An introduction to Liszt’s music in Dance

by Massimiliano Greco

Liszt’s music in dance has a complex history. In the 900’s the great impresario Diaghilev and his famous Ballet Russes could count two works on music by Liszt – one was presented during a season at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in 1909 and was set to the 14th Hungarian Rhapsody; the other by Vaslav Nijinsky, star of the company, to the Mephisto’s Waltz no 1.

It should be remembered that the Ballet Russes represented a particularly important point of reference for a whole generation of great composers, such as Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin, Liadov, all of whom have written the history of music for ballet. Later on we find Liszt’s music being the choice of choreographers such as the English Peter Darrel – the founder of Scottish Ballet – with the ballet Tristan and Isolde; and Sir Kenneth Macmillian (renowned performer, choreographer and company director), who in 1978 choreographed the famous ballet in three acts Mayerling, inspired by the tragic events of Rudolph of Austria and Mary Vetsera.

Sarah Lamb as Baroness Mary Vetsera and Steven McRae as Crown Prince Rudolf (ROH 2018)

Franz Liszt’s music was chosen for various reasons. First, Macmillian and Lanchberry, the composer and conductor entrusted with some of the orchestral arrangements, believed the music perfectly depicted the romantic sides of the story. Secondly, there were geographical and historical reasons: Liszt was Hungarian and the story was set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; also, he had played in front of the Royal Family (there is a painting of Liszt in concert in front of Franz Joseph, Elizabeth of Austria and their son, the Crown Prince Rudolph).The compositions chosen by Lanchberry were, among the others: the third movement of the Faust Symphony, Mephisto, to describe Rudolph’s obsession with firearms and death; the Mephisto Waltz, to illustrate the life of Rudolph when, after five years of marriage, he used to frequenting the roughest taverns in Vienna; and Vallée d’Obermann for the crucial scene between mother and son, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria and Rudolph. Liszt composed the piece for the marriage between Franz Joseph and Princess Elizabeth of Bavaria.

Mayara Magri as Mitzi, and Marcelino Sambé, Reece Clarke, Tomas Mock and Calvin Richardson as Four Hungarian Officers, and Steven McRae as Crown Prince Rudolf.

However, to appreciate the number of choreographies created on Liszt’s music, one has to look at Sir Frederick Ashton, the great English dancer and choreographer, who was born in Ecuador in 1904 and died in London in 1988. A brilliant and refined artist with a vast experience, from 1935 and 1970 he was the artistic director of the Royal Ballet (he was then replaced by Macmillian) and it is believed that it was for his work that British ballet achieved an international reputation.

His most famous work on music by Liszt, it’s Marguerite et Armand a one act ballet with Prologue and four scenes, after The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The orchestration was entrusted to Humphrey Searle and the chosen works were: La lugubre gondola, No 1, 1883; and Sonata in B minor, 1854. It premiered by the Royal Ballet, at the Royal Opera House, London, on 12 March 1963 with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the title roles.

Sergei Polunin and Tamara Rojo perform Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand
with The Royal Ballet, 2013.

His other most famous ballet set to Liszt’s music are:


Prologue: Consolation No 3 in D flat major

Valse oubliée No 1

Nocturne: Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort

Interlude: Ungarisch, from Weihnachtsbaum, No 11

Jadis, from Weihnachtsbaum, No 10

Tableau I: Polnisch, from Weihnachtsbaum, No 9

Galop in A minor

Elegy No 2

Tableau II: Evening Bells, from Weihnachtsbaum, No 9

Scherzoso, from Weihnachtsbaum, No 5

Carillon, from Weihnachtsbaum, No 6

Unstern (Sinistre, Disastro)

Tableau III: Mephisto Valse, No 3

Epilogue : R W–Venezia

Consolation No 1, reprise

Premiered on 11 February 1936 by Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, with Helpmann, Fonteyn, and Turner. It was inspired by Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and its five scenes portray the quest of a romantic poet who, drugged with opium, searches for the perfect poetic expression of his love.

Dante Sonata (Apres une lecture de Dante) premiered by Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, on 23 January 1940, with M Fonteyn 

Mephisto Waltz 

Hamlet Prelude (Symphonic Poem No 10, Hamlet, 1859)

We would like to thank Ms Georgina Reid for contributing to the translation from Italian to English.