Five ballet tunes that went from classic to pop

As with all classical music, you’re probably familiar with a lot more pieces composed for ballet than you realise.

That’s because they’re everywhere in pop culture, from sporting events to films, video games to TV shows.

We’ve taken a look at six of the most famous ballets, and where you might have heard them before.

The Nutcracker (Pyotr Tchaikovsky)

When it featured in Disney’s animated classic Fantasia in 1940, The Nutcracker hadn’t actually been performed in full in the United States. It was only four years later, in 1944, that it was performed by the San Francisco Ballet. These days, it’s a Christmas classic across the world.

In the film Elf, a jazz version of The Nutcracker Suite plays as Buddy decorates the department store overnight in anticipation of Santa’s visit the next day. Other Christmas films to feature music from this ballet include Deck the Halls and The Knight Before Christmas.

Reflecting on this festive popularity, in The Simpson’s unique interpretation of The Nutcracker, Lisa says: "This time of year everybody does it because you don’t have to pay for the music rights."

If you ever went through a Barbie phase, you might also recognise the music from the 2001 film adaptation, Barbie in the Nutcracker.

On TV, excerpts of The Nutcracker are used frequently. From How I Met Your Mother to Spongebob Squarepants, Waterloo Road to Tom and Jerry.

It might surprise you to learn that music from The Nutcracker also makes an appearance in the video game Tetris. In the 1989 NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) version, the music is played in a lower key in the background. It also features in the figure skating section of the 2009 video game, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games.

Listen to Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker, composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky

The Firebird (Igor Stravinsky)

Based on a Russian folk tale, Stravinsky’s The Firebird tells the story of a magical glowing bird who saves the lives of a prince and princess.

This legendary bird is so famous in Russian folklore that it inspired the feather-like design of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics torch. During the Opening Ceremony, Stravinsky’s The Firebird was played as the torch was used to light the Olympic cauldron.

When Disney decided to create a sequel to Fantasia, entitled Fantasia 2000, they chose to use The Firebird for the final segment. The animation was inspired by the 1980 Mount St Helens eruption and the subsequent destruction and renewal of the earth.

You can also hear The Firebird in the animated film Rise of the Guardians, when Nicholas St North makes his first appearance.

Listen to The Firebird, performed by the Brussels Philharmonic, composed by Igor Stravinsky

Swan Lake (Pyotr Tchaikovsky)

Another ballet which draws inspiration from a bird is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. It’s a tragic tale of young woman, cursed to live as a swan by day and a woman by night, and her doomed love with a prince.

The film Billy Elliott tells the story of a young boy from a mining community in the North of England, who discovers he has a talent for ballet. Swan Lake is referenced throughout the film, and in the final scenes, we see a grown-up Billy take to the stage in a performance of the ballet, with the iconic music playing.

More recently, a section of music from Swan Lake called the Pas De Deux, was used in the opening scene of Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, as Lara imagines herself walking across a field towards her crush, Josh.

Swan Lake has also been parodied numerous times on film and television. In the film Funny Girl, the character Fanny Brice, played by Barbara Streisand, takes part in a spoof version of Swan Lake. When legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev appeared on The Muppet Show, he danced the ballet with someone dressed as a pig, in a performance entitled ‘Swine Lake’.

Listen to Scene from Swan Lake, composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Spartacus (Aram Khachaturian)

For older generations, the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia is widely recognised as the theme tune of the 1970s BBC TV show, The Onedin Line. It charted the rise of a fictional family-run shipping company and was set in Liverpool, during the Industrial Revolution.

In Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, when Scrat arrives at the pearly gates of heaven, with clouds strewn with acorns lying before him, this music also plays. Filled with joy at the sight, he even performs a few impressive ballet moves!

Listen to the Adagio Of Spartacus And Phrygia, composed by Aram Khachaturian

Romeo and Juliet (Pyotr Tchaikovsky)

The music of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet is practically synonymous with grand displays of romance.

As well as featuring in numerous animated and live-action TV shows, this particularly romantic composition was also used in the original version of The Sims computer game, released in 2000. Whenever a player instructed two Sims to engage in the ‘Kiss’ interaction, the overture to Romeo and Juliet would play in the background.

Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet inspired ballet is also well-known, thanks to its use as the theme tune to The Apprentice.

Listen to Romeo and Juliet, composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky