The Australian Ballet has commissioned countless scores over the last half-century, as well as imbuing historic pieces with new life. In this short history, we unpack some of our most iconic ballet scores, including the music for Swan Lake,The Display and The Merry Widow.
The Sleeping Beauty
The Sleeping Beauty (1888) brought a new level of intellectual and emotional complexity to ballet music. It was not only the greatest achievement of the Imperial Russian era; it had a profound influence on younger composers. Without it there would be no The Rite of Spring, no Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky’s score does not accompany the story; it is the story. Narrative and subtext are embedded. The association of specific keys with individuals and qualities, the use of leitmotifs, inspired instrument groupings and illuminating orchestrations illustrate and amplify character, feeling, social structure and, above all, moral order. David McAllister’s opulent 2015 production for The Australian Ballet pays homage to its splendour.
Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, was much altered before it was fashioned into the 1895 version overseen by Marius Petipa after the composer’s death. For the first production in 1877 sections were thrown out, numbers reduced in length, the order changed and the work of others interpolated. The choreography was thought poor but despite the interventions Tchaikovsky’s music rightly claimed attention. Most modern stagings of this ubiquitous ballet follow the arrangement so successfully used by Petipa and his associate Lev Ivanov, but in 2002 Graeme Murphy took a different path, adhering as closely as possible to Tchaikovsky’s original conception. This is the Swan Lake that The Australian Ballet takes to the world; it also has in its repertoire a traditional version by Resident Choreographer Stephen Baynes.
The Merry Widow
The 20th century was born to a soundtrack like no other in history. Western composers, among them Stravinsky, Schönberg, Debussy and Berg, created new and often challenging forms of expression. They were thrillingly influential, but, then as now, not for everyone. In 1905 Franz Lehár spoke to and for the masses in The Merry Widow. His glamorous operetta sang with romance and high spirits. Above all, it over-flowed with memorable melodies that could have been made for dance. The Australian Ballet unveiled its version, choreographed by Ronald Hynd and orchestrated by John Lanchbery, in 1975. It is one of the company’s most fondly loved works.
Like The Sleeping Beauty, which Stravinsky so admired, The Firebird (1910) depicts a struggle between good and evil. Young women are held captive by a magician until freed by a dashing young prince and the mythical Firebird. Stravinsky was 27 when The Firebird, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was commissioned. It was Stravinsky’s first ballet and he had not been the first choice to write it. The story came from Russian legend and Stravinsky incorporated some folk material into a bold, rhythmically dynamic piece that foreshadowed his standing as the most important ballet composer of the 20th century. Graeme Murphy’s 2009 version for The Australian Ballet, made to the composer’s 1945 revised score, was received with great acclaim.
The Australian Ballet’s production of Petrouchka uses Stravinsky’s 1947 revision of music he first put in front of Diaghilev in 1911. Nijinsky created the role of the desolate clown in Mikhail Fokine’s choreography for the Ballets Russes in Paris that year. Stravinsky irresistibly creates the sound world of a lively 19th-century carnival and the trio of animated dolls invested by a charlatan with the ability to love, quarrel and suffer. Stravinsky drenches the score in menace and foreboding. Swift changes of pace, clashing harmonies, ominous drums, dominating brass and forced gaiety speed the action to its tragic conclusion.
The Rite of Spring
The Rite of Spring starts, disconcertingly, with a high-lying phrase well outside the bassoon’s conventional range. Shortly afterwards F flat and E flat chords crash into one another, the sonic collision complicated by restlessly roving accents. The riot at the premiere of Nijinsky's ballet, on 29 May 1913, started at that point, with aristocrats and bohemians howling at one another. The outrage was short-lived: The Rite of Spring is the 20th century’s most renowned score and more than 100 choreographers, including Stephen Page for a work combining The Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre, have been galvanised by its evocation of primal forces. Fractured rhythms, strange percussion and aggressive brass ratchet up the tension, released only at the last second in a thunderclap.
Arthur Bliss’s passion for chess gave Ninette de Valois her most enduring choreographic success. At the composer’s suggestion she used the game to embody the conflict between love and death, youth and age, the new order and the old. Bliss’s sumptuous score is distinguished by exciting brass and percussion and describes the action clearly. There are jaunty pawns, forceful knights, the seductive Black Queen, a chivalrous Red Knight and a frail Red King. Its directness gives the music an innocent quality, despite the warlike setting; a looking back to less complicated times. Robert Helpmann was Checkmate’s first Red King, for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1937. It was also his last role, performed with The Australian Ballet in 1986, four months before he died.
Romeo and Juliet
Prokofiev laboured under exceptional difficulties in Soviet Russia when writing Romeo and Juliet, which underwent significant change before its opening with the Kirov Ballet in 1940 (the premiere was in Czechoslovakia in 1938). Despite this, the score is greatly loved and regarded as one of the most dramatically effective in the ballet repertoire. Memorable themes and leitmotifs establish and develop vivid characters while the score abounds in rich colours and brilliantly expressive melodies, as popular in the concert hall as in ballet. The passionate love theme and the stirring Dance of the Knights are just two favourites. Of the many choreographies, John Cranko’s from 1962 is one of the most admired and is in the repertoire of The Australian Ballet.
Prokofiev’s lovely music for Cinderella (1945) is less widely known than his Romeo and Juliet but, as he was freer of official interference, is closer to his natural impulses. Finely textured orchestration reveals a wealth of piquant musical detail for each character “so that the audience should not remain indifferent to their difficulties and joys”, as he said. Cinderella is a resourceful, flesh-and-blood woman with sorrows and dreams, while her tormentors are drawn with spiky, satirical humour. A delicately melancholy undertow is never far away, reflecting the time in which the score was written. As Alexei Ratmansky said of his 2013 production for The Australian Ballet, there is a happy ending, but what happens after?
The Display, choreographed by Sir Robert Helpmann, was hailed as the first truly Australian ballet. It premiered at the 1964 Adelaide Festival to a rapturous response less than 18 months after the founding of The Australian Ballet, and while key members of the creative team, including composer Malcolm Williamson, lived in Britain (a sign of the times), all were native-born. The scenic design was by Sidney Nolan. Williamson’s score shows worlds in conflict. The strange, disquieting beauty of the bush setting and its birds, so acutely rendered, is disrupted by hearty picnickers and their disturbing, combative rituals. Linking the two is the Lyrebird, whose extravagant mating display gives the work its name.
Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Music is the sound of heat rising from the earth, of vast spaces, of unsettling isolation and potential danger, of changing weather and blessed rain. Choreographed by Sir Robert Helpmann in 1968, the ballet is a response to the fierce Australian sun’s power to create and destroy. It was The Australian Ballet’s first non-narrative success and for Sculthorpe “a very significant event” that brought him to a wider public. Textures, sonorities and atmospherics hold sway as melody is subjugated. Strings skitter, shimmer and glide; gleaming Balinese instrumentation offers beauty and calm; and brass is an often ominous underscore or interjection. The landscape is made audible; the ballet’s first audience was enthralled.
The content on this page is ©Deborah Jones