In 1868 the choreographer Marius Petipa planned his ballet "Don Quixote" for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and the Austrian composer Ludwig Minkus was invited to compose the music. The plot of "Don Quixote" was based on an adventures of Quiteria (known as Kitri in the ballet) and Basilio, which Petipa had developed from the second part of Miguel de Cervantes' novel (1605). The ballet was an enormous success, both in Moscow (14/26 December 1869) and in St Petersburg where it was represented at the Bolshoi Theatre on 9/21 November 1871 in an expanded version as "Don Quichotte" - with revised scenario and choreography that took cognizance of the more sophisticated expectations of the Imperial capital. Changes were made to the story, with a new fifth act in three scenes, for which Minkus wrote additional music. Don Quixote no longer regarded Kitri simply as his protegee, but now actually mistakes her for Dulcinea, and she appears as such in his Dream Scene. Provision was made for one ballerina to perform the double virtuoso role of Kitri and Dulcinea. The big classical scene for Don Quixote's dream was rewritten.
Greater emphasis was now placed on this scene, where Kitri/Dulcinea was surrounded by a large corps de ballet and seventy-two children dressed as cupids. Alexandra Vergina was partnered by Basilio (Lev Ivanov), and supported by Pavel Gerdt in the last scene. The cast also included Timofei Stukolkine (Don Quixote), Nicholas Goltz (Gamache), and Alexei Bogdanov (Lorenzo) "Don Quixote" became established in the repertory, and its continued life on the Russian stage bears testimony to the appeal of its exuberance, 'the life-asserting and life-loving nature of its dances' (Natalia Roslavleva). Generations of Russian ballet-masters and dancers preserved these dances in essence, and the ballet is still part of the Russian repertory, given today in all Russian and Siberian companies, in the Moscow version of Alexander Gorsky, in three acts and seven or eight scenes. Petipa's version of "Don Quixote", with its life-affirming music by Minkus, has during the 20th century, spread throughout the world, not least because of the work of Rudolf Nureyev who made a film version of the Australian Ballet production in 1971 that became very famous.
It co-starred Robert Helpmann and Lucette Aldous, and made world history in being the first ballet to be produced with full film technique, so providing wider scope for imaginative handling of the famous story. "Don Quixote" has become the standard ballet version of the Cervantes tale, and one of the most popular pieces of the international repertory. Much of its emotional fervour is captured in the celebrated virtuoso Grand Pas de Deux for the wedding of Kitri and Basilio from the last scene. This piece, with it spectrum of emotions enshrined in its rapturous melodies and irresistible rhythmic elan, has assumed a life of its own as a concert piece in countless renditions wherever ballet is performed. The piano score of the St Petersburg version was published as "Don Quichotte" (St Petersburg: Theodore Stellowsky, c. 1882). This version is reproduced here. There is an elusive and haunting quality to Minkus' music for the Grand Pas de Deux in "Don Quixote" that gives it an enduring and powerful attraction; it seems to retain an extraordinary freshness and an ability to move the listener and stir the emotions no matter how many times one hears it.
The characteristic mixture of intense sweetness and gentle melancholy that is so typical of Minkus infuses the piece with a joyousness counter-balanced by a powerful sense of poignancy and yearning that is, however, always restrained and dignified. Minkus' music never descends into melodrama or sentimentality. The pas de deux begins with the triumphant, celebratory flourish of the opening pas de quatre moving into the lovely swaying, slow waltz rhythm of the Intrada. This gives way to a plaintive and deeply moving melody that swells and falls, full of an inexpressible and inchoate longing. It seems to embody an aspiration and movement towards something pure and sweet, something longed for, perhaps attained momentarily, but ultimately beyond grasp. Having accepted and expressed the essential impermanence of human happiness, the music again picks up pace, in the boisterous and assertive male variation, and the delicate buoyant tracery of the female variation (Kitri's Fan), before ending in the exuberant climax of the coda, celebrating the joy of life and its ultimate value despite its transience and its tragedies.
The music generally for the heroine is interesting in this regard; Kitri's entry in act 1 conveys wonderfully the confidence of youth, but even at the heart of this joyous music there is a slight hesitancy, a catch, that expresses the vulnerability inherent in youth; the impermanence of beauty and its inevitable withering. Perhaps Minkus, master craftsman that he was, did not consciously intend his music to convey what each of us might find in it, but it transcends its limits in evoking, and seeming to give expression to, some of our deepest feelings about the joy and sadness that co-exist in human life. One feels that Minkus' soul, a glimpse of his personality, has found its way into the work (Elaine Thornton).