The Wise Virgins

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The Wise Virgins is a one-act ballet based on the biblical Parable of the Ten Virgins.[1] It was created in 1940 with choreography by Frederick Ashton, to a score of music by Johann Sebastian Bach orchestrated by William Walton.


The music of the ballet was the first to be decided. Some years before, at an evening gathering in Cambridge with Boris Ord and Constant Lambert (Music Director of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet), the two musicians played some Bach at the piano. One of the pieces was "Sheep may safely graze" which comes from a secular cantata about hunting, Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208. Ashton, wanting to use this music and believing it to be a religious subject, chose the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from the Gospel of Matthew 25:1-13.[2] According to Michael Somes, it was a later meeting with Patrick Hadley where Hadley and Lambert played Bach’s music which settled the sequence of musical numbers for the ballet.[3] The numbers were selected from Bach’s cantatas and chorale preludes.

Designer Rex Whistler was chosen for his sympathy with Baroque art, from his studies in Rome. Ashton was also inspired by 18th century sculpture and architecture, and tried to depict with the dancers' bodies "the swirling, rich, elaborate contortions of the baroque."[2]

The Wise Virgins was first performed on 24 April 1940 by the Vic Wells Company (The Royal Ballet) at Sadler's Wells Theatre, with Margot Fonteyn (the Bride), Michael Somes (the Bridegroom), Claude Newman (the Father), and Annabel Farjeon (the Mother) in the leading roles.[1] It continued in the company’s repertoire until 1944. A suite of movements from the ballet has been recorded several times since then.

Ballet Suite[edit]

The scoring is 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.

  1. What God hath done, is rightly done
  2. Lord, hear my longing
  3. See what His love can do
  4. Ah! How ephemeral
  5. Sheep may safely graze
  6. Praise be to God

The suite was used for the ballet Cantus Firmus by the Ballet Vlaamderen, with choreography by Jeanne Brabants, in 1970.[3]

The suite has been recorded several times, including:


  1. ^ a b Vaughan D. Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. A & C Black Ltd, London, 1977.
  2. ^ a b Kavanagh J. Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton. Faber & Faber Ltd, London, 1996, pp. 260-3.
  3. ^ a b Tierney N. William Walton – His Life and Music. Robert Hale, London, 1984, p. 89.