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About the Change

The Musical World of Giselle

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...

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“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
Adolphe Adam, composer of the score for Giselle, was born in Paris on 24 July, 1803. His father Louis, a well known pianist and professor at the Paris Conservatoire, seems to have been reluctant to allow his son to embark on a professional training in music, but Adolphe eventually entered the Conservatoire, and later became a student of the opera composer François Boieldieu. In 1800, Boieldieu had scored a major success at the age of only 25 with his opera Le Calife de Bagdad. He then spent the years 1803-1811 in St. Petersburg as conductor of the Imperial Opera before returning to Paris where he continued to write successful operas as well as becoming Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire in 1817, a post he held until 1826; Boieldieu died in 1834.

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
Throughout the early years of Adam’s life, opera composers provided music of heroic grandeur to satisfy the taste of a new public. The popular form during the 1790’s had been the Rescue Opera, turning largely upon the rescue of a hero or heroine from prison or other life-threatening situation; art imitated life. Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio (1805) took this genre to a new level, encompassing noble ideals of liberty. The Napoleonic years in France saw the rise of a prosperous bourgeois audience in the theatre, impressed by spectacle. Spontini’s La Vestale, set in the days of ancient Rome, was a triumph when it was first seen in Paris in 1807, just four years after the composer’s arrival in the city. Processions, ceremonies and rituals, tableaux, and spectacular stage effects, were strong features of such long, grandiose productions. Part of the tradition upon which Spontini built extended back to Gluck (1714-1787), the great reformer of serious opera who (it is sometimes forgotten) had worked with one of the most prominent figures in 18th century dance, Gaspero Angiolini; Gluck wrote his ballet score Don Juan for Angiolini, while the latter, who helped Gluck formulate his operatic reforms, choreographed the first production of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice in 1762. Gluck, whose operas often included a significant dance element, worked in Paris from 1773 till his return to Vienna in 1779; his influence upon French opera was long lasting.

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.

Adolphe Adam
© English National Ballet

In July 1830, Paris was once again seized by revolution. Louis X had proved too reactionary, and his place was taken by Louis-Philippe of Orléans. The ‘citizen king’ as he was known seemed to provide a breath of fresh air in French political life, though he himself would find his reign ended by popular uprising when Revolution once again overtook Parisian life in 1848. A casualty of the change of regime in 1830 was the future of a series of operas that had been expected from Rossini; the new government had other ideas. However, the new trends in opera did not in any case seem to suit Rossini; he preferred the memory of the days when a light, agile vocal style rather than the heftiness of grand opera had been in vogue. Rossini left Paris in 1836 and only wrote three religious works during the next 19 years. In 1855 he returned to Paris, becoming a well known figure at the centre of artistic life; in 1863 he composed his much loved Petite Messe Solennelle, a work which is neither particularly small in scale nor solemn!

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
It was now time for the ‘white’ ballet to detach itself from opera and lead a separate existence. In 1832, Marie Taglioni led the cast in the first performance of La Sylphide at the Opéra. Inspired by Charles Nodier’s Trilby (which in turn was influenced by the novels of Sir Walter Scott), the ballet included typical ingredients of the romantic movement: that magical creature, the sylph, inhabiting a mysterious setting among the mists of Scotland. The age was born of that light-as-air creature, the ballerina on pointe representing the unattainable woman as a figment of poetic imagination. The ballerina was now central to the dance: before long, the male dancer would often be replaced by women dancing en travesti, and it would be many years before Paris again witnessed male dancing of a consistently high standard as central to the 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.

Adam composed the score for Giselle with the collaboration of Perrot (joint choreographer with Coralli) and the young ballerina who would make a name for herself in the title role, Carlotta Grisi (1819-1899). The poet Théophile Gautier, who was so influential in the world of the theatre generally, and in the development of the romantic ballet in particular, regarded her qualities of “strength, lightness, suppleness, and imagination” as putting her between Taglioni and Elssler. Marie Taglioni had entranced Parisian audiences since she was first seen in that city in 1827, the lightness of her technique revitalising the ballet and providing a central role for the ballerina; she seem to embody the new spirit of romanticism. Fanny Elssler (whose first performance in Paris was in 1834) on the other hand provided a dark contrast to the ethereal poetry of Taglioni with her compelling sensuality, her performance of the cachucha in Coralli’s Le Diable Boîteux (1836) having scored a great triumph. Gautier famously referred to her as a pagan ballerina (as opposed to Taglioni, whom he referred to as a Christian ballerina). We might express things differently in the 21st century, but we can still appreciate that, after years of concentration upon different types of male dancer (as danseur noble, character dancer, or demi-caractère), the different gifts of various romantic ballerinas were now being identified as they took centre stage. Gautier first encountered Carlotta Grisi in 1841, the year she secured her contract at the Opéra. He was entranced by her, though it was her sister Ernesta, a singer, whom he later married. Realising that Heinrich Heine’s re-telling of the old Slav legend of the Wilis in a work of 1835 was an ideal ballet for Grisi, a libretto was worked out with Vernoy de Saint-Georges, a dramatist with many operas and ballets to his name. There was also a tradition for the fantastical in French literature that would have influenced Gautier in his ideas; in 1772 Jacques Cazotte had published Le Diable Amoureux, a tale which achieved great popularity. The music for Giselle soon followed the libretto, as did the triumphant première with Grisi as Giselle, Lucien Petipa as Albrecht, and the twenty year old Adèle Dumilâtre as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.

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.

Patricia Ruanne and Paul Clarke as Giselle and Albrecht in the Mary Skeaping production for London Festival Ballet, now English National Ballet
© Anthony Crickmay and English National Ballet

Giselle represents Adolphe Adam at the peak of his powers, and stands as one of the most important works of an era which is now infrequently represented in our theatres. The French grand operas and opera comiques of the early 19th century are now completely out of favour, apart from the works of Berlioz (Gounod’s Faust is later, dating from 1859). Sometimes an overture will appear as a concert item, such as Auber’s Fra Diavolo which has a certain popularity; some decades ago the overture to Hérold’s Zampa also had a considerable vogue. But apart from Giselle and infrequent performances of La Sylphide, together with some of the operas of the period, there is little else that now represents the work of French composers in this era of French lyric theatre. Inevitably, with audiences of the day going to the ballet simply to adore the ballerina, the fairly flimsy works produced as vehicles for the central figures of the ballet stage of the time have not survived. Conventions of technique held attention; the expression of emotion suffered.

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
Like many another work of its type, Adam’s score for Giselle has survived many vicissitudes. Opera and ballet scores of the early 19th century were often produced at great speed, and by the nature of the world of theatre they were not treated as items to be venerated. In the orchestra pit of many a lyric theatre, cut-and-paste has at times known no bounds. The original production was performed for the last time in Paris in 1868, and modern performances have generally been based on the tradition established in St. Petersburg, especially Petipa’s 1884 production. However, as Jane Pritchard has pointed out, Mary Skeaping’s 1971 production for London Festival Ballet (now to be revived by English National Ballet) was based not only on the ballet she had learnt as a member of Pavlova’s company in 1925, but on research that included reference to the score in the archives of the Paris Opéra sometime during the 1950’s.

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.

English National Ballet in the studio for the revival of the Mary Skeaping Giselle
© John Ross

The first act of Giselle, with the colour and liveliness typical of a Rhineland village scene at the time of the grape harvest, is far removed from the Scottish setting of La Sylphide, where the sylph appears in what was then seen as a remote, misty (and therefore somewhat mysterious) country, albeit that the action of the first act of that ballet takes place near a comfortable fireside. Giselle is real, and the fast-paced music of the first act finds its foil in the second act where slower tempi prevail. There, two people in love, but torn apart, engage with the spirit world in their separate ways as well as with each other; for some composers there would have been the temptation to overdo the standard musical progressions of the time that might be used in such settings, resulting in cliché. Adam retains his control, and economy of means.

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.

Select Bibliography

Balanchine, George
Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet (Doubleday & Co. Inc.1977; W.H.Allen & Co., London 1978)

Butler, Audrey
Collins Dictionary of Dates (HarperCollins, Glasgow, 1996)

Einstein, Alfred
Music in the Romantic Era (Dent, London. 1947)

Fonteyn, Margot
The Magic of Dance (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1979

Grout, Donald Jay
A History of Western Music (3rd edition, J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1981)

le Huray, Peter and James Day (ed.)
Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,  1981)

Kennedy, Michael
The Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985)

Koegler, Horst
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet (2nd. Edition, Oxford 1982, updated 1987, Oxford University Press).

Longyear, Rey M.
Nineteenth–Century Romanticism in Music (Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1973)

Rosenthal, Harold and John Warrack
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera (2nd. Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1979).

Till, Nicholas
Rossini: His Life and Times (Midas Books, Tunbridge Wells, 1983)

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