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The composer was born Clément Philibert Léo Delibes in Saint-Germain du val, February 21, 1836. He began his musical studies in 1847 at the Paris Conservatoire, and began voice training in 1848. He studied composition under Adolphe Adam (Giselle) and became accompanist and chorus master for the Théâtre-Lyrique, and then, in 1864, became second chorus master at the Paris Opéra. He was also organist at Pierre de Chaillot from 1865 to 1871. In 1871 he married Léontine Estelle Denain.
His first stage work was the light opera Deux sous de charbon (Two Pennies Worth of Coal), which was performed at the Follies Nouvelles in 1856. He continued to compose light operas and vaudevilles at the rate of about one per year for the next fifteen years. The success of a ceremonial cantata, Alger, for Napoleon III led to his collaboration with Ludwig (Léon) Minkus on Delibes’ first ballet composition, which was to become La Source, in 1866. It was a ballet with an Oriental theme, which was very fashionable at the time. Delibes’ contributions of Act 2 and the first scene of Act 3 were considered the superior compositions of the work.
Delibes was asked to compose a waltz, Valse, ou pas des fleurs, that was added into the 1867 revival of Adam’s Le Corsaire. This music was combined with his music for La Source to accompany Soir de Fête (Gala Night) for the Paris Opéra Ballet. Choreographed by Léo Stats, the work was seen more than 250 times. The thirty-year-old Delibes was assigned to collaborate on Coppélia with the more-senior Nuitter and Saint-Léon, with whom he had already worked creating La Source. Little is known about the way in which they worked together, but it’s believed that the whole grew out of the Nuitter’s scenario.
Not only is Coppélia notable as Delibes’ first complete ballet score written solo, but it’s also noted as a work that moved ballet music forward in a major step. Delibes provided a generous amount of expressive character in his music — a new idea at the time — to produce music that is a descriptive tone poem. Many find that his music contains early impressionist elements, as well as the new, more sophisticated use of the leitmotif. Sylvia (1876) is considered Delibes’ best ballet — and in fact, the best ballet music before Tchaikovsky, who judged it to be better than his own Swan Lake.
Neither Coppélia nor Sylvia was published in other than piano version at the time of their composition, and that has given rise to a number of different arrangements of the music. Most current productions, however, refer to Delibes’ original version. Indeed, the longevity of the ballet is more often attributed to the strength of the music than to the choreography.
In 1881 Delibes became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. His only other balletic composition was a suite of six dances for a Comédie-Francaise production of Le Roi s’Amuse in 1882. He wrote three operas, including, in 1883, Lakmé, which quickly gained in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming almost as famous as Bizet’s Carmen.
Delibes died in Paris, January 16, 1891.
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