Ballet music takes centerstage in CSO programs this spring

A member of the Joffrey Academy Trainees and Studio Company dances the eponymous role in Stravinsky’s The Firebird at a May 2018 family concert.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Try to imagine orchestral lineups without the exhilarating dynamism of The Firebird or the visceral power of The Rite of Spring, arguably the most important classical work of the 20th century. While there is no question that music is essential to ballet, it is sometimes less acknowledged that the opposite is also true in its way. Sure, the symphonic repertoire could get along without the inclusion of ballets, but it would be a decidedly poorer and less colorful musical universe.

“I come from the symphonic world where the most important thing is the presentation of what we consider to be the most important masterpieces of classical music, regardless of where they come from. And over the years, several pieces of ballet music have filtered up to the top of that list,” said Scott Speck, artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Joffrey Ballet.

Throughout the season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has performed complete or selections from some of the most celebrated ballet scores ever composed, including Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Later this spring, the CSO will offer Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

Early ballet music was written primarily to serve the needs of choreographers and was often forgettable, but all that changed in the 19th century with the arrival of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). The Russian composer wrote music that was eminently danceable but also stood solidly on its own, with an innate inner logic and drama. “Tchaikovsky flipped the ballet world on its head by making, in some cases, the music even more memorable than dance,” said Speck, who also is co-author of Classical Music for Dummies. “There’s a real vulnerability, there’s a real emotional expressivity that goes way beyond what had been customary in ballet music before him.”

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Speck said, is their “unending fountain of incredible melodies.” As an example, he cites The Nutcracker, an adaptation of a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann that has gone on to become a beloved Christmas classic around the world. Speck has led the work more than any other composition in his career, and he never grows tired of it. “It has a different unforgettable melody every minute for two hours,” he said.

Tchaikovsky set a standard, making it essential that the music for all subsequent ballets be brilliant in its own right. Following in his steps and creating their own dance masterpieces have been such subsequent composers as Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky.

While all ballet music was obviously written to accompany a choreographic work, the best of these scores hold enough appeal on their own to be performed by orchestras either in their entirety or via suites, abbreviated sets of highlights. “That’s the hallmark of all great music that you want to perform in concert, that it makes total sense strictly from a musical point of view,“ Speck said. ”You don’t need anything visual in order to have the complete experience.”

In fact, certain ballet scores are performed more often than the dances they were written to accompany. That is certainly the case with The Rite of Spring, which the Ballets Russes debuted in Paris to considerable scandal in 1913. Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography was subsequently lost until the Joffrey Ballet created a reconstruction of it in 1987, which was later remounted in 2013.

This spring, the CSO will perform three masterworks of the genre:

  • April 14-15, Stravinsky, The Firebird (1910): Stravinsky was just 28 when Sergei Diaghilev commissioned him to write the score for The Firebird, which was based on two Russian folk tales, and the fresh, evocative work made the little-known composer an overnight success.
  • June 2-4, Ravel, Daphnis and Chloé (1912): This nearly hour-long “choreographic symphony,” as the composer dubbed this romantic one-act ballet, is the longest of his works and among the most admired.
    June 10-11, Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet
    (1880): James Gaffigan leads a program etched in vivid colors, concluding with Tchaikovsky’s seductive portrait of Shakespeare’s immortal lovers.

A version of this article previously appeared on Sounds and Stories, the predecessor site of Experience CSO.