Ludwig Fyodorovich Minkus (also known as Léon Minkus) was one of the greatest ballet composers who co-created with Petipa some of the greatest and most famous of classical ballets.
He was born as Aloysius Bernhard Philipp Minkus on the 23rd March 1826 in Vienna, Austria. His father, Theodor Johann Minkus, was born in 1795 in Groß-Meseritsch, Moravia (known today as Velké Meziříčí near Brno, Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic) and his mother, Maria Franziska Heimann was born in 1807 in Pest, Hungary. Minkus was of Jewish descent – his parents converted to Catholicism not long before their relocation to Vienna and were married on the following day.
Minkus’s father was a wholesale merchant of wine in Moravia, Austria and Hungary. He opened a restaurant in the Innere Stadt district of Vienna that featured its own small orchestra. This may have influenced the young Minkus to become a part of the world of music. It is possible that he composed for his father’s Tanzkapelle, one of many such orchestras in the Imperial Austrian capital. At the age of four, he began to receive private lessons in the violin and from 1838 to 1842, he began his musical studies at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.
Minkus made his public début at a recital in Vienna at the age of 8. On the 18th October 1845, an announcement in the Viennese newspaper Der Humorist commented on the performances of the previous season and noted that “… (Minkus’s playing featured) a conservative style with a glittering performance.” Soon the young Minkus was appearing in various concert halls as a soloist of note, having been declared a child prodigy by the public and critics.
Minkus began composing for his instrument while he was still a student. Five pieces for the violin were published in 1846. At this time, Minkus began to try his hand at conducting. For a time, he was the regular conductor of an orchestra that competed with another under the baton of the young Johann Strauss II. In later years, Strauss was acquainted with Minkus’s brother Eugen, a bank director in Vienna.
Minkus’s life from 1842 to 1852 is poorly documented, though travel applications survive, which show requests to visit Germany, France and England. In 1852, Minkus accepted the position of principal violinist to the Vienna Court Opera, but because this meant that he also had to fulfill the usual duties this position demanded, he resigned that same year to take up an important musical assignment abroad that would change his life forever.
In 1853, Ludwig Minkus emigrated to Saint Petersburg to serve as conductor of the Serf orchestra of Prince Nikolai Yusupov, a post which Minkus occupied until 1855. That same year, Minkus married Maria Antoinette Schwarz at the Catholic Church of St. Catherine in Saint Petersburg. Mlle. Schwarz was also a native of Austria, born in Vienna in 1838.
From 1856 until 1861, Minkus served as principal violinist in the orchestra of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre and soon, he was given the dual position of conductor and principal violinist to the Imperial Italian Opera of the Bolshoi Theatre. In 1861, Minkus was appointed as Concertmaster to the Bolshoi Theatre and by 1864, he was promoted to the prestigious position of Inspector of the Imperial Theatre Orchestras in Moscow. At this time, Minkus was also working as professor of the violin at the newly established Moscow Conservatory.
It was for the private performances at the Yusupov palace that Minkus composed what appears to be his first score for ballet, the mythological L′Union de Thétis et Pélée (The Union of Thetis and Peleus), first performed in 1857. During his association with the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, Minkus composed another score for ballet, the one-act Deux jours en Venise (Two Days In Venice), produced in 1862.
In late 1862, Minkus was called upon to compose an additional entr’acte featuring a solo for violin that was inserted into Adolphe Adam’s score for Jean Coralli’s ballet Orfa. The ballet was staged for the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow by Arthur Saint-Léon, who at that time was one of the most celebrated Ballet Masters in Europe. Since 1860, Saint-Léon was engaged as Premier Maître de Ballet of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres, a position which also required him to stage the occasional work for the Moscow ballet troupe.
It was Saint-Léon who commissioned Minkus’s first score for a full-length Grand Ballet, the three-act La Flamme d′amour, ou La Salamandre (The Flame of Love, or The Salamander), which the Ballet Master produced especially for the renowned Russian Prima Ballerina Marfa Muravieva. The première on the 24th November [O.S. 12th November] 1863 was a great success for the ballet company of the Bolshoi Theatre. Saint-Léon subsequently mounted the work in Saint Petersburg for the Imperial Ballet in an elaborated staging for the benefit performance of Mme. Muravieva under the title Fiametta, ou L′amour du Diable (Fiametta, or The Love of the Devil). This version was first performed on the 25th February [O.S. 13th February] 1864 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. Minkus later accompanied Saint-Léon to mount this work in a new staging for Mme. Muravieva at the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra in Paris. For this staging, the ballet’s title was again changed as Néméa, ou L′Amour vengé (Néméa, or The Avenged Love).
At that time, ballets were performed at the Paris Opéra only as diversions during the intermissions of full-length operas and as such, Saint-Léon’s ballet was reduced to two acts. The first performance took place on the 11th July 1864 with an audience that included the Empress Eugénie. Featured along with Mme. Muravieva in the title role of Néméa was the celebrated Premier Danseur Louis Mérante in the role of Count Molder and the ballerina Eugénie Fiocre in the role of Cupid. Minkus’s score was praised by the Parisian critics and among them was Théophile Gautier, who found the music be filled with a ” .. haunting, dreamy quality. The music for the dances were filled with sparkling melodies and infectious rhythms.” Néméa, ou L′Amour vengé was retained for fifty-three performances in the Paris Opéra’s repertoire until 1871. Saint-Léon also mounted the work for the ballet of the Teatro Communale in Trieste, where it premièred on the 15th March 1868 as Nascita della Fiamma d′Amoure (Birth of the Flame of Love). The change of titles of this work has caused much confusion among historians, many of whom have claimed that each of these productions were completely different works altogether.
In 1866, Saint-Léon was invited to stage a new work for the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra. This new ballet was La Source, which was written by Minkus in collaboration with the French composer Léo Delibes. The division of labour was as follows: Minkus wrote the whole of Act 1 and the second tableau of Act 3, while Delibes wrote the whole of Act 2 and the first tableau of Act 3. Surviving documents and contemporary accounts do not offer an explanation as to why the score was shared between the two composers. La Source premièred on the 12th November 1866 and was retained until 1876 after seventy-three performances.
Saint-Léon continued to work with Minkus throughout the 1860s. On the 1st December [O.S. 20th November] 1866, Saint-Léon presented his one-act ballet Le Poisson d’or (The Golden Fish), which was staged at Peterhof Palace in honour of the wedding of the Tsarevich Alexander Alexandrovich to the Princess Dagmar of Denmark. Saint-Léon chose a Russian subject for this work, derived from Alexander Pushkin’s 1835 poem The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish. For the Imperial Ballet’s 1867/68 season, Saint-Léon expanded Le Poisson d’or into a three-act Grand ballet, first presented on the 20th November [O.S. 8th November] 1867 with the great Italian ballerina Guglielmina Salvioni in the principal role of Galia. Minkus’s score featured several traditional Russian folk melodies, as well as virtuoso passages for solo flute written especially for the renowned Italian flautist Cesare Ciardi.
The following season, Minkus and Saint-Léon produced the ballet Le Lys (The Lily), based on a Chinese legend Three Arrows. The ballet featured a score by Minkus that was derived from the composer’s work on La Source. The ballet premièred at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre on the 2nd November [O.S. 21st October] 1869 for the benefit performance of the ballerina Adèle Grantzow. In spite of his efforts, both Le Lys and the expanded Le Poisson d’or proved to be catastrophic failures for Saint-Léon. In light of this, the directorate of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres did not renew the Ballet Master’s contract and he soon relocated to Paris, where he died in 1870.
It was through his association with Saint-Léon and the Saint Petersburg Imperial Ballet that Minkus came to Petipa’s attention. From 1855, Petipa had been in a collaboration with Cesare Pugni, who had served as Ballet Composer of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres since 1850. By the mid-1860s, the composer was nearing the end of his life and prolific career. As the decade drew to a close, he became increasingly unreliable due to his severe alcoholism, often putting off composing to the last minute and supplying music of an increasingly poor and banal quality. Both Saint-Léon and Petipa were becoming extremely frustrated with him and so, began to turn to Minkus.
For the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre’s 1869/70 season, Petipa staged Don Quixote. Although plans were made to have a score supplied by Pugni, Petipa instead turned to Minkus, who supplied a score filled with a great variety of Spanish-styled flair. Don Quixote premièred to a resounding success on the 26th December [O.S. 14th December] 1869 and went on to become a much celebrated work in the classical ballet repertoire. After Petipa was named Premier Maître de Ballet of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres, he staged a new version of Don Quixote for the Imperial Ballet and for this production, Minkus completely reworked and expanded his score. This staging of Don Quixote premièred on the 21st November [O.S. 9th November] 1871 and instantly became a classic, earning Minkus great acclaim for his effective music.
With the death of Cesare Pugni in January 1870, the official post of ballet composer was left vacant. With the success of his score for Don Quixote, Minkus was now named Ballet Composer of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres, which marked the beginning of a long and productive collaboration between him and Petipa. They would go on to produce La Camargo in 1872, an expanded four-act production of Jacques Offenbach’s Le Papillon in 1874, Les Brigands (The Bandits) in 1875, Les Aventures de Pélée (The Adventures of Peleus) in 1876, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (based on Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music) in 1876 and finally, La Bayadère in 1877, which would prove to be Petipa and Minkus’s most enduring and well preserved work.
During this time, Minkus continued playing the violin in professional capacities. For example, he was the second violin in the ensemble that premièred Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 11, in Moscow on the 28th March 1871. Minkus’s scores featured violin cadenzas written especially for the great Leopold Auer, the Imperial Theatre’s most renowned violinist.
Minkus wrote the music for Petipa’s one-act ballet Nuit et Jour (Night and Day), a sumptuous pièce d’occasion staged especially for the celebrations held at the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in honour of the coronation of Emperor Alexander III in 1883. The Emperor, a fanatic balletomane, bestowed upon Minkus the Order of Saint Stanislaus for his score. During the ceremony, the newly crowned Emperor told Minkus ” … you have reached perfection as a ballet composer.”
Petipa’s Les Pilules magiques (The Magic Pills), which premièred on the 21st February [O.S. 9th February] 1886 was a grand work staged for the inauguration of the newly renovated Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, which was now the Imperial Ballet and Opera’s principal venue. Les Pilules magiques was in the tradition of vaudeville and aside from Petipa’s danced episodes, included comedy and singing. Minkus naturally supplied the music for Petipa’s danced passages in three fantastical tableaux that caused a sensation among the Saint Petersburg balletomanes and critics. The first took place in a subterranean cave inhabited by sorceresses, while the second included various card games brought to life through dance. The third and final tableau was known as The Kingdom of the Laces in which a Grand divertissement of national dances from Belgium, England, Spain and Russia was performed.
Minkus’s next score was for Petipa’s one-act ballet L’Offrandes à l’Amour (The Sacrifices to Cupid), staged especially for the benefit performance of the ballerina Eugenia Sokolova on the 3rd August [O.S. 22nd July] 1886. Minkus’s music was hailed as a masterwork of ballet music by contemporary critics, but this was to be his last known ballet score for Petipa.
By 1886, Minkus’s contract with the Imperial Theatres was set to expire. In light of this, the director of the Imperial Theatres Ivan Vsevolozhsky felt that the time had come for Minkus’s long held post of official ballet composer to be abolished in an effort to diversify the music supplied for the ballet. Minkus officially retired soon after and on the 21st November [O.S. 9th November] 1886, he was given a farewell benefit performance. That same year the Imperial Theatre’s Kapellmeister Alexei Papkov also retired. In light of the departure of both Minkus and Papkov, Ivan Vsevolozhsky abolished the ballet orchestra and employed Riccardo Drigo for the newly created position of Director of Music for the Imperial Ballet. Drigo would now serve in the dual capacity as chef d’orchestre for ballet performances and the conducting of Italian opera, as well as any musical tailoring or additional pieces needed by the Ballet Master.
It is unlikely that Minkus ever worked again for the Imperial Theatres in an official capacity. Differing accounts survive from contemporary sources concerning Minkus’s involvement in the final two productions in Russia to credit him as composer. These works were first presented between Minkus’s retirement in 1886 and his final departure from Russia in 1891. The first was a revival by Petipa of Saint-Léon’s Fiametta, which had an original score supplied by Minkus. Petipa had revived this work especially for the visiting Italian ballerina Elena Cornalba, the first performance being given on the 18th December [O.S. 6th December] 1887. It is highly unlikely that Minkus participated in this revival due to the fact that Riccardo Drigo supplied nearly all of the supplemental music for Mme. Cornalba’s appearances in already-existing ballets during her season with the Imperial Ballet. Petipa’s Kalkabrino – a work that has been historically credited to Minkus – premièred on the 25th February [O.S. 13th February] 1891 for the benefit performance of another visiting Italian, Carlotta Brianza, who in the previous year created the role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Although the score for Kalkabrino was credited exclusively to Minkus, it is not certain if the composer took part in its creation, which Russian historians have stated was a score set to a pastiche of airs taken from the many works that Minkus composed for the Imperial Ballet. It is likely that this score may have been composed some years before for a work which never premièred.
Minkus and his wife left Russia for good in the summer of 1891, relocating to their native Vienna. The composer lived in semi-retirement on a modest pension from the Tsar’s treasury. For a time, he lived in the Karl Ludwig Strasse on the third floor of a rented apartment belonging to his friend, the revered pianist and teacher Theodor Leschetizky. These years saw Minkus’s last known compositions: Das Maskenfest (The Masked Festival) was originally written by the composer as Tanz und Mythe (Dance and Myth) in 1897 for the ballet of the Kaiserliches und Königliches Hof-Operntheater (a.k.a. the Vienna Court Opera). The ballet was rejected outright by the Operntheater’s directorate Gustav Mahler, who felt that the work’s libretto was out of touch with contemporary tastes. Minkus then composed Die Dryaden (The Dryads) for the Viennese stage in 1899, a ballet in one act. The final work associated with Minkus’s name before his death was Rübezahl, staged in 1907 at the Court Opera to a pastiche of airs taken from his and Delibes’s La Source and the works of Johann Strauss II.
Minkus later relocated to an apartment in the Gentzgasse where he spent his final years alone and in utter poverty, his wife having died in 1895 and the events of World War I having cut off his pension from Russia.
Ludwig Minkus died of pneumonia on the 7th December 1917, aged 91. With no children of his own, Minkus was survived only by a niece, Clara von Minkus.
Ludwig Minkus was interred at the Döbling Cemetery in Vienna. In 1939, a most horrific incident occurred when Minkus’s grave fell victim to the national socialist policies of the time when all cemeteries were systematically “cleansed” by the invading Nazi regime. The graves of those who were considered ethnically “undesirable”, especially if one was of Jewish descent or without any documented subscriber to the annual cemetery fees, were exhumed and deposited into a mass anonymous grave.
Maestro Minkus’s compositions
- Deux jours en Venise (1862)
- La Flamme d′amour, ou La Salamandre (1863)
- Le Poisson d’or – Ballet fantastique in four acts (1867)
- Le Lys – Ballet in three acts (1869)
- Don Quixote – Grand Ballet in four acts (1869)
- La Camargo – Grand Ballet in three acts (1872)
- Les Brigands – Grand Ballet in two acts (1875)
- Les Aventures de Pélée – Ballet in three acts (1876)
- La Bayadère – Grand Ballet in four acts (1877)
- Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro – Ballet fantastique in four acts (1878)
- The Daughter of the Snows – Ballet fantastique in three acts (1879)
- Mlada – Ballet fantastique in four acts (1879)
- Zoraiya, the Moorish Girl in Spain – Grand Ballet in four acts (1881)
- Night and Day – Ballet fantastique in one act (1883)
- The Magic Pills -Ballet-féerie in three acts (1886)
- The Sacrifices to Cupid – Grand Ballet in one act (1886)
Revisions to own works for the Imperial Ballet
- Fiammetta, or L’amour de Diable (1864)
- Don Quixote (1871) – expanded staging in five acts
Revisions to existing scores for the Imperial Ballet
- Le Papillon (1874) – original score by Jacques Offenbach (1860)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1876) – original score by Felix Mendelssohn (1842)
- Frizak the Barber (1879) – music arranged from the airs of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Giuseppe Verdi, Vincenzo Bellini and Gioachino Rossini
- La Fille du Danube (1880) – original score by Adolphe Adam (1836)
- Pâquerette (1882) – original score by François Benoist (1851)
- Le Diable à quatre, ou La femme capricieuse (1885) – original score by Adolphe Adam (1845)
Works for other venues
- L′Union de Thétis et Pélée for the Private Theatre of the Yusupov Palace, St. Petersburg (1857)
- Néméa, ou L′Amour vengé – reduced staging in two acts of Fiammetta, ou L′amour du Diable at the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra, Paris (1864)
- La Source – composed jointly with Léo Delibes at the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra, Paris (1866)
- Le Poisson d’or – original staging in one act at the Olga Island Amphitheatre, Peterhof, St. Petersburg (1866)
Supplemental pieces for various ballets
- Orfa – original score by Adolphe Adam
- Entr’acte for solo violin
- Satanella – original score by Napoléon Henri Rober and François Benoist (1840)
- Pas de deux for Ekaterina Vazem (1875)
- The Pearl of Seville – original score by Santos Pinto
- Grand Pas Classique for Eugenia Sokolova (1877)
- Trilby – original score by Yuli Gerber (1870)
- Variation for Eugenia Sokolova (1879)
- Paquita – original score by Édouard Deldevez (1846)
- Arrangement of the Pas de trois (1881)
- Mazurka des enfants (1881)
- Grand Pas Classique (1881)
- Giselle – original score by Adolphe Adam (1841)
- Pas de deux for Maria Gorshenkova as Giselle
- La Fille mal Gardée – original score by Peter Ludwig Hertel (1864)
- Variation for Virginia Zucchi as Lise
- Petipa, Marius, The Diaries of Marius Petipa. Translated ed. and introduction by Lynn Garafola. Published in Studies in Dance History 3.1. (Spring 1992)
- Guest, Ivor (1953) The Ballet of the Second Empire. Middletown, Connectivut, US: Pitman & Wesleyan
- Guest, Ivor Forbes, ed. (1981) Letters from a Balletmaster – The Correspondence of Arthur Saint-Léon. Dance Books Ltd
- Warrack, John (1973) Tchaikovsky. New York, US: C. Scribner’s Sons
- Wiley, Roland John. Dances from Russia: An Introduction to the Sergeyev Collection. The Harvard Library Bulletin, 24.1, January 1976
- Wiley, Roland John (1985) Tchaikovsky’s Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press
- Wiley, Roland John (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd
- Anderson, Keith. CD Liner notes. Léon Minkus. Don Quixote. Nayden Todorov Cond. Sofia National Opera Orchestra. Naxos 8.557065/66.
- Guest, Ivor. CD Liner notes. Adolphe Adam. Giselle. Richard Bonynge Cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Decca 417 505–2.
- Guest, Ivor. CD Liner notes. Léon Minkus & Léo Delibes. La Source. Richard Bonynge Cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Decca 421 431–2.
- Stegemann, Michael. CD Liner notes, translated by Lionel Salter. Léon Minkus. Don Quijote. Boris Spassov, cond. Sofia National Opera Orchestra. Capriccio 10 540/41.
- Stegemann, Michael. CD Liner notes. Trans. Lionel Salter. Léon Minkus. Paquita & La Bayadère. Boris Spassov Cond. Sofia National Opera Orchestra. Capriccio 10 544.
- Royal Ballet: Souvenir program for La Bayadère. Royal Opera House, 1990
- Mariinsky Ballet: Souvenir program for La Bayadère. Mariinsky Theatre, 2001
Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.