Aloysius Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917), famous for his ballets Don Quixote (1869) and La Bayadere (1877), was born in Bohemia, and grew up in the dance capital Vienna. He hoped to establish a reputation as a violinist and composer, and by 1853 had emigrated to St Petersburg where he became the conductor and solo violinist of the private orchestra of Prince Nikolai Yusupov. In 1861 he was appointed violin soloist and, a year later, conductor of the Moscow Bolshoi Orchestra. He began a happy collaboration with the great French choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon (1821-1870), who was a real friend and inspiration to Minkus, and more than anyone else, helped to launch his career as a theatrical composer, producing five works in association with him in St Petersburg and Paris. Minkus's first ballet, the three-act Plamya lyubvi, ili Salamandra (The Flame of Love, or the Salamander, also called Fiammetta), was given its premiere on 13 February 1864 at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater in St Petersburg (with Marfa Muravyeva in the leading role). The scenario and the choreography were by Saint-Leon, the most important dance master of the day in both Paris and Russia.
Saint-Leon's influence secured this work production in the French capital, and it was perhaps for this occasion that Minkus accompanied Saint-Leon to Paris to mount the work at the Academie Royale de Musique. Reduced to two acts, and re-christened Nemea, ou l'Amour venge (with a scenario adapted by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halevy), the ballet was performed at the Paris Opera on 11 July 1864, with considerable success (again with Marfa Muravyeva, and with Eugenie Fiocre as Cupid). It remained in the repertoire for seven years, attaining 53 performances by 1871. Theophile Gautier remarked on the atmospheric quality of Minkus's music, its "haunting, dreamy quality." Roqueplan singled out Saint-Leon's choreography for its "imagination and originality, his ability to handle masses." Some of the Airs de Ballet were almost immediately published by Henri Hegel (1865), and are reproduced here. By now Minkus was becoming known internationally.
So when five years later the Paris Opera ordered a new grand ballet from Saint-Leon to a libretto by Charles Nuitter, Saint-Leon involved Minkus in the project, securing for him a hand in the composition of the first and fourth scenes of this new work, La Source. The other two scenes were entrusted to the young Leo Delibes, thirty at the time, who had drawn favourable attention to himself in the preparation of the ballet music for the premiere of Meyerbeer's posthumous L'Africaine in 1865. The first performance of La Source on 12 November 1866 was great success for Delibes, whose bold and colourful composition was praised at the expense of Minkus's subtler contribution. Saint-Leon immediately began planning another work with Nuitter and Delibes, and one which would crown the young French's composer's success with triumph, Coppelia. Saint-Leon nevertheless continued to work with Minkus, despite his busy engagements in Paris. The choreographer's greatest ballet for Russia was his work with Cesare Pugni, Koniok-Gorbunok (The Little Humpbacked Horse) (1864), based on a Russian fairytale.
He now tapped into the same folk material in a new work with Minkus, Zolotaya rybka (The Golden Fish), based on Alexander Pushkin's Legend of the fisher and the little fish. On 20 November 1866, for the celebration of the Tsarevitch's wedding, Saint-Leon oversaw the production of a one-act version of this new ballet, Le Poisson dore, at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater in St Petersburg. The work was then developed as a three-act ballet for the same theater a year later (8 October 1867). Minkus's music was very well received. As with La Source, it was carefully adapted in form and mood to the scenario, remarkable for its panache and beautiful writing for solo instruments (violin, flute, cello, cornet), and for reflecting the nature of the fairytale scenario in the appropriation of national folk styles (Polish, Kazak, Cossack). The score was considered worthy of full publication in piano reduction by the St Petersburg house of Stellowsky (c. 1870), and is reproduced here. The last collaboration between Minkus and Saint-Leon followed two years after that, a partial arrangement of La Source, given in St Petersburg as Liliya (Le Lys) in 1869.