Leitmotifs and National Dances in Coppélia
By Nina Pinzarrone
Coppélia (1870), staged in Paris two months before the Franco-Prussian War broke out, is considered the last Romantic ballet. A collaboration between choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon, librettist Charles Nuitter, and composer Léo Delibes, it tells a comic story of a village couple, Swanilda and Franz, and a mysterious doll maker, Dr. Coppélius.
In Coppélia, Delibes took the leitmotif idea of his mentor Adolphe Adam (Giselle) to a more sophisticated level. Franz’s two leitmotifs (first heard in Act 1), melodically similar yet different in spirit, represent the two sides of his personality: one playful, the other sentimental and yearning for the unattainable.
Dr. Coppélius and Coppélia also have leitmotifs, both first heard in Act 1, the latter when the doll blows a kiss to Franz. The similarity of these themes—their dotted rhythms and counterpoint suggest the jerky movements of automatons (mechanical dolls), popular attractions at the time—tie the characters together as creator and creation.
Delibes incorporated several national dances, all the rage then in Paris, into Coppélia’s score, setting a precedent for future ballet composers. (See “Character Dance,” November 2015.)
- Mazurka: Polish, 3/4 time (Act 1). A very recognizable mazurka for students, and a wonderful melody to have in mind when setting an exercise to a mazurka rhythm.
- Polka or krakowiak (“Thème Slave varié”): Polish, 2/4 (Act 1). Use for polka or slow pas de bourrée with beginners, or for sissonne coupé assemblé with advanced dancers.
- Czardas (“Danse Hongroise”): Hungarian, 4/4 (Act 1). Use for character class walks, pas de bourrée, shunts, and pivot turns.
- Bolero (“Danse Espagnol”): Spanish, 3/4 (Act 2). Use for turns on the spot or traveling pirouette enchaînement.
- Gigue or jig (“Danse Ecossaise”): Scottish, 2/4 (Act 2). Use for échappé relevé on pointe.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.