Leo Delibes: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Leo Delibes

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Leo Delibes: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Leo Delibes




Leo Delibes: Overview


Leo Delibes: Leo Delibes (b. Saint-Germain-du-Val, 21 Feb 1836; d. Paris, 16 Jan 1891).



Leo Delibes entered the solfege class at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of twelve and obtained a first prize two years later. During his years as a student he sang in the choirs of several Paris churches, including the Madeleine; and when he was only seventeen he became organist of Saint-Pierre de Chaillot. This was the first of many organist's appointments which ended at Saint-Jean-Saint-Francois, where he held the post from 1862 to 1871. As a composer Leo Delibes's most influential teacher at the Conservatoire was Adolphe Adam, composer of Giselle, and it was through Adam's recommendation that he obtained a post as accompanist at the Theatre Lyrique in the same year (1853) that he became organist at Saint-Pierre de Chaillot. The Theatre Lyrique had only been founded in 1851, but under Carvalho's two directorships (1856-60 and 1862-8) it became the most adventurous opera-giving theatre in Paris. While Leo Delibes worked there (1853-63) the new operas given their first performance there included Gounod's Le Medecin malgre lui, Philemon et Baucis and Faust {Mireille and Romeo et Juliette were given during Carvalho's second directorship) and Bizet's Les Pecheurs de perles.



Leo Delibes was far from contented with his work as an accompanist, and he filled his time with composition of very varying kinds. During the ten years at the Theatre Lyrique he wrote seven operettas, five of them for Offenbach's Bouffes Parisiens recently (1855) opened in rivalry with the Theatre des Folies-Nouvelles, which performed Leo Delibes' first essay of this kind, Deux Sous de charbon (1855). The titles of the works written for Offenbach's theatre are a good indication of their character. They include Dix Demoiselles a marier and L'Omelette a la Follembuche. Not content with this activity Leo Delibes wrote a number of male-voice choruses and a Mass, no doubt for performance by his own parish choir. The traditions of the 18th century were still strong enough for this varied professional activity to be wholly natural. In 1863 Leo Delibes moved from the Theatre Lyrique to the Opera, still as an accompanist, but two years later he became second chorus-master under Victor Masse, composer of the enormously popular Les Noces de Jeannette (1853), and his cantata Alger was performed. In fact his reputation as a composer was now high enough for him to be invited in 1866 to collaborate with one of the regular composers for the ballet, the Viennese-born Leon Minkus, in the score of a new ballet entitled La Source. Leo Delibes' music for the second act and the first scene of Act 3 was notably superior to Minkus's Act 1 and Act 3 scene 2. Minkus's future career lay chiefly in St Petersburg, where in 1869 he wrote the music for Petipa's Don Quixote, still in the Bolshoi repertory, pelibes, on the other hand was commissioned to write the complete score for Coppelia (1870), and this proved a masterpiece, not only in its rhythmic, 'plastic' and mimetic qualities but by the wealth of its melody, the elegance and inventiveness of the orchestration and the charm of the harmonies, by no means routine in character. Ten years later another ballet, Sylvia, confirmed his reputation as a composer for the ballet and was to exercise a notable influence on Tchaikovsky's ballet music and even (as in the trio section of the Valse of No. 5) on his symphonies. Tchaikovsky's statement of his perference for Leo Delibes' music to that of Brahms was later to be reinforced by Stravinsky's inclusion of Leo Delibes in his list of the great melodists, in contrast to Beethoven. If these judgments reflect in both cases a certain anti-Teutonic prejudice (and in Stravinsky's case a mischievous delight in shocking the received opinions of an uncritical public), they are not wholly frivolous.



As an opera composer Leo Delibes was at first less successful. Both his Jean de Nivelle (1873) and Le Roi l'a dit (1880) were given at the Opera Comique, but it was not until Lakme (1883) that he scored an operatic success comparable to that of his ballet music. The scene of Lakme is laid in India, and Leo Delibes showed the skill and imagination in conjuring up an exotic atmosphere characteristic of the French composers of the day. Bizet's Les Pecheurs de perles, which had been given at the Theatre Lyrique when Leo Delibes was accompanist there, was an excellent example, and it was followed by the 'Moorish' Djamileh (Opera Comique, 1872) and three years later by Carmen. Leo Delibes must have known both these works when he wrote Lakme; and although he himself was not a composer of Bizet's calibre, the melodic charm of his music and his use of the orchestra show a natural gift and a workmanship of a high order. Lakme is best known by the coloratura 'Bell Song' and Gerald's 'Fantaisie, aux divins mensonges', a fresh and unpretentious lyrical air worthy to stand beside the finest examples in the French repertory. But Leo Delibes's skill and experience are admirably shown in the quintet 'Quand une femme est jolie' and his writing for the chorus, a field in which he had lifelong experience. The characterisation of the fanatical Nilakantha is excellently contrasted with that of the Anglo-Indian 'ladies' and their chapsrone, the comic Mistress Bentson (Mrs Benson, presumably).



Neither the cantata Alger nor the later La Mort d'Orphee (1878) fulfilled Leo Delibes' ambition to write a serious vocal work. As a songwriter, on the other hand, Leo Delibes perfectly expressed a certain light-hearted gaiety unencumbered by the influence of either Italian opera or German Lieder. In his best songs, in fact - 'Les Filles de Cadix', 'Avril' or 'Chant de l'Almee' - he avoids Gounod's sentimentality and retains the rare quality of that most typically French form of the solo song, the chansonette. If in two of the three songs mentioned this French quality appears in an 'exotic' context, the same might be said of Bizet's 'Adieu de l'hotesse arabe'. Two of Leo Delibes' best known songs were written as incidental music for plays performed at the Comedie-Francaise-Vieille Chanson (Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse) and Chanson de Barberine (Musset's Barberine). His connection with the theatre was reinforced by his marriage in 1872 to the daughter of a former actress of the Comedie Francaise, Mademoiselle Denain. He was in many ways a characteristic, almost a 'stage' Frenchman of his day, as is borne out by the story of his attending a performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth. He looked forward, he said, to the second act because this brought 'les petites femmes', and they were always amusing. What, one wonders, would have been the reaction of Cosima, let alone the Master himself, to this deeply irreverent description of the Flower Maidens? Not only Leo Delibes' personality but the varied and strictly professional character of his output recall the 18th-century musician, prepared to write a Mass, a ballet, an opera, an operetta, incidental music or drawing-room song to commission and never plaguing himself with questions of aesthetics or dreaming of assuming the priest-like attitude towards his work characteristic of the 19th-century composer.



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