Coppélia - The Music


Léo Delibes (1836 – 1891)

“Musicians are too prone to consider greatness a monopoly of those who enrich the more serious forms of their art, which Delibes did not aspire to do. He was a great master in the sense that Johann Strauss was a great master. Moreover, he was a great master of French music.” (Edwin Evans, Music and the Dance)


Clément-Philibert (Léo) Delibes studied at the Paris Conservatoire and took advanced classes with Adolphe Adam, the composer of Giselle. He achieved early successes with the composition of sketches and one-act operettas, starting from the age of 20 and going on for the next 15 years. He became chorus-master at the Théatre-Lyrique and, from 1864, took the same post at the Paris Opéra. His first ballet commission, in collaboration with Ludwig Minkus, was La Source. His work received very favourable notices and completely eclipsed those for the better known Minkus. He was immediately commissioned to compose a divertissement for a revival of Adam’s Le Corsaire and, shortly afterwards, the score for Coppélia. Then in his early thirties, Delibes was very much the junior partner to Saint-Léon and Nuitter; but it is principally his music that has kept this ballet, in its many adaptations, a mainstay of the international repertory.

Musically, Coppélia begins where Giselle left off, in a similar structure of short numbers arranged for colour and contrast, and extending the previous tentative experiments with leitmotif, themes that directly express and identify mood and/or character. Swanilda, Franz, and Dr Coppélius are each presented through their themes (two in the case of Franz, these taking note of the fact that the roles was first danced by a woman en travesty), rather than just accompanied by them.

The widespread European trend, at the time, towards various kinds of musical nationalism finds expression in Coppélia in exuberant corps de ballet dances. Indeed, Saint-Léon, the choreographer of Coppélia, had been an infant prodigy of the violin and had a deep knowledge of music. His interest in national dances no doubt influenced the choice of the mazurka and czardas in the first act. He hummed some folk melodies to Delibes for inclusion in the score but caused embarrassment to the composer when it was discovered that the Slavonic theme used for variations in the first act was not an ancient folk melody but an original song by the then living composer Moniuszko.

Delibes was in a sense the first ‘impressionist’ composer, in that he followed similar principles to those of the leading contemporary pictorial artists in making the different uses of colour the most important element in his composition. He also had the invaluable gift of combining an equal facility for illustrating detail, expressing emotional mood, and stimulating the sense of movement in a way that was more effective in ballet than in his operas. He surpassed this achievement in Coppélia only with his one later and superior ballet score, Sylvia (for Louis Mérante in 1876). Here the technique of scene-painting is extended to what is virtually a descriptive tone-poem. A score that Tchaikovsky admired and led to him ranking Delibes above Brahms.

As Edwin Evans said, “Delibes stood head and shoulders above his predecessors in all that goes to the making of good ballet music.”

  • A Music Note by Dr Mark Carroll

    We have grown accustomed to thinking that Piotr Tchaikovsky virtually single-handedly legitimised and invigorated ballet music, and it’s all too easy to overlook the trail blazed by his illustrious predecessor, the Frenchman Léo Delibes. Delibes’ introduction of the symphony orchestra into the ballet medium earned him the reputation as the "father" of modern ballet, which may Tchaikovsky his prodigious "son". One of the more successful and enduring 19th-century light comedy ballets, Delibes’ Coppélia, or to give it its full title, La Fille yeux d’email (The Girl with the Enamel Eyes), was the composer’s first full-length work.

    Delibes served his apprenticeship under Adolphe Adam – of Giselle fame – at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1866 he attracted critical attention when, in a collaboration with León Minkus (who was to become the last Official Composer to the Imperial Russian Ballet), he outshone his more credentialed partner. The two men shared the compositional duties for La Source and it was Minkus who suffered by direct comparison. A critic in La France Musicale was direct to the point of being brutal: “Minkus’ music has a vague, indolent and melancholic character … that of Delibes’ is fresher, more rhythmic and more complicated in orchestration." Another critic wrote: “The whole of the score could have been entrusted to the young composer, and this will doubtless be done on another occasion.” And so it was. Coppélia was lauded as a quantum leap forward for French ballet music, eclipsing even Adam’s score for Giselle.

    Until Adam, ballet music was more often than not a potpourri of popular tunes and blatant borrowings from the concert music repertoire. It was the dance that audiences came to see, and the music was regarded as secondary – at best a kind of sonic wallpaper, at worst a distraction. While Giselle hinted at other possibilities, Coppélia made them a reality. Writing soon after the May 1870 Paris premiere, a critic in Le Figaro captured perfectly the music’s defining qualities: “M. Léo Delibes has composed for the three scenes of Coppélia a distinguished, piquant, and colourful score, excellently orchestrated … It is very difficult to write for dancing with a little artistry, taste and style… M. Delibes has succeeded in avoiding the commonplace." Given that the composer was still working on the score when rehearsals began, he would doubtless have agreed that it was very difficult to write with "artistry, taste and style". The music moves easily and tunefully between passages for dance and narrative asides, and does so in a way that is witty without being flippant. As Tchaikovsky was to do so effectively, Delibes in Coppélia makes the music integral to the story unfolding. Like Tchaikovsky, Delibes was also a master orchestrator.

    The prelude with which the first tableau opens gives the first indication of the composer’s sublime instrumental colourings as the spotlight moves freely and effortlessly from horns to strings, and finally to short woodwind cadenzas. The tableau proper begins with an elegant waltz as Swanilda tries to attract the attention of a doll sitting in the window of Dr Coppelius’ house. The doll’s response to Franz’s furtive kiss is mirrored in a rhythmic, deliberately ungainly passage for woodwinds. The sheer elegance of Delibes’ melodies comes to the fore in a Hungarian inflected ballade for solo violin as Swanilda tests Franz’s fidelity with a wheat stalk; she remains unconvinced. Following a series of Slavonic-styled set pieces as Swanilda and her friends make merry, the tableau ends with rhythms that recall the doll’s music, recast in a darker, minor key as if to hint at the mysteries that lie in wait at Dr Coppelius’ house.

    The dramatic second tableau is preceded by an entr’acte that literally sets the scene – a paraphrase of the foreboding doll’s music tells us that we have arrived at the doctor’s house, while a repeat of Swanilda’s waltz makes it clear that she is there, too. The curtain rises to muted, staccato violins that reflect the girls’ trepidation as they enter the room where Dr Coppelius keeps his puppets. As Swanilda and the girls explore the room and set the puppets in motion the score springs to life with the tinkling "Musique des Automates". The intrigue that follows is mirrored in the music: the scene where Dr Coppelius drugs Franz with tainted wine is set to a number reminiscent of a German drinking song; Swanilda’s emergence as Coppélia ushers forth the exquisite interplay between flute and strings in the "Valse de la Poupée". Dr Coppelius’ attempt to pacify Coppélia by placing a fan in her hand is accompanied by a bolero and then, in a moment of creative whimsy, a Scottish jig. The music reaches fever pitch as Swanilda makes good her escape and resuces Franz.

    As was to be the case in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (which, like Coppélia, was based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann) the final tableau carries little dramatic action and is instead a series of divertissements celebrating the nuptials of Swanilda and Franz. These short set pieces confirm Delibes’ easy traverse of a range of musical stylings, the culmination of which is the pas de deux for the betrothed couple, with its elegantly crafted viola melody. The success of Coppélia encouraged Delibes – who was described by a friend as “restless,fidgety, slightly befuddled, correcting and excusing himself, lavishing praise, careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, shrewd, adroit, very lively, a sharp critic” – to concentrate on large-scale works. These included another ballet, Sylvia (1876), and the opera which is generally regarded as the culmination of his life’s work, Lakme (1883). All of these works are blessed with Delibes’ musical gifts of charm, wit, elegance, taste and, possibly above all, a craftsmanship that is rarely laboured and seldom bettered.


    © Mark Carroll