Giselle, ballet by French composer Adolphe Adam, first performed in Paris on June 28, 1841. Other than the Christmas carol Minuit, Chrétiens (known in English as O Holy Night), Giselle is Adam’s most famous work.
The idea for the ballet Giselle originated with French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier, who took an interest in German poet Heinrich Heine’s retelling of a Slavic legend concerning the wilis, ghostly spirits of girls who have died before their wedding day. Gautier imagined a version in which a girl betrayed by her beloved dies of a broken heart but returns as a spirit to save him from retribution by the vengeful wilis. Her merciful act saves her from becoming a wili herself.
Gautier took his idea to the Paris Opéra, where a new Italian dancer, Carlotta Grisi, had recently been so well received that the management wanted to feature her in a ballet as soon as possible. The proposal for a ballet with a young heroine seemed perfectly suited to Grisi’s talents, and a libretto was commissioned from Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. Adam was quickly recruited for the new ballet, having written for the Paris Opéra before. Work on the score and its choreography began at once; Giselle made its debut two months later. The original ballet, called a ballet pantomime, devoted almost half the performance time to mime and action scenes that drove the story’s plot, but many 20th-century productions shortened or completely eliminated most of those, focusing on the dance sequences. By the early 21st century a return to the original performance practice had begun.
Of particular musical interest are the jolly hunting music in Act 1, rich with horns and scurrying strings; the tumultuous finale to Act 1, in which Giselle loses her mind and dies; the mysterious music of the wilis in Act 2, in which strings and woodwinds evoke the light-footed spirits; and the alternately triumphant and serene finale at sunrise.