The ballet Giselle, although generally identified with the name of composer Adolphe Adam, was the creation of French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier (1811-1870). Gautier was inspired by a poem in Heinrich Heine's book De l'allemagne that recounted an Eastern European legend of the Wili (or "wally"), the soul of an unmarried girl who has died before her wedding day and who dances in the forest for all eternity and drags unfortunate men to their doom. Gautier immediately envisaged the work as a ballet but had no experience in plotting one. For this he turned to dramatist Vernay de Saint-Georges, who worked out a proper scenario from Gautier's ideas.
Rather than presenting the work cold to the director of the Paris Opéra, Gautier showed it first to Jules Perrot, then mentor to a ballerina, Carlotta Grisi, who had made her Paris Opéra debut just weeks before. Grisi liked the scenario, and both she and Perrot lobbied successfully to have it produced, but on the condition that it be ready by June 1841 -- in less than a month. Fortunately, Perrot had already contacted composer Adolphe Adam, known for his ability to cook up a quick score in a short time. Adam had begun work on April 11, before the ballet was approved. The work was finished on June 8, 1841, a mere 20 days before the production was launched.
Giselle was more than a mere success; it is credited with "inventing" Romantic ballet as we know it. Its tragic theme of the heroine doomed to dance forever was re-created subtly in countless ballets afterward. The very stage costumes of the Wilis -- tutus and tights -- marked the introduction of standard ballet apparel. Adam's music is serious in nature and not frivolous; even played uncut with all the repeats intact, Giselle is anything but monotonous. The first act sparkles with charm and grace, and is packed with strong, memorable melodies. The second act, with its more sober dramatic content, is often brooding and mysterious, yet still maintaining the rhythmic lilt of the first. It is Adam's finest theatrical creation outside of his opera Le Postillon de Lonjumeau.
Grisi gave performances of Giselle at the Opéra for years afterward, and the ballet was staged in Paris as late as 1868. By then Perrot had moved to St. Petersburg and was choreographer for the Imperial Ballet Theater. He made Giselle a staple of the Russian company, and after Perrot's retirement Marius Petipa retooled the choreography, creating the basis for the standard Giselle that is seen today. The most celebrated Giselle given under Petipa's direction was his last revival of the work in 1903, featuring the dynamic and now-legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Some additions to the score are considered standard. Léon Minkus may have added the waltz variation that replaces Adam's original in the first act, and no one knows how another waltz variation of the first act's love music wound up added to the second act. However, these changes are strictly observed in present-day performances.