Early Ballet Music and Giselle
By Nina Pinzarrone
Until the 1820s, a ballet’s music was often a compilation of popular tunes, opera melodies, and original pieces by one or more composers, tailored to fit the story. Early ballet composers, hired to provide simple accompaniments for the solo and ensemble dances, were of lower stature than their symphonic counterparts. The choreographer decided the rhythms and number of bars for each dance, and the composer improvised music to fit. Mime scenes often borrowed melodies from well-known songs with words that fit the action; the association helped the audience understand the mime. By the 1830s, however, these musical practices were changing. Full-length, two-act ballets were being performed, and original ballet music was increasingly needed.
In 1841, Giselle debuted in Paris with music by French opera composer Adolphe Adam (1803–1856). Adam excelled in the new genre of ballet music. Giselle’s score, mostly written in major keys, uses minor tonalities to emphasize key themes and moments, including Hilarion’s theme, Albrecht’s entrance in the second act, the appearances of the Wilis, and the deaths of both Hilarion and Giselle.
In the August 2015 issue I wrote about Adam’s use of leitmotifs. In Giselle these include the “flower” or “loves me, loves me not” theme, which includes question-and-answer musical phrases; the “love of dance” theme, which occurs in the “Peasant Waltz” and Giselle’s conversation with Bathilde; and the Wilis’ theme, based on a chromatic scale, which foretells Giselle’s death. These themes help unify the ballet’s action.
In class, try using these sections (all from Act I): the slow-tempo “Peasant Waltz” (“Retour de la vendange—Valse”) to introduce balancés to young students; Giselle’s bouncy 6/8 entrance for ballonné and ballotté combinations; and the lively “Peasant March” (“Marche des vignerons”) and “Gallop” (“Galop general”) for gallops and other allegro exercises.
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.