The Australian Ballet

The Music and the Mirror

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Photo Kate Longley

Behind every great ballet is an equally brilliant score. We look at some of the most iconic pieces of music that have accompanied some of our favourite ballets.

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Alice Topp in The Sleeping Beauty (McAllister), 2015
Photo Kate Longley

Pytor Ilych Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty

Perhaps ballet’s most famous composer, Pytor Ilych Tchaikovsky is the mind behind Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty… The list goes on.

It was twelve years between writing Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, and you can hear the maturity of Tchaikovsky as a composer between the two works. Every note is carefully placed to convey emotion, story or character. The orchestration went further to compliment ballet and subliminally reach audiences through musical devices.

“Tchaikovsky made ballet music respectable; he demonstrated what musical genius could do in this genre, and inspired generations.” – Nicolette Fraillon

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Artists of The Australian Ballet in Giselle, 2019
Photo Kate Longley

Adolphe Adam’s Giselle

Adam composed the hauntingly beautiful Giselle in only three weeks and was an early adopter of leitmotifs (recurring musical themes) that would go on to inspire Tchaikovsky’s work.

“The overall effect of Adam’s score is that of a collection of musical episodes that is greater than the sum of its parts.” – Dr Mark Carroll, University of Adelaide

“Tchaikovsky made ballet music respectable; he demonstrated what musical genius could do in this genre, and inspired generations.” — Nico­lette Fraillon
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Sharni Spencer and Callum Linnane in Swan Lake (Cranko), 2022
Photo Rainee Lantry

Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

Controversially Sergei Prokofiev changed Shakespeare’s original tragic ending to happy one, declaring- it was for practical reasons – “the living can dance, the dead cannot.”

Fortunately, Shakespeare’s tragic love story remains intact due to the insistence of Russian and English scholars.

“Prokofiev is a master of all the devices composers use for storytelling- melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumentalisation.” – Nicolette Fraillon

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Adam Bull and Ako Kondo in Firebird (Murphy), 2018
Photo Jeff Busby

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and The Firebird

Igor Stravinsky’s experimental innovative work The Rite of Spring was a ground-breaking composition that allegedly caused a riot at its premiere in 1913. The complex rhythms are enhanced by instruments stretched into extreme registers that underscore the wild choreography. In contrast, Stravinsky’s earlier score, The Firebird, was written when the composer was 28 years old and is an atmospheric fantastical tribute to Russian folk melodies.

“In Stravinsky's music, the dance element of most force is the pulse. It is steady, insistent yet healthy, always reassuring. You feel it even in the rests. It holds together each of his works and runs through them all.” — George Bal­an­chine

To learn more about creating music for ballet, hear composers Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO and Christopher Gordon discuss the score for Identity.

Composers in Conversation