Riccardo Drigo

Riccardo Eugenio Drigo was one of ballet’s greatest composers and is most famous for his role as the Director of Music at the Imperial Theatres.

Maestro Riccardo Drigo
Maestro Riccardo Drigo

Early life
Drigo was born on the 30th June 1846 in Padua, Italy – his father Silvio Drigo was a barriaster and his mother, a noble Lupati, was active in politics. The young Drigo began taking piano lessons when he was 5 years old from a family friend, the Hungarian Antonio Jorich. He excelled quickly and by the time he was a teenager, he had gained some local stardom as a pianist.

After finally gaining his father’s approval, Drigo attended the prestigious Venice Conservatory, where he studied under Antonio Buzzolla, a student of the great Gaetano Donizetti. The young Drigo was already showing his abilities as a composer, as he composed his first compositions when he was still in his early teens. These compositions were primarily romances and waltzes and in 1862, he was given permission to perform some of his pieces with the local amateur orchestra in Padua. It was from this performance that Drigo’s interest in conducting first began to emerge and his first major opportunity as a conductor occurred in 1868 at the Garibaldi Theatre. On the eve of the first performance of Costantino Dall’Argine’s 1867 comic opera I Due Orsi, the theatre’s kapellmeister fell ill and when the concertmaster refused to step in, he recommended that Drigo be the one to conduct the performance. Drigo’s conducting was successful and soon afterwards, he was named second kapellmeister.

Life in Russia
In 1878, the Director of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres, Baron Karl Karlovich Kister visited Padua and attended a performance of Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amoure that Drigo conducted. Kister was so impressed with Drigo’s conducting that he offered him a six-month contract to conduct the Saint Petersburg Imperial Italian Opera. Drigo accepted the offer and almost immediately after his arrival in Saint Petersburg, he was conducting the entire repertoire of the Imperial Italian Opera. He particularly impressed the management with his conducting of operas such as Verdi’s Aida and Un ballo in maschera from memory. It was evident that Drigo had found a more permanent residence in Saint Petersburg and sure enough, his time living and working there would go on to last much longer than six months. However, in 1884, things almost seemed to take a turn for the worst when Emperor Alexander III disbanded the Imperial Italian Opera in an effort to solidify the art of Russian operetta. This left Drigo without a position, but his luck would later change. In 1886, the Imperial Ballet’s principal conductor, Alexei Papkov retired after thirty-four years of service and Drigo was elected to be his successor.

Riccardo Drigo and the Imperial Theatre Orchestra (ca. 1905)
Riccardo Drigo and the Imperial Theatre Orchestra: Maestro Drigo is in the centre on the right, dressed in white (ca. 1905)

Conductor of the Imperial Theatres
Riccardo Drigo made his début as a ballet conductor on the 7th October [O.S. 25th September] 1886 when he conducted a performance of The Pharaoh’s Daughter at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. Among those who attended the performance was Emperor Alexander and his wife, Empress Marie Feodorovna. The Emperor was so impressed with Drigo’s conducting that during the final curtain call, he gave the conductor a standing ovation and ordered the rest of the theatre to follow suit. Later that same year, the Imperial Theatre’s official composer of ballet music, Ludwig Minkus retired from his post. In light of this, Ivan Vsevolozhsky abolished the position of staff ballet composer and employed Drigo in the dual capacity of principal conductor and Director of Music. Drigo’s new position would require him to fulfil all the duties of the staff composer with regard to adapting and correcting scores for the Ballet Master.

Caricature of Riccardo Drigo
Caricature of Riccardo Drigo by Nikolai and Sergei Legat

Drigo’s first opportunity to fulfil these duties came when Petipa revived La Esmeralda for Virginia Zucchi. He was given the task of refurbishing Cesare Pugni’s old score, but the highlight of the score’s refurbishment was Drigo’s commission to compose what became the celebrated La Esmeralda Pas de six for Mme. Zucchi. This new composition also included a virtuoso solo for violin that was composed for Leopold Auer, the principal violinist of the Imperial Theatre Orchestra. Following the success of Petipa’s revival of La Esmeralda, Drigo went onto enjoy a very successful career in Saint Petersburg that saw him making many musical contributions to the Imperial Ballet repertoire of new ballets and supplementary compositions. By the time Drigo left Russia in 1919, nearly every ballet of the Imperial Ballet repertoire contained some of his additional compositions.

Frontispiece for the piano reduction of The Enchanted Forest
Frontispiece for the piano reduction of Drigo’s score for The Enchanted Forest, as issued by the music publisher Zimmermann (1909)

Last years in Russia
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Drigo was on holiday in his native Italy and the war prevented him from returning to Russia for two years. When he was eventually able to return to Petrograd, he was evicted from his home at the Grand Hotel, which was converted into offices for the newly established Soviet government and for a time, Drigo was forced to live in considerable poverty in a camp with a group of his fellow Italian émigrés. In his memoirs, Drigo recalls the many cold evenings he spent with his close friend Alexander Glazunov waiting for hours in bread lines and subsequently carrying their rations through the snow on a sled. Drigo was finally reinstated at the former Imperial Mariinsky Theatre and at his first engagement as conductor, he received a fifteen-minute standing ovation.

Frontispiece for the published piano reduction of The Awakening of Flora
Frontispiece for the published piano reduction of Drigo’s score for The Awakening of Flora (1914)

Riccardo Drigo left Russia for good in 1919 when he was repatriated to his native Italy. For his farewell benefit gala, Fyodor Lopukhov, the ballet master of the former Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, mounted a new version of what was meant to be Drigo and Petipa’s final collaboration – The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly, under the title The Tale of the Rosebud. Sadly, as he could only bring 60 kilograms with him, Drigo was forced to leave all his possessions in Russia, except for a collection of manuscripts that he used as a pillow for his two-month journey to his native land via Odessa and Constantinople.

Frontispiece of the piano reduction for Les millions d'Arlequin piano score (1900)
Frontispiece of the piano reduction of Drigo’s score for Harlequinade (aka Les millions d’Arlequin) as issued by the publisher Zimmermann (1900)

Return to Italy and final years
Drigo returned to Padua, his birthplace, where he accepted the post of kapellmeister at the Teatro Garibaldi, the very place where he had started his career many years before. In 1926, he composed the comic opera Fluffy Raffles for the Opera company of Padua’s Teatro Verdi and his final work, the opera Il garofano bianco, was given at the Teatro Garibaldi in 1929. He spent the remainder of his life conducting and composing masses and various songs.

Riccardo Drigo died on the 1st October 1930, aged 84 in Padua, where there is now a street that is named Via Riccardo Drigo in his honour.

Maestro Riccardo Eugenio Drigo (1903)
Maestro Riccardo Eugenio Drigo (1903)


Maestro Drigo’s compositions


  • Don Pedro di Portogallo (1868)
  • La Moglie Rapita (1884)
  • Flaffy Raffles (1926)
  • Il Garafano Bianco (1929)


  • The Enchanted Forest – Ballet fantastique in one act (1887)
  • The Talisman – Ballet fantastique in four acts  (1889)
  • The Magic Flute – Ballet comique in one act (1893)
  • The Awakening of Flora – Ballet anacréontique in one act (1894)
  • The Pearl – Ballet divertissement in one act (1896)
  • Les Dryads prétendues – Ballet in one act (1899)
  • Harlequinade – Ballet in two acts (1900)
  • La Côte d’Azur – Ballet comique in two acts (1902)
  • The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly – Ballet fantastique in one act (1904) – never premièred
  • Le Porte-bonheur – new version of The Talisman for the Teatro alla Scala (1908)
  • Le Conte du Bouton de rose – revival of The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly for the Mariinsky Theatre (1919)

Revisions to existing scores

  • La Esmeralda (1886) – original score by Cesare Pugni (1844)
  • Catarina, ou La Fille du bandit (1888) – original score by Cesare Pugni (1846)
  • Le Roi Candaule (1891) – original score by Cesare Pugni (1868)
  • La Sylphide (1892) – original score by Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer (1832)
  • Swan Lake (1895) – original score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1877)
  • The Caprices of the Butterfly (1895) – original score by Nikoli Krotkov (1889)
  • Les Élèves de Dupré (1897) – original score by Albert Vizentini (1886)



  • Petipa, Marius, Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa. Translated ed. by Helen Whittaker, introduction and edited by Lillian Moore. London, UK: Dance Books Ltd (1958)
  • Petipa, Marius, The Diaries of Marius Petipa. Translated ed. and introduction by Lynn Garafola. Published in Studies in Dance History 3.1. (Spring 1992)
  • Leshkov, Denis Ivanovich. The Personal Reminiscenes of R. E. Drigo. Muzykal’naya Zhizn (Musical Life). No. 23, 1973
  • Scherer, Barrymore Laurence. Riccardo Drigo: Toast of the Czars. Published in Ballet News – January 1982, pp. 26–28
  • Schueneman, Bruce R. Minor Ballet Composers: Biographical Sketches of Sixty-six Underappreciated Yet Significant Contributors to the Body of Western ballet Music.
  • Travaglia, Silvio (1929) Riccardo Drigo, l’uomo e l’artistaGuglielmo Zanibon
  • Wiley, Roland John. Memoirs of R. E. Drigo, Part I. Published in The Dancing Times – May 1982, pp. 577–578
  • Wiley, Roland John. Memoirs of R. E. Drigo, Part II. Published in The Dancing Times – June 1982, pp. 661–662
  • Wiley, Roland John (1985) Tchaikovsky’s Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press
  • Wiley, Roland John (1997) The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press

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.