Why Coppelia is a great ballet: #4 – Leo Delibes

The composer of Coppelia, Leo Delibes was one of the first composers to write good music for ballet. Prior to Delibes, ballet music was like wallpaper, useful for keeping dancers in time and making the atmosphere nice. But along came Delibes, and now we have fantastic ballet music. Yeah!

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The music in Coppelia is indescribably expressive and beautiful. Before the dancing even begins, the audience is treated to an overture – a taste of all the best bits of Delibes score before we get distracted by the dancing. The overture was one of the best parts of the ballet! It begins with a quiet soli for horns before it swells up with the strings and wind… oh my heart! – and then it bursts into the muzurka movement with all the excitement of all the brass!

Throughout the whole ballet Delibes uses his brass perfectly. There are beautiful passages for them and they are always used the best they could be to add to the narrative. In fact, all the music adds perfectly to the narrative – but without being enslaved to the narrative. This is music that can exist on its own, it can be enjoyed without any dancing at all! The highlight for me was the theme and variations in the first act. It was a beautiful piece of choreography – a graceful yet fun dance off between Swanilda and her friends. But the music itself was so good you could have closed the curtains on the dancers and still enjoyed it.

Delibes went on to write lots more amazing music, including other ballet music. In fact, he was a massive influence on a whole heap of other ballet composers who wanted their music to be more than wallpaper. I’ll always like the score for Coppelia best, but Tchaikovsky would disagree. Delibes’ score for the ballet Sylvia moved him so much that he wrote openly about how it was better than any of Tchaikovsky’s own works!

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