1836 — 1891
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Léo Delibes was a 19th century French composer best known for his ballet and opera scores, especiallyCoppélia and Lakmé. He was one of the leading operetta composers of his generation and much of his music can be described as colourful, witty and charming. He was closely associated with various theatres in Paris including the Opéra, the Théâtre Lyrique and the Opéra comique. He can be included in a group withSaint-Saëns, d’Indy and Debussy for his elegance and feel for 17th century French classicism.
Delibes was born in St Germain du Val, the only child of a postal worker and musician. His mother was an able musician and the daughter of an opera singer. Her uncle was the accomplished organist Edouard Batiste. From his mother and Batiste, Delibes learnt music from an early age. In 1847 he moved to Paris with his mother after the death of his father. There, he joined the choir at Ste Marie-Madeleine and even sang in the premiere of Meyerbeer’sLe prophète at the Opéra in 1949. He also studied with Tariot at the Paris Conservatoire and received apremier prix in solfège in 1850. He continued his organ studies with Benoist and composition with Adolphe Adam. He completed his studies successfully, though without distinction. Despite his lack of achievements while at the Conservatoire, he was a very disciplined and talented composer.
By the age of 17, Delibes held the positions of organist at St Pierre de-Chaillot and accompanist at the prestigious Théâtre Lyrique. He remained a church organist for his whole life, though his true passion lay with the theatre. After a short period of writing music criticism for theGaulois hebdomadaire under the pseudonym Eloi Delbès, he found success at the Folies-Nouvelles (later known as the Théâtre Déjazet) in Paris under the direction of Hervé (given name: Florimond Ronger), a successful operetta composer. Delibes’ first stage work,Deux sous de charbon (1856) was performed in this theatre, and thereafter about once a year for nearly 15 years. This marked the first of his many light and witty operettas, many of which were written for Offenbach’s theatre, the Bouffes-Parisiens. Among the works performed at the Bouffes-Parisiens is his second stage work, the greatly successfulDeux vieilles gardes (1856).
Delibes also pursued the opera comique genre with success in 1863 with his Le jardinier et son seigneur, which premiered in the Théâtre Lyrique, where he was chorus master. Also while at the Théâtre Lyrique, he worked on many famous scores including Gounod’sFaust, Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles and Berlioz’s Les Troyens à Carthage. Notably, the vocal score for Faust is an arrangement by Delibes.
In 1864, Delibes experienced more success with his appointment as chorus master of the Opéra. His works from this time include the favourable ballet score,La Source (1866), on which he collaborated with Louis Minkus and his final operetta, La cour du roi Pétaud (1869), which was composed for the Variétés.
After the 1870 premiere of his ballet Coppélia, ou La fille aux yeux d’émail, one of his most widely-appreciated works, Delibes decided to give up his work as a chorus master and devote himself fully to composition. He married organist Léontine Estelle Denain during this period.
Delibes’ works from this first period follow in the tradition of Boieldieu, Hérold and his teacher Adam, from whom he learnt much about a ‘sparkling operetta style’. The compositions of his next period are, in general, more sophisticated and break free of the operetta style. Evidence of Meyerbeer’s influence can be heard in later works such asJean de Nivelle (1880). Delibes was open to new ideas, and he respected Wagner and Franck, though he never allowed the modern sounds of such music to enter his own compositions.
After devoting himself whole-heartedly to his compositions, Delibes began to create works on a grander scale, though he produced fewer works. He composed a comedy set in the time of Louis XIV, Le roi l’a dit (1873), that was premiered at the Opéra-Comique and also a full ballet,Sylvia (1876), that was premiered at the Opéra. Despite having only been revived once, his more serious workJean de Nivelle (1880) was an instant success.
Delibes claimed to know nothing about fugue and counterpoint, yet he succeeded Reber at the Conservatoire, as the professor of composition.
Later compositions include the six pieces he wrote for Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse (1882) and his great opera Lakmé (1883), which was premiered at the Opéra Comique. Of all his compositions,Lakmé stands out; it’s success has endured throughout the years and to this day his fame rests on this work especially. This opera allows for the perfect opportunity for a soprano to shine in the midst of a melodic and scenic theatrical masterpiece.
Delibes’ completed his final opera Kassya, though was unable to orchestrate it before his death. Massenet committed himself to scoring the opera, which was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1893. This work takes place in Galicia and contains many oriental elements.
Much of his work also contains similarities and elements from works by composers such as Gounod, Bizet and Lalo. Though Bizet and Delibes admired one another’s works (Delibes attended the premiere ofCarmen in 1875) and both contributed toMalbrough s’en va-t-en guerre, they never became close friends. Despite their lack of friendship, Delibes’ operaLakmé has clear influences from two of Bizet’s works,Les pêcheurs de perles and Carmen. Tchaikovsky was also a great admirer of Delibes, and hisSwan Lake has much in common with Coppélia and Sylvia. Together, Tchaikovsky and Delibes contributed the most important works to 19th century ballet.
Delibes also wrote some works for the concert stage, including a number of choruses which are unfortunately neglected. He composed a successful cantata, Alger (1865), though it never became a part of the repertoire. His contribution to the song, instrumental and church music genres is very minimal.