, at the Komitas Pantheon.