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Colour and contrast in Ludwig Minkus's score for Don Quixote

A close look at the sun-drenched keys and darker hues of a classic piece of ballet music.

By Gavin Plumley (Classical music blogger)

30 September 2013 at 12.40pm | Comment on this article

In his article for The Royal Ballet's programme book on Don Quixote, writer and musicologist Gavin Plumley examines the sunny wit in Minkus's quintessential ballet score.

Ludwig Minkus is the polyglot of ballet music. Born in Vienna to a Czech father and a Hungarian mother, he studied in the Austrian capital before moving to Russia. There, and in Paris, his exotic ballet scores, including the Hispanic Don Quixote and the oriental La Bayadère, gained him international recognition.

In creating the musical text for this latest version of Don Quixote by Carlos Acosta, conductor Martin Yates has gone back to Minkus's original Russian piano score. Yates and Acosta have constructed their new three-act structure for this production, highlighting the colourful and contrasting nature of Minkus’s score.

Act I centres on the romantic interest, Kitri and Basilio. For these scenes and the third act, Minkus wrote dazzlingly sunny music in bright G major. Kitri and Basilio are given peppy, swaggering entrances to contrast with the clipped, pompous chromatic music of Gamache, Kitri's unwanted fiancé. Kitri’s kowtowing father Lorenzo unsurprisingly echoes Gamache’s ‘aristocratic’ bearing. No less amusing, but instantly more endearing, is Don Quixote’s hapless, slapstick sidekick Sancho Panza, while the eponymous, chivalric Quixote has poco maestoso ('somewhat majestic') music. The high energy of triple-time dances dominates, coloured by an appropriately Spanish tinge of seguidilla and habanera rhythms and the continual clack of castanets. Equally indigenous are the dotted rhythms of the Toreadors’ entrance (though without their tambourines and castanets, these dances could easily be mistaken for the waltzes and marches of Minkus’s Viennese youth).

The second act is in much darker hues. F major and F minor predominate, while more rhapsodic structures, with harp, woodwind solos and other wistful touches of orchestration, supplant the first act’s quick-fire dance sequences. Minkus also provides a good dose of local colour with stamping gypsies and, in Martin Yates’s version, a decidedly Hispanic dream sequence. Collectively, this act – particularly with its hallucinatory second scene – looks forward to the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère and the lake scenes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. It is from such ambiguous and occasionally violent tones that Minkus rescues us, returning via G minor to the sun-drenched key of Act I.

Having re-established the primacy of G major at the start of Act III, Minkus provides a veritable riot of nuptial colour, made even brighter by the comparative darkness of the second act. As Kitri and Basilio prepare, somewhat pre-emptively, for married life, Minkus’s waltzes rub shoulders with yet more seguidillas and habaneras, whose melodies are decorated with the curlicued turns, trills and mordents of flamenco tradition. And there is jeopardy here too, with the strutting, chromatic reappearance of Gamache. As Basilio pretends to stab himself, Minkus sends up Gamache’s pompous idiom, throwing it all away with a rapid fandango and the catchy Viennese Luftpausen (a breath, literally 'air break', for the orchestra) of his Grand pas de deux. Witnessing the happiness of Kitri and Basilio, Don Quixote gives up his hazy claims and realizes that he has, rather unexpectedly, completed his quest to right the wrongs of this world. As he ventures off anew, in search of Dulcinea, the ballet closes with his poco maestoso music in raucous C major.

This extract is taken from Gavin Plumley’s article ‘An Innate Flair for Dance Music'. The full article can be found in the Don Quixote programme book, available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.

Don Quixote runs 25 November 2014–22 January 2015. Tickets are still available.

The production is generously supported by the Friends of Covent Garden.

By Gavin Plumley (Classical music blogger)

30 September 2013 at 12.40pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Carlos Acosta, Don Quixote, Ludwig Minkus, Music, Production, score

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