Ballet is a theatrical performance of a dancing group with costumes and scenery, to the accompaniment of music, but without singing or spoken word. The history of the modern ballet goes back to the 15th century, when dance performances were introduced at the French and Burgundian courts for the celebration of marriages, for the reception of foreign sovereigns, and for similar festive occasions. One of the most sumptuous of these entertainments was the “Ballet Comique de la Royne” (marriage of Margaret of Lorraine to the Duke of Joyeuse, Versailles, 1581). It is the earliest for which the music is preserved, and is especially remarkable on account of its inclusion of two monodic songs. The culmination point of the ballet was reached under Louis XIV, who himself was a great dancer and who liked to appear in ballet performances. With the ballet-master Beauchamp and the musicians Cambefort and Lully, the French ballet attained the highest cultural importance as well as great musical significance. It became the origin of a great number of new courtly dance types, such as the gavotte, the passepied, the bourrée, the rigaudon, which ere later introduced into the optional group of the suite. Of particular importance among these was the minuet. Lully’s activity in the ballet of the French court (ballet de cour) began in 1653 (“Ballet de la Nuit”) and came to a climax in 1664 when he and Molière joined forces to produce a unification of play and ballet, the comédie-ballet. “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (1670) is the most famous example of this type. Lully also introduced the ballet into his operas, as did his successors Campra and Rameau. Rameau’s ballets are particularly interesting on account of their exotic background, Mexican, Persian, Chinese, etc. A special type of ballet was cultivated in England, under the name of masque. In the second half of the 17th century Vienna was a centre of ballet presentations.
From 1700 till the end of the 19th century the history of the ballet includes a galaxy of famous dancers, such as Carmargo, Noverre, Vestris, Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and others. Unfortunately, little of the music used in their presentations has come down to us. Noverre, the great reformer of the ballet, found musical collaborators in Stuttgart (Florian Deller, Johann J. Rudolph) as well as in Vienna (Ignaz Holzbauer, Christoph W. Gluck, Josef Starzer). This list is completed by Beethoven’s “Prometheus”, produced in 1801 at the Burg Theatre of Vienna.
Ballet music took a new start with Delibes’ “Coppelia” and Tchaikovsky’s three ballets “The Swan Lake”, “ The Sleeping Beauty”, and “Casse-Noisette” (“The Nutcracker”). The great period of modern ballet music, however, did not start until the early 20th century, when the Russian ballet of Diaghilev and Fokine began its triumphal career and attracted the interest of many prominent composers, e.g., Stravinsky, with “Firebird”, “Petrouchka”, “Le Sacre du Printemps”, “Les Noces”, “Apollo Musagetes”, “Card Party”, and others; Ravel with “Daphnis and Chloë”, Manuel de Falla with “The Three-Cornered Hat”; Darius Milhaud with “Le Train bleu” and “La Création du monde”; Francis Poulenc with “Les biches”; Béla Bartók with “The Wooden Prince”; Hindemith with “The Demon”; Bax with “The Truth about the Russian Dancers”, and others. In America, the vogue of the ballet has produced such works as John A. Carpenter’s “Krazy-Kat” and “Skyscrapers”; Copland’s “Grough” and “Hear ye, hear ye”; Marc Blitzstein’s “Checkmate”; Walter Piston’s “The Incredible Flutist”, etc.