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Henry Nelson O Neil Before Waterloo 1868

The Battle: Waterloo

Waterloo Waltzing - film by Marisa Zanotti, soundtrack by Philip Jeck

When Giselle was first performed in Paris in 1841, the emotional impact and political consequences of the battle of Waterloo, twenty six years earlier, were still reverberating through Europe.

Waterloo was the biggest and most violent European battle to that date. And the most decisive. Nearly two hundred thousand soldiers took part of whom more than a quarter were killed. It led to the final defeat of Napoleon and the end of French ambitions for European domination.

In London, when Giselle was first performed, the Duke of Wellington was still a frequent and distinguished presence at public performances. Audience members in both Paris and London might be seen flashing a smile with Waterloo teeth.

Beyond these emotional and political effects, the Battle of Waterloo exemplifies a key aspect of the 19th century experience and psychological make-up which would have been live for the audiences that saw Giselle's first performances.

We believe there are two ways in which the Battle of Waterloo may reverberate in Giselle.

Movement in Formation

The basis of 19th century warfare was movement in formation.

When not actually fighting, infantry and cavalry units were continuously drilled to perfect complex manoeuvres so that they could be executed seamlessly at speed in the chaos and panic of battle.

Infantry units had to be able to form ranks, move forward, wheel round and form squares. Survival in battle, at Waterloo and elsewhere, depended on being able to execute these complex collective movements to perfection. Even now, military tattoos like the Royal Tournament, show off military drill, formation marching and riding.

When contemporary audiences, for whom Waterloo and the Napoleonic wars were still fresh memories, saw the Wilis dance in formation in Act Two it would have evoked, at least for some, a military echo which we now struggle to catch.

With this in mind, the Wilis can be experienced as a strange female regiment, with Myrtha as their colonel.

The Wilis in formation

Waltzing at the Duchess of Richmond's Ball

Waterloo also established a famous romantic connection between death and the waltz.

Sometimes described as the most famous ball in history, the Duchess of Richmond held a ball in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo which was attended by the Duke of Wellington and most of his senior officers.

An observer (Rev'd George Griffin Stonestreet) described that season in Brussels as follows:

Whenever they get together the severest etiquette is present. The women on entering always salute on each side of the cheek; they then set down as stiff as waxworks. They begin a ball with a perfect froideur they go on with their dangerous waltz (in which all the Englishwomen join) and finish with the gallopade, a completely indecent and violent romp.

The ball was interrupted by news of the French advance and the waltzing British officers left in haste to prepare for a battle that many did not survive.

This ball and the subsequent battle are the themes of our film, featured above.

An Afterthought: Old Trousers

Music wasn't confined to the ballroom. It played its part in the 'mise en scene' of the battle itself. Drummers and fife players, often young boys, accompanied the troops into battle to provide musical accompaniment and boost morale.

The recording below is a French 'pas de charge', the sound that accompanied the French Infantry as they marched at full speed towards Wellington's defences. This tune or something like it, with its distinctive lilt, was what the British troops nicknamed 'Old Trousers' - adding a dose of grim humour to take the edge of their terror.

The "Pas de Charge des grenadiers"

1 Kershaw, Robert (2015) 24 Hours at Waterloo: 18 June 1815