March 23, 1826 - December 7, 1917
born in Vienna, Austria, composed during the Romantic period
Born Aloisius Ludwig Minkus to Czech parents in Vienna and spending most of his career as the most important ballet composer in Russia before Tchaikovsky, Léon Minkus returned to Vienna to die in obscurity. The same fate might have befallen his music; a few of his scores survive only because of the ballets they support. The very characteristics that made his music perfect for the dance theater of its time and place also render it too formulaic to hold much interest on its own, except for balletomanes who enjoy aural souvenirs of the late-nineteenth century stage.
His earliest years are poorly documented, but his first notable appearance in the musical annals came in 1846 when, at age 20, he made a small contribution to the Paris-premiered ballet Paquita. He was actually a violinist and in the early 1850s, he found his way to St. Petersburg, where he was engaged as concertmaster for Prince N.B. Yusupov's serf orchestra from 1853 to 1856. After a period of modestly successful work in Russia as a violin soloist and teacher, Minkus became concertmaster and conductor of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater Orchestra in 1862, where he remained until 1872. He simultaneously held posts as inspector of the Moscow Imperial Theater orchestras and violin professor at the Moscow Conservatory.
Minkus dabbled in composing all the while. In 1864, he produced the score for the short ballet Fiametta, first performed back in St. Petersburg with choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon. And thanks to his Paris ties, he was able to collaborate with Delibes on the 1866 ballet La Source. Delibes, on his own, would soon be writing subtle, melodically generous, rhythmically engaging, and colorfully orchestrated ballet music, but Minkus was more of a traditionalist. Like the lesser Italian opera composers of the previous few decades, Minkus relied on formulas and never risked overshadowing the performers on-stage with musical invention.
This is exemplified by his first great success as a ballet composer, Don Quixote, which premiered at the Bolshoi in 1869 with choreography by Marius Petipa. The rhythms are regular and strongly marked, the melodies bright but generic, the orchestration serviceable, with only very few numbers evoking much of a Spanish atmosphere. By the standards of its time, though, the music offered the dancers some clues to character and excellently showed off the dancers and choreography without calling attention to itself. The entire package is sufficiently attractive that Don Quixote has remained in the Russian repertory ever since.
Minkus' other lasting success was another Petipa collaboration, La Bayadère, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1877. By this time (since 1870 or 1872; sources disagree), Minkus had been appointed composer of ballet music for the imperial theaters in St. Petersburg. Eventually, Ivan Vsevolozsky, the director of the theaters, realized that such composers as Tchaikovsky and Glazunov were capable of writing more sophisticated, symphonic music for the stage and pensioned Minkus off in 1886. Minkus retired to Vienna in 1891 and kept a low profile thereafter, except for a brief success in 1896 - 1897 with the ballet Mlada, reusing material he'd contributed to an earlier unfinished collaboration with Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Cui. He died in 1917, already so forgotten a figure that his date of death wasn't ascertained for nearly 60 years. ~ James Reel, Rovi