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|About the Change|
On the eve of English National Ballet's revival of its famous Mary Skeaping Giselle, Richard Jones discusses the music to one of the most loved of the 19th Century clasics...
“In ballet, Adam is absolute master and knew no rivals. It is in ballet that he revealed his great poetic feeling…and he brought to this type of music all the flexibility of writing and all the diversity of style which he had shown us elsewhere."
(…the memorial tribute to Adolphe Adam by writer and critic Pier Angelo Fiorentino (1810-1864) published in Le Moniteur)
The composer - his early life
Adam was therefore brought up during turbulent times. Napoleon was First Consul of France, the Consulate having been established in 1799; events in Paris had caused more shudders than ripples throughout Europe for a number of years, the execution of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, in 1793 together with many thousands of others during the Terror being a recent memory. In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, an occasion that famously prompted Beethoven to strike out the dedication of his planned Sinfonia Bonaparte; the symphony, his third, would now be known as the Sinfonia Eroica. Heroism was held in high esteem at this dawn of a new age, but Beethoven did not admire Napoleon’s move to elevate himself in this way above the people. However, when Napoleon’s armies met defeat at Waterloo in 1815, a return to monarchy with the accession of King Louis XVIII followed the Emperor’s abdication; Louis was succeeded by the reactionary Charles X in 1824.
Opera and Ballet
A parallel development with serious opera in France was the tradition of the opéra comique. This had at times reverted to a light-hearted play interspersed with musical numbers such as tuneful songs (ariettes) and ensembles. However, the arrival in Paris of Gioachino Rossini gave comic opera a huge boost; Rossini was appointed to the Theâtre Italien in 1824 and as composer to King Charles X in 1825. Inevitably the native composers started to copy the Italian master, but they still managed to maintain the lighter tradition of French vocal music in their ariettes and their use of dance rhythms. French opéra comique continued to thrive, and in 1825 Boieldieu scored a success with La Dame Blanche based on the work of Sir Walter Scott; Adam assisted his teacher in the preparation of the music for this performance, after which he travelled to neighbouring European countries.
In 1830 Adam was able to enjoy watching his own work at the Opéra-Comique with the first production of Danilowa. He already had a good deal of theatre music to his credit, but this was his first full length work presented there. Another composer to enjoy success with opéras comiques at this time was Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833), a great friend of Adolphe’s from the days when Hérold was a pupil of Louis Adam. Hérold’s Zampa, first produced at the Opéra-Comique in 1831, had been seen in both London and Boston (Massachusetts) by 1833. Hérold is remembered particularly today as having produced the score for the 1828 production of La Fille mal gardée at the Paris Opéra. Dauberval’s 1789 scenario had originally been danced to a medley of French popular tunes when performed in Bordeaux. For the new Paris production Hérold provided a mix of some of the original melodies together with bits of Rossini and some of his own composition; that score formed the basis for Frederick Ashton’s 1960 production, re-arranged by John Lanchberry who added other material.
Meanwhile, a new standard was being set in French grand opera, with Auber’s La Muette de Portici (based on the works of both Schiller and Sir Walter Scott) appearing in the same year as La Fille mal gardée. Musical styles in Auber’s opera appealed to all tastes, varying from grand arias and large ensembles to music for the ballet. In 1829, Rossini provided his own contribution to the developing genre of grand opera with William Tell. That the dance was important in this production can be seen by the listing of the dancers with the same prominence as the singers on the playbill; among the dancers was Marie Taglioni. The choreography was by Jean Aumer, who had also been responsible for La Fille mal gardée.
© English National Ballet
With a new government in power, the Opéra was placed under new management; rather than being run directly by the state, the theatre was re-organised as a private enterprise with a fixed grant from public funds. Under the leadership of Louis Véron, a man with a sharp business brain whose organisation of the enterprise was as legendary as were the scenic effects in his theatre, the Opéra flourished. In 1831, the first performance was given of a new opera that would not only establish a reputation for its composer but remain as a highly popular item of the repertoire for many years. Giacomo Meyerbeer, as Jakob Beer was now known, had arrived in Paris in 1826 from Italy, whither he had gone from his native Berlin for study. In Robert le Diable Meyerbeer really pulled out all the stops in creating something for everyone with good tunes, heavenly choirs, spectacle, and drama (not to say Gothic horror), all in abundance - and there was dance of course. Led by no less a figure than Marie Taglioni, the ballet portraying the ghosts of nuns who had violated their vows being summoned from their graves in a mediaeval cloister no doubt satisfied the craving of the audience in their demand for spectacular effect, though in matters of taste it did not please everyone. The choreography was by Marie Taglioni’s father, Filippo.
Romanticism and the Romantic Ballet
New ballets were quickly produced, with Adam being accorded a première in 1833 The story was that favourite of the time, Goethe’s Faust, the production being staged at the King’s Theatre in London with choreography by André Deshayes; in 1842 Deshayes would stage the first London production of Giselle with Perrot. In 1836, Adam completed his first ballet for the Opéra (and Taglioni): La Fille du Danube. Later, he travelled to St. Petersburg to supervise its production there, along with a new ballet and an opera. Adam continued to write for both opera and ballet, his opéras comiques forming part of a tradition that culminated in the highly successful operettas of Jacques Offenbach. He also ventured into the field of church music, and is particularly remembered for the Christmas song O holy night (Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle), first performed at Midnight Mass, Christmas 1847.
Literary romanticism took root in France at a somewhat later period than it did in England or Germany. By the time that Victor Hugo emerged as the leader of the romantic movement in French theatre in the 1830’s, the first generation of romantic writers in England and Germany were either dead or had not long to live. Keats died in 1821, admittedly a young man only in his twenties; Wordsworth, born in 1770, had already published major works (he lived till 1850); Coleridge, born in 1772, died in 1834; Byron lived from 1788 till 1824; and Goethe, born in 1749, died in 1832 less than a year after completing the second part of Faust (part one had been published in 1808). Victor Hugo’s manifesto for the romantic movement in French literature (his preface to Cromwell) appeared in 1827; the first part of Goethe’s Faust appeared in French translation in 1828. It is customary for musicians and ballet-goers to think of theatrical riots as belonging to the history of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913; theatre has often touched a raw nerve, and there was an equally notorious riot between supporters of the traditions of French classicism and the followers of Hugo at the Comédie-Francaise during the première of Victor Hugo’s Hernani in 1830. The scene was famous enough to be immortalised in a painting.
Hector Berlioz, an exact contemporary of Adam (though he lived longer) emerged as a dominant figure in French music at this time. In 1827 Berlioz happened to see a performance of Hamlet; his well-documented unrequited passion for the actress Harriet Smithson (they eventually married in 1831) was expressed in his Symphonie Fantastique, first performed in 1830, which includes wild dreams of a spirit world. The artist, having taken opium, believes he sees his beloved appearing at a witches’ sabbath after he has been guillotined for her murder. Throughout the symphony, the immortal beloved is represented by a recurring theme (known as an idée fixe) that appears in many guises: in the artist’s reveries, at a ball in the course of a waltz, and finally in a grotesque variation.
Before 1800 the word romantic in European culture had meant the fantastic and exotic. In the early 19th century the term was used frequently but variously. The movement towards romanticism in France was often discussed. In 1830, the year of the July Revolution, a writer in the Revue Musicale was able to ask “what is this romanticism?” stating that the question had been asked for 15 years. He went on to say that “to condemn feeling is a madness; to try to repress it is even greater madness.” Then, presumably buoyed up by the spirit of a new age, he extols the virtues of composers who may lack distinction, but can communicate with their contemporaries, meeting “contemporary needs and knowledge”. During the course of the 1830’s, romanticism came to be seen as the successor to a previous period of classicism. Writing in mid-decade, the German commentator Gustav Schilling, author of a number of works on music, wrote that “romantic art springs from man’s attempt to transcend the sphere of cognition, to experience higher, more spiritual things, and to sense the presence of the ineffable.” He cites Mozart’s Don Giovanni as a perfect example of romantic expression, and the works of Weber and Mendelssohn as being particularly attuned to the romantic spirit. As for Robert le Diable he says that Meyerbeer may have described it as a romantic opera, and the outward trappings of romanticism have been preserved, “but the soul has all but vanished……it has everything except the romantic spirit.” Schilling was an influential writer, and the author of a Universal Lexicon of music; he was not alone in equating the true romantic spirit with his Christianity. However, he wrote from a lofty point of view and had no time for Berlioz, Liszt, or Chopin! In 1841, the year of Giselle, an article appeared in the musical journal edited by Robert Schumann outlining thoughts that match with present day definition of periods of musical classicism and romanticism.
On 28 June 1841, the première of Giselle ou Les Wilis was given at the Paris Opéra. Not long after this, however, a serious disagreement with the new director of the Opéra-Comique caused Adam to use his money and influence to open a theatre of his own in late 1847, the Opéra-National. It seemed as if his future would otherwise be limited. Unfortunately the Revolution of February 1848 soon put paid to his enterprise, and his theatre had to close in March of that year, leaving Adam badly in debt. Teaching and further composition were a financial necessity. In 1849, Adam became Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire, among his pupils being a future composer of ballet and opera, Léo Delibes (1836-1891). Adam continued to write opera and ballet at a furious pace until the year of his death, the ballet Le Corsaire (based on Byron’s poem The Corsair) being produced at the Opéra in January 1856; Adam died on 3 May.
Adolphe Adam’s many works for the stage included numerous ballets; many more operas; vaudevilles; piano pieces; songs; choral music, both sacred and secular: he even had time to re-orchestrate other composers’ operas, and to complete an opera left unfinished by Donizetti. He received the decoration of the legion d’honneur in 1836, later raised to the rank of officer, and became a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1844. A great crowd gathered for his funeral, for which the pall-bearers included the directors of the Opéra-Comique and of the Théâtre-Lyrique; the composers Auber and Ambroise Thomas; and Saint-Georges, who wrote the libretto for Giselle. Combined choirs sang music by Adam as well as the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem Mass and other works. At the cemetery, Saint-Georges was one of seven eminent members of the Parisian artistic world who delivered eulogies. That night, two Parisian theatres, the Théâtre Lyrique and the Bouffes Parisiens were closed out of respect; meanwhile the proceeds of a performance of Le Corsaire at the Opéra provided for Adam’s widow at the request of the Emperor, Napoleon III.
Giselle certainly exhibits familiar themes of romantic art, with its conjunction of everyday life and the spirit world, though the spirits involved are no longer visions of a poet’s idealised view of womanhood. The Wilis, vengeful ghosts of brides who died before their weddings, represent a more demonic type of spirit, but Giselle, though part of the spirit world herself by Act 2, saves the life of Albrecht through her selflessness despite his behaviour to her; the power of redemptive love is made manifest. The common features of German romantic writing, such as forests and moonlight, contributed to the illusion of another world, helped by the development of gas lighting in the theatre world at that time; gas lighting in principal theatres developed particularly during the 1820’s. Yet in that eerie light, the audience of 1841 watched those soulless creatures, the Wilis, not as if appearing from some mythical past, but dressed in an ethereal version of what was then current fashion.
© Anthony Crickmay and English National Ballet
However, theatrical taste was changing during the 1840’s. In 1843, Victor Hugo withdrew from writing for the theatre, his last play having failed. By 1850 it was realised that the romantic ballet of the previous two decades had run its course; the taste for fantasy in the theatre had been replaced by a taste for realism. The ballet Paquita, with its Spanish gypsy setting, was first performed at the Opéra in 1846, with Carlotta Grisi and Lucien Petipa once again taking the leading roles. Another famous Spanish gypsy, Carmen, appeared as the central figure in a novel by Mérimée published in 1845, but she would have to wait for three decades before Bizet presented her story at the Opéra Comique. Meanwhile, the two act format of La Sylphide and Giselle, although retained in Paquita, was later expanded to three acts, as in Gautier’s scenario for Pâquerette (a Flemish heroine), written in 1851 for another famous ballerina of the age, Fanny Cerrito. Nevertheless the two-act juxtaposition of natural and supernatural worlds remained a possibility. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (1877) doubles up the format in its four acts, contrasting the court scenes with the white acts by the lakeside. It can even be suggested that as late as 1913 the tradition was not dead, since the eerie sounds at the beginning of the second part of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring convey the same feeling of contrast between two worlds as the audience is transported to the Mystical Circles of the Adolescent Girls, prior to the sacrifice. The legend of the Wili also continued to hold attention. In 1846 a little known English composer, Edward Loder (who had trained in Germany) produced a version of the story in his opera The Night Dancers, which gained considerable popularity in Victorian England; rather better remembered is Puccini’s opera Le Villi (1897), written at a time when there was a certain fascination in Italy with German romantic literature.
Contemporary with Giselle are such compositions as Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (completed in 1842, the Overture having been written in 1826); there was great interest in the plays of Shakespeare at this time. There was also a revision in 1842 of the same composer’s choral work The First Walpurgis Night, though his original setting of Goethe’s account of the witches’ spring festival in the Harz Mountains had been produced in 1831, the same year as Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. Another favourite work of Mendelssohn’s written at this time is his violin concerto (1844). Among other composers active at this time, Robert Schumann was not the only one to show how central the idea of redemption was to the thinking of the romantics with his cantata Paradise and the Peri (1843), the Peri being a benign but errant spirit hoping to regain paradise, and ultimately doing so. The early 1840’s were in any case a very productive era for Schumann. This was the period when he produced not only his first Symphony (The Spring, 1841) and started his piano concerto (1841-5), but also when he composed many of his best known songs, including his famous settings of Heine such as the song-cycle Dichterliebe – Poet’s Love (1840); and it was Heine’s re-telling of a legend upon which Gautier based his scenario for Giselle. Heine, Adam, and Schumann (in that order) died within a few months of one another in 1856.
The score of Giselle
Since its composition in 1841, the enormous popularity of Giselle has resulted in many alterations being made to suit local need as required by changes of choreography. Various insertions have found their way into the score, some relating to Russian tradition, such as variations for Giselle (including music by Minkus); these travelled back to the West, nestling alongside Adam’s work, with (for example) Diaghilev’s company. There was even an insertion of music by the German composer Burgmüller for the première in 1841 which remained in the ballet, this being the music for the peasant pas de deux (sometimes choreographed for a different number of dancers). Burgmüller was the composer of the very popular ballet La Péri which received its first performance at the Opéra in 1843. As with Giselle, the dancers were Carlotta Grisi and Lucien Petipa; Coralli – this time without Perrot - was responsible for the choreography.
It was often the tradition in the lyric theatre that a work would only exist in piano score and a set of orchestral parts. Copying was an arduous and time-consuming process, and new works succeeded old at an astonishing rate. However, in 1924, when a new production of Giselle was planned for the Paris Opéra, it was decided that the time had come for a score to be assembled from the existing orchestral material, ironing out the musical inconsistencies that had accumulated. This essential work was done by the composer Henri Busser, who had been appointed conductor of the Opéra in 1905. Even then, further revisions have been made to try to rediscover Adam’s intentions. The advent of the 1924 Paris score did not suddenly cause all other versions to be re-organised, and it has been commonplace for companies to retain orchestrations of different numbers by various hands in their own set of parts. With the present day tendency to aim for a greater degree of authenticity in the performance of music of any era, there is a welcome trend towards rediscovering the true sonorities of the light textures of early 19th century music.
With the deftness gained through his experience as a composer of opera comique, Adam constructed the score of Giselle using the dance forms of the time, including waltz and galop as general dances, weaving together a dramatic entity that has been part of the enduring appeal of Giselle. This may not be music that finds its way into the concert hall in the same way as does the ballet music of more recent Russian composers, but nevertheless Adam’s lightness of touch and his apt use of dramatic effects without resorting to the overblown portentousness of the less fortunate examples from French grand opera make the score of Giselle a perfect vehicle for the dance. (In any case, many of the numbers in Giselle are comparatively short, and sometimes change tempo within the number, moving between dance and narrative, thus making the music less suitable for concert performance). In an era when many were happy to construct ballet scores as a simple succession of dances without much reference to the drama, Adam led the way in the manner in which he integrated the various elements of the score; would that some later ballet composers had looked at Giselle more closely. An example of Adam’s feeling for the progression of the drama in this way is the ending of the waltz after the return of the grape-pickers in Act 1; an obvious final cadence is avoided, and a sudden shift in the harmony moves the music straight into the pas de deux that follows.
Throughout the 19th century, composers developed the technique of leitmotif, that is assigning a musical theme to a character or idea (such as the love of Giselle and Albrecht); a theme can make an effective point in the drama even if the character referred to is not on the stage, and the music can weave the drama so that the story is told through the texture of the music as much as from the visual aspect. This technique, taken to its limits in the operas of Richard Wagner, is used to a certain extent in Giselle, the earliest ballet still in the repertory so to do. (Similar trends were followed in the programme symphony and symphonic poem of composers such as Liszt and Tchaikovsky, for which the Symphonie Fantastique proved to be a forerunner). Examples of the use of leitmotif are the disjointed form of music associated with the love of Giselle and Albrecht as it appears at the end of Act 1 when Albrecht’s identity has been discovered and Giselle is losing her reason, or the further manipulation of these themes in Act 2. Likewise, there are various uses of the vigorous musical idea associated with Hilarion. His theme is in a minor key, whereas the music for Giselle and Albrecht in major keys; optimism is portrayed by increasing the number of sharps. Adam shows an advance in his use of leitmotif over earlier examples by the way he manipulates the rhythms, tempi, and shape of his themes. With such a carefully constructed score, interweaving dance with narrative, there is an integrity involving both choreography and music in conveying the drama. The choreography responds by developing leitmotif in its own fashion, as in the use of arabesque by the Wilis in Act 2 after the example of Myrtha.
© John Ross
Throughout the ballet, Adam does not forget his essentially tuneful idiom. The opening quickly conveys the feeling of a rustic setting with a repeated drone in bass instruments (a device used by many composers to suggest bagpipes – Haydn does the same at the beginning of the finale of his last symphony, No. 104, written in 1795). A joyous mood is immediately created at the time of the grape harvest. Rural celebration is also to the fore during the Marche des Vignerons (literally March of the Winemakers); the music has the style of a popular dance rather than a march, contrasting with the previous section where the music for the hunt introduces the Duke of Courland and Bathilde.
Notably, there is much expressive solo writing for the oboe throughout the ballet, the plaintive tone of this instrument being especially helpful in conveying Albrecht’s mood as he makes his entry in Act 2, seeking Giselle’s grave. There are many other examples of the colourful use of wind instruments. Chords in high woodwind at the beginning of Act 2 as midnight strikes seem at first to be not unlike those at the beginning of Mendelssohn’s overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but in that instance a few chords evoke the atmosphere of a spirit world, whereas in Giselle a more extended series of chords moves away from the pitch of the repeated bell, becoming gradually more discordant then returning to accord with the bell. A very different quality of woodwind sound is produced by chords on double reed instruments when Myrtha’s evocation causes the Wilis to appear.
A traditional feature of ballet scores is the use of a solo string instrument in the adagio of a pas de deux. In Giselle, the final pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht contains a prominent solo for viola. The composer’s instinct for achieving his effect with economy of means is exemplified by such an apt choice of tone colour for the last moments shared by the couple in an unreal world; neither the brightness of a solo violin nor the richness of a cello, so often used in such solo passages, would engender quite the same atmosphere as the more veiled sound of the viola.
Throughout the ballet, colourful orchestration makes much of the typical orchestral resources of the time. Contrast of individual instrumental sounds was particularly a feature of the developing French orchestral tradition (as opposed to the tendency towards blending instrumental sounds amongst composers of the Germanic tradition), and Adam was especially skilled in writing French theatre music. When the full orchestra is required, the effect can be brilliant and sparkling, or dark and dramatic, as the plot requires.
Paris was such an important centre for opera composers that it would have been surprising if they had not influenced each other, and all would have been aware of the commanding figure of Rossini. In the second act of Giselle, as the Wilis (in arabesque) dance in groups across the stage, without any feeling and almost as automatons governed only by their queen, Myrtha, the sounds of the repeated patterns from the orchestra remind us of many a Rossini overture; but whereas Rossini famously used these patterns around alternating chords with the gradual addition of more instruments to build exciting climaxes in his opera buffa overtures (the “Rossini crescendo”), Adam perfectly adapts a similar technique for a different purpose. Drained of life, the Wilis are seemingly propelled by Myrtha – or is it Adam’s score?
From many points of view Giselle is a ballet for which a special place has to be reserved. For the ballerina it is a rite of passage. For the audience it has a degree of integration of dance, music, and drama, as well as an overall clarity and depth in the themes it explores that make it a seminal work of its time. And it speaks for an almost forgotten era, since to watch a performance of Giselle is to experience a type of French lyric theatre that otherwise now hardly reaches the stage.
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