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Ludwig (Léon) Minkus, composer


(Compiled March, 1998)

A selection of his balletic works

In researching the life of Minkus many uncertainties are revealed - the place of his birth, the number of ballets he composed and the place and date of his death are all open to debate. I am giving the most commonly believed facts along with some alternative thoughts.

Aloisius Ludwig Minkus was born in Vienna, March 23, 1826 (or he may have been born in Grossmeseritsch near Brno). It is believed he was of Polish or Czech origin. Minkus studied at the Vienna Conservatory and began serious composition in his teens, composing five pieces for violin that were published in 1846 or 47. He also began to compose light music for dancing, performed as a solo violinist and briefly conducted an orchestra that competed with that of the younger Johann Strauss. In 1846, 19 year old Minkus arrived in Paris from Vienna. There is some debate as to whether Minkus contributed to the score of the ballet Paquita that premiered in Paris in 1846 by the experienced ballet composer, Edouard Deldevez. However, Minkus is credited for the 1847 production of the ballet in St. Petersburg and he did contribute a new pas de trois and grand pas when Petipa revived the ballet in 1881. The first public performance of ballet music by Minkus, was probably an en'tracte inserted into a Moscow performance of Adam's Orfa.

It was in Russia that Minkus took the first names of Léon Fedorovich. By 1853 Minkus became an orchestral conductor/violin soloist of the private serf orchestra of Prince Nikolai Yusupov. Two years later he joined the orchestra of the Italian Opera Theater in St. Petersburg. He also taught the violin. 1861 saw the beginning of an association with the Bolshoi Theater, first as violin soloist and a year later as conductor with the title of "Inspector of the Orchestras" and in 1864 he was named ballet composer at the Bolshoi.

In 1863 he composed the music for Saint-Léon’s Fiametta, and a shortened version of his Salamander was given in Paris as Némea in 1864. Minkus maintained his ties with Paris where in 1866, 20 years after his debut there, he himself was the older, more experienced musician who wrote the larger part of a ballet, La Source; one act only was entrusted to the younger Delibes.

On returning to Russia Minkus began writing ballet music for Petipa’s creations. In 1868 Petipa planned his Don Quixote for the Bolshoi Theater, with music composed by Minkus. It had an enormous success when first performed in 1869. This won for Minkus the post of Official Composer to the Imperial Russian Ballet, a position held previously by Italian Ceasare Pugni who composed music for more than 300 ballets. Minkus held the position until it was discontinued in 1886. These were fertile years for Minkus, and his many compositions included La Bayadère in 1877.

Minkus was also responsible for composing additional music for ballet standards such as Giselle. At the request of Petipa he composed additional variations for Giselle in both acts one and two.

Dissatisfied with his pension from the Russian government, Minkus retired to his native Vienna where he resided until his death from pneumonia, December 7, 1917. This date is recorded in the official municipal records of Vienna although he is also reputed to have died in Moscow and Berlin any time between 1890 and 1917.

Minkus was unfortunate from a musical point of view to be a contemporary of Tchaikovsky. It must be noted, however, the he was a specialist ballet composer and should not be compared to the likes of Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky who come from a different genre. His ballet music may be summarized as full of melody and rythmic verve, much of which is charming and of immediate appeal. Although his orchestrations were not elaborate, and as John Lanchbery observed, "..it can occasionally lapse into trite note-spinning," Minkus had the ability to give an emotional feel or mood to a piece without dominating it, allowing the dancers to be seen to full advantage. He possessed the gift of making even the clumsiest listener want to get up and dance. A waltz time aficionado, he had gypsies, rajahs, Spanish bullfighters, Indian temple maidens, alive and dead, all dance to a waltz rhythm.

Selected list of music Minkus wrote for ballet.

Fiametta, Love’s Flame or The Salamander 1863
La Source, 1866 (with Delibes)
The Goldfish, 1867
Don Quixote, 1869
La Camargo, 1872
Le Papillon, 1874
Les Brigands (The Bandits) 1875
The Adventures of Peleus and Thetis, 1876
La Bayadère, 1877
Roxana or The Beauty from Montenegro, 1878
The Daughter of the Snows, 1879
Paquita, 1881 (additional music)
Night and Day, 1883
The Offerings to Love 1886
The Magic Pill, 1886
Kalkabrino, 1891

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