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Because of the popularity of Tchaikovsky's Christmas-themed ballet The Nutcracker, people often think of ballet music during the holidays. However, the ballet is an important medium for composers year-round. In fact, some composers launched their careers with ballet music. From Christmas to fairy tales to cowboys, ballet music is a place where composers can really be creative with their work.
from Rodeo By: Aaron Copland
Performed by: Innviertler Symphonie Orchester
Not all famous ballet music is by Russian composers. Some of the most famous works by American composer Aaron Copland are from his ballets. The ballets that Copland wrote music for are about Cowboys, so the music sounds very American. Listen for loud and rowdy sounds that imitate cowboys and wide-open, slower sounds that are meant to sound like the wide-open spaces in the wild west. (Use worksheet 1 & worksheet 2)
from The Firebird, by: Igor Stravinsky
Performed by: Moscow City Symphony
Tchaikovsky isn’t the only Russian composer famous for his ballet music. Igor Stravinsky actually became famous as a composer after his success with this ballet: The Firebird. Like the Nutcracker, it also has a magical theme. It is centered on a firebird with magic feathers. The ballet’s main character, a prince named Kashchei, uses one of those magic feathers to free some princesses from the spell of an evil demon. Based on what you hear, what do you think is happening during this part of the story?
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use worksheets #1 and #2
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“Dance of the Knights”
from Romeo and Juliet, by: Sergei Prokofiev
Performed by: London Symphony Orchestra
“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”
from The Nutcracker By: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performed by: Berlin Philharmonic
No holiday music collection is complete without at least one piece from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. This ballet is especially popular at Christmas time because the story is centered around a little girl who gets a nutcracker as a Christmas gift. The ballet and its music then become a fantasy as the nutcracker comes to life and leads the girl on an adventure through a magical land. The Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy sounds especially magical because of the pizzicato (plucked) strings and the use of a special instrument called the celeste.
Another Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, also wrote some famous ballet music. You might recognize this piece from Romeo and Juliet. Notice the heavy string and brass sounds at the beginning. Do you think the knights are fighting in a battle during this music? Listen for a change in the middle of the piece, what do you think is happening to the knights now?