Arrangements in ballet music: missing the pointe?

Does ballet music have a life offstage? The tendency for the past hundred years or so has been to take famous excerpts from scores written for ballets and to include them in commercials, Disney films, promotional devices and even pantomime. The musical worth and beauty in the construction of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake has arguably been diminished by the music’s over-popularity. Unfortunately it would be difficult and rare to imagine a music scholar or even a modern composer sitting and listening to the themes of these pieces in particular, and the vast majority of real music-lovers are very unlikely to sit down to listen to some bars from The Nutcracker.

But in the 20th century a great change took place in ballet, though few would be able immediately to recognise it. Although we can name Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella as being ballets for which music was composed, the vast majority of 20th and 21st century ballets are now constructed from already made music; music which was never intended for ballet and which, for all we know, could have been burnt by its composers should they have ever learnt that it was being used for ballet. Sometimes this can have the effect of sounding cliched. In 2008 the modern choreographer Angelin Preljocaj used the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for the finale piece of his Blanche Neige. Considering the fairy-tale music that Tchaikovsky used for his ballets to evoke their surreal atmosphere, it’s probably categorically impossible that Mahler would ever have permitted this precious movement to be used for Snow White. One would say it even goes against the rules of musical arrangement.

The Adagietto itself is actually opposed to the other four movements of the full Fifth symphony; the symphony itself is an explosive, polyphonic example of superfluous twentieth-century music, where the melodies intertwine in such a bizarre and hardly logical way that you wonder whether Mahler simply created his work to shock and prove that music had changed in this period. It doesn’t fit at all into its symphony, if our judgement over symphonies involve paying as much attention to the work as a whole as we do to its individual movements. Yet the Adagietto survives through time much more enduringly than its four other partners which slightly lost their place in musical history. But that’s not to say that it has anything to do with Snow White! A symphony – and even a few bars from a symphony – cannot especially be taken out of its concert hall context, unless used ingeniously.

Another example of music being applied to modern ballet is the lengths to which Kenneth MacMillan went so as not to relate Massenet’s Manon to his ballet, also called L’histoire de Manon and also by Massenet. Wisely choosing not to take the entire operatic score and apply it to dance, he chose sections of other operas at random and glazed the work with Massenet’s Elegy; again a cliché movement maybe similar to Preljocaj’s use of the Adagietto. It is also a very sentimental piece which has been used ubiquitously but has its home on a solo violin in a salon or chamber concert hall. Of course the insertion of the movement immediately conjures-up tears in the audience, though the individual piece bears no relation to the other Massenet family which makes-up this ballet: instrumental sections from Cendrillon, the overture to Le Cid, and parts from the lesser known Cléopâtre and Grisélidis. The music in the ballet overall is quite irregularly stuck together, with little being effective before the repetition of the Elegy. But when the Elegy does strike a chord in the audience, it does so not because it’s totally matched with the choreography, but because it’s a beautiful piece by itself; and one has to admit that any composer or choreographer can try this usage with a ballet and succeed. It takes an entire different effort to choose pieces exceptionally carefully and genuinely investigate what might suit the context and the action of a ballet.

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But there have been major and minor successes. One of these is the Nureyev-Fonteyn vehicle Marguerite et Armand, choreographed in 1963 by Frederick Ashton. The ballet itself could probably only receive acclaim today if either performed by genius dancers or witnessed by a truly sympathetic audience. Marguerite et Armand was not only reflective of ballet’s attempt to have its own Traviata, but was reflective of a period in ballet – namely the Nureyev-Fonteyn period – which has no chance of revival (or at least not in the next fifty years). When interviewed, Ashton said that Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor had conjured-up the whole vision of the ballet for him as he listened to it. It’s no more than an eighteen-minute ballet; but that’s not eighteen minutes to pass by quickly, but rather eighteen minutes to respond to a short sonata and make the audience believe that Marguerite Gaultier has transformed from a careless courtesan into a woman who has given-up her life for love and finished it by dying of tuberculosis. Ashton apparently forbade any other dancers from even attempting the work, but through his two ingénues he did achieve what he had dreamed of as he listened to this Liszt sonata. Marguerite et Armand is one of the few cases where we can believe that Liszt composed the music for a ballet (and not only because the heroine upon whom this character is based, the real Marie Duplessis, was Liszt’s lover).      

Though not one of the most memorable Ashton ballets if we exclude Fonteyn and Nureyev, it certainly served Liszt much better than another ballet choreographed fifteen years later – Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling. This work has some incredible physical depictions of schizophrenia; broken movements, wild eyes and uncertainty of movement – all contained within the choreography. But its usage of Liszt sometimes purports to very little. At one point there is a salon scene in which we are shown nothing but the Prince Rudolf’s guests gathered around, as though waiting for some entertainment, and the orchestra play an arrangement of Liszt’s Consolation in E – perhaps one of the dullest and most meaningless Liszt pieces ever written (and not many of them were either dull or meaningless). There is no action on stage, and not much musically. Ashton had taken the right decision to leave Liszt’s Piano Sonata for piano, rather than melodrama-tising the Dame aux Caméllias story into even more of a melodrama than it already is.

In 1976, Ashton succeeded surprisingly and bewitchingly with musical arrangement again, this time with his A Month in the Country, based on the Turgenev play. It would even not be going too far to say that he used Chopin’s music in a way in which the composer himself would not have guessed. He took the theme from Chopin’s Kujawiak: Vivace, the third movement from his Fantaisie Brillante on Polish airs, originally played on clarinet and then with variations on piano, and had John Lanchberry, frequently the conductor for ballets of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, arrange it for piano and orchestra. The result was actually a much more memorable and sentimental romantic reverie than Chopin’s original version. Chopin’s choice to have the clarinet originally play it at a presto tempo had almost transformed it into something ugly and unnecessary. When he does transpose it for piano about one and a half minutes into the piece, it is covered and flourished with trills and ornaments which does the melody no justice because one feels it hasn’t been sufficiently played out and expressed independently. The ballet also included variations on Chopin’s Là ci darem la mano, which he had varied from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and his Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, but it was the little theme from the Fantasy on Polish Airs which became the characteristic of the ballet. Audiences often speak of proving an opera or ballet’s quality by seeing how many melodies one can carry back home after the performance is finished. After seeing A Month in the Country for the first time, this particular theme stuck with me for three and a half years, and continues not to be forgotten – even when so many others fly their nest and ask for a reintroduction.

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Continuing to explore the ingenious usage of orchestral arrangement, one of the most striking and greatest opuses in ballet music is a Tchaikovsky ballet with origins not from Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky may have had the fate and genius to compose Eugene Onegin, but, having put the opera aside, he didn’t think to do a ballet alternative. And why should he have? But luckily we were left far from deprived. In 1966 the South-African choreographer John Cranko, who is hardly remembered today, choreographed his own Onegin from music from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, Francesca da Rimini, and the opera Eugene Onegin. The arrangement by pianist and composer Kurt-Heinz Stolze, one might say, could have taught Tchaikovsky some novel and inspiring things. Francesca da Rimini is a great work; The Seasons less so.

In the final six minutes of the ballet Stolze combined the two to make an abridged version of Francesca da Rimini with layers of The Seasons, as though to make the perfect version together from both. It was like taking two cakes, one with plain, tasteless filling and the other with a tasteless sponge, and deciding to mould the most delicious in both desserts. This was the music to Onegin, which, one could argue, set the scene and feeling as perfectly as Tchaikovsky had for his opera. Whereas Francesca da Rimini spends twenty-three minutes revolving around the same theme, straying away from it, wavering around a diminuendo and returning to crescendo, the same theme unravelled in six minutes at the end of this ballet, yet reached its conclusion just as dramatically. Sometimes one wonders whether some composers (even geniuses) might not still be in need of some assistance.

Of course the possible damage which orchestrators and conductors might do to music composed one-hundred, two-hundred or more years ago, can be significant. When we look at (or hear) music composed by Tchaikovsky or Chopin, we often think that spoiling any parts of their music would be a criminal act. This is true, for ninety-nine per cent of cases, and the music we have should be left as it is. But the later ballets have occasionally succeeding in improvising with this ballet, whilst squeezing nothing Tchaikovsky-like or Chopinesque from it. There are many ballets which we never had and could only dream of; a ballet of Shakespeare’s Othello, for instance; or of Turgenev’s First Love or the Torrents of Spring. Sometimes Romantic composers’ music simply resembles the period. And, as some choreographers and arrangers have proven, sometimes a vraisemblance to a period and atmosphere is all that’s necessary.