Swan Lake was the first ballet composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and, like all three of his ballets, has become legendary. You can view a complete performance on YouTube from the Bolshoi Ballet, one of the world’s premier ballet companies.
Sleeping Beauty was the second ballet composed by Tchaikovsky. You might recognize some of the music since it was borrowed by the folks at Disney for their 1959 animated film and used in a song from their 2014 re-imagining of the fairy tale, Maleficent. This complete video version is from the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet, another top ballet company from Russia.
Check out this post about Tchaikovsky’s most famous ballet, The Nutcracker, which also includes a video of a complete performance.
Traditional ballet music has special requirements: it has to be danceable, meaning the music has to have the proper beats and rhythm for classical ballet moves, and it can’t be so complicated that it’s impossible to choreograph. Most classic ballet scores are very enjoyable and accessible works. They may not pound with the beat of today’s pop music, but you may find yourself moving with the music anyway. Here is some information about composers of ballet who are mentioned in my novel, Feeding.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky only composed three ballets—The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake—but they became the most famous masterpieces of the ballet repertory. No other composer better created music so perfectly fit for the delicate moves of a female dancer and the muscular strength of male dancers.
Ludwig Minkus composed almost exclusively for the ballet stage and is arguably the greatest ballet composer ever; he was just unfortunate enough to live at the same time as Tchaikovsky. His best known works are Don Quixote (my own favorite ballet) and La Bayadère.
Léo Delibes primarily composed operas but he also wrote three ballets that are very popular and influential. His most popular ballet, Coppélia, is based on stories by E.T.A. Hoffman, the writer who also penned the story on which Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is based. Delibes wrote an opera called Lakmé, which contains an aria that Tajo likes which he mentions in Feeding; you might recognize this one as it’s been used in several movies.
Adolphe Adam was another influential composer of ballet and opera. His most famous ballet is called Giselle.
Benjamin Britten wrote only one ballet but it is one of the most fascinating ever composed. The Prince of the Pagodas is based on an original fairy tale and incorporates the musical influences of Bali. Particularly interesting is Britten’s use of tones based on a Balinese instrumental ensemble called a gamelan. Knowing that few gamelan players existed in modern European orchestras, Britten deftly managed to reproduce the unique, shimmering sounds of the gamelan using western orchestral instruments.
Maurice Ravel composed several innovative ballets. As music changed with the onset of the 20th century, ballet developed in new directions, with more complex compositions and fresh ideas on choreography. Ravel’s best-known ballet is Daphnis et Chloé, although the music for it is far more often performed in orchestral concerts rather than in full productions with dancers. The romantic story of the ballet concludes with the heady music of a bacchanale, which is simply a polite term for an orgy.
The Nutcracker is almost certainly the most popular ballet in the world. Chances are, if you’ve ever seen a live ballet performance, it was The Nutcracker. Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, this ballet is a perennial holiday favorite. Tajo wants desperately to be cast as one of the children in the New York City Ballet’s annual performances of The Nutcracker, and during the course of Feeding, he refers to this video below, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov (Tajo’s favorite ballet dancer) and Gelsey Kirkland in one of the finest ballet performances you’ll ever see. This production is from the American Ballet Theatre, another great ballet company based in New York City. Enjoy!