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What Is a Divertissement?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Divertissement is a musical term for a song within an opera or ballet which does not further the plot. It is also a ballet made entirely of such loosely connected dances and an instrumental piece of light music. The term is originally a French word meaning diversion or amusement.

Composer Jean-Baptiste Lully established divertissements as a traditional part of French opera in the mid 1600s and they remained popular through the 18th century. They can be played within acts or at the end of the opera. A similar song performed between acts is more commonly called an intermede or intermezzo instead of a divertissement. Many composers still include them in the 21st century, but they are not as common.

In ballet and opera, a divertissement creates a pause in the action. For example, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet “The Nutcracker” contains several divertissements. After the main characters, Clara and the Nutcracker, defeat the Mouse King, they return to the Nutcracker’s palace, where many of his subjects perform dances for them. These dances are often considered the highlights of the ballet, even though very little happens in the storyline.

Some ballets have the word "divertissement" included in their title, indicating that they are composed entirely of loosely related dances. The focus of these ballets is the emotion formed by each dance, not the action of a story. For example, 20th century French composer Jacques Ibert published “Divertissement,” a piece for small orchestra, in 1930.

Light, entertaining music for social occasions is another definition of divertissement. This is more often referred to by an Italian word, divertimento, also meaning diversion or amusement. This type of music was particularly popular in the 18th century for playing during or after banquets or outside at garden parties. Because of the intended setting, divertissements are not considered serious music and are rarely played in a concert setting.

A instrumental divertissement is typically composed for a small ensemble of strings, wind instruments or both. The string quartet may have developed from divertissement ensembles. Since divertissements were typically performed in people’s houses, space limited the size of the ensemble, and a full orchestra was never used.

Divertissements may be composed of several movements. Since they are not made of one specific style, this type of music can be very difficult to classify. They are often composed as a dance suite or in a chamber music style.

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