Initially, I only knew composer Léo Delibes for his ballet scores, the 1870 Coppélia and his 1876 Sylvia. I’m a ballet person, after all. I’ve been aware of the beautiful aria from the British Airways and Ghirardelli chocolate commercials in that I-know-it-but-not-its-name-or-its-composer way, but I didn’t figure out until recently that it’s taken from Delibes’ 1883 opera, Lakmé. The opera, inspired by Pierre Loti’s novel, Le Mariage de Loti, is set in 19th century British-ruled India and revolves around Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin priest. In Act I, early on, Lakmé and her servant, Mallika, go down to the water’s edge and sing a duet as they bathe and collect flowers. And really, that’s all you need to know.
The “Flower Duet” is utterly transporting. It’s so pure, the only thing you can compare it to is the finest of champagnes, the way the first sip makes you feel. Or whipped cream. Maybe one of those teeny French lemon tarts that has about six ingredients and the flavors just explode in your mouth, one after the other—the buttery flavor!—the rich lemon curd!—the sugar mixed with lemon juice that forms an adorable shell of icing—the tiny dollop of whipping cream and even tinier nub of lemon peel—its artful, compact size—oh, yes, to it all! (Particularly if you’re in Paris and you’ve just bought one at a patisserie that had a line out the door which means you found the best of the best. Kudos. Bon appétit.)
But I digress. Let’s give the Flower Duet a listen.* Courtesy of Warner Classics, it features soprano Sabine Devieilhe and mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa. This one is fun because it’s a rehearsal, sort of a “behind the scenes” look at art being crafted.
And now, a bit about the composer, who was born Clement Philibert Léo Delibes, in 1836, at St. Germain-du-Val in the Pays de la Loire region of France. Young Léo’s father worked for the French postal service, and his mother was a talented amateur musician. His grandfather had been a baritone in the Opéra-Comique (think: opera lite) and his uncle, who played the organ, was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Unfortunately, his father died when Léo was still just a boy. The family moved to Paris, which resulted in the influence of Léo’s uncle in his upbringing. Probably not a bad thing. This uncle was a Paris Conservatoire professor, after all, and Léo’s mother yearned to keep music first and foremost in the family’s life. Léo showed great promise, both as a singer (his first professional music gig would be as a chorister in Meyerbeer’s 1849 opera, Le Prophete) and a musician, and entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1847. There, he studied music theory, piano, voice, organ, and, later, composition with Adolphe Adam, who wrote the music for Giselle, one of the oldest and most beloved ballets of all time.
While still a student, Léo became an organist at various churches, and went on to hold positions as a rehearsal accompanist and chorus master at the Théâtre-Lyrique, second chorus master at the more prestigious Paris Opéra, and as organist at Saint-Pierre-de-Chaillot between 1865 and 1871. During this time, he composed operettas, songs, sacred music and, notably, collaborated with Ludwig Minkus on the score for the ballet, La Source, choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon. It premiered favorably in Paris in 1866, and garnered positive attention for the young, relatively unknown Delibes. Saint-Léon, knowing a good thing when he saw it, promptly began to plan another work with Delibes: the ballet, Coppélia. If La Source had been positively reviewed, this newest one, premiering in 1870, was a blockbuster, in no small part because of the music. Delibes, the composer, had arrived.
What was so irresistible about Delibes’ music was his impeccable workmanship as a composer, but also his ability to appeal to the mainstream, apply colorful orchestration, harmonic dexterity, delicious rhythms, in a fully fleshed out symphonic sound that never came across as heavy-handed. Parisian audiences adored his sound. And even his fellow composers, those who looked down on ballet music and its composers, deeming them low-brow, had to admit that here was a fine composer. Tchaikovsky, in fact, was impressed enough to rate Delibes more highly than Brahms. “Although this may seem faint praise,” quips biographer Hugh Macdonald in Grove Music Online, “when one considers that the Russian composer considered Brahms ‘a giftless bastard.’” It was with Delibes’ music in mind that Tchaikovsky himself agreed to try his hand at composing for the ballet. The glorious end result: Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Charmingly, at one point, Tchaikovsky would write to a friend regarding Delibes’ Sylvia score, saying, “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.”
Delibes’ ballets, Coppélia in particular, continue to be popular and regularly performed. The opera, Lakmé, is still performed, but doesn’t share the same recognizability factor as its “Flower Duet.” Commercials, horror films, cartoons, thrillers, mainstream movies—the arresting melody pops up everywhere. You can even get it as a ringtone for your phone.
Time to give “Flower Duet” another listen. This second performance was recorded at a Paris Bastille Day celebration in 2014, and features soprano Olga Peretyatko and mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča. The two are stunning, with their voices as beautiful as their faces. I am in love with them both.
Delibes died in Paris, January 16, 1891 and was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre. To honor his contribution to the ballet world, let’s end with another I-can’t-believe-I-didn’t-know-about-this gem, music from the aforementioned ballet, La Source. A way to honor, as well, Ludwig Minkus, who composed the ballets Don Quixote and La Bayadère, among others, but quickly fell under Delibes’ and Tchaikovsky’s shadows as a lesser ballet composer. I’d never heard of this ballet, much less its music, and this suite of excerpts from the ballet, is a delight. Check it out.
*If you’d like to know the “Flower Duet” words being sung, here’s a charming version, featuring the singers from the first YouTube recording, which allows you to read the French words as they sing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnKLvyFZKK8