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Leo Delibes and “Sylvia”

Clément Philibert Léo Delibes (February 21, 1836–January 16, 1891) was a French composer of ballets, operas, and other works for the stage who was the first to write music of high quality for the ballet. Delibes was born in Saint-Germain-du-Val, now part of La Flèche (Sarthe), France, in 1836. His father was a mailman, his mother a talented amateur musician. His grandfather had been an opera singer. He was raised mainly by his mother and uncle following his father’s early death. His brother Michel Delibes migrated to Spain. Starting in 1847, Delibes studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire as a student of Adolphe Adam. A year later he began taking voice lessons, though he would end up a much better organ player than singer. He held positions as a rehearsal accompanist and chorus master at the Théâtre Lyrique beginning in 1852, as second chorus master at the Paris Opéra in 1863 and 1864, and as organist at Saint-Pierre-de-Chaillot from 1865 to 1871. The first of his many operettas was Deux sous de charbon, ou Le suicide de Bigorneau (“Two sous-worth of coal”), written in 1856 for the Folies-Nouvelles.

His first produced works were a series of amusing operettas, parodies, and farces in which Delibes was associated with Jacques Offenbach and other light-opera composers. A ceremonial cantata, Algers, for Napoleon III on the theme of Algiers, brought him to official attention; a collaboration with Léon Minkus resulted, in which his contribution of an act’s worth of musical numbers for a ballet La source (1866) brought him into the milieu of ballet. In 1867 Delibes composed the divertissement Le jardin animé for a revival of the Joseph Mazilier/Adolphe Adam ballet Le corsaire. He wrote a mass, his Messe brève, and composed operettas almost yearly and occasional music for the theater, such as dances and antique airs for Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, the play that Verdi turned into Rigoletto. Delibes achieved true fame in 1870 with the success of his ballet Coppélia based on a story of E.T.A. Hoffmann; its title referred to a mechanical dancing doll that distracts a village swain from his beloved and appears to come to life. His other ballet is Sylvia (1876) ), based on a mythological theme.

In 1871, at the age of 35, Delibes married Léontine Estelle Denain. The composer was made professor of composition at the Conservatoire in 1881, and a member of the French Institute in 1884. He also composed various operas. The opéra comique Le Roi l’a dit (1873; The King Said So) was followed by the serious operas Jean de Nivelle (1880) and the lush orientalizing Lakmé (1883), the last of which contains, among many dazzling numbers, the famous coloratura showpiece known as the Légende du Paria or Bell Song (“Où va la jeune Indoue?”) and The Flower Duet (“Sous le dôme épais”), a barcarolle. Lakmé also contains “Oriental” scenes illustrated with music of a novel, exotic character. A t the time, his operas impressed Tchaikovsky enough for the composer to rate Delibes more highly than Brahms. Delibes also wrote church music, having worked as a church organist, and some picturesque songs, among which “Les Filles de Cadiz” (“The Girls of Cadiz”) suggests the style of Georges Bizet.

Delibes pioneering symphonic work for the ballet opened up a field for serious composers, and his influence can be traced in the work of Tchaikovsky and others who wrote for the dance. His own music—light, graceful, elegant, with a tendency toward exoticism—reflects the spirit of the Second Empire in France. His work is known to have been a great influence on composers such as Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, and Debussy. Some musicologists believe that the ballet in Gounod’s Faust was actually composed by Delibes. He died in Paris from natural causes on January 16, 1891, at the age of 54. He was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris.

My collection includes the following pieces by Delibes:

Coppelia (1870): complete ballet, Acts 1, 2, and 3, including the Ballet Suite and Waltz.
Kassya (1891): Trepak.
La Roi S’Amuse (1882): Airs de danse dans le style ancient.
Lakme (1883): Airs de danse.
La Source (1866): Ballet Suite.
Sylvia (1876): Ballet Suite.


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