Since its beginnings in the Italian Renaissance, notable ballet music composers have put their mark on the genre. Let’s look at the ten best ballet music scores in history, and see why each is so special based on its content and impact.
Ballet music has captivated audiences all over the world for centuries. This article takes a look at the ten best scores in the history of ballet music.
Top Ballet Music Scores in History
“Romeo and Juliet” – Sergei Prokofiev
“Romeo and Juliet” is not only one of the most famous stories of all time, but it’s also one of the best ballet scores. When Sergei Prokofiev composed the piece based on William Shakespeare’s iconic play, he’d been inspired by Tchaikovsky’s validation of ballet as an art form worthy of attention.
Since its premiere in 1940, “Romeo and Juliet’s” opening minor-key march has made its way into pop culture. Often, it’s featured in films and commercials when trouble is arising, similar to how it sets up Prokofiev’s retelling of the greatest love story of all time and two tragic fates.
“The Nutcracker” – Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Arguably, “The Nutcracker” is the most recognizable ballet score of not only Tchaikovsky’s career but of all time. And with good reason as it has kept ballet scores in many ears (who might not have heard such music otherwise) since its debut in 1892. That is despite it being only composed in two acts (also known as a “Fairy ballet”).
It follows the storyline of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which centers on a girl who befriends a nutcracker who has come to life. Not only does it have ties to the holiday season, but it holds up as a masterpiece any time of year.
“Faust” – Charles Gounod
“Faust” was based on Goethe’s story of the same name. Its story revolves around a German doctor from the Middle Ages who fantasize about ending his life before the devil strikes a deal with Dr. Faust for eternal youth.
“Faust” is a five-act ballet, though its final act is typically cut in modern productions and performed separately as orchestral ballet music. It debuted in Paris in 1859 and made its way across Europe before reaching the Metropolitan Opera in New York almost 25 years later.
Since its first appearance in the US, it has declined in productions, though its score is still regarded as one of the finest to grace the stage.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture” – Felix Mendelssohn
Shakespeare’s plays went far and wide when it came to being used for ballet. That was no exception for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Initially, it was composed as a solo piece.
However, when George Balanchine started to choreograph the ballet, he set it to a variety of Mendelssohn’s music beyond the evening overture. In typical Britten fashion, the opera is painted by instrumentation and remains tonal despite the standards of the time. In the 1980s, the ballet had a resurgence in popularity that lasted into the 21st Century.
“Swan Lake” – Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Any conversation about ballet can’t happen without a mention of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Surprisingly, when “Swan Lake” debuted in 1877, it was a failure. Yet, over time, the story about a princess-turned-swan via a curse became one of the composer’s signature works.
It is laced with European folk influences, and was the culmination of years of work by Tchaikovsky who had seen the endless possibilities of ballet when he scored “Swan Lake.” Since then, it has weaved its way into popular culture, being a critical part of the film “Black Swan,” among other references.
“The Firebird” – Igor Stravinsky
The best part of “The Firebird” is that its orchestral work holds its own with or without the ballet. This was a significant step in 20th Century music, especially for Russian composer Igor Stravinksy. Its story was based on Russian folk tales involving the character “The Firebird.”
Stravinsky’s work debuted in 1910 in Paris and brought the composer widespread fame. The ballet is known for its decor, dance, and, most importantly, its music. It utilized instrumentation, heavy dynamics, and a mix of tonal and atonal composition—all signatures of Stravinsky’s style as we know it today.
“Dance of the Blessed Spirits” – Christoph Willibald Gluck
“Dance of the Blessed Spirits” is a ballet excerpt from the opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” by Christoph Willibald Gluck. The piece broke many norms of opera and ballet in the mid-18th Century with its woodwinds (especially in instrumental solos) and nontraditional structures.
What’s more, the score paved the way for the operatic work of Mozart and Wagner, who took ballet into the next century.
“Daphnis and Chloé” – Maurice Ravel
Ravel described his one-act ballet as a “choreographic symphony.” The story was adapted from a Greek tale written by Longus and has become one of Ravel’s most celebrated pieces due to its emotional charge, use of four leitmotifs for different characters, and complex harmonies.
These elements were common in the impressionistic period Ravel was part of. Its story involves a love tale between a goat herder and a shepherdess from the 2nd Century.
“Sinfonietta” – Leoš Janáček
Jiří Kylián was influenced by Leoš Janáček’s music so much that he crafted the ballet around it. The ballet itself is delicate in its dynamic and instrumentation, yet with lively movement in the score and on stage.
At the time of its composition, Janáček had been inspired to write fanfare pieces, which were popular. In turn, the music and dance represented a spiritual awakening of the Czech people, embodied in this timeless ballet.
“Appalachian Spring” – Aaron Copeland
When “Appalachian Spring” debuted in 1944, no one expected it to become the sound of American ballet or that it would launch an unknown composer named Aaron Copland into his legendary career.
Its original instrumentation was small, but it was reworked to be larger in 1945. The work is divided into eight sections and covers all dynamic and rhythmic ranges to capture its story about American pioneers in North America.
As we’ve seen, famous ballet music has moved beyond the stage and into pop culture. But it’s not just the name or story that matters. Indeed, it’s the motifs, harmonies, and emotion that go into the work.
We hope you have enjoyed this list of the ten best ballet scores in history. Go fire up your ballet music mp3s and happy listening!