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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

The choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810) claimed to be the sole inventor of this type of highly elaborated dance spectacle. And while all such claims to absolute priority can be debunked—Noverre’s by dance historians who have identified forerunners of his ballets d’action as early as 1702—Noverre’s works were recognized by his contemporaries as an important step toward ballet’s “emancipation” from opera (an emancipation ironically achieved by means of emulation). During a stay in London, Noverre studied the techniques of David Garrick, the famous realistic actor, who returned the compliment by calling Noverre “the Shakespeare of the dance.”1

Noverre’s first great success was Le jugement de Paris, a heroic (i.e., mythological) ballet d’action produced at Lyon in 1751. The music, now lost, was probably an assemblage of existing pieces by a variety of composers. The first ballet d’action composed as a continuous score by a “name” composer was Gluck’s Don Juan (Vienna, 1761), choreographed by Gaspero Angiolini (1731–1803), Noverre’s great rival. The first specialist composer for the new genre was Joseph Starzer (1726–87), an Austrian who worked first at the Russian court in St. Petersburg, later in Vienna with both Noverre and Angiolini, and logged some three dozen ballet scores over the course of his career.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the ballet d’action had begun to incorporate subject matter drawn not only from mythology and ancient history but from the full range of literary prototypes on which opera also drew, including scenes from (admittedly idealized) peasant life. Beginning with the work of Charles Louis Didelot at the King’s Theater in London (from 1796), ballets were given spectacular stagings that, in their use of flying machines and the like, rivaled the French operas from which the ballet d’action had originally spun off. The nascent romantic ballet was poised to present itself, in short, as a full-fledged alternative to opera.

But how viable an alternative to opera? How great a threat to it? For most of the nineteenth century, not very. For one thing, opera (especially when staged in France) often included ballet, sometimes very spectacularly staged, and could boast a more complete representation of the arts in combination. Nor did the ballet divertissements featured in operatic productions encourage spectators to regard the dance as a potential bearer of serious dramatic values. For that there was singing, after all, supplied with words that could specify emotional contexts far more efficiently than the stylized “language” of gesture.

A further blow to the reputation of ballet among serious artists and their audiences was its association with what, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, became identified as outmoded aristocratic taste, and the way in which ballet was sometimes forcibly (and, it could seem, frivolously) interpolated into preexisting scores. The classic instance was the Paris production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1861, for which Wagner was prevailed upon to supply a short dance divertissement in the first act (called the “Venusberg” music) to depict the title character’s dalliance with the goddess Venus on her sacred hill. This, however did not prevent members of the Jockey Club, an association of ballet- (or ballerina-) loving aristocrats, from disrupting performances with catcalls and dog-whistles to protest the absence of a full-scale ballet in the second act, since that meant they had to curtail their dinners if they were to see their girlfriends dance. (Verdi, recalling this fiasco, added an incongruous “Moorish” ballet to Otello for the Paris premiere in 1894; it was his very last music for the stage.) Then, too, the relatively lowly status of the composer in its scheme of things discouraged many of the major musical figures of the nineteenth century from becoming involved in ballet. Beethoven, who composed a ballet d’action called Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (“The creatures of Prometheus”) for the Vienna court theater in 1801, was something of an exception, and he was treated with exceptional deference. More typical was the experience described by Victor Alphonse Duvernoy, an old ballet composer looking back on the conditions of his youth, in a memoir published in 1903:

In olden days, the scenarist began by finding a choreographer. Between the poet and the dancer a close collaboration was formed. Once the plan of the piece and the dances were arranged, the musician was called in. The ballet-master indicated the rhythms he had laid down, the steps he had arranged, the number of bars which each variation must contain—in short, the music was arranged to fit the dances. And the musician docilely improvised, so to speak, and often in the ballet-master’s room, everything that was asked of him. You can guess how alert his pen had to be, and how quick his imagination. No sooner was a scene written or a pas [a section of choreography] arranged than they were rehearsed with a violin, a single violin, as the only accompaniment. Even after having servilely done everything the ballet-master had demanded, the composer had to pay attention to the advice of the principal dancers. So he had to have much talent, or at least great facility, to satisfy so many exigences, and, I would add, a certain amount of philosophy.2

Only beginning in 1886 was a piano, capable of rendering a semblance of the full score, used at ballet rehearsals for the Paris opera. These were not conditions under which Romantic composers (with rare if notable exceptions) would gladly work, proud as they were of their social emancipation and the vaunted “esthetic autonomy” of their work.

The main exceptions in France were two. Adolphe Adam (1803–56), primarily a composer of comic operas, wrote fourteen full-length ballets d’action in two or three acts beginning in 1830, the year of the July revolution when the Paris Opera, including its ballet company, was for the first time removed from the direct control of the royal court and put under private management. One of the results of this change was the installation of the grand historical opera as the reigning operatic genre in Paris, and the relegation of traditionally romantic subject matter—subject matter involving the mysterious “spirit world”—to the province of ballet.

And one of the results of that relegation was the creation of Giselle (1841), Adam’s masterpiece and the sole survivor in repertory of the Paris Opéra ballets of its day. It is now regarded as the quintessential romantic ballet, familiar to ballet audiences everywhere, making its creator the first “name” composer in history to be remembered chiefly for a ballet. Its scenario, by the romantic poet Théophile Gautier (1811–72), was based on a Slavic legend recounted by Heine in his book De l’Allemagne (“From Germany”), according to which nocturnal sprites called wilis (or willies), the ghosts of maidens, lure fickle young men to their death by enticing them into their endless round dance. Adam composed it as a vehicle for Carlotta Grisi (1819–99), “the lightest sylphide [airborne creature] of the Opéra,”3 according to a contemporary press release.

In the first act Giselle, a winsome, wholesome peasant girl, is seduced by Albrecht, a disguised prince; on learning his identity and despairing of his love, she kills herself with his sword. In the second act she is admitted to the company of wilis, but, still loving Albrecht, protects him from her companions’ spell and evokes, alas belatedly, his sincere love in return, expressed in a pas de deux (a “choreographed number for two,” the balletic equivalent of a love duet) in which the two protagonists are personified by instrumental soloists (viola for Albrecht, various woodwinds for Giselle) all accompanied by the harp.

With its moonlit set and a female corps de ballet spectacularly deployed on invisible wires, the second act was an invitation to the composer to come up with comparably rarefied effects of spooky orchestration and harmony, effects reminiscent of Weber’s in Der Freischütz but wistful (“feminine”) rather than menacing or violent in tone (Ex. 3-1). The result was a ballet d’action unprecedented in its musical ambition, challenging the supremacy of opera by adopting some of its most sophisticated musical techniques, such as the use of reminiscence motifs, replete with “thematic transformation.” Ex. 3-2 shows the main reminiscence motif, which first accompanies the meeting of Albrecht and Giselle and last appears at the climax of the act II pas de deux.

Ballet D’action

fig. 3-1 Carlotta Grisi (1819–1899) in Giselle, act II (lithograph from a drawing by Challamel). Note the conventions of miming: the ballerina’s right arm is in the J’écoute (“I’m listening”) position.

Ballet D’action

ex. 3-1 Adolphe Adam, Giselle, Act II, apparition of the wilis

Adam’s ballet became a benchmark, defining the style—and the particular ethereal tone—of romantic ballet for the next half-century. After Giselle, as Gautier reminisced in a Paris newspaper,

Ballet D’action

ex. 3-2a Adolphe Adam, Giselle, Act I, fig. 9

Ballet D’action

ex. 3-2b Adolphe Adam, Giselle, Act II Finale, Valse

Les Filets de Vulcain and Flore et Zephyre [that is, traditional “neoclassical” or mythological subjects of court ballet] were no longer possible. The stage of the Opéra was given over to gnomes [earth spirits], ondines [water spirits], salamanders [fire spirits], elves, nixes [nymphs], wilis, peris [fairies or air spirits], to all those strange, mysterious folk who lend themselves so wonderfully to the fantasies of the maître de ballet. The twelve mansions of marble and gold of the Olympians were relegated to the dust of the scenery store, and artists were commissioned to produce only romantic forests, valleys by the light of that pretty German moon of Heine’s ballads. The new type brought in its wake a great abuse of white gauze, tulle and tarlatan, shades dissolved into mist by means of transparent skirts. White was almost the only color used.4

The other major musical figure to emerge from the ballet d’action in France was Léo Delibes (1836–91), a pupil of Adam, who made his début as a composer of full-length dance spectacles ten years after his teacher’s death while working at the Paris Opéra as chorus master. Delibes, who like Adam was primarily a composer of comic operas, went on to write two ballets that have remained repertory staples: Coppélia (1870), after a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann that parodies the “Pygmalion” legend (a young girl wins back the love of her sweetheart by impersonating a mechanical doll with which he is infatuated); and Sylvia (1876), about a forest nymph in love with a mortal.

By comparison with the romantic ballet of Adam’s generation, the music in these scores of Delibes has been called “symphonic”—sometimes (as one might guess) in praise, sometimes in blame, depending on the caller’s perspective. In either case, the term ought not to be taken too literally. Sometimes it was merely code for “Germanic.” Here it seems to refer to the unusually lengthy mimed episodes in which the freely modulating music follows the action with what might—very loosely!—be termed a process of motivic development, as in Ex. 3-3, from the act I finale in Coppélia. The passage accompanies the discovery, by Swanilda, the “young girl” in the summary above, of a key to toymaker Coppélius’s shop, and her decision to break in together with her companions to see Coppélia, the mechanical doll.

Ballet D’actionBallet D’action

ex. 3-3 Leo Delibes, Coppélia, from the Act I Finale

Yet despite the success of his ballets, despite the unprecedented respect his music won for the genre from serious musicians, and despite its popularity in the concert hall owing to the colorful orchestral suites that he cannily fashioned from his scores, Delibes only managed temporarily to buck the French ballet’s irrevocable decline in the second half of the century. He had no successors.

The reason was simple: the fortunes of an aristocratic art form rise and fall with that of the aristocracy to whose taste it caters, and the off-again-on-again condition of the French monarchy in the nineteenth century was increasingly parlous and inhospitable to its dependent art-genres. Delibes’s ballet career, which began during the “Second Empire” with the monarchy on its last legs, reached its climax in the period of the early “Third Republic.” This period, the immediate aftermath of the disastrous defeat by Prussia, was one of fairly puritanical chastening.

“Idle” aristocratic taste for the luxurious and the decorative, already subjected to years of spoofing in Jacques Offenbach’s operettas, was widely repudiated in favor of the high spiritual ideals of the Société Nationale de Musique, whose members, at least at first, were unanimously hostile to ballet. Even Coppélia, Delibes’s masterpiece, with its comic episodes and happy “realistic” ending bore traces of parody. Sylvia, which took its old-fashioned romanticism seriously, was greeted with almost as much mockery as enthusiasm. It was the last of the line. Ballet d’action, scarcely a century old, was dead.


(1) Arnold Haskell, Ballet (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1938), p. 22.

(2) L’Art du théâtre, January 1903; quoted in Ivor Guest, The Romantic Ballet in Paris (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1966), p. 11.

(3) La Presse (Paris), 5 July 1841; quoted in Guest, The Romantic Ballet, p. 206.

(4) La Presse, 1 July 1844; quoted in Guest, The Romantic Ballet, p. 10.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003002.xml