Ballet music evolved over the course of the 19th century from being incidental background music into an integral part of the performance. Pioneering composers in this process brought a wider variety of symphonic instrumentation into ballet music that allowed the music to tell a story alongside the performance of the dancers. Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is regarded to be one of the finest of these musical pioneers. His works include “Swan Lake," “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker."
Strings are commonly used in almost every ballet composition to create sweeping textures as well as moments of suspense where the strings are either plucked or the bow is moved across the strings sharply. The commonly used string instruments in ballet music are first and second violins, violas, violoncellos, double basses and cellos. Harps are also often implemented for elegant and sweeping movements in the ballet to accompany more delicate dances.
Woodwind instruments help produce a variety of sounds -- from a high pitched flutter to an extremely low stomp. The woodwind instruments typically used in ballet orchestras include flutes, a piccolo, oboes, an English horn, clarinets in A and B-flat, a bass clarinet in A and B-flat, and bassoons. Some ballets, such as Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, also utilize tenor saxophones, although the instrument is not usually considered to be a common ballet instrument.
Brass instruments are not particularly known for being subtle, which is why when they are used in a ballet it is usually during moments of great urgency or celebration. The diversity of instruments make the section as a whole able to create driving, marching stomps and dramatic flurries of emotion. Ballet music requires the use of between four and six horns, trumpets, cornets, tenor and bass trombones, and tubas.
The percussion section of the ballet orchestra is the largest and plays a big role in maintaining the rhythm of the music and dancers. Percussive instruments include timpani drums, snare drums, bass drums, cymbals, a triangle, tambourines, castanets, a tam-tam which is a type of gong, as well as a variety of melodic and percussive instruments. These include xylophones, glockenspiels, marimbas and woodblocks. Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” also uses some unusual percussion such as a child’s rattle and a rifle. There is some debate about whether the celesta should be considered a percussion instrument, but nonetheless it is the instrument most prominent in, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from “The Nutcracker."
- "The New Penguin Dictionary of Music"; ed. Paul Griffiths; 2006
- National Public Radio: The Celesta: The Sound of the Sugar Plum Fairy
Based in Oxford, Tom Sterne has been writing music reviews and features since 2003. His articles have appeared in "The Oxford Mail," “Oxfordshire Music Scene” magazine and the Music In Oxford website. Sterne holds a Master of Arts in online journalism from The University of Sheffield.