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Every time I write about or talk to someone about the changeover from violin to piano in ballet rehearsals, I have to say “There’s an article somewhere which says which the first ballet was to be rehearsed to piano, but I can’t remember where I read it.”

Well, I think I’ve found it, after nearly 20 years. It’s in a 1963 article by John [Jack] Lanchbery for the Dancing Times, called “The Musical Needs of Ballet.” (My memory turns out to be unreliable—all this time, I have been convinced that I’d read it in a book, not an article, to the extent that I believed I could remember what the book looked like, and where the text was on the page). Here’s the passage in question:

A piano in capable hands can give an adequate rendering of almost any orchestral score, and it is odd to think that less than 80 years ago ballets were still rehearsed to a violin (or sometimes two), a leftover no doubt from the earliest days of ballet when the choregrapher1 or dancing-master played the violin and was often the composer of the music. Were there such things as royalties in those days, I wonder? It was actually Messager’s The Two Pigeons, as late as 1886, which was the first ballet to be rehearsed to a piano, a fact which indicated the change which was coming over ballet music.

Whether Lanchbery is completely right about this, I don’t know—I’m not offering this as the final word on the matter, just delighted to have rediscovered the source. Once I knew the answer, I could type in the keywords into Google, and find the same story with slightly more detail, though with no attribution:

The creation of Les Deux Pigeons also heralded a major change in the technical habits of the Opera Ballet. Until 1885, and despite the relative melodic complexity of the works, choreographies were rehearsed to a violin often supported by a viola. At André Messager’s request, these were replaced by the piano in the Palais Garnier’s dance studios. And that has been the case for 135 years…

Pianos in opera vs. ballet rehearsals

Piano reductions an hugely important role in the history of opera in the 19th century, according to James Parakilas in Piano Roles . As I read about this, and the further information on “rehearsal” in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, mentioned in a footnote, it occurred to me that ballet companies hanging on to the two-violin score right into the late 19th century is a strange anachronism. Parakilas himself says:

By contrast [to opera], ballet rehearsing stuck to a pre-piano tradition. Well into the nineteenth century, ballet rehearsals were accompanied by the violin at the Paris Opera, which set the pace in production methods as well as repertory for ballet companies across Europe. The white-haired violinist who appears in many of Degas’s paintings of ballet rehearsals was a real fixture there.

It’s frustrating that there is no comparable history of the ballet rehearsal such as you can find for opera in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, though ballet rehearsal is mentioned in passing there.

Mind the gap

As with many of my recent posts, I’m as interested by the gaps and problems with online research methods as in the answer to the question. I only found this article again because I was doing a massive clear-out of printed-out articles and photocopies. Nearly 20 years ago, I paid a student (thank you Zoë, wherever you are now) to spend a day photocopying articles from a bibliography of articles that I’d found in the New York Public Library dance catalogue. When I searched just now to see if there was a digitized copy available online, before I went to the trouble of scanning and OCR-ing my photocopy, the only two hits returned were from my own site, and many of those articles are only available in hard copy, in a library. You’ll find a reference to the Lanchbery in the NYPL catalogue, but you won’t find it unless you know it’s there, and you can’t see or search the full text of it.

References

Lanchbery, J. (1963). The Musical needs of ballet. The Dancing Times, February, 266–270.
Parakilas, J., & Bomberger, E. D. (2002). Piano roles: a new history of the piano. Yale University Press.
Viallefond, S. (2019). Wings and Poetry. The Two Pigeons: La Fontaine at the Paris Opera’s Ballet School. Opéra National de Paris. https://www.operadeparis.fr/en/magazine/wings-and-poetry

  1. That’s the spelling in the article, and as an aside, I’m curious to know whether Lanchbery used this old spelling/term [choregraphy] himself, or if a pedantic older editor wanted to hang on to it. Or is it just a typo? Ronald Hynd had used the term choreography in an article in 1961, and Lanchbery of all people would have been aware of what terminology was current in the ballet world []

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist