Minkus is noted for the music he composed while serving as the official Composer of Ballet Music to the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres in Russia. During his long career, he wrote for the original works and numerous revivals staged by the renowned Ballet Masters Arthur Saint-Léon and Marius Petipa. Among the composer's most celebrated compositions was his score for La source (1866; composed jointly with Léo Delibes), Don Quixote (1869); and La Bayadère (1877). Minkus also wrote supplemental material for insertion into already existing ballets. The most famous and enduring of these pieces is the Grand Pas classique from the ballet Paquita, which was added by Marius Petipa especially for a revival of the ballet staged for the benefit performance of the prima ballerina Ekaterina Vazem in 1881. For this revival Minkus also composed the Mazurka des enfants (Children's Mazurka) and an expanded edition of the ballet's Pas de trois, which would go on to become known as the Minkus pas de trois
Today, Minkus's music is some of the most performed in all of ballet, and is a most integral part of the traditional classical ballet repertory.
Ludwig Minkus was born Aloysius Bernhard Philipp Minkus on 23 March 1826, in the Innere Stadt district of Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire. His father, Theodor Johann Minkus, was born in 1795 in Groß-Meseritsch, Moravia (today known 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—it is possible that he composed for his father's Tanzkapelle, one of many such orchestras in the imperial capital. By 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 eight. On 18 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—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 St. Petersburg, Russia 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 St. Petersburg. 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 that 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 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 in Moscow, 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 St. 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 premiere on 24 November [O.S. 12 November] 1863 was a great success for the ballet company of the Bolshoi Theatre. Saint-Léon subsequently mounted the work in St. Petersburg for the Imperial Ballet in an elaborated staging for the benefit performance of Muravieva under the title Fiametta, ou L′amour du Diable (Fiametta, or The Love of the Devil). This version was first performed on 25 February [O.S. 13 February] 1864 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. Minkus later accompanied Saint-Léon to mount this work in a new staging for the ballerina Muravieva at the Théâtre Impérial de l'Opéra in Paris. For this staging the ballet's title was changed again 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 11 July 1864 with an audience that included the Empress Eugénie. Featured along with 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 critics of day, among them 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 Opéra's repertory until 1871. Saint-Léon also mounted the work for the ballet of the Teatro Comunale in Trieste, where it premiered on 15 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 the fall of 1866 Saint-Léon was invited to stage a new work for the Théâtre Impérial de l'Opéra. This was La Source, which was written by Minkus in collaboration with the composer Léo Delibes. The division of labor was as follows: Minkus wrote the whole of Act I and the second tableau of Act III, while Delibes wrote the whole of Act II and the first tableau of Act III. Surviving documents and contemporary accounts do not offer an explanation as to why the score was shared between the two composers. La Source premiered on 12 November 1866, and was retained until 1876 after seventy-three performances.
Saint-Léon continued to work with Minkus throughout the 1860s. On 1 December [O.S. 20 November] 1866 Saint-Léon presented his one-act ballet Le Poisson doré (The Golden Fish), which was staged at Peterhof in honor 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 Skazka o rybake i rybke (The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish). For the Imperial Ballet's 1867–1868 season, Saint-Léon expanded Le Poisson doré into a three-act Grand ballet, first presented on 20 November [O.S. 8 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 premiered at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre on 2 November [O.S. 21 October] 1869 for the benefit performance of the ballerina Adèle Grantzow. In spite of his efforts, both Le Lys and the expanded Le Poisson doré proved to be catastrophic failures for Saint-Léon. In light of this the directorate of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres did not renew the Ballet Master's contract, and soon he re-located to Paris where he died in 1870.
Through his association with Saint-Léon and the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet, Minkus came to the attention of the renowned choreographer Marius Petipa. Petipa arrived in the imperial capital in 1847, where he was engaged as Premier danseur to the Imperial Theatres, as well as assistant to the Ballet Master Jules Perrot, who served as Premier Maître de Ballet to the company from 1850–1859. Petipa was named second Maître de Ballet after the success of his grand ballet The Pharaoh's Daughter, set to the score of the Italian composer Cesare Pugni. Pugni had served as Ballet Composer of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres since 1850, a post which was created especially for him when he accompanied Perrot to Russia that same year. 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. Saint-Léon and Petipa were becoming extremely frustrated with him, and so began to turn to Minkus.
For the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre's 1869–1870 season, Petipa staged a Grand ballet on the subject of Cervantes's 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. Petipa's Don Quixote premiered to a resounding success on 26 December [O.S. 14 December] 1869, and went on to become a celebrated work in the classical ballet repertory.
Not long before Saint-Léon's death, Petipa was named Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Peterbsurg Imperial Theatres. Petipa then staged a new version of his Don Quixote for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, and for this production Minkus completely reworked and expanded his score. This staging of Don Quixote premiered on 21 November [O.S. 9 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 Petipa's Don Quixote, Minkus was now named Ballet Composer of the St. 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), Le Songe d'une nuit d'été (A Midsummer Night's Dream, based on Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music) in 1876, and finally La Bayadère in 1877, which would go on to be the most enduring and well preserved work for which Minkus composed the music.
During this time, Minkus continued playing violin in professional capacities. For example, he was the second violin in the ensemble that premiered Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 11, in Moscow on 28 March 1871. Minkus's scores featured violin cadenzas written especially for the great Leopold Auer.
Minkus wrote the music for Petipa's Nuit et Jour, a sumptuous pièce d'occasion staged especially for the celebrations held at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow in honor 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 premiered 21 February [O.S. 9 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 St. Petersburg balletomanes and critics. The first took place in a 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, staged especially for the benefit performance of the ballerina Eugenia Sokolova on 3 August [O.S. 22 July] 1886. Minkus's music was hailed as a masterwork of ballet music by contemporary critics. It would be his last known ballet score for Petipa.
By 1886 Minkus's contract with the St. Petersburg 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 21 November [O.S. 9 November] 1886 was given a farewell benefit performance. That same year the St. Petersburg 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 the Italian 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 Marius 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 18 December [O.S. 6 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 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—premiered on 25 February [O.S. 13 February] 1891 for the benefit performance of another visiting Italian, Carlotta Brianza, who in the previous year created the role of the Princess Aurora in the Petipa/Tchaikovsky 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 Minkus composed for the Imperial Ballet during his long career in St. Petersburg. It is likely that this score may have been composed some years before for a work which never premiered.
Minkus and his wife Maria left Russia forever 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 Johan 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. During the extremely cold winter of 1917, Minkus developed pneumonia and died on 7 December 1917 at the age of ninety-one. 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 Minkus's grave fell victim to the national socialist policies of the time when all cemeteries were systematically "cleansed" by the invading Nazi regime. Any graves of persons 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.