The best ballet scores of all time

2 November 2022, 09:38 | Updated: 2 November 2022, 09:47

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the London Coliseum (2011)
Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the London Coliseum (2011). Picture: Alamy

By Rosie Pentreath

Ballet has produced some of the most beautiful music ever written. From Gluck to Tchaikovsky, we explore ballet’s most entrancing scores...

Ballet takes movement and music, and elevates it into something structured yet sublime.

The history of the genre starts in the Italian courts of the 15th century and continues with France’s King Louis XIV, who established the Royal Dance Academy, the first Western dance institution ever invented, and laid the foundations of classical ballet as we know it.

The word ‘ballet’ encapsulates the choreography of the production, as well as the classical music written to go with it, and many great composers throughout history have written for the genre.

From Gluck to Grant Still, here is some of the best ballet music ever written.

Read more: The 20 greatest operas ever written

  1. Christoph Willibald Gluck: Dance of the Blessed Spirits

    ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ is a ballet from the Classical opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.

    The opera tells the story of Orfeo and his journey to save, and ultimately lose, his wife Euridice to the underworld.

    The ballet, accompanied by a famous flute solo, sees the protagonist pass through the Elysian Fields, which are the beautiful final resting place of heroic and virtuous souls in Greek mythology.

    Frederick Ashton's 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits' (Vadim Muntagirov, The Royal Ballet)

  2. Adoplphe Adam: Giselle

    Giselle is a Romantic ballet, written by French composer and music critic Adolphe Adam (also famous for the Christmas carol ‘O Holy Night’), and first performed in Paris in 1841.

    The popular ballet’s plot revolves around the ghosts of maidens deceived and lost, and has a fittingly haunting score.

    Adam: Giselle (The Royal Ballet)

  3. Léo Delibes: Coppélia

    Coppélia is a comic ballet, composed by Léo Delibes and choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870.

    The three-act ballet features a lifelike dancing doll, the young man who becomes besotted with it, and his heart’s true desire, Swanhilda, who dresses as the doll to ultimately save the young man from his foolish infatuation.

    Bolshoi Ballet- Coppelia: Waltz of the Hours

  4. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake

    Take the tale of a princess transformed into an elegant swan and add some of the most ravishing melodies in classical music, and you get Swan Lake.

    Tchaikovsky’s 1875 work remains one of the most popular ballets ever written, and contains the famous pieces ‘Dance of the Little Swans’ and the instantly recognisable Act I Waltz.

    Read more: Breathtaking moment a Russian ballerina dances real ‘Swan Lake’ on ice

    Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky - Dance of the Little Swans

  5. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker

    Tchaikovsky’s two-act 1892 ballet, The Nutcracker, is the magical story of a girl who makes friends with a soldier-shaped nutcracker that comes to life on Christmas Eve, and wages a battle against the evil Mouse King, before whisking her off to an enchanted land.

    It features many memorable melodies, and has become a firm favourite with audiences at Christmastime and beyond.

    Nutcracker Ballet - Full Performance - Russian State Ballet & Opera House

  6. Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

    The Firebird was the first ballet Stravinsky wrote for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Premiered in 1910, it shot the Russian composer to international fame, and started a collaboration that would see The Rite of Spring, Petrushka and other famous works born.

    The music is at once glittering, with moments of scary dissonance, to bring to life the ballet’s fairytale plot around the mythical firebird. Hear the terrifying but electrifying ‘Infernal Dance’ below.

    Stravinsky: Infernal Dance from The Firebird // Sir Simon Rattle & London Symphony Orchestra

  7. Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloé

    French composer Maurice Ravel described his one-act ballet, Daphnis and Chloé, as a ‘symphonie chorégraphique’.

    The ‘choreographed symphony’ is a love story telling of the romance between the goatherd Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé, and it features some of the most passionate and beautiful music Ravel ever wrote. The score, featuring rich impressionistic melodies and harmonies, is often performed in concert as a standalone symphonic suite.

    Ravel // Daphnis et Chloé Suite No 2 | Sir Simon Rattle

  8. Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

    Three years after The Firebird, Stravinsky was back making headlines – and by all accounts causing riots – with his revolutionary music for Diaghilev and Ballet Russes’ Rite of Spring.

    The ballet, controversial at the time, tells of a sacrificial pagan ritual in which a virgin dances herself to death and was described by one critic as “puerile barbarity”. The music is suitably savage and striking, and went down in history for its sheer audacity and invention.

    Le Sacre du printemps / The Rite of Spring - Ballets Russes

  9. William Grant Still: Sahdji

    American composer William Grant Still wrote his second ballet Sahdji in 1930. The ballet starts set in a hunting festival of the real life Central African Azande tribe, and tells of the wife of the tribe’s chieftain, Sahdji, and her affair with his nephew and successor, Mrabo.

    Grant Still’s rich orchestral score, which also features a chorus, borrows melodies, instrumentation, rhythms and textures from Central African music.

    Sahdji (Ballet for Orchestra & Chorus) (Remastered)

  10. Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

    Russian composer Prokofiev set the greatest love story ever told to music for St Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky Ballet) in 1935.

    The demanding ballet was first performed in 1940, and features the enduringly popular ‘Dance of the Knights’, also known as ‘Montagues and Capulets’ – famously used as the theme tune for TV’s The Apprentice.

    Romeo and Juliet – Dance of the Knights (The Royal Ballet)

  11. Alvin Ailey: Revelations

    The late American dancer, theatre director and choreographer Alvin Ailey collected and arranged African-American spirituals, song-sermons, and gospel songs – the culture of which Ailey described as “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful” – into a modern ballet work in 1960.

    Revelations has been performed around the world, and remains one of Ailey’s best-known works.

    Revelations - Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

  12. Kaija Saariaho: MAA

    Finnish composer Saariaho’s 1991 ballet MAA makes the list for how dreamlike and evocative it is.

    The modern ballet doesn’t have a plot as such, and instead sees music and dance used to interpret the everyday sounds of doors and gates, among other things, as the work takes us through journeys stepping across water and into new worlds.