Les Sylphides
Les Sylphides is a short, non-narrative ballet blanc
Ballet Blanc
A Ballet Blanc is a ballet in the romantic style deriving from the nineteenth century and often considered the pure classical form of ballet. The term refers to scenes in which the ballerina and the female corps de ballet all wear white. The costume is the traditional mid-calf length white ballet...

. Its original choreography
Choreography is the art of designing sequences of movements in which motion, form, or both are specified. Choreography may also refer to the design itself, which is sometimes expressed by means of dance notation. The word choreography literally means "dance-writing" from the Greek words "χορεία" ...

 was by Michel Fokine
Michel Fokine
Michel Fokine was a groundbreaking Russian choreographer and dancer.-Biography:...

, with music by Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric François Chopin was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist. He is considered one of the great masters of Romantic music and has been called "the poet of the piano"....

 orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov
Alexander Glazunov
Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov was a Russian composer of the late Russian Romantic period, music teacher and conductor...

. Glazunov had already set some of the music in 1892 as a purely orchestral suite, under the title Chopiniana, Op. 46. In that form it was introduced to the public in December 1893, conducted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer, and a member of the group of composers known as The Five.The Five, also known as The Mighty Handful or The Mighty Coterie, refers to a circle of composers who met in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in the years 1856–1870: Mily Balakirev , César...


The ballet, often described as a "romantic reverie", was indeed the first ballet ever to be simply that. Les Sylphides has no plot, but instead consists of many white-clad sylph
Sylph is a mythological creature in the Western tradition. The term originates in Paracelsus, who describes sylphs as invisible beings of the air, his elementals of air...

s dancing in the moonlight with the poet or young man dressed in white tights and a black top.

Performance history

Identifying the premiere of the fuller ballet poses a challenge. One might say that it premiered in 1907 at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg as Rêverie Romantique: Ballet sur la musique de Chopin. However, this also formed the basis of a ballet, Chopiniana, which took different forms, even in Fokine's hands. As Les Sylphides, what we consider the work was premiered by Sergei Diaghilev
Sergei Diaghilev
Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev , usually referred to outside of Russia as Serge, was a Russian art critic, patron, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, from which many famous dancers and choreographers would arise.-Early life and career:...

's Ballets Russes
Ballets Russes
The Ballets Russes was an itinerant ballet company from Russia which performed between 1909 and 1929 in many countries. Directed by Sergei Diaghilev, it is regarded as the greatest ballet company of the 20th century. Many of its dancers originated from the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg...

 on 2 June 1909 at Théâtre du Châtelet
Théâtre du Châtelet
The Théâtre du Châtelet is a theatre and opera house, located in the place du Châtelet in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, France.One of two theatres built on the site of a châtelet, a small castle or fortress, it was designed by Gabriel Davioud at the request of Baron Haussmann between 1860 and...

, Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

. The Diaghilev premiere is the most famous, as its soloists were Tamara Karsavina
Tamara Karsavina
Tamara Platonovna Karsavina was a famous Russian ballerina, renowned for her beauty, who was most noted as a Principal Artist of the Imperial Russian Ballet and later the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev...

, Vaslav Nijinsky
Vaslav Nijinsky
Vaslav Nijinsky was a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer of Polish descent, cited as the greatest male dancer of the 20th century. He grew to be celebrated for his virtuosity and for the depth and intensity of his characterizations...

 (as the poet, dreamer, or young man), Anna Pavlova, and Alexandra Baldina. The London premier, in the first season of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, was at the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The...

, Covent Garden
Covent Garden
Covent Garden is a district in London on the eastern fringes of the West End, between St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. It is associated with the former fruit and vegetable market in the central square, now a popular shopping and tourist site, and the Royal Opera House, which is also known as...

. With more sylph-like elusiveness, the North American premiere might be dated by an unauthorized version in the Winter Garden
Winter Garden
Winter Garden may refer to:* A winter garden, winter-hardy plants grown for winter interest and decoration, or to be harvested for food between winter and early spring.-Places:* Winter Garden, California, former community in Kern County...

, New York, on 14 June 1911 (featuring Baldina alone from the Diaghelev cast). However, its authorized premiere on that continent, by Diaghilev Ballets Russes, was at the Century Theater, New York City, 20 January 1916, with Lopokova (who also featured in the unauthorized production five years earlier). Nijinsky danced it with that company at the Metropolitan Opera, 14 April 1916, where it was paired with a similar work to a piano suite (by Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann, sometimes known as Robert Alexander Schumann, was a German composer, aesthete and influential music critic. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most representative composers of the Romantic era....

), Papillons
Papillons, Op. 2, is a suite of piano pieces written in 1831 by Robert Schumann. Meaning 'butterflies', Papillons is meant to represent a masked ball and was inspired by the novel Flegeljahre by Jean Paul....

, also choreographed by Fokine. Fokine also set the ballet for several other companies, and he and his wife, Vera Fokina, danced its leading roles themselves for some years.

Original production

Chopiniana, staged by Fokine, had a different musical composition. The Glazunov suite upon which this original version was based had only four Chopin pieces; Fokine wanted to use a Waltz as an addition to the Suite and was able to get Glazunov to orchestrate this to create his ballet, also called "Chopiniana".
  1. Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1
  2. Nocturne in F major, Op. 15, No. 1
  3. Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 3
  4. Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, as added by Michel Fokine
  5. Tarantella in A flat major, Op. 43.

The newly orchestrated Waltz would be Fokine's inspiration to re-choreograph the ballet into its nearly-final form, selecting different Chopin pieces to go with it and getting these orchestrated by the Maryinsky repetiteur Maurice Keller.

Ballets Russes production

When Fokine's ballet premiered in Paris as part of Diaghilev's "Saison Russe" in 1909, Diaghilev commissioned re-orchestrations of all the dances, except for the Glazunov-orchestrated Waltz, by Anatoly Lyadov, Sergei Taneyev
Sergei Taneyev
Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev , was a Russian composer, pianist, teacher of composition, music theorist and author.-Life:...

, Nikolai Tcherepnin
Nikolai Tcherepnin
Nikolai Nikolayevich Tcherepnin was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. He was born in Saint Petersburg and studied under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory...

 and Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky ; 6 April 1971) was a Russian, later naturalized French, and then naturalized American composer, pianist, and conductor....

. This version, now titled Les Sylphides, was first staged at the Théâtre du Châtelet
Théâtre du Châtelet
The Théâtre du Châtelet is a theatre and opera house, located in the place du Châtelet in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, France.One of two theatres built on the site of a châtelet, a small castle or fortress, it was designed by Gabriel Davioud at the request of Baron Haussmann between 1860 and...

 on 2 June 1909.

Standard version

The canonic version of the ballet Les Sylphides includes:
  1. Polonaise in A major ('Military'), Op. 40, No. 1 (some companies substitute the Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7 instead)
  2. Nocturne in A flat major
    Nocturnes Op. 32 (Chopin)
    The Nocturnes, Op. 32 are a set of two nocturnes written and published by Frédéric Chopin in 1837. The nocturnes are dedicated to Madame Camile de Billing and are the only two nocturnes in this opus....

    , Op. 32, No. 2
  3. Waltz in G flat major, Op. 70, No. 1
  4. Mazurka in D major, Op. 33, No. 2
  5. Mazurka in C major, Op. 67, No. 3
  6. Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7
  7. Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2
  8. Grande valse brillante in E flat major, Op. 18.

New York City Ballet production

The New York City Ballet
New York City Ballet
New York City Ballet is a ballet company founded in 1948 by choreographer George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Leon Barzin was the company's first music director. Balanchine and Jerome Robbins are considered the founding choreographers of the company...

 produced its own staging of the standard version, omitting the Polonaise in A major (and leaving the Prelude in A major in its original position), under the original title, Chopiniana. The NYCB premiere was staged by Alexandra Danilova
Alexandra Danilova
Aleksandra Dionisyevna Danilova was a Russian-born prima ballerina who became an American citizen....

 and took place 20 January 1972, at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is a complex of buildings in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of New York City's Upper West Side. Reynold Levy has been its president since 2002.-History and facilities:...

. The original cast included Karin von Aroldingen, Susan Hendl, Kay Mazzo, and Peter Martins
Peter Martins
Peter Martins is a Danish ballet dancer and choreographer. Martins was named man of the year by Danish American Society, 1980...


Other orchestrations

A number of musicians have orchestrated the Chopin pieces for major ballet companies, including Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten
Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM CH was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. He showed talent from an early age, and first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy Was Born in 1934. With the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes in 1945, he leapt to...

, Alexander Gretchaninov
Alexander Gretchaninov
Alexander Tikhonovich Gretchaninov was a Russian Romantic composer.-His life:Gretchaninov started his musical studies rather late because his father, a businessman, had expected the boy to take over the family firm...

 and Roy Douglas
Roy Douglas
Roy Douglas is a British composer and arranger. He worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Richard Addinsell.-Works as composer:*Oboe quartet [1932]...

. However, most orchestrations are similar in their approach.

See also

  • Classical music written in collaboration
    Classical music written in collaboration
    In classical music, it is relatively rare for a work to be written in collaboration by multiple composers. This contrasts with popular music, where it is common for more than one person to contribute to the music for a song...

  • For a list of other works in which a composer paid tribute to another composer by using their name in conjunction with the suffix -ana, see -ana.

External links

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