Since medieval times music for dancing has attracted the talents of many of the greatest composers. Simon Trezise charts dance music’s development to the present.
When Wagner so astutely defined Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’, he was doing more than simply recognising the unique quality of movement in one work; he was drawing attention to the vital contribution dance has made to Western art music from the earliest days. From ancient antiquity Europe has periodically engaged in bouts of dance mania, even to the extent of upsetting civil authorities (who have to be in control!); in between these outbursts, dance has been used in social functions, entertainments, and theatres (or their early forebears) to amuse and edify the populace. The love affair with dance has left an indelible imprint on art music.
In medieval times, choreographed entertainments were regularly toured around the castles of Europe, often depicting some chivalric or other epic tale. The language of these dances was complex and the music composed or improvised for them well developed. The variety and sophistication of the dances and the way several of them could be strung together developed rapidly in the Renaissance; by the end of the sixteenth century we are fortunate enough to have many surviving specimens of Italian intermedio, French ballet de cour and the English masque. These were often lavish spectacles designed, as in the Florentine intermedio of 1589, for a prestigious event (e.g. a royal marriage). Many of their themes derive from classical antiquity – so we find goddesses dancing with gods, shepherds with shepherdesses, and so on.
Dance reaches the opera house
France was a country unusually blessed in its variety and refinement of dance types. Composers such as Lully were hugely prolific in composing ballets, and their operas (in Italy largely singing spectacles) contained substantial dance elements. Often the desire for dancing took the form of divertissements within the opera during which the drama was generally suspended; even when singing was retained, the music might still be based on a dance form, for French music had little intention of shaking off the irrepressible influence of dance (Louis and François Couperin’s harpsichord suites often consist of long successions of varied dances).
In Paris this fondness for ballet and dance continued well into the nineteenth century, a period when one might have expected romantic literary influences to have subdued their allure. Wagner found this out the hard way: he had to add a ballet to his opera Tannhäuser or the Parisians simply wouldn’t attend. In the end he made the mistake of putting it in the first act, long before the young beaus had supped and ventured out to the theatre in time for the second act. (For this and political reasons Tannhäuser was a disaster in Paris.)
The tradition of incorporating dance into opera for dramatic purposes (unlike the more static French ballet tradition) reaches an electrifying peak in Mozart’s operas, especially Don Giovanni where all known boundaries of eighteenth-century musical expression are breached. It is customary for the first-act finale (in a two-act opera) to be complex and fraught, but few could have anticipated just how theatrically Mozart would portray Don Giovanni’s attempts to seduce the peasant girl Zerlina under the eyes of her fiancé Masetto. In an astonishing sequence an onstage band launches into a minuet – an aristocratic form danced on the occasion by Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. A few bas later we hear another on-stage band tuning up and simultaneously with the minuet a contredanse strikes up in an opposing rhythm (Don Giovanni persuades Zerlina to dance with him). Then, as if this were not enough, Leporello, anxious to distract the jealous Masetto, grabs hold of him and forces him to waltz. At the end of this extraordinary passage we have three wholly different dances playing at the same time, vividly depicting the breakdown of social codes of behaviour (and sounding markedly like a work of the twentieth century).
In the nineteenth century Verdi made brilliant use of dance in his operas for similar dramatic purposes. An onstage band (a string quintet) is a perfect accompaniment to the assassination of Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera: the unexceptionable, almost relaxing strains of the dance prove a potent contrast to the evil menace of the conspirators as they close in around the unfortunate governor.
Where ballet and symphony meet
Whilst independent theatrical dance was much cultivated in the eighteenth century, it really came into its own in the nineteenth, especially in France and Russia in the form of romantic ballet. Beethoven produced a superb and curiously underplayed specimen in The Creatures of Prometheus; its overture and sixteen numbers contain music of rare quality. His example found few imitators at home, but in Paris Hérold arranged new music for the ballet La fille mal gardée in 1828, based, as usual, on a strict theatrical ground plan that left the composer little freedom. Nevertheless, the music is good, indicating that a higher plane had been reached. A new, intensely poetic and delicate style of dancing evolved, much influenced by the great dancer Marie Taglioni (who used point-shoes, for example).
As La fille mal gardée shows, ballets survive both as choreographic charts without music and as musical scores. Among the best of the latter are Léo Delibes’ inimitable masterpieces Sylvia and Coppélia, whose tuneful, colourful idiom commends itself as much today as ever it did to enthusiastic nineteenth-century audiences. Such successes in France were eagerly taken up in Russia, a country whose gentry preferred French culture to their own. Tchaikovsky considered Swan Lake pretty feeble compared with Sylvia, but we don’t have to agree with him, for the Russian was never more himself or more inspired than when he was writing dance music. His best symphonies have been accused of being balletic, especially the Fifth, as if that were some awful degradation of sacred symphonic form (yet Beethoven was allowed the apotheosis of the dance)! In reality, Tchaikovsky’s three ballets are magnificent, unsurpassed works whose music breathes the very essence of dance movement, at the same time incorporating many of the symphonic techniques of his other orchestral works; in their superabundance of memorable tunes and enthralling orchestration they deservedly count amongst the most popular works of the nineteenth century.
From Debussy to Diaghilev
As we move into our own century, we find new forces at work that restlessly expanded the expressive horizons of dance. Debussy’s well-nigh perfect tone poem L’après-midi d’un faune, though not composed as a ballet (Jeux, the last orchestral work he completed, was), attracted a controversial choreography from the great Russian dancer Vaclav Nijinsky. Dance was used to express the eroticism of Debussy’s vision, and the outcome was predictably shocking to contemporary audiences. Another ballet Khamma, this one unfinished, was composed by Debussy for the nude dancer Maude Allen, who presented him with the ‘stirring story of a dancing girl’ drawn from an old Egyptian legend. The score was eventually finished by Charles Koechlin, and very attractive it is too.
Debussy was an important inspiration for Stravinsky’s crucial developments in musical language. All of Stravinsky’s principal early scores are ballets composed for the great Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. For many people, the dazzling, exotic spectacles of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes provided European audiences with their definitive artistic experiences of the early twentieth century; the list of composers and works commissioned by him is astounding (Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petruschka, Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, Falla’s Three-cornered Hat, Poulenc’s Les biches, Prokofiev’s Prodigal Son, etc.).
Diaghilev sets the agenda
Modern ballet, as set out by Diaghilev, mostly turns its back on the old set dances, such as the mazurka and waltz. To be sure, jazz rhythms and associated dances do crop up, but in Stravinsky’s ballets we find complex, asymmetrical or additive rhythms far removed from the graceful dances of Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. Given Stravinsky’s preoccupation with, and rediscovery of, rhythm, it’s hardly surprising to find ballets figuring more prominently in his output than any other genre. Rite of Spring is, arguably, the single most important work of our time – a defining moment in music history as artistically charged and influential as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was in the nineteenth century.
As times rolls by and dance companies proliferate all over the world, the call for new scores or ballets based on old ones has rarely been greater. The number of dance types is vast, ranging from a retention of classical traditions in Russia to improvisation and intriguing new multimedia presentations involving electronic music, video, and recitations. Martha Graham, an American modern dancer, did much to establish new dance steps for a style that was more concerned with expressing feelings than displaying technical prowess. In the 1940s, she was responsible for choreographing, among other important ballets, Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), and her pupils partook of fruitful collaborations with composers such as John Cage.
Many opera houses new seem like museums; the few new operas that make it to the stage have an almost unprecedented capacity to empty a house (by no means all, please note!). Dance, by contrast, is still an exciting prospect. Its means are so diverse, its exponents so committed, it hardly seems worth speculating on its future development; dance is so well suited to the music being written by today’s composers that I imagine the artistic outcome can only be highly attractive. Bill Whelan’s staggeringly successful Riverdance, which mixes traditional folk and popular dance styles, is surely as good an example as any of the way (in popular music, at least) theatrical dance constantly renews itself.
Classic CD magazine, 1996