#SundaySoundtrack: Lesser Known Ballets

For this week’s Sunday Soundtrack, we wanted to take you on a whirlwind tour through some of the thousands of ballet scores that exist but are rarely heard, at least in the UK. Some will be familiar to Birmingham Royal Ballet audiences, such as Ninette de Valois’ Checkmate or Sir David Bintley’s Cyrano, others are almost completely unknown. We hope you enjoy the list and find something new to fall in love with.

1)   The Perfect Fool Op.39 - Dance of Spirits of Fire - Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

The ballet music from Holst’s 1922 opera The Perfect Fool opens the work. The opera was not a success, but the fantastic ballet music is often performed in concert and Holst later re-worked the opera into a ballet in its own right.

2)   The Limpid Stream Op.39 - Act I: Adagio - Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich wrote a number of ballets in his early years as a professional composer. Premiered in 1935, The Limpid Stream (or The Bright Stream) is rarely heard today, perhaps because of the subject matter: a group of ballet dancers set out to provide entertainment for the residents of a Soviet collective farm!

3)   Les Ruses d’amour Op.61 - Scene III - Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)

We featured this 1900 ballet by Glazunov on a playlist a few weeks ago, but thought it deserved further exposure. His other ballets, Les Saisons and Raymonda, in particular, are much better known, but this work is just as beautiful.

4)   Far from the Madding Crowd - Bathsheba and Troy, Morning pas de deux - Paul Reade (1943-1997)

Paul Reade’s untimely death deprived the musical world, and David Bintley, his balletic collaborator, of a truly great melodist. The gorgeous scores he wrote for Hobson’s Choice (1989) and Far from the Madding Crowd (1996) deserve to be much better known.

5)   The Seven Beauties - Adagio - Gara Garayev (Kara Karayev; 1918-1982)

Ballet was big business in the Soviet Union and there are hundreds of ballets from the period never before heard or seen in the West. Based on poems of the same name by the 12th-century poet Ganjavi, Azerbaijani composer Gara Garayev (the Ks are from the Russian transliteration) wrote The Seven Beauties in 1948. Here we hear the beautiful Adagio.

6)   The Stone Flower Op.118 - Love Scene - Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Cinderella (1944) are two of the most famous ballet score ever written, but in fact he composed nine ballets in total. His last ballet, The Tale of the Stone Flower, was finished in 1953, shortly before his death. As was his habit, Prokofiev released no fewer than four orchestral suites based on the music before he’d completed the final score. The full ballet was only premiered after he had died.

7)   The Flames of Paris - Act IV: Coda - Boris Asafiev (1884-1949)

Known to Western audiences largely through this virtuoso pas de deux frequently encountered as a gala show piece, The Flames of Paris dates from 1931 and is one of seven ballets Asafiev wrote during his lifetime.

8)   The Creatures of Prometheus Op.43 - No.13: Allegro - Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Primarily known for his nine, ground-breaking symphonies, Beethoven’s only ballet, Die Geschopfe des Prometheus (1801), is now known almost entirely through its fantastic overture. Here we hear an Allegro number from close to the end of the two-act ballet.

9, 10 &11)   Billy the Kid - Celebration, Billy’s Death, The Open Prairie Again - Aaron Copeland (1900-1990)

The second of Copland’s five ballets and the first of his three ‘Cowboy’ ballets (the others being Rodeo and Appalachian Spring), Billy the Kid dates from 1938 and follows the story of the famous outlaw of the same name. These three tracks make up the end of the ballet.

12)   Les Animaux modèles - Le Lion amoureux - Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Poulenc’s third and final ballet was first performed in 1942 with choreography by Sergei Lifar. The sections of the ballet are based on Fables by Jean de la Fontaine. Premiered under Nazi occupation, Poulenc took the great risk of incorporating an anti-German song into the score! Luckily he wasn’t discovered.

13)   The Bolt Op.27 - Dance of the Textile Workers - Dmitri Shostakovich

The second Shostakovich entry on the list, The Bolt was written between 1930 and 1931. Its plot is typical of Shostakovich’s homeland at the time: an ironic tale of slovenly work in a Soviet factory. The lazy Lyonka hates work and together with a local priest and anti-Soviet plotter he plans to sabotage the machinery by putting a bolt in it. Their plan is, of course, foiled by a group of Young Communists.

14)   The Sanguine Fan Op.81 - Andantino - Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Another name not much associated with ballet, except through Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations, Elgar's only ballet score, the one-act The Sanguine Fan, dates from 1917. The theme of the ballet was inspired by a scene depicting Pan and Echo that the artist, Charles Conder, had drawn in sanguine on a fan.

15)   Paquita - Variation 3: Tempo di valse - Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917)

From a composer not much associated with ballet to one almost synonymous with it, Minkus composed, re-composed or edited around 30 ballet scores, most of which are not performed very often (with the exception of Don Quixote). Paquita was composed by a much less-well-known composer, Édouard Deldevez, but is best known in Minkus’s version. In 1847, it became the first ballet staged in Russia by the legendary Marius Petipa.

16)   Horoscope - Valse for the Gemini - Constant Lambert (1905-1951)

A list like this wouldn’t be complete without music by a man so integral to the founding of Birmingham Royal Ballet, Constant Lambert. The sixth of his seven ballets, Horoscope was premiered in 1937 with choreography by Frederick Ashton. The full score to the ballet was lost as the Company fled the Nazis whilst on tour in Holland in 1940. Only nine numbers survive.

17)   The Amazons - Adagio - Vakhtang Kakhidze (b.1949)

Georgian composer and conductor Vakhtang Kakhidze’s music is little known in the West and only a few works are recorded. Luckily, his fantastic 1989 score for the three-act ballet The Amazons is one such work. Here we hear the beautiful Adagio pas de deux.

18)   L’Éventail de Jeanne - Pastourelle - Francis Poulenc

L’Éventail de Jeanne was a children’s ballet choreographed in 1927 to a collaborative score from ten French composers, including Ravel, Ibert and Poulenc. Poulenc composed the Pastourelle heard here, but the rest of the score is also well worth listening to.

19)   The Wooden Prince Op.13 - The Happy Ending - Bela Bartok (1881-1945)

The first of two ballets by Bartok, The Wooden Prince dates from 1916. A one-act, fairy tale ballet, it never quite reached the levels of fame as his other ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, but that doesn’t mean the ballet’s music isn’t worth listening to, quite the opposite, in fact.

20)   Schlagobers Op.70 - Act I: Aufzug, Marsch - Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Yet another name not really associated with ballet, Richard Strauss is better known for his operas and epic symphonic poems, which include Also Sprach Zarathustra. Schlagobers (Whipped Cream), composed in 1922, is a two-act ballet set in a Viennese cake shop.

21)   Checkmate - Entry of the Black Queen - Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)

Bliss’s extraordinary score to Ninette de Valois’ iconic Checkmate will be familiar to many Birmingham Royal Ballet audience members. The fourth of his ten ballets (which also include Miracle in the Gorbals), Checkmate (1937), as the title suggests, follows a stylised game of chess. The track featured is the entrance of the villain of the ballet, the Black Queen.

22)   The Quest - Scene 2: Near the Palace of Pride - William Walton (1902-1983)

Well known to aficionados of British ballet through Ashton’s Façade, unlike that ballet, The Quest was originally written for the stage, being completed in 1943. With choreography by Ashton, it was a self-confessed piece of triumph-over-evil ‘wartime propaganda’ based on The Faerie Queene by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser.

23)   Cyrano - Act III: Prelude - Carl Davis (b.1936)

Another name familiar to Birmingham Royal Ballet audiences, more recently through the music for David Bintley’s Aladdin. Before Aladdin came Cyrano. Originally created for The Royal Ballet in 1991, David commissioned Carl to write a new score for the existing ballet in 2007. Here we hear the lovely Prelude to Act III.

24)   Noya Op.42 - Prelude - Sergei Vasilenko (1872-1956)

A real rarity, this one, Russian composer Sergei Vasilenko completed it in 1923, one of seven ballets he composed. Later on he arranged music from the ballet into an orchestral ‘Indian’ suite, which is what we hear here.

25)   El amor brujo - Finale: The Bells of Dawn - Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

Better known for its exciting Ritual Fire Dance, El amor brujo (Love, the Magician) was written in 1915. Full of Spanish flavours, unusually, the score features a folk singer. The ballet relates the story of a woman haunted by the ghost of her husband. This glorious music ends the ballet when the spell is finally broken.

26)   The Golden Key Op.55 - Burratino’s Dance with the Key - Mieczyslaw Weinberg (Moishei Vainberg / Mojsze Wajnberg; 1919-1996)

A Jewish-Polish composer who fled to Russia in 1939, transliterations to and from Cyrillic have caused some confusion as to the spelling of his name over the years. He was prolific, completing 26 symphonies, but only three ballets. The Golden Key (recently performed, in part, by our friends at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) dates from 1955 and was composed to a libretto by none other than Alexei Tolstoi.

27 & 28)   The Incredible Flutist - Siciliana, Polka Finale - Walter Piston (1894-1976)

American composer Walter Piston is perhaps better known today (if at all) as a teacher and musicologist, but he was an important composer of his time. His only ballet, The Incredible Flutist, dates from 1938 and relates the story of the titular flautist and the circus he inhabits.

29)   Faust, Ballet Music - Dance of the Trojan Women - Charles Gounod (1818-1893)

It was customary for all grand operas to have a balletic interlude in the mid-19th century. However, Gounod’s five-act Faust (1859) didn’t have one. Before performance at the Paris Opéra could be allowed, a ballet had to be inserted, which Gounod duly did. This lovely music helped make the opera one of the most performed at the Opéra.

30 & 31)   La Revue de cuisine - Danse radieuse, Fin du drame - Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)

Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was incredibly prolific and his works include no fewer than 15 ballets. Here were hear an excerpt from his 1927 one-act jazz ballet, La Revue de cuisine (The Kitchen Revue). The ballet is unusual in that it is scored for only six instruments.

32)   Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel - Valse des dépêches - Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)

The second collaborative French ballet on our list, this time between five members of the group of composers known as Les Six, The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower was first performed in 1921. Germaine Taillferre, one of the few high-profile women composers of the time, wrote two movements, including this charming waltz.

33)   Estancia Op.8 - XII: Danza Final - Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)

Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s thrillingly rhythmic Estancia (The Ranch) dates from 1941. Telling the tale of a city boy in love with a rancher’s daughter, today it is largely known by the four-movement suite the composer created from it. This exciting finale features in both the full ballet and the suite.

34)   The Red Poppy Op.70 - Dance of the Soviet Sailors - Reinhold Glière (1875-1956)

Another Russian Romantic subsumed into the Soviet system after the revolution, Reinhold Glière’s patriotic The Red Poppy dates from 1927. It was the first ballet in the newly formed country to deal with a truly ‘Soviet’ theme: a brave (Soviet, of course) sea captain tries to save a group of cruelly oppressed labourers and in so doing earns the love of a beautiful Chinese woman.

Playlist compiled by Lee Armstrong, Senior Design Executive at Birmingham Royal Ballet with assistance from Paul Murphy, Principal Conductor