Léo Delibes was either dismissed as a lightweight or hailed as the greatest creator of melodies ever. It all depends on whom you talk to. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzche said Delibes “made no pretensions to depth”, whereas Tchaikovsky, upon hearing the score of the ballet “Sylvia” said, “what charm, what wealth of melody! It brought me to shame, for had I known of this music, I would have never written ‘Swan Lake’.”
After studies with Adolph Adam (the composer behind the ballet music of “Giselle”) Delibes achieved fame during his lifetime, especially for the ballet music “Sylvia” and “Coppélia”, and operas “Le roi l’a dit” and “Lakmé”. His music influenced not only Tchaikovsky, but also Saint-Saëns and Debussy.
For those of you old enough to remember the British Airways television commercial in the late 80s featuring the music of two sopranos, it was Delibes’ music, the Flower Duet from his opera “Lakmé”. (Edits and drumbeats were added for the commercial.) The opera premiered in Paris in 1883, and the duet depicts Lakmé and her servant Mallika gathering flowers by the river.
The Flower Duet is definitely a gem, and it was fortunate Delibes’ gift for melody served as an inspiration to other composers and didn’t put them off their craft. And thank goodness Tchaikovsky still wrote “Swan Lake”.
Clément Philibert Léo Delibes was born February 21, 1836, in Saint-Germain-du-Val, France, and died January 16, 1891 in Paris.