Collage - Music to the Bournonville Ballets
DACOCD 631 Sylfiden
La Sylphide
DACOCD 632-633 Napoli eller Fiskeren og hans brud
Napoli or The Fisherman and his Bride
DACOCD 634-635 Conservatoriet eller Et Avisfrieri
Le Conservatoire or A Newspaper Courtship from 1808
DACOCD 636-637 Et Folkesagn
A Folk Tale
DACOCD 638-639 Fjernt fra Danmark eller Et Costumebal ombord
Far from Denmark or A Costume Ball aboard Ship
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August Bournonville 1805 – 1879 / 1805 – 2005

by Ole Nørlyng

"Nothing in this world lasts forever, least of all the fleeting visions of the stage."

So wrote August Bournonville in his old age, but he was proved wrong!

Now, two centuries after the birth of Bournonville, much of his choreographic work lives on, and dancers all over the globe work with his style and exercises. Of a life's work of around fifty ballets large and small, dancers still perform five major ones (La Sylphide 1836, Napoli 1842, Le Conservatoire 1849, The Kermesse in Bruges 1851 and A Folk Tale 1854), three minor works (La Ventana 1858, Far from Denmark 1860, The King's Volunteers on Amager 1871) and a number of individual dances (Polka Militaire 1842, William Tell 1842, the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano 1858, Jockey Dance 1876 etc.) to which we can add reconstructed works like Abdallah, 1855, which have found a place in the present-day repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet.

When Bournonville took up his post as ballet-master at the Royal Theatre in 1830 at the age of 25, the dance repertoire still consisted to a certain extent of the Italian ballet-master Vincenzo Galeotti's works. Bournonville did very little to preserve the repertoire of his predeces-sor, and indeed assumed that his own ballets too would disappear from the stage.

This was not to be, and the preserva-tion of the Bournonville repertoire means that, in an unbroken tradition, the Royal Danish Ballet has danced the largest repertoire from the nineteenth century of any company in the world.

August Bournonville was born in Copenhagen in 1805, and remained a Copenhagener despite many extended stays abroad. Nevertheless, there was not one drop of Danish blood in his veins. His mother was Swedish, and his father was the French solo dancer Antoine Bournonville, who had come to Denmark in 1792. August Bournonville grew up in a theatrical milieu, and as a child his own ambitions were directed towards the theatre. His greatest talent was for music and dance, and at the age of eight he made his debut as a dancer in Galeotti's ‘Norse mythology' ballet Lagertha. Later he also experienced success as a child-prodigy singer.

After a first study trip to Paris in 1820, he went back there again in 1824 and stayed there for the next six years. There, in the cosmopolitan city of the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Bournonville encountered the full flourishing of Romanticism. He studied further with Pierre Gardel and August Vestris, and in 1826 he was engaged as a dancer at the Opera there. An international career lay before him.

Yet in 1829 Bournonville chose to leave Paris. He gave a hugely successful guest performance at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, where he also made his debut as a choreographer with Homage to the Graces and published his first book, Nytaarsgave for Dandseyndere ("A New Year's Gift for Lovers of the Dance"). After various negotiations Bournonville signed an 18-year contract with the Royal Theatre, and until his departure as a solo dancer in 1848 he delighted the Copenhagen audiences with his virtuoso dancing and expressive miming as well as a series of significant choreographic works – including ballets, forgotten today, such as Faust (1832), Valdemar (1835), The Festival in Albano (1839), The Toreador (1840), Bellman (1844) – works implying that in the period the dance was regarded as an art that could adequately express both psychological states and dramatic struggles.

As a dancer, Bournonville brought a new style back from Paris, and as a ballet-master he brought the ballet up to date by introducing the Romantic currents of thought that prevailed in poetry and the visual arts. As the most European-oriented personality in Danish theatre at the time, he intro-duced the Danish public to what he had seen and continued to see on the European stages.

He found his dramatic sources in Adam Oehlenschläger's great Norse tragedies, B.S. Ingemann's historical novels and the ‘vaudeville' introduced by Johan Ludvig Heiberg.

The ‘sculptural' ideal. which was of course based on the French school in which Bournonville had trained, also reflects the aesthetic ideals we find in the sculptor Thorvaldsen's works. The depiction of the movements and beauty of the body are in this connection subjected to a classical idea of harmony. Common to Thorvaldsen and Bournonville is the idea that no line should lead to nothing, no movement should be pointless.

To this we can add Bournonville's original scenic talent, in which dance, mime and plasticity make up a totality and of which he himself said:
"Any narrative immediately appears living to my imagination with particular physiognomies, costumes and surroundings, and so deeply imprinted that ten years later, when I read the same book, the same picture appears to me" (Mit Theaterliv, I, Chap. "Mig selv").

While Bournonville was winning greater and greater respect as an artist, he was involved in several disputes. A strong temperament and a considerable element of jealousy in his nature got him into difficulties, nor least with his ballerinas, and when it looked as if the theatre was about to lose a dancer in this way for the third time, certain elements of the audience reacted with booing during Bournonville's entry in the ballet The Toreador. King Christian VIII was sitting in his Royal box, and Bournonville appealed to him directly from the stage. Such behaviour was unprecedented, and was considered lèse majesté. The result was that in 1841 Bournonville had to leave the country for six months without pay. After a stay in Paris, where Bournonville saw among other things the new ballet Giselle, he tried his hand on the Italian stages. But Bournonville returned home, and with him he had the plans for the ballet Napoli.

1848 was a fateful year for Denmark. Centuries of Absolutism were replaced by democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The country went to war over the difficult situation in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Bournonville – who throughout his life was very committed and active as a citizen and patriot – ended his career as a dancer. However, he signed a new contract as ballet-master with the Royal Theatre which now, after the change in the political system, belonged under the state, not to the King. Conditions were anything but easy, and after increasingly vehement disputes with the director of the theatre, Johan Ludvig Heiberg, Bournonville chose to leave again for an engagement as ballet-master at the Vienna Court Opera. However the year 1855-56 did not bring the hoped-for success in Vienna, and since Heiberg had been removed in the meantime, Bournonville returned to the theatre in Copenhagen. Apart from an important three-year engagement as artistic director of the Stockholm Royal Theatre from 1861 until 1864, Bournonville continued his work as ballet-master and director of operas at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen until his final departure in 1877. Two years later, on 30th November 1879 Bournonville died after attending the Sunday service in Copenhagen Cathedral.

While Bournonville had mainly divided his energies artistically from 1830 some way into the 1850s between the major, ambitious romantic and historical ballets on the one hand and the more realistic and entertaining vaudeville ballets and independent divertissements on the other, in the 1860s his creative powers were primarily devoted to two great Norse-mythology ballets, The Valkyrie (1861) and The Lay of Thrym (1868), both created to magnificent scores by J.P.E. Hartmann. Another pioneering work that can be mentioned is The Mountain Hut (1858), where Bournonville was clearly influenced by modern Nordic literature.

The work with the opera led Bournonville to Richard Wagner, and in collaboration with the conductor H.S. Paulli he introduced the German composer to the Danish national theatre with Lohengrin in 1870, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1872 and Tannhäuser in 1875.

Besides his ballets, Bournonville left a consider-able body of writing. Most important are his memoirs, Mit Theaterliv ("My Theatre Life"), which appeared in three volumes in 1847, 1865 and 1877. In addition the ballet-master wrote several works on everything from the Danish and foreign theatre to various political and social subjects, as well as a large – very large – body of works on the theory of ballet. All these very diverse activities reflect great knowledge and a wide horizon as well as a commitment to humanity, which is why Allan Fridericia could use as the subtitle of his biography, written for the centenary of Bournonville's death in 1979, – the ballet-master who reflected the ideals and conflicts of a century".

Two days before his death, Bournonville was in the Royal Theatre for the last time as a pensioner and spectator. There he saw a young dancer making his debut. His name was Hans Beck. The old master congratulated the debutant, and promised him a great future. As a dancer and later ballet-master from 1894 until 1915, Hans Beck was more than anyone else the perpetuator of the Bournonville tradition. A dramatist and a composer can survive even though his works disappear from the repertoire for a while. A ballet-creator cannot. His works must be danced continuously – otherwise they no longer exist.

[24] (8) The Curse
In the background we see Gurn taking Effy to church. The dead Sylph floats away and Madge gloats. James casts a last gaze after the Sylph and sinks lifeless to the ground

Appendix:

Pas de deux for the Sylph and James from Act Two

[25] Adagio
[26] A la polacca
[27] Allegro grazioso
[28] Allegretto, A la polacca, Coda piu animato