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The 10 best musical moments from classical ballet

For World Ballet Day, a quick guide to the essential highlights from ballets by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and others.

A quick guide to the essential highlights from ballets by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and others

Ballet dancers perform during the Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony, on Sept. 23, 2019, in Milan. (Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)

The symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler are often hailed as the best achievements in orchestral music. But in fact, some of Western classical music's most vibrant symphonic music actually originated in the world of ballet.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Paris and Moscow were ballet's creative hubs, where famed choreographers and impresarios such as Marius Petipa and Sergei Diaghilev engendered the creation of so many of the classical ballets performed around the world to this day.

To celebrate World Ballet Day on Oct. 23, we present a quick guide to classical ballet's 10 best musical moments.


10. Léo Delibes: 'Mazurka' (Coppélia)

Knowing he had a hit on his hands with this Mazurka, Delibes gave the audience an avant-goût of it in the orchestral prelude to this popular 1870 ballet before wowing them with the full-blown version about 10 minutes into Act 1. It's the ballet's first group number and its brisk triple meter insists on a vigorous choreography. Strings and woodwinds play the Mazurka's jagged melody while the brass and percussion sections belt out a rustic accompaniment. Warning: it's a devil of an ear worm.


9. Frédéric Chopin, arr. Alexander Glazunov: 'Prelude in A Major,' (Les Sylphides)

If today we associate classical ballet with slender women in gauzy white dresses moving in graceful unison across a twilit stage, it's because of Les Sylphides. Rather than telling a story, this 30-minute ballet simply takes some of Chopin's best piano miniatures (orchestrated by Glazunov) and choreographs them for a coterie of sylphs dancing with a young man. While there are some lively waltzes and mazurkas in Les Sylphides, the movement that best encapsulates the ballet's idyllic elegance is this gentle prelude.


8. Manuel de Falla: 'Danza ritual del fuego' (El amor brujo)

The widow Candela is haunted by her husband's ghost, preventing her from getting together with Carmelo, whom she loves. So, Carmela performs the "Danza rituel del fuego" (Ritual fire dance) as a sort of exorcism — a remarkable scene that de Falla fleshes out with Andalusian melodies and rhythms, flamenco and other Spanish styles. Because of its boldly juxtaposed dynamic extremes and hot-blooded character, "Danza rituel del fuego" has become an orchestral showpiece sure to get the audience on its feet.


7. Christoph Willibald Gluck: 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits,' (Orfeo ed Euridice)

Not all ballet music comes from ballets. We sometimes forget that, for centuries, many operas included fully choreographed ballets, and this interlude from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is among the most enduring. The "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" we know today comes from the expanded version of the opera that Gluck revised for Parisian audiences (they loved their ballet), and it contains a prominent flute part, evoking the serenity of the Elysian Fields, where the title characters will be reunited.


6. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 'By a Lake,' (Swan Lake)

Children of the 1980s will recognize this passage from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake as one of the themes representing Gargamel, the villain on the animated TV series The Smurfs. (Gargamel's other theme came from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.) In the Tchaikovsky ballet, this music sets the scene as Siegfried arrives at a lake where a flock of swans is landing, one of which will eventually — magically —transform into his beloved Odette. Tremolo strings and a solo oboe create an expectant atmosphere before the full orchestra takes up the foreboding theme, which is pure Tchaikovskian genius.


5. Aram Khachaturian: 'Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia' (Spartacus)

It's no wonder this excerpt from Khachaturian's score for Spartacus has been a perennial favourite among figure skaters and spawned Andy Williams' romantic '80s ballad "Journey's End" — it is a yearning, stirring and nearly overwhelming orchestral tableau. Once the main theme has been introduced by a solo oboe over shimmering strings and harp, Khachaturian keeps bringing it back with epic rallentandos accentuated by big timpani rolls and, eventually, a robust brass section. The music accompanies the reunion of two beautiful lovers, so the subtext is pretty clear!


4. Tchaikovsky: 'Waltz of the Flowers' (The Nutcracker)

There are so many excellent parts of The Nutcracker that put the spotlight on individual instruments of the orchestra — flutes in "Dance of the Reed Pipes," the trumpet in "Spanish Dance," the celesta in "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" — and while those are all memorable gems, Tchaikovsky was at his absolute best when he employed the full orchestra in all its dazzling glory, the way he did in "Waltz of the Flowers."


3. Aaron Copland: (i) 'Very slowly and' (ii) 'Fast/Allegro' (Appalachian Spring)

Copland received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Appalachian Spring, the ballet score he was commissioned to write by choreographer/dancer Martha Graham that received its premiere in 1944. He later expanded its 13 instruments into a full orchestral suite. The opening minutes of Appalachian Spring depict an awakening — perhaps a sunrise, perhaps the awakening of an entire nation entering the modern era — before the lively Allegro bursts in, juxtaposing rambunctious unison strings against a massive brass chorale.


2. Sergei Prokofiev: 'Dance of the Knights' (Romeo & Juliet)

Long before John Williams wrote his "Imperial March" for Star Wars, Prokofiev was the master of foreboding martial music, as this famous excerpt from Romeo and Juliet attests. The arpeggiated melody and dotted rhythm of the main theme underscore a swaggering dance by representatives from the feuding Montague and Capulet clans, who have gathered at a ball. The mood lightens briefly as Juliet dances — reluctantly — with suitor Paris, but it's clear from the boldly shifting harmonies and the blasting trombones that family tensions are killing the party vibe.


1. Igor Stravinsky: 'Finale' (Firebird)

Of Stravinsky's many great and varied ballet scores, The Firebird is the most thrilling. It was his first foray into the genre, and Stravinsky threw himself into its composition with zeal. The ballet tells the story of Prince Ivan and his rescue from the evil sorcerer Kashchey by the mythical Firebird who lulls Kashchey to sleep, enabling Ivan to marry the Princess. The final scenes of the ballet depict Kashchey's boisterous dance followed by the Firebird's lullaby (listen for subtle touches of Orientalism), and then the wedding of Ivan and the princess is announced with a horn melody, which through repetition builds to a magnificent climax. Once you've heard it, you never forget it.