Health and Wellness

How Ballet Music Became Classical Music

By Ryan Spooner

The world of classical music is vast. Despite this vastness, our focus on what constitutes the canon of classical tends to be narrow. We look to symphonies, operas, concertos, and chamber music from masters like Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler as the masterworks of the genre. However, some of classical music’s most recognizable pieces come from other places. Ballet is one such place.

Today, we see music created for ballets by composers like Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky as masterpieces, but previous to them, ballet music was seen as unbecoming of symphonic masters.

Here is the story of how ballet music moved from an afterthought to an artform - to classical music that could be appreciated, even when there was no one dancing.

A Brief History Of Ballet

Ballet originated during the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Thanks to the influence of Catherine de’ Medici, an Italian noblewoman who married King Henry II, it spread to France, where it developed even further. The dancers in these early court ballets were mostly noble amateurs, not the professionals that we are familiar with today.

The professionalization of ballet dancers occurred under the reign of King Louis XIV. Louis founded the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Dance Academy) in 1661, to establish standards and certify dance instructors.

For most of its early history, the role of music in ballet was secondary, with the main emphasis on dance. Music was simply a compilation of ballroom dance music. “Serious” composers were those that composed symphonies; ballet composers were seen as far less important or artful than their peers.

Ballet’s Revolutionary Composer

No one moved ballet music forward like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1896). Before Tchaikovsky, composing for the ballet was considered to be separate from symphonies. Ballet music was more straightforward and easy to dance to, mostly created as an accompaniment for dances. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake revolutionized ballet composition; it was the first ballet score to be created by a symphonic composer.

Inspired by Tchaikovsky’s innovation, ballet composition became more complex, with music becoming a part of the performance in its own right. In the late 19th century, Marius Petipa, a French ballet choreographer and dancer, collaborated with Tchaikovsky on the creation of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker ballets and even helped revise Swan Lake after Tchaikovsky’s death.

Ballet Music, The Stravinsky Way

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a Russian-born composer and one of the most influential contributors to 20th-century music. At around eight years old, Stravinsky attended a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty. Fortunately for us, this began a lifelong interest in ballets.

Though he had a long career with a diversity of styles, it was ballet music that helped him achieve international fame. These three ballets, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913), transformed how subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure and gained Stravinsky a reputation as a musical revolutionary who pushed the boundaries of musical design.

The Benefits of Ballet Music

Listening to music has many physiological benefits. It not only stimulates the pleasure and reward centre in the orbitofrontal cortex, just behind the eyes, it also activates the cerebellum at the base of the brain, which is responsible for our coordination and movement.

Furthermore, music and dance are a fun way to get moving. The theory of music, mood and movement (MMM) proposes that “music alters mood, is a cue for movement, and makes physical activity more enjoyable leading to improved health outcomes of weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cardiovascular risk factor management, and improved quality of life.” So, what are you waiting for? Get up and get moving!

Classical Ballet Music on Calm Radio

We’re here to help you get moving. Let the elegance and sonic beauty of ballet masterpieces from Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and all the composers offered in our Ballet channel get you on your feet.

In addition to looking for music to move to, we have music to meditate to, sleep to, work to, and relax to. Visit our Channel Guide to explore.

Happy listening & Happy dancing!

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