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In the theater during the 17th and 18th centuries, a divertissement was an inserted or concluding part of a dramatic production (sometimes of an opera or ballet), consisting of singing, dancing, brief comic scenes, parodies, and other numbers amusing in nature. A divertissement usually is unrelated to the plot of the main presentation. During the 1870’s the divertissement became an independent part of the concert program of vaudeville theaters and balagan (traveling) shows. Use of the divertissement in Russian ballet became widespread after the Fatherland War of 1812, when it was transformed into a unique type of ballet presentation with patriotic and nationalistic subject matter.
In music the divertissement is a type of light popular music. The term designates an instrumental work which serves primarily as an amusing diversion. Divertissements consist of several sections (usually from four to ten) and are arranged for various instrumental groups (ranging from one instrument to a chamber ensemble or an orchestra). They combine elements of the suite and the sonata and resemble a serenade because of their extensive use of dance genres. They are also related to the cassation and the nocturne. Examples of divertissements can be found in the works of Haydn and Mozart.
During the 19th century, divertissements were converted into a genre of salon music similar to a medley. There are a few exceptions, for example, Hungarian Divertissement by Schubert, written for two pianos. During the 20th century the divertissement has taken the form of a suite consisting of short ballets (for example, the divertissement from Stravinsky’s ballet Le Baiser de la fee). Occasionally works are composed that are stylizations of the 18th-century divertissement (Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings).