In conversation with Gavin Sutherland

Gavin Sutherland, Music Director at English National Ballet, talks about the process of sourcing the original music of Le Corsaire and developing the score for the Company’s new production.

Gavin Sutherland, English National Ballet Music Director

Where did the score for Le Corsaire first originate from?
The whole of the score for Le Corsaire was composed by Adolphe Adam. It was relatively short. Musically-speaking, it was largely along the same lines as his other successful ballets, such as Giselle – there was minimal narrative, to leave room for a maximum amount of dance set-pieces.

Over many years, further composers have added different pieces to what now constitutes the ‘whole’ score. The list of composers who have contributed music is long: Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, Prince Pyotr van Oldenburg, Ludwig Minkus, Yuly Gerber, Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schnell and Albert Zabel. The score can seem a bit disjointed now, because these composers didn’t necessarily latch onto Adam’s original themes or motifs – but it wouldn’t have seemed like that originally, as I suspect it would have been largely through-composed by Adam.   

Can you explain the process you have gone through to pull together the score that we will be using for English National Ballet’s new version of Le Corsaire?
As much as possible, we have tried to go back to the original scores. Recent productions of Le Corsaire have used far more modern interpretations and re-orchestrations of the music. Lars Payne, our Music Librarian, and I have worked to bring together the original scores from the various composers. Trying to source all of them has been a mammoth task – some of these scores are nearly 200 years old. One or two exist only as piano scores; the orchestral score having been lost or destroyed. Librarians at other ballet companies, including the Kirov and the Bolshoi, have been an enormous help to us.

It is our desire to present the score in its original form. Gathering these scores together, getting them documented, photographed, deciphered and then re-printed has been a labour of love. Some of these composers had very messy handwriting. The time and effort that it takes to read these old, handwritten scores and then input the notes into music publishing software has been enormous.

Did the score and choreography develop together or was the concept for the ballet already in place? For example, did the composer and choreographer work together? Did the music have any influence on the shape of the choreography or vice versa?
I am fairly confident that it was a clear and direct line back then – Byron’s poem would have inspired the choreographer, in this case Petipa, to create the ballet. The choreographer would have then explained the concept and the plot to the composer. They might have given a stylistic pointer – for example, ‘the pirates do a dance to exert their masculinity’. The composer would then go away and write a piece of masculine-sounding music. It wouldn’t reflect, as with later composers, such as Tchaikovsky, a particular sentiment, mood or character. The plot, the characters and the atmosphere of the ballet had to be carried more by the choreography and the designs back then.

In terms of the choreography influencing the music, perhaps one area might be the way in which male dancers have developed over the years. Male ballet dancers are more athletic and more masculine now, and they can jump higher. As such, some of the sections that accompany the male dancers need to be beefed up a bit, with the inclusion of extra percussion or brass.

Could you highlight any key features or parts of the music that we should listen out for? Are there any moods or themes that are particularly significant?
Whilst it is true that the music was ultimately serviceable for dance, Adam was nonetheless keen to use the music to tell the story as much as the language would allow at the time.

There are occasions in mime scenes, for example, where the music stops being 8-bar phrases of dance music, and begins to become lines of dialogue, sometimes travelling between different instruments. That’s an example of the music striving to represent something with meaning. To some extent, that reflects the developments seen in music for ballet over the next 150 years or so. Musical language became more complex, and composers could say much more about a particular character or situation. The music in Le Corsaire hints at this sometimes. For example, the opening is very fast, very powerful and very turbulent. You have to wait around a long time for the music to return, but it does, right at the end, to depict the tempest that wrecks the ship. So that’s an example of thematic foreshadowing.

There is also a particular theme which often returns, but, unusually, it accompanies a variety of different characters and situations. Whereas Wagner would go on to use leitmotifs to represent a particular character or idea later in the century, this isn’t the case in Le Corsaire – no doubt due to the large number of composers who contribute to the score. Recurring themes like this can only exist in a unified work. Often, Adam’s music is interrupted by unrelated music from other composers, and this makes it hard to trace different music themes through the ballet.

Adam’s music is predominantly plot-related. The other composers’ music is usually for dance alone. The knock-on effect of this is that sometimes large sections of Adam’s music have been removed and replaced with something else. As such, there are occasions where a theme ‘comes back’, but due to the cuts it has never actually been presented in the first place… and therefore the audience has no idea whether it applies to a particular character or idea, or whether it is trying to infer anything with its presence at that moment. Certainly, the ballet would make more dramatic sense if we only used Adam’s score throughout.

In the end, we hope that our production will be a good representation of the music as it would have originally been heard and, as a consequence, people might appreciate the ballet, as a whole, in a different way to how it has been appreciated in recent productions.