The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus
by Robert Ignatius Letellier
Paperback edition, 414 pages
ISBN (10): 1-5275-8912-9
ISBN (13): 978-1-5275-8912-4
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
In recent years more and more dance companies have mounted productions of ballets scored by the Austrian composer Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917). Filmed performances are now also widely available on DVD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately, interested viewers – or listeners to the scores as recorded on CD – have frequently found it difficult to discover further details of Minkus’s life or of his wider and considerable body of work. First published in 2008, Robert Ignatius Letellier’s authoritative study The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus has just been reissued in its first and very welcome paperback edition. It is, I think, well worth drawing this most useful resource to the attention of readers attracted by the music of a composer who, while increasingly appreciated as a musician, remains, as a historical figure, disappointingly little known.
In his enjoyably engrossing autobiography A Body of Work (New York, 2017), Australian Ballet’s artistic director David Hallberg mentions in passing that he and his colleagues refer to certain classical ballets as comprising a Big Five. Three of those – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker – will come as no surprise to anyone. What, though, about the other two? Giselle, surely, would be a good guess for one of them. And, although the identity of the fifth choice might be somewhat more debatable, wouldn’t Coppélia stand as good a chance as any? Or perhaps that 20th century classic Romeo and Juliet might fit the bill? As it turns out, however, it won’t be Adam, Delibes or Prokofiev joining Tchaikovsky in the dancers’ own pantheon, for the remaining two places in the Big Five are, in fact, occupied by Don Quixote and La bayadère.
What’s just as interesting as the list itself, however, is the way in which Hallberg presents it, for, even though he considers it strangely necessary to remind his ballet fan readers that the composer of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker was Tchaikovsky, he fails to mention another fact that they might be far less likely to know – that the scores of both Don Quixote and La bayadère were written by Ludwig Minkus. In fact, A Body of Work doesn’t give even a single name-check to the composer who wrote, let’s not forget, not just one but two of the Big Five ballets, both of which have been frequently danced by the author himself during his stellar career. Presumably, even when writing for comparatively well-informed readers, David Hallberg considered that the name Ludwig Minkus would mean next to nothing to most of them.
Minkus’s virtual excision from musical history actually dates back more than a century. Albeit that during his most productive years, c.1865 – c.1890, his name had been associated with more than 20 ballets and his scores were both highly appreciated and commercially very successful, by the time of his death in 1917 the long-retired composer was regarded – if at all – as a historical relic completely out of touch with contemporary musical trends. Dying in abject poverty, he seems to have left behind few physical traces of his life and work and no direct descendants to promote his memory. Even his bodily remains are long gone after Nazi thugs destroyed Vienna’s Jewish graves on the eve of the Second World War.
The rapidity of Minkus’s reputational decline may be judged by taking a look at a book published just 20 years after the composer’s death – Cyril Beaumont’s magisterial Complete Book of Ballets (London, 1937). While, unsurprisingly, it included sections on La source (1866), Don Quixote (1869) and La bayadère (1877), most of the rest of the composer’s canon went unremarked – and that, remember, is in a book described in its title as complete. Beaumont did, it’s true, include a somewhat random-looking selection of entries for Fiammetta (1864), Camargo (1872), Zoraya (1881) and Kalkabrino (1891), which might possibly indicate that those four ballets still enjoyed some sort of lingering reputation in the late 1930s. It might equally be the case, on the other hand, that they were simply the only other works about which Beaumont had managed to find any surviving material at all.
By the middle of the 20th century, Minkus appeared to have been virtually forgotten outside the countries of the Soviet bloc. The eighth edition of Percy Scholes’s well-regarded Oxford Companion to Music, published in 1950, devoted no space to him at all in its 1000+ pages and while, four years later, the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians at least acknowledged Minkus’s existence, it was only to dismiss him in contributor Montagu Montagu-Nathan’s scathing, if carelessly chosen, words as “third-rate, and even that classing may possibly be regarded by some as an understatement” (Note 1).
Of course, we all know of plenty of other instances where, after their deaths, well-regarded composers similarly fell from grace and into usually well-deserved obscurity. In this particular case, however, there was to be a completely unanticipated twist to the story, for from the 1960s onwards a number of fortuitous events combined to initiate the rehabilitation of Minkus’s reputation.
Firstly, a series of dancers who defected from the Soviet Union brought their considerable experience of Minkus’s ballets to the West. Rudolf Nureyev (1961), Natalia Makarova (1970), Mikhail Baryshnikov (1974) and Alexander Godunov (1979) all appreciated the opportunities for virtuoso display offered by the comic tour de force Don Quixote and the love-triangle tragedy La bayadère. They knew, moreover, how crowd-pleasing those ballets could be and were eager to promote them to new dance companies and new audiences.
Secondly, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that it subsequently became far easier – and, indeed, financially imperative – for Russian ballet companies to tour the world with their own productions. Thus, in the last 30 years, Don Quixote and La bayadère have established themselves as global audience – and, increasingly, critical – favourites and, as we have already noted, even won their own places in the dancers’ Big Five. The early La source (1866), co-composed with the tyro Léo Delibes, has also enjoyed a new high-profile Paris Opera Ballet production in the past decade. Meanwhile, the Act 1 pas de trois and Act 4 scene 2 grand pas that Minkus composed for an 1881 revival of Deldevez’s 1847 ballet Paquita remain popular display pieces to this day.
Just as more and more staged performances of those Minkus-scored ballets have been mounted, an increasing number of DVDs, Blu-ray discs and CDs have also appeared on the market. My own shelves now hold 14 different complete danced performances of Don Quixote and eight of La bayadère. There are also two full performances of the 1881 version of Paquita and one of La source.
When it comes to the sound-only CD recordings that may be of most interest to MusicWeb readers, there have been two very good releases of Don Quixote, both performed by the Sofia National Opera Orchestra. One is conducted by Nayden Todorov on Naxos 8.557065-66 and the other one, slightly preferable I think, by Boris Spassov on Capriccio 10 540/41 (subsequently re-issued on Capriccio 50540). La bayadère, meanwhile, has been recorded complete by Richard Bonynge and the English Chamber Orchestra on Decca 436 917-2, while La source may be found in the same conductor’s collection Delibes: the 3 ballets (Decca 460 418-2). While there are no CDs of the full Paquita score, Minkus’s lengthy and important contributions may occasionally be found on discs of miscellaneous ballet excerpts. Those include discs 4 and 5 of Bonynge’s Fête du ballet box (Decca 468 578-2), a Sofia National Opera Orchestra/Spassov collection on Capriccio 10 544, one from the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under Georgi G. Zhemchushin (Pilz 44 1006-2) and a pot-pourri twofer that EMI released in 2010 (Note 2).
Nevertheless, in spite of all those live performances, DVDs, Blu-ray discs and CDs, for many years it was frustratingly difficult to uncover the sort of detailed background information that might have helped an enquiring listener to set the composer’s works in their full and proper context. Although the Vienna-based International Minkus Society has apparently been researching the composer’s life and work for the past four decades, it appears to play its cards rather close to its chest and, unbelievably in the 21st century, doesn’t appear to have an English-language – or even a German – website or to offer any means to become a member or otherwise offer support.
The reappearance of musicologist Robert Letellier’s 2008 study The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus in a new and sensibly-priced paperback edition is, therefore, very welcome. It remains the sole such scholarly study of any length and an invaluable vade mecum to its subject. Letellier successfully directs new light onto both Minkus’s life and each of his 20-odd ballets. As a welcome result, many of the more obscure of them can now be appreciated as rather more than mere names. At the same time, those, such as Don Quixote and La bayadère, that were already relatively well known can now be assessed in a wider and deeper context.
While Letellier’s research uncovers plenty of new material, there are still points where the absence of surviving evidence makes it impossible to write with full confidence. In particular, the details of Minkus’s private life – especially of his earliest and his final years which were both spent in Vienna – will, in all probability, forever remain somewhat sketchy. Even something as basic as his name can be a cause of confusion, for, as he spent time in different locations, his first name was rendered, along with sundry other variants, as Aloysius/ Alois/ Lois/ Louis/ Léon/ Ludwig Feodorovich and his surname as Minkous/ Moincous/ Minkus. Although you won’t find all the possible permutations of first and family names in use, even today you won’t observe much in the way of standardisation on the covers of sheet music, DVDs or CDs. In fact, it’s amusingly ironic that, while Letellier’s book consistently uses the generally accepted form Ludwig, its sole reproduction of the composer’s own handwriting demonstrates him signing himself off as Louis.
As Letellier has also discovered, Minkus’s whereabouts at particular points in his life can also be somewhat difficult to determine. While, for instance, the Austrian state archives preserve applications that, as a young violin virtuoso, he had submitted to travel to Germany, France and Great Britain, we don’t actually know whether he made any of those trips at all. Even as late as the 1860s, we wouldn’t otherwise know of a visit to France except for the fact that there survives a photograph of him taken, it’s thought, c.1864 by the celebrated Paris society portraitist Bruno Braquehais.
Thankfully, once Minkus had begun his compositional career – which, apart from a few works for solo or accompanied violin, encompassed only ballet music – his activities are rather better documented, if only because they were of necessity memorialised by an endless stream of letters and memos exchanged with collaborators, choreographers, impresarios, publishers and the like. There are still, it’s true, some frustrating lacunae. We remain somewhat in the dark, for instance, as to precisely why, once he’d begun writing ballet scores, he chose or was obliged to share the compositional duties for La source with Delibes.
Thankfully, the best-documented period of Minkus’s life is its most significant one – the four decades (1852-1891) that he worked in tsarist Russia. After nine years spent making a name for himself as director of a private orchestra of serfs maintained by Prince Yusupov – whose more famous grandson of the same name was to be Rasputin’s assassin – and as director and composer for the orchestra of the Italian Opera at St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre, in 1861 he relocated to Moscow where he took on a trio of prestigious positions that can be seen as showcasing all his musical talents: professor of violin at the conservatoire; first violinist, conductor and ballet composer at the Bolshoi Theatre; and Inspector of the Imperial Theatre Orchestras. The culmination of Minkus’s rise to prominence in the Russian musical hierarchy came in 1872 with his appointment to a post that was newly created especially for him – Court Ballet Composer of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg. Ballet is, of course, an intensely collaborative art form and it is important to remember that, during those years in Moscow and St Petersburg, Minkus worked in close conjunction with many other people. The most important was, without question, Marius Petipa (1818-1910) (Note 3). Still regarded today as the finest of all choreographers of classical ballet, he was to form an extraordinary and long-lasting collaborative partnership with the composer that The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus fully explores. The degree of collaboration over the years was so intense – and its day-to-day working boundaries so inevitably blurred – that, when I am not discussing solely the music, many of my references to “Minkus” in this review could arguably be replaced by ones to “Petipa/Minkus”.
Quite rightly, Letellier recognises that his readers will be particularly interested in those ballets which they can watch or listen to at home. Hence he understandably devotes substantial sections of his 414-page book to considering La source (22 pages), Don Quixote (66), La bayadère (64) and Paquita (14). Such thoroughly detailed analyses are clearly immense and very welcome improvements on the abbreviated alternatives offered by CD booklet notes and the like.
What, however, of the other twenty or so Minkus ballets? Unfortunately, unearthing much in the way of useful information about them has always been difficult. Few of the scores were ever actually published and a great deal of the unpublished material has, it seems, been lost. Modern bureaucratic obstruction also poses immense problems. Russia’s reluctance to send original manuscripts abroad creates its own hurdle – and even those researchers seeking to circumvent that prohibition by travelling to Russia in person report frustratingly unproductive encounters with the officials of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theatre libraries.
With full scores lost or unobtainable, it’s unsurprising that there have been no staged performances of the more obscure Minkus ballets for more than a century – and no recordings, whether full or excerpted, either. In such circumstances, Letellier is understandably limited to outlining, one by one, their historical backgrounds and their often rather convoluted storylines and to noting any recorded contemporary reactions. That, given the difficulties with missing or hard-to-access source material, is a real achievement in itself – and may, perhaps, be the most interesting feature of the book for the general reader. Reading about the individual ballets in that way is both a mouth-watering experience and a tantalising one. Having done so, one is eager to watch – or even just to hear the score of – such a forgotten piece as Les adventures de Pélée (1876), in which the handsome hero’s exploits included accidentally killing a king, repelling the amorous advances of a queen and welcoming those of a goddess. It appears that Roxane, la beauté du Monténégro (1878) might also have offered a thrilling night in the theatre as the eponymous heroine was menaced by her late mother who’d been reincarnated as a vampiric butterfly. And who could resist La fille de neiges (1879), a choreographic beano put together in celebration of the derring-do of a certain Baron Nordenskiöld, a real-life Swedish Arctic explorer who seems to have been the Ranulph Fiennes of his time?
The great thing about The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus, however, is that it takes us beyond individual accounts of each production and makes broader points of greater interest to more historically-minded balletomanes. Thus, Letellier’s combination of ballet-by-ballet analysis and broad overview allows us to appreciate that Minkus’s career as a composer for dancers encompassed three very different phases. During the first of those, occupying the years 1864-1869, he specialised in so-called fantastic ballets. Characterised by stories in which supernatural forces – sometimes gods, sometimes spirits or, once in a while, the likes of a magical fish – intervened to complicate the lives of real (albeit, as is the way with ballet, perpetually dancing) human beings, the fantastic ballet was both the most fashionable genre at the time and the trademark of the era’s leading choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon, maître de ballet of St Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet. It was he who seems first to have spotted Minkus’s talent and to have commissioned the earliest of the composer’s full-length scores – for Fiammetta (1864), Néméa (1864, a revised version of Fiammetta), La source, Le poisson doré (1867) and Le lys (1869, a revised version of La source).
By the end of the 1860s, however, the fad for fantastic ballets was coming rapidly to a close as contemporary critics began to subject the form to outright ridicule. The satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, for instance, complained of the ballet world’s disconnection from contemporary life: “I love ballet for its constancy”, he observed with biting sarcasm. “New governments are created; new people appear in the picture; new facts are being born; the whole structure of life is changing; science and arts are watching these events with anxious attention, as they supplement and sometimes alter their very content – only ballet hears nothing and knows nothing”. He reserved especially harsh words for the Saint-Léon/Minkus Le poisson doré: “[N]ever before was the one-dimensional thinking of ballet and its conservative beginnings so brightly expressed”. Ouch!
That degree of critical scorn no doubt contributed to Minkus’s decision to change direction quite drastically with his sixth ballet, Don Quixote. The first that he composed for choreographer Marius Petipa, its storyline focussed primarily on the lives of real people, with any supernatural elements now confined to a second-Act sequence in which the eponymous would-be hero watched somewhat voyeuristically as the queen of the dryads, her ethereal attendants and the cupid-like figure Amor cavorted in an idealised heavenly garden. The important point about that particular episode is that its supernatural elements were no longer presented as occurring believably in real life, but simply as the sort of dream that any unconscious but nevertheless very real human being might experience. The remainder of Don Quixote proved a winning and believable mixture of romance, comedy – both broad and subtle – and sheer joie de vivre, far from the rarefied world of the fantastic ballets of the 1860s.
In the central period of his output, the two decades from c. 1870 onwards, Minkus was no longer straightjacketed within any particular genre and the skilful way in which, at Petipa’s behest, he tackled the widest range of subject matter shows him at the height of his powers. In order to facilitate discussion, Letellier, having uncovered each individual ballet’s details, usefully devises and shares with his readers his own categorisation for them. The results of his ground-breaking analysis are worth exploring in some detail.
A few of Minkus’s ballets of this period were, Letellier suggests, “realistic”, while others were variously “mythological”, “nationalistic”, “socially progressive/scientific” or “féerie”. One or two were even of the old “fantastic ballet” genre, albeit that they now incorporated rather fewer supernatural elements into their plots. One example was Le papillon (1874), in which a girl who’d been transformed into a butterfly – non-vampiric this time – was the love rival to a wicked sorceress. Another was Son v letnyuyu noch’ (1876) in which Minkus’s rearrangement of Mendelssohn’s music supported the retold story of A midsummer night’s dream. A third, Kalkabrino, was the tale of a wickedly sacriligious smuggler who was ultimately carted off to the infernal depths by a posse of demons. Kalkabrino was considered to be Minkus’s finest composition by many contemporary critics, yet proved to be his final collaborative work with Petipa.
In the generally “realistic” category of Minkus ballets, which see believable events taking place in recognisably real-life settings, we might place the Act 1 pas de trois and the Act 4 scene 2 grand pas that Minkus wrote for insertion into an 1881 revival of Deldevez’s 1847 ballet Paquita. Full length “realistic” ballets included La bayadère, even if it rather let the side down in its last few moments by having a giant stone idol intervene to quite literally bring the house down, and Zoraya, in which the Moorish slave girl of that name loved an impoverished young man but was unwillingly affianced to a homicidally-inclined prince. Meanwhile, a notable “mythological” ballet is the aforementioned Les adventures de Pélée in which we find Zeus/Jupiter presiding over the Mount Olympus nuptials of the amorous sea goddess Thetis and her toy-boy Peleus.
The best-known of Minkus’s “nationalistic” ballets was certainly Roxane, la beauté du Monténégro which exploited the popular later 19th century Russian vogue for pan-Slavism – and gave us an Act 3 grand march that, after reputedly being played as his troops stormed the Ottoman fortress of Pleva in 1877, supposedly became the tune-deaf Tsar Alexander II’s favourite piece of music.
The most famous “socially progressive/scientific” ballet of the late 19th century was Luigi Manzotti’s lavish Italian extravaganza Excelsior (1881), a series of pantomimic tableaux featuring 500 performers, on-stage horses and even an elephant, that depicted recurring conflicts between personified representations of Civilisation and Obscurantism throughout history. The Petipa/Minkus collaboration produced a couple of similar liberally-inclined, socially-enlightened productions – if on a much smaller scale. The first was Les brigands (1875), a somewhat melodramatic story of kidnap and rescue that, rather bizarrely, concluded with an Allegory of the continents. Even though it’s hard to see how it fitted in with the preceding events, the Allegory made the point that the features common to all mankind are more significant than petty national rivalries – the very same one that Excelsior was to do, if rather more stridently, in its own over-the-top “international” finale six years later. The second was the aforementioned La fille des neiges (1879) in which, bearing in mind such numbers as a Dance of the northern gypsies, a Norwegian wedding dance, some Dances of the migratory birds and a (pre-Nutcracker) Waltz of the snowflakes, our band of fearless Arctic explorers faced, in their laudable quest to expand humanity’s knowledge of the globe, little more risk than that of painful blisters and sore feet.
Described by Mr Letellier as a “new type of spectacle… [characterised by] display and variety, coupled with staging ingenuity, dignified by allegorical characters and parabolic action… [and serving] to bolster the positivist world view of the times”, Minkus’s “féerie” ballets were his final compositions before leaving Russia. The particular passion of a newly-appointed Director of Imperial Theatres, they prioritised relatively static – albeit often rather beautifully mounted – display over narrative action and, as such, marked something of a triumph of style over substance. Such productions included La nuit et le jour (1883), in which the Queen of the night, the Morning star, Time and various naiads, nereids, dryads, wilis, swans and ferns dance nocturnally and rather purposelessly around the stage until dispersed by the dawn arrival of the Sun. Another “féerie” ballet was Les pillules magiques (1886) in which dancers portrayed playing cards, domino tiles, various children’s toys and, rather weirdly, lace. A third and final example of this somewhat enervating genre is L’offrande à l’amour (1886) which remains, sad to say, an allegorical ballet of such obscurity that, even after Letellier’s best efforts to enlighten me, I still don’t comprehend the nature of the particular allegory in question. Although one can easily picture fin de siècle audiences of decadent, languid aristocrats appreciatively oooo-ing and ahhh-ing the delightful depictions, today, I’m afraid, these single-Act productions come across as a bit of a snooze-fest.
Eventually forced into retirement by that same Director of Imperial Theatres, Minkus left Russia in 1891 and retired on a minimal pension to a life of genteel penury in his home city of Vienna. There he made a few attempts to compose new ballet scores, including Tanz und Mythe (1898) and Die Dryaden (1899). While little if any information appears to survive about them, it seems that, in a musical milieu where ballet was generally looked down upon, Minkus’s music was regarded as particularly old fashioned and, in the judgment of the director of the court Opera, a certain Gustav Mahler, entirely unworthy of production. Years of increasing poverty followed until Minkus’s death in 1917 at the age of 91.
The wide scope of The Ballets of Ludwig Minkus allows us to appreciate that, even though he was a composer who restricted himself to music for dance, within that sphere Minkus deployed his battery of diverse musical styles and techniques with tremendous skill. If the book’s most obvious achievement is in revealing much more than we previously knew about the composer’s lesser-known works, it also provides us with valuable and detailed analyses of how and why Don Quixote, La bayadère and the rest are consummate examples of late 19th century classical ballet, with scores that are substantially enriched by Minkus’s mastery of melody, harmony, dance forms and rhythm, colour and atmosphere, narrative, mime and orchestration, as well as his effective use of recurring themes and the application of tonality. And while many of those scores themselves haven’t survived, the accounts of professional reviewers, performers and audience members of the time confirm that, whether “realistic” or “allegorical”, “nationalistic” or “féerie”, Minkus’s music was almost always very effective in suiting the requirements and meeting the practical demands of ballet in the form in which it was then presented. Perhaps the most convincing proof of that assertion is the fact that the great Marius Petipa himself selected Minkus as composer of no fewer than 13 of the 18 new ballet scores that he commissioned between 1869 and 1886. Ludwig Minkus may not have been a ground-breaker in ballet – as Tchaikovsky certainly was in composing his scores in a “symphonic” manner – but within the more conventional, choreographer-led and dancer-friendly bounds in which he chose to operate, he was, as Robert Ignatius Letellier’s book fully and finally demonstrates, second to none.
1. In spite of the general revival of interest in Minkus and his body of work that occurred from the 1960s onwards, the ignorance that had characterised earlier decades remained surprisingly persistent in some quarters. In 2009, for instance, EMI released several CDs that used various excerpts from La source, Don Quixote, La bayadère and Paquita as fillers for complete ballets by other composers. Quite bizarrely, however, each disc’s cover and booklet details dated Minkus’s death to the apparently arbitrarily chosen year of 1890, thereby lopping almost three decades – during which he had continued composing new scores – from the composer’s life. That the error was not confined to a single disc suggests that it was less an isolated typo than the result of a basic deficiency in factual knowledge. After MusicWeb reviews had repeatedly pointed out the error (review and review), it was corrected before a further tranche of discs was issued in 2010. Even then, however, EMI managed to imply that Minkus remained essentially minor league, for a promising-looking two-disc set boldly entitled Minkus disappointingly included almost 40 minutes of music by Riccardo Drigo, Eduard Helsted, Holger Paulli and Niels Gade.
2. Each of Richard Bonynge’s recordings to which I have referred may now be found in the recently-issued and quite splendid 45-CD box of his complete ballet recordings (Decca 485 0781).
3. The definitive biography is by Nadine Meissner: Marius Petipa: the Emperor’s ballet master (Oxford, 2019).
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