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Music in the Early Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism

Ballet From Sixteenth-Century France to Nineteenth-Century Russia; Stravinsky

CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


It is time to confess to a scandalous omission. An entire genre, with a history extending back as far as the sixteenth century, has been virtually missing from this account of European art music, and it is high time to redress the neglect. The slighted genre is that of theatrical dance and the music written to accompany it—in a word, ballet. It is no accident that the word is French. Ballet was French in a much realer, more objective way than any of the Frenchnesses described in the preceding chapter, because it was historically, not merely “essentially” French. It was French, that is, in documented fact, not just by nationalistic assertion.

The European tradition of spectacular professional dancing for theatrical display originated at the court of the French king Henry III, whose Italian-born mother, Catherine de Médicis, sponsored the first ballets de cour, courtly entertainments in which poetry, music, stage décor, and dance were all combined in a single dramatic action. The first such grand spectacle, Circé, ou le Balet comique de la Royne (“Circe, or the Queen’s comic dance spectacle”), was presented at the Petit Bourbon palace on 15 October 1581, under the direction of Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx (ca. 1535–ca. 1587), Catherine’s “master of revels.” Like Jean-Baptiste Lully, his great successor, and like his royal patroness herself, Beaujoyeulx (born Belgioioso) was a naturalized Italian. The early French ballets incorporated many ingredients imported from Italy, intermixed with local traditions of court pantomime and allegory. They arose around the same time as the Italian court spectacles known as intermedii, which were among the immediate forerunners of the nascent opera.

The fantastic success of the early opera is what scotched the growth of the ballet. When transferred from the ballroom floor to the stage under Lully in the seventeenth century, the ballet became only one of the ingredients in the tragédie lyrique, the French version of opera, in which the chief dramatic burden, as in opera everywhere, was carried not by dancing but by singing, hence by words. Theatrical dancing thus became an accessory, an element not of dramatic substance but of luxurious ornament, and declined both in creative energy and in prestige.

The French court remained its epicenter. Exquisite solo and ensemble dancing remained an obligatory ornament of the French operatic stage as a reminder of the richness of the court that supported it, and of the power of the French autocracy. It was the courtliest of all the courtly arts. Like the political monolith that sustained it, the French ballet was esteemed throughout Europe as an embodiment of everything aristocratic, and its music was imitated wherever the high aristocratic style was aspired to—most conspicuously at the petty German courts, which maintained orchestras for no other purpose than to perform “Ouvertures,” or suites of French dance music (a genre to which J. S. Bach contributed four specimens in the early eighteenth century, and G. P. Telemann dozens).

But the emphasis on dancing as ornament or diversion rather than action, and the limits that impersonal court convention placed on its expressivity, led to dissatisfaction with the way it functioned within—or rather impeded—the developing French opera. Writing about the way in which French composers had to make way for frequent danced divertissements (fêtes), Jean-Jacques Rousseau complained in 1761 that “in every act the action is usually cut off at the most exciting moment by a fête: if the prince is happy, one shares his joy and one dances; if he is sad, one wants to cheer him up and one dances.”

Rousseau was writing here in the vanguard of romanticism, insisting on naturalness and personal expressivity in place of courtly stylization. Over the course of the eighteenth century, a number of reforms and innovations conspired to undermine the impersonal aristocratic conventions of court dancing and replace them with a new kind of ballet that placed the emphasis on individual characters and their emotional reactions—expressed entirely in supple bodily movements—to an unfolding story line. This kind of ballet, which could be regarded as a self-sufficient “wordless opera,” and which was indeed designed to vie with opera for dominance in the realm of music theater, was known as ballet d’action or “plot ballet.”

In a plot ballet, a scenario, or planned sequence of danced “numbers,” took the place of the libretto. The scenarist, who might or might not be the choreographer or ballet master, the designer of the actual danced steps, had a task similar to the librettist’s: that of expressing the content of the plot, often a well-known story, in terms of danceable situations. A method of alternating plot-presentation and emotional reflection, reminiscent of the alternating recitatives and arias in opera and clearly modeled on them, became standard. The equivalent of recitative was “pantomime,” or gestural mimicry, in which elements of plot were “acted out” in a very stylized way to the accompaniment of loosely structured “mimetic” music. The actual dances, often adapted (like operatic arias) from established ballroom genres, expressed in more general terms the characters’ emotional reactions to the events of the plot.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-chapter-003.xml