The Composer

The French composer Léo Delibes (1836-91) wrote two of the finest ballet scores to have survived changing times and tastes: Coppélia (1870) and Sylvia (1876), both premiered at the Paris Opéra.

The composer’s formal training was at the Paris Conservatory, including organ lessons in addition to composition studies under Adolphe Adam (who wrote Giselle). After completing his studies, Delibes became an accompanist and chorus master at the Theatre-Lyrique, and by 1864 he was second chorus master at the Paris Opéra. Simultaneously he played organ for church services. His first scores for public performance were in the realm of light opera. He was quite prolific, composing about one a year for 15 years. But in 1866, he wrote music for Act 2 and the first scene of Act 3 for the ballet La Source, for which the rest was composed by Ludwig Minkus. The next year he was asked to write a divertissement for what became the flower scene in the revival of the ballet Le Corsaire, which otherwise had the original score by his composition teacher Adolphe Adam. Next in 1870 came Delibes’ first complete score for ballet: Coppélia, followed a few years later by Sylvia. His only other composition for ballet was a lovely suite of dances as incidental music for Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, in 1882. Meanwhile, he had become a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory and focused his own writing on three operas: Le Roi l’a dit, Jean de Nivelle, and his most famous, Lakmé. Audiences of today frequently hear an excerpt from Lakmé in concert performances: the duet between two women singers, the “Flower Song.”

We may be somewhat sorry that Delibes did not give the world more full-length ballets. But of the two he did compose, the British writer Roger Fiske expressed what seems to be near universal opinion: “In Coppélia  and Sylvia he achieved something not far short of perfection.”

notes and explorations:

performances:  Concert performance of the “Flower Song” performed by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca. One listener commented: “This is the music they play in the waiting room to heaven.” This is a rather poor quality mounting of the 1976 filming of Lakmé performed in Australia. Opera buffs may be interested because Joan Sutherland sang the lead role. The quality is much better on the available DVD, on the Kultur label. Richard Bonynge conducts.

Also Lakmé:  Opera at Rutgers, Act 1, Act 2, Loyola Opera  Philip Sears plays the Passepied from Le roi s’amuse on the piano. A good piece for ballet classes!  Orchestral performance of it by the Slovak Radio Symmphony Orchestra under Ondrej Lenard. From a NAXOS CD “The Best of French Music: Delibes.” Also includes excerpts from La Source.

information: Bio of the composer plus information about his major works. Also see IED bio by Noël Goodwin. Another introductory biography, by Hugh Macdonald, is in the New Grove, and includes list of works. 


Toys and tunes; young love and playing a trick on an eccentric elder: that could sum up the subject of Coppélia, which was based on part of the stories  “Der Sandman” and “Die Puppe” by E. T. A. Hoffmann and developed into a libretto for the ballet by Charles Nuitter and the choreographer, Arthur Saint-Léon (1821-1870). It was premiered on May 25, 1870 in Paris.

That specific date is noteworthy, because on the following July 16, the French parliament voted to declare war on the German kingdom of Prussia, and fighting began three days afterward. More about that disaster later, but for now let’s focus on Coppélia.

The spirit and flavor of this ballet seem closer to La Fille mal gardée of 1789 than to all the 19th century Romantic fairytale favorites in the intervening years. Although there is the hope of magic in Coppélia, yet the characters are very real people, and the ballet depicts cheerful scenes of shared community in a rural village. There is gentle humor involved plus some plotting to insure that the right lovers end up together happily.

The plot is uncomplicated: Swanilda, sweetheart of Franz (oddly enough danced for many years by a young woman) resents his interest in a lifeless doll made by the aging Dr. Coppélius. The toymaker had long wanted to invent such a mechanical marvel that his doll Coppélia would seem to be human, even hoping by magic to transfer the soul of young Franz to the doll. The young people of the village and Swanilda pester and try to fool him. At the end, poor Dr. Coppélius realizes his doll is just that, while Swanilda and Franz are married during a day rich in celebration that also honors a new village church bell.

Among the attractions of Coppélia are the numbers done in the style of national character dances.  At one point Delibes had traveled to Hungary with the composer Jules Massenet with the explicit purpose of collecting folk tunes. Additionally, the composer’s interest in folk music was shared by the choreographer Arthur Saint-Léonwho is reported to have sent Delibes  some folk melodies that might be used for their ballet Coppélia. However, the only outside source attributed in Delibes’ score is the Slavic melody by the Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko.

Swanilda is introduced in a solo with one of Delibes’ waltzes. The pageantry is sometimes shortened, but begins immediately in the first act with a mazurka and variations on the Polish theme. Other national dances introduced later are a bolero, a Scottish jig, a Slavic style dance, and a Hungarian czardas. There are several lovely waltzes and pas de deux scenes accompanied by romantic solo violin melodies. And among the dances making this ballet so popular is the one in which Swanilda pretends to be the mechanical doll.

The original production was not without heartaches. The part of Swanilda was premiered by the young Italian Giuseppina Bozzacchi, who at age 16 was regarded of outstanding promise. But two months after the opening, the Franco-Prussian War broke out; the country was in turmoil; the theatre closed; and on top of that smallpox began to infect people in Paris. The young dancer was one, and she died on the morning of her 17thbirthday.

the choreographer

 Arthur Saint-Léon (1821-1870) was a rare artist who not only performed as a leading dancer and created ballets as a choreographer; he was also an accomplished violinist. His double talents came to the fore in 1849 in the Paris performance of Le Violon du Diable (which he had choreographed to music by himself, Stefano Filis, and Cesare Pugni). While portraying the character of a young violinist named Urbain, Saint-Léon picked up his instrument and astonished the audience with virtuosic music. Concerning Saint-Léon’s unusual talents, the composer Adolphe Adam commented:

Saint-Léon belongs to the Paganini school. He seeks his principal effects in the eccentricities and the difficulties of harmonics and the succession of pizzicato  and col arco, which does not prevent him from playing with infinite style and elegance the air varié  and the various andante passages of which his musical role is composed. Account must also be taken of the extreme difficulty of taking up the violin in the middle of a scene and playing it at a given moment, without time to make all the preparations that a musician never neglects before commencing his solo.

In telling that ballet’s story, Cyril Beaumont described what the character Urbain was to do. Given the violin (which obviously is important to the plot):

He takes it mechanically and plays some strange chords, until at last he evolves a glorious melody which he suddenly ends….An angel appears and tells Urbain that he may vanquish any evil spirit by playing the melody. The angel vanishes to give place to a demon who menaces the violinist. Urbain takes up the violin and repeats the melody, which causes the demon to vanish. Father Anselme [the priest] praises the young man and assures him that he is delivered from evil.

In real life, Arthur Saint-Léon was born in Paris and first learned to dance from his father, who was himself a court ballet master. However, this multi-talented future star also studied violin with Niccolo Paganini and actually made his debut as a violinist at age 13, one year before his debut as a dancer onstage. Early on he crossed national boundaries to perform as both ballet dancer and violin recitalist, and also toured Europe extensively with the famous dancer Fanny Cerrito, whom he married in 1845.  Le Violon du diable was among his first choreographic successes in Paris—with Fanny Cerrito dancing the female lead and with the score by Pugni. A decade later, both choreographer and composer would be in St. Petersburg working together on ballets.

For a time Saint Léon managed to wear the hat as ballet master in both Russia and France. For the Paris Opéra he revived La Fille mal gardée in 1866, and noteworthy here in our consideration of the music composed by Delibes, Saint-Léon choreographed La Source the same year. Then came Coppélia four years later. The choreographer did live to see the premiere on May 25 and the first subsequent performances of this masterpiece, but he died quite suddenly of a heart attack in September 1870, honored as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher. Additionally he had composed music for some of his ballets (for instance Saltarello, done in Lisbon in 1855).

Coppélia through the years

It is noteworthy that in the dance historian Ivor Guest’s listing of ballets performed at the Paris Opéra more than 100 times,  #1 was Coppélia: 826 times from 1870-1991. (Giselle was only runner-up: 718 times from 1841-1998.)

Through the years, many choreographers have staged their own versions of Coppélia. Most managed to be faithful to Saint-Léon’s original style and structure. However, many traditional productions are based on the stagings in St. Petersburg by Marius Petipa in 1884. That version in itself was revised in 1894 by Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti. It was that tradition which Anna Pavlova presented when she made her debut in New York at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910.

In describing his own choreographed version in 1974 for New York City Ballet, George Balanchine commented:

Delibes is one of my favorite composers for dance. In our new Coppélia, we used the entire score of the three-act version. The first dance drama of really uniform excellence deserves no less! No part of the ballet is subordinate to any other; most important of all, ballet music in Coppélia participates in the dance drama as never before, Delibes’ charming, melodic music assisting the plot and unifying the music and dance….Delibes is the first great ballet composer; Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are his successors.

More recently, a comparison of how the ballet’s story differed from the ones that inspired it was given in a master’s thesis by Arthur E. Lafex:

Coppélia is a ballet about a young woman who pretends to be a doll. While this may be an appropriate subject for a ballet, the original story, a psychological drama about a young man’s descent into madness and suicide, was not. In the process of creating the ballet scenario, the scenarist Charles Nuitter made significant changes, creating new characters and a new plot line and assembling them into a story that could become the basis for a successful ballet. Nuitter combined elements from two different sources: the original short story “Der Sandmann” by E.T. A. Hoffmann, published in 1817 in the collection Nachtstücke or Night Pieces (1816-17), and an adaptation of the original story for the comic opera La Poupée de Nuremberg (1852) with music by Adolphe Adam. The two versions provided Nuitter with several options for developing the final version; where the original story was too dark in tone for a ballet, the operatic adaptation provided lighter alternatives.

An enormous departure from the original ballet’s traditional story was made by the Paris Opéra Ballet when Patrice Bart revisited E.T. A. Hoffmann’s writing and found aspects that he has characterized as “sinister.” While retaining many aspects of the original ballet and familiar choreography, he reworked the plot to suggest several psychological split personalities, and in the process he realized he needed some music that wasn’t so cheerful at some points. Yet he did not want to interpolate compositions by any other composer—so instead he inserted sections from Delibes’ two operas Lakmé and Le roi l’a dit  for the Paris performance filmed in 2011. Upon viewing the DVD, it can be said that the dancing itself in the Paris/Bart version is quite compelling. However, people who  are not familiar with Coppélia at all might consider making first acquaintance via a traditional performance, and then try the new Paris revisionist one if you are curious.

* * *

Going back to the original Coppélia, here is what the famous impresario Serge Diaghilev called it:

the most beautiful ballet in existence, a pearl which has no equal in the ballet repertory.

notes and explorations:

performances: A montage of Bolshoi performance.

An enjoyable traditional revival of Coppélia  was issued on Opus Arte DVD, the 2000 BBC broadcast of the performance by The Royal Ballet. Conducted by Nicolae Moldoveneau. Starring Leanne Benjamin as Swanilda; Carlos Acosta as Franz; and Luke Heydon as Dr. Coppélius. This production was restaged by Anthony Dowell after the version first presented by Ninette de Valois, which in turn was based on the choreography of Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti. Highly recommended.

There is an older 1980 Kultur DVD of Coppélia that despite its filming technology is still very worth seeing. Performed by the Ballet de San Juan, it starred Fernando Bujones, Ana Maria Castanon, and a fine local cast. It must have been thrilling to see this live, and the Puerto Rican audience was enthusiastic—with reason!

Australian Ballet.  Coppélia. 1990. Directed by George Ogilvie. Choreography originally by Arthur Saint-Léon. Revised by Petipa and Cechetti; additional choreography, Peggy van Praagh. Conductor, Noel Smith. Featuring Lisa Pavane  and Greg Horsman. Kultur DVD. For a charming traditional performance of Coppélia, here is part 1 of the Paris Opera presentation, with students of their school. David Coleman conducts. Costumes, everything, just lovely. During the overture, some of the students (young indeed) are shown preparing. 23 minutes. This is part 2. About 40 minutes. A contemporary French violinist who (like Saint-Léon), has a double talent for music and dance! Five minutes to enjoy.

modern version:

The description of the genesis of the story is from a master’s thesis, Reviving Ballet in the Nineteenth Century: Music, Narrative, and Dance in Delibes’s Coppélia written in 2013 by Arthur E. Lafex at the University of Kansas. Posted online:;s

The modern Paris Opéra Ballet version set by Patrice Bart is on Opus Arte DVD, 2011. The notes indicate that the modern choreographer based his ballet on Saint-Léon, but it is wildly different. Conducted by Koen Kessels. Starring Dorothée Gilbert, Mathias Heymann, José Martinez, and Fabrice Bourgeois. Includes an introductory guide by the Ballet’s director Brigitte Lefevre.  Bart explains how he reworked both the story and the musical aspects, so viewers will learn how he arrived at such an unusual staging.  Review of the Bart version by Alastair Macaulay. He calls it “a horror…miserable, inconsistent and shallow….And everything here is grotesquely, insistently unmusical — even anti-musical….To the company that first gave “Coppélia” to the world, Mr. Bart has given an anti-“Coppélia.” Now the Paris Opera has broadcast it to the world. Why?”


A piano score is available from Schott.

The quote from Roger Fiske is on p. 22 of his book Ballet Music. Also, p. 30 he provides a piano reduction with words to the song by Polish composer Moniuszko.

Balanchine’s comments are on p. 138 of Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Ballets. In his account, there is a lengthy report about other revivals since the Paris premiere, plus reviews of the New York City version.

The quotation from Adolphe Adam about Saint-Léon’s violin playing is from Ivor Guest, The Ballet of the Second Empire (Binsted, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd. 1970) p. 44. The list of most-performed ballets is on pp. 143-44. Also includes lists of principal dancers, ballet masters, and every ballet produced there from 1776 to 2004.

The  author Ivor Guest introduces us to individual dancers as real people who had their own lives and enormous challenges, as well as pleasures. He describes the daunting daily routines of the young ballet students; the challenges of the judged tests; the place of jewelry and jealousy among the young professional females; the power and effects of the fashionable men known collectively as “The Jockey Club;” the equivalent of “Ballet Moms” even back then; the financial pressures upon the young dancers to help support their families; the lure and dangers of love affairs…as well as their possible financial rewards. Then there were those who had outside interests and were not led astray…and those who rose to great artistry in their careers.

For further details about the career of Arthur Saint-Léon, a good introduction is the entry in the IED. V. 5 p. 501. The author Monique Babsky reports that Saint-Léon had sent folk melodies to Delibes for inclusion into the score of Coppélia. She doesn’t say which ones were actually incorporated, and it may be safe to say that Delibes—like most composers—would not go to any trouble to document his “sources.” But the important thing is that the flavor and the rhythmic underpinnings in his compositions are good representations of “the real thing” when it comes to music for European folk dances.

For an overview of some of the various revivals of Coppélia through the years, see the  entry in the IED written by Claude Conyers.

The opinion of Serge Diaghilev was mentioned in the liner notes (edited by Tricia Petri) to the 2000 BBC/Opus Arte DVD of Coppélia.


Oh those woodland horns! You’ll hear four or five of them in the overture casting an aura of romanticism. Then after the curtain opens and huntress nymphs appear, there are stronger sounds of hunting horns. And when Sylvia and her companions perform their first waltz, it is the horn soloist who gets to play the simple yet haunting melody accompanied by strings.

Hunting horns (which can play only natural harmonics) had long been used for signaling in actual aristocratic hunts. In the ballet world, a hunting horn plays a crucial role in Giselle by summoning the noble party, thus leading to the reassembling of the aristocrats, then to the discovery that Loys is really Albrecht, engaged to a fine noble lady.

But in Sylvia, the hunting horns are connected to Diana, goddess of the hunt. And though she doesn’t appear until the third act, she does play an important role in the ballet. Actually, the subtitle is The Nymph of Diana. The story was developed by Jules Barbier and the Baron de Reinach based on “Aminta” by the Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso, and the choreography for the Paris premiere in June 1876 was by Louis Mérante. For the premiere performance in 1876, Rita Sangalli danced the part of Sylvia; the choreographer himself portrayed the shepherd Aminta; Louise Marquet was Diana; Marie Sanlaville was Eros; and Francesco Magri was Orion.

* * *

Sylvia’s original choreographer Louis Mérante (1828-87) was only six when he made his debut in Liège in an opera that had a ballet. By 18 he was a premier danseur in Marseille, and two years later joined the Paris Opéra Ballet where he understudied the great dancer Lucien Petipa (brother of the choreographer Marius). Mérante became widely known as a leading male dancer of his time. He married a Russian dancer, but was always in France, developing into a choreographer of not only Sylvia, but also Les Deux Pigéons (with music by André Messager)—both of which were given wonderful revivals by Frederick Ashton and the Royal Ballet. In 1869 Mérante was appointed ballet master of the Paris Opera, so in addition to creating more full-length ballets, he fashioned dances to be interpolated into operas—and sometimes had to perform in them as well. His collaboration with Delibes is said to have been meticulous, with the composer responding handily to many requests for changes.

The ballet was revived by other choreographers over the years, including by Léo Staats, ballet master of the Paris Opera Ballet, in 1919. George Balanchine, a great admirer of the composer Léo Delibes, went so far as to call the ongoing Paris productions “one of the glories of France.” Sylvia became also one of the glories of England when Frederick Ashton’s version was mounted in London in 1952. The original cast included Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes, John Hart, and Alexander Grant. Other modern settings include George Balanchine’s pas de deux excerpt for New York City Ballet, and most recently, Mark Morris directed another production, by the San Francisco Ballet.

the story

It seems that for a long time in the past, both choreographers and audiences never tired of stories based on mythological characters, and on love affairs between gods and mortals or goddesses and mortals. In this case, Sylvia is not a goddess, but a nymph dedicated to Diana who was a goddess—of the hunt. The mortal in question is a shepherd named Aminta, who has either (however you look at it) the fortune or the misfortune of falling in love with Sylvia as she and her companions dance in  front of a statue of Eros, god of love. An unfortunate event is that Sylvia wounds Aminta with an arrow, prompting the statue of Eros to miraculously come alive and shoot an arrow into Sylvia’s heart.

Also in love with Sylvia is Orion the hunter—the bad guy in this plot. He abducts Sylvia but is at one point overcome by wine. The plot thickens as Eros is determined to reunite the lovers. Sometimes Eros wears wings and brings a boat for the rescue return; in some productions he disguises himself as a pirate. In any case, he delivers Sylvia safely to Aminta and they arrive at a festival of grapes and wine in honor of the god Bacchus, held at the temple of Diana. Just in time to dance a most beautiful pas de deux, and for Sylvia to do her solo on pointe to the famous pizzicato music. Along the way to the finale, Diana accurately aims a deadly arrow and fells Orion. So he is out of the way. But Diana is still angry that her nymph would love a human. Eros, however, reminds the goddess of her own past human lover Endymion. Upon that reminder, Diana forgives the new young pair.

looking and listening

Ashton’s version as restaged by Christopher Newton can be enjoyed on a DVD with the sparkling lead role danced by Darcey Bussell (Sylvia); plus wonderful portrayals by Roberto Bolle (Aminta); Martin Harvey (Eros); and Thiago Soares (Orion) in a 2005 performance. Ashton had given the lovers, nymphs, naiads, and fauns beautiful dances to perform, with surprisingly dramatic and by turns hilarious sections for Eros, and of course, threatening movements for Orion. There is a lot to watch for in the footwork. Aminta has a long solo in the first act; there is a memorable pas de deux later on; and the villagers dancing with their farm tools also add to the general atmosphere. The music and the movements seem always to merge in spirit as well as rhythmically and melodically.

Another recent setting of Sylvia was by Mark Morris for San Francisco Ballet in 2004. Though known primarily as a modern dance choreographer, in this case Morris said he was trying to adhere as closely as possible to what is known about the 1876 production—and particularly, to respect Delibes’ music. The production was quite successful, and the entire cast was brought to New York City for memorable performances at the Metropolitan Opera House. Unfortunately no DVD of that production has been released, but there is a CD with the ballet score performed by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.

Rather than offering verbal descriptions of this excellent musical score, it is suggested that readers listen to some of the available CDs—or better yet, watch the Royal Ballet’s traditional mounting of the ballet.Though not recommended as a first acquaintance with Sylvia, at least mention should be made of the only other DVD currently available, the Paris Opera National Ballet’s performance of John Neumeier’s choreography first mounted on the company in 1997. Viewers’ comments range from “silly” to “horrendous” and from “great stuff” to “magnificent.” For now, the version can be seen online. It was not intended to convey the flavor and style of what the original choreographer and composer intended—and it doesn’t, no matter how beautifully the dancers themselves may be performing at any particular moment.

I personally love the more traditional approach to Sylvia, having seen live performances, first years ago when the Royal Ballet brought the Ashton production to New York, and more recently when Mark Morris brought San Francisco Ballet to New York. But as the liner notes by David Nice for the Royal Ballet DVD remind us, this is, after all, the work that impelled Tchaikovsky to remark:

It is the first ballet in which the music constitutes not just the main but the only interest. What charm and elegance, what riches in the melody, the rhythm, the harmony.


notes and explorations:


Sylvia is available in a piano score reduction from Kalmus. There is also a piano transcription published in Elibron edition, unabridged facsimile of the edition published in 1876 by Heugel & Fils in Paris.

According to New Grove, [v. 2, p. 583] “none of the original choreography by Louis Mérante has survived.” Worth reading, and illustrated. This may alert those who are new to the ballet as to what “flavor” and style were originally intended! Chart of revival performances.

Balanchine’s praise of Sylvia is on p. 617 of his Complete Stories of the Ballet.

A somewhat gruesome note is made in David Vaughan’s  Frederick Ashton and His Ballets (London: Dance Books, 2nd edition, 1999) p. 443, namely that the two delightful goat dancers represent “sacrificial goats destined for the altar of Bacchus.” Well, that part is not included in the ballet. We see them only as jovial very much alive characters.

By the way, it should be noted that woodland characters who appear in Sylvia and other Romantic ballets, are variously called nymphs, naiads, dryads, and fauns. Apparently non-human, they might be (like the gods and goddesses) immortal. In any case, it seems they (again, like the gods and goddesses) were capable of making love to mortals, with resulting offspring. The question then arises: were the reported 50 daughters that Diana had with Endymion mortal or immortal—or maybe somewhere in-between and could expect to live until 100 or something? Interesting aside: Diana was also goddess of childbirth and women, but she herself was supposed not to marry. Then there is another intriguing question: if the goddesses were immortal, yet born as children, at what age did they stop growing? (This question arising in relation to the ballet having Diana recall her love affair with Endymion in her own “youth.”) This is Jack Anderson’s article in The New York Times of May 29, 2005 titled “The Irresistible Sylvia Seduces Again,” about the American Ballet Theatre performances which were a co-production with the Royal Ballet, drawing on Frederick Ashton’s choreography plus restaging by Christopher Newton. A review of Mark Morris production of Sylvia, from The New Yorker.  Scathing review by Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times of Oct. 15, 2015 concerning the Joffrey Ballet’s production choreographed by John Neumeier. Basically he calls this version “disagreeable in style and content,” and reports that “He takes the Sylvia story in the opposite direction from what Delibes had in mind.”

performances: Sample of the traditional Royal Ballet production of Sylvia. If you subscribe to their offerings you can see the entire ballet online. Alternatively you can rent or buy the 2005 DVD via amazon.

DVD of Royal Ballet performing Sylvia on Opus Arte follows Frederick Ashton’s choreography newly staged by Christopher Newton. Starring Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle; Thiago Soares as Orion; Martin Harvey as Eros; Mara Galeazzi as Diana. The Royal Ballet Orchestra conducted by Graham Bond. Extra track has director Newton telling about the production, and how all he had to go on were black and white films with no sound—and his memory. A thoroughly beautiful performance! Just the famous pas de deux in a splendid performance by Martine van Hamel and Patrick Bissell. From American Ballet Theatre production staged by André Eglevsky; choreography by George Balanchine. The epitome of classical ballet perfection. Conductor, Alan Barker. 15 minute excerpt. A lovely 1965 video of Allegra Kent and Jacques d’Amboise in the pas de deux from Sylvia.

As already mentioned, there is no DVD of Mark Morris’s version available. As danced by the San Francisco Ballet, it was quite beautiful. Until there is a DVD, at least you can listen to a CD recording of Sylvia by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Martin West, on Reference Recordings label. Despite the scathing review linked above, here is online mounting of Paris DVD with the Neumeier setting. It must be said that the dancers are quite beautiful in some of the sequences, but the choreography…oh well, if your preference is for more traditional interpretation, you can always listen to the orchestra conducted by Paul Connelly while you do other things.

The Paris Opéra Ballet

By now readers will probably have noticed that many of the musical scores highlighted in these essays were choreographed for premiere performances by the Paris Opéra Ballet, a company that continues to this day, and one that can boast of a glorious past going all the way back to the reign of Louis XIV, with the founding of the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661.

However, around the time of its 1876 production of Sylvia with its score by Delibes, the company began to lose its preeminence in the world of ballet. Indeed, according to the dance historian Ivor Guest:

But for its music, Sylvia would have soon been forgotten. For its first three performances it was presented on its own, without an accompanying opera, an experiment that was not to the public’s taste. Generously served by the choreographer, Sangelli [Rita Sangelli, the lead ballerina] enjoyed a personal triumph, but the ballet was only moderately successful.

Writing her entry for the Paris Opera Ballet in the IED, Marie-Francoise Christout placed the beginning of the company’s fading before that, during 1870 (the year Coppélia had been produced):

The defeat of France in the Franco- Prussian War of 1870-71 marked the end of an era, and the company then stagnated for more than fifty years. The Salle le Pelletier burned down in 1873, and the Opera moved first to the Salle Ventadour and then in 1876 to the Palais Garnier [where Sylvia was presented].

As noted already, after the cheerful, light-hearted initial performances of Coppélia, Chaos took center stage. Coppélia premiered on May 25, 1870. On July 16, the parliament of France declared war on its neighbors in the North German states and Prussia. The German armies, bolstered by required conscription, perhaps numbered up to a million. They quickly conquered eastern France. By January 28, 1871 they conquered Paris. The Emperor Napoleon III was among those captured. Bad enough, but then a revolutionary group known as the Paris Communard seized power. It in turn was suppressed by the French army. At the end of the hostilities from the war itself, battle deaths were estimated at 77,000; then 45,000 more died of sickness. Maybe as many as 142,000 more survived but had been wounded. Thousands of French people suffered as prisoners of war. And the French casualties inflicted by their fellow citizens were upwards of 500, then multiplied by the government forces which fought them. In the turmoil, it is thought that there were entire massacres of men, women, and children. And so it went. On and on with the miseries and cruelties.

The dance historian Ivor Guest wrote a book titled The Ballet of the Second Empire, which provides a detailed account of the ballet world in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III and ending with Coppélia.  He observed:

When peace came after the tragedy of 1870, little of that Romantic spirit, which had so vitalized the dance in the eighteen-thirties and forties, was left in the ballet: its last flame had died, with the choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon, in the turmoil of war, and only glowing embers remained to recall glories but recently past.

How could any kind of civilized culture or art survive such horrors? How was it possible for Delibes by 1876 to have composed such beautiful music for such a relatively gentle ballet as Sylvia with woodland dances, gods and goddesses, a temple of Diana, village dances, rustic festivals involving wine and harvests? In contrast to real post-war-life, for some people perhaps going to the ballet was a cheerful distraction. And surprisingly, according to Ivor Guest: “The improving standard of ballet music was one of the redeeming features of French ballet at this period.”

Lalo’s Namouna

Among new ballets was Namouna in 1882, choreographed by Lucien Petipa, with music by Édouard Lalo (1823-1892). The then-young composer Debussy called the score to Namouna “a masterpiece,” though the ballet initially had only 15 performances. Later, dance historian Ivor Guest called the score “musically so much in advance of its time that it was not to be fully appreciated until nearly a quarter of a century later.”

Apparently the composer was under such stress to complete the score on a schedule that near the end of his work it was thought to have caused him a stroke. Fortunately he was able to call upon Charles Gounod to help complete the orchestrations for some of the last few sections.

Lalo’s music for Namouna was at the time considered “too Wagnerian,” but to our modern ears, the orchestration is quite lush and varied; the rhythms are clear for dancers’ recognition; and the sections include not only free forms for more dramatic theatrical moments, but also some familiar types such as waltz, mazurka, march, moresca, and gitane (gypsy). The music might well lend itself as aural partner to entirely new contemporary choreography. And indeed, in 2013, Alexei Ratmansky used the score for his comic ballet. (See notes for very brief clip.)

Partly because of the criticism that his stage music was “too Wagnerian,” Lalo turned attention to composing for orchestra and chamber music. Like many other French musicians, he had been a product of education at the Paris conservatory and went on to earn his living as a string player and teacher. Concert audiences today know him for his Spanish-flavored Symphonie espagnole for solo violin and orchestra.

Messager’s Two Pigeons

A delightful 1886 addition to the repertoire in Paris was Les Deux Pigeons with a score by André Messager (1853-1929). He was a French organist and composer who had studied with Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré. Messager also became a conductor at the Paris Opéra-Comique and wrote eight operas himself.  His score for Les  Deux Pigeons is his best known ballet score. Among his others: Fleur d’oranger (1878); Les Vins de France (1879); Mignons et vilains (1879); Amants éternels (1893); Le Procès des roses (1896);  Le chevalier aux fleurs  (1897); and Une aventure de la Guimard (1900).

In his time, Messager’s stage works were very popular, and some were even presented in English in London and on New York City’s Broadway. Perhaps not as well known as his compositions is the fact that he was also for a time an administrative leader in theaters, and did conducting as well. In 1897 Messager was appointed musical director of the Opéra-Comique. He was at Covent Garden in London from 1901-1907, conducting and mounting Les Deux Pigeons among other projects. And back in Paris, from 1907 until 1914 he was joint director of the entire Paris Opéra.

Les Deux Pigeons was based on La Fontaine’s fable, but translated into balletic terms, centered around a loving couple, with the male going off for awhile to see what gypsy life is like. Frederick Ashton choreographed a charming version of this, and a revival of it can be seen on DVD. It gives us a sample of some of the fine composition for ballet that did continue in Paris after Coppélia.

Massenet’s Le Cid

Meanwhile, one branch of theater which did thrive was French opera, and the composer then considered a leading provider of new works was Jules Massenet (1842-1912). Born in the Loire valley, when he was a young child, his family moved to Paris—and that is where both his musical education and his career unfolded. After his studies at the conservatory, he won a Prix de Rome which took him to Italy for three years. Upon his return to Paris, the pattern of his life developed with teaching, and with composing daily from four in the morning until noon. That discipline resulted in his composing twenty-nine operas. In our own time, Manon continues to be performed.

Massenet’s opera Le Cid received 150 performances in Paris between its premiere in 1885 and 1919, then was put aside in Paris until its revival in 2015. Based on the 1637 play by Pierre Corneille, it portrays the by turns tragic and heroic story of an 11th century knight named Rodrigue who (to save his own father’s “honor”) kills the father of the woman he loves. Nevertheless, he is sent to battle the Moors on behalf of the Spanish king.

In Act II there are several ballet scenes. In the first, the Infanta is giving out gifts, and dancers perform to Spanish dances, some of which Massenet composed especially for the ballerina Rosita Mauri. In the segment before Rodrigue is about to lead the knights into battle, he stops the dancing: “For shame! Is this how you spend your last hours before war, instead of praying to the Lord? Let the angel of sleep cover us with its wings, for tomorrow the angel of death will be with us.”

Rodrigue is despondent, but has a vision of St. James and goes on to victory. Reported to his father as dead, yet the knight returns and finally Chimène (the woman he loves) forgives him for killing her father.

The dances in Act II are: Castillane, Andalouse, Aragonaise, Aubade, Catalane, Madrilene, and Navarraise. The music is from time to time featured as a suite in orchestral concert performances. (See notes for a link to a good one.) .

decline of the ballet company

Just when such opera as Le Cid was flourishing, unfortunately everything did not go well for the Paris Opera Ballet late in the 19th century. There had been a fire in the royal theater, and for quite a time, performances had to be arranged elsewhere while the giant Palais Garnier was built—between 1861 and 1875. This was considered one of the good things that Napoleon III started during his reign. And the building was enlightened—literally—by electricity in the 1880s. However, the director from 1884 to 1907, Pedro Gailhard, was hard indeed: to manage the high costs of presenting opera in the new building, he cut way back on budgets for the ballet. Nevertheless, the ballet company was able to continue offering some works. Then in 1894 there was another huge fire in their set storage facility that destroyed most of the ballet’s sets. Artistically, things seemed to go downhill as well, and it became a challenge for the Paris Opera Ballet to try and attract luminary talents.

Going ahead chronologically to the twentieth century, mention has already been made of the one full-length ballet that had been composed by Camille Saint-Saëns: Javotte, choreographed by the ballet master Léo Staats in 1909.

But that year was also a tremendous turning point in the history of theatrical ballet. Russia, which had been attracting French dance artists for decades (as well as Italian dancers and composers) increasingly became the center of creative ballet activity during the end of the nineteenth century. Then in 1909 the Ballets Russes exploded on the Parisian scene and outshone other dance there. It would be many years before the Paris Opéra Ballet recovered its reputation as one of the world-class centers of classical theatrical ballet.

notes and explorations:


The quotation from Ivor Guest is from The Ballet of the Second Empire, (Binsted, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd., 2014 edition of the work first published in 1953), p. 1. Highly recommended for dance history buffs who are interested in information about the dancers themselves. Starting p, 233 he describes the young Giuseppina Bozzacchi, who was to star in Coppélia. The account continues p. 244 with reports about the first performance. Guest comments:

Seldom had a débutante been received so enthusiasticlaly as was Giuseppina Bozzacchi on this first performance of Coppélia.” On August 31st she danced her role for the 18th and last time. The theater closed down for the duration of the Franco-Prussian War. On September 2, the choreographer Saint-Léon had a heart attack and died. Delibes played the organ for the funeral. By September 18th Paris in effect became an armed camp. People were cold and food was scarce. Disease was rampant, and on her 17th birthday, the budding ballet star died of smallpox. [Guest’s book ends with an account of the young girl’s funeral.]

The comment about the 1880s and music is from Ivor Guest, p. 64.


Ivor Guest’s comment about Namouna is from his book The Paris Opéra Ballet, p. 65.

There is a 1994 CD on ASV Living Era label, with performances of the two suites by the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Yondani Butt—and via you can purchase individual numbers from the 11 tracks. Just the prelude from the above CD. Other movements are mounted separately on You Tube.

A CD on the Auvidis Valois label offers 16 pieces from the ballet’s 23 sections. Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo conducted by David Robertson.  Five excerpts from the CD.

Lovely recording of the two suites Lalo drew from his ballet. Orchestre National de l’ORTF conducted by Jean Martinon. Available through Naxos:

There are no complete films of any ballet production of Namouna, but here is a short clip of Sara Mearns telling what it was like to dance in Alexi Ratmansky’s  new comic setting of the score by Édouard Lalo. Review by Roslyn Sulcas, “The Sailor Who Fell Into Grace With the Wig-Wearing Nymphs.” Very interesting description of Ratmansky’s setting of Namouna.

In his October 7, 2013 review of the New York City Ballet performance, New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay called Alexi Ratmansky’s Namouna, a Grand Divertissement:

a fascinating and delicious if obviously frustrating work that demonstrates much of the nature of Mr. Ratmansky’s talent….You can’t watch Namouna  without a strong sense of its triviality and absurdity—and yet its details are compelling.

Macaulay went on to write:

Best of all is its entirely ravishing score by Édouard Lalo, who wrote Namouna in 1881. Though the overture strongly recalls both the sublime opening and ending of Wagner’s Rheingold, the capering melodies throughout are entirely French. (They often sound close to those of André Messager in the beloved ballet Les Deux Pigeons.) And the shimmering orchestration, both delicate and bright, anticipates Ravel. Biography with many credits for the resident choreographer of American Ballet Theatre.  His previous performing career included being principal dancer with Ukrainian National Ballet , and his own works are widely performed by many companies around the globe.  Beginning with ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie stating that the best thing he ever did was hire Alexei Ratmansky as choreographer. Titled as a profile, it includes colleagues and a dance journalist summarizing their impressions of Ratmansky’s ballets.

For those not familiar with the composer, here is a brief clip of violinist Joshua Bell talking about Symphonie espagnole.

Joshua Bell recorded the complete Lalo work along with a Saint-Saëns concerto, on Decca label. Charles Dutoit conducting Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Joshua Bell performs the 5th movement of Symphonie espagnole with the National Symphony Orchestra—and a nice surprise—with the Dance Heginbotham performing in 2017 at the Kennedy Center Website for splendid contemporary dance company headed by John Heginbotham (formerly a dancer with Mark Morris). The dance done with Joshua Bell is identified as Lola, and there is a bit of information about it. Of considerable interest are the videos that the company embarked on during the pandemic time. A good one to start with is a long conversation precisely about music and dance, hosted by Christy Bolingbrooke in Akron, including violinist Colin Jacobsen and video editor Maile Okamura. Among works discussed are the choreographer’s setting of Caprices by Paganini.  This is Luke Hsu performing the work with the New England Conservatory Orchestra under Hugh Wolf.

Two Pigeons: This is an engaging six-minute introduction to The Two Pigeons with the artists of the Royal Ballet explaining aspects. A 20-minute clip of Christopher Carr, guest ballet master for the Royal Ballet, rehearsing Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell for their roles in The Two Pigeons. Pianist is Kate Shipnay.

On amazon. com there is a viewing option of a 2015 film of The Two Pigeons  performed by the Royal Ballet.

The DVD on Opus Arte is the same as above. Messager’s music was adapted by John Lanchbery. The conductor was Barry Wordsworth. And the wonderful dancers were Lauren Cuthbertson as the young lover/model, Vadim Muntagirov as the painter trying to get her to sit still. The rest of the cast were splendid, portraying gypsies and young friends. Ashton’s riveting choreography was revived and staged by Christopher Carr. Really worth watching and enjoying. The melodies composed by Messager for The Two Pigeons are quite beautiful, in a lush vein similar to the previous style of Delibes.  John Lanchbery, with his usual skill, revised the orchestration and interpolated a passage from one of Messager’s best-known operas, Véronique.

The Two Pigeons was originally performed at the Paris Opéra in 1886 with Mérante’s choreography. His scenario has the ballet set in 18th century Thessaly. The dance did include a pas de deux imitating two pigeons. It is most enjoyable to see exactly how Ashton picked up on that so many years later. And yes, those are real birds you will see on the DVD.

 Le Cid  Performance by Odyssey Opera orchestra of just the ballet music from Le Cid. Gil Rose, artistic director. Beautiful rendition! An enjoyable arrangement of all the ballet music performed by the University of Michigan Symphonic Band conducted by Michael Haithcock. This is a complete performance of the opera, by the Washington Opera, given at the Kennedy Center and televised on PBS. Placido Domingo sang the title role of Rodrigue; Elisabete Matos was heard in the role of Chimène; and the chorus and other singers were excellent. Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. The choreography of the dances in Act II seemed somewhat disappointing, perhaps because of the long costumes that limited movement. English subtitles.

In his book The Story of Opera (Harry Abrams, 1998, p. 167), the author Richard Somerset-Ward had this to say about Massenet: “No other French composer of the period approached the triumphs of Massenet.”

past highlights:

For details in a chronological introduction to the succession of choreographers, directors, leading dancers, and major works produced at the Paris Opera Ballet through the years, see the IED entry V. 5, pp. 86-99 by Marie-Francoise Christout.

For a longer consideration of the company’s history, see Ivor Guest, The Paris Opéra Ballet (Alton: Dance Books, 2006). The appendix offers a list of what the author terms “modern ballets” from 1776 to 2004. Includes the choreographers, music, staging, scenery and costumes. Separate listings are provided for principal dancers and ballet masters, plus an interesting run-down of ballets performed more than 100 times.