Léo Delibes

Tchaikovsky Research
Léo Delibes (1836-1891)

French composer (b. 21 February 1836 in Saint-Germain-du-Val; d. 16 January 1891 in Paris), born Clément Philibert Léo Delibes.

Tchaikovsky and Delibes

In his memoirs of Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Kashkin gives an interesting account of how his late friend, in 1875, had taken up the suggestion from Vladimir Begichev, the director of the Imperial Theatres in Moscow, that he should write a ballet set in medieval times: Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky had set about this task by first studying thoroughly various ballet scores, in particular that of Adolphe Adam's Giselle, which at the time was his ideal of what a ballet should be like: in Giselle he was fascinated both by "the poetic spirit of Théophile Gautier's libretto and the mastery of Adam's music" [1]. After discussing the moderate success obtained by Swan Lake in its first stage production (with choreography by Julius Reisinger), which was premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 20 February/4 March 1877, Kashkin adds that a few months later:

In Vienna Tchaikovsky heard Delibes's ballet Sylvia, went into raptures over it, and in a letter to me expressed himself in very sharp terms about his own Swan Lake, whereby he was clearly being unjustly hard on the music of his ballet. Subsequently his views about suitable ballet subjects changed, and he no longer liked Sylvia; on the other hand, he became all the more enthusiastic about another ballet by the same composer — Coppélia — and even about a boring Viennese ballet — Die Puppenfee [2], which is reflected to some extent in The Nutcracker. The latter shows how Pyotr Ilyich had moved on from the magic fairy-tale genre, as in The Sleeping Beauty, to that of the puppet-theatre story [3].

Tchaikovsky's letter of 23 November/5 December 1877 to Nadezhda von Meck from Vienna, quoted below, certainly confirms what Kashkin says about the strong impression which the music of Delibes's ballet Sylvia, ou La nymphe de Diane (Paris Opéra, 1876) made on Tchaikovsky, even causing him to reject his own Swan Lake as "not fit to hold a candle to Sylvia". Although the staging of this ballet in Vienna for the 1877/78 season was Tchaikovsky's first chance to hear Delibes's music in all the splendour of its orchestral sound (Sylvia was not shown in Russia until 1901), he had in fact already been studying the piano score of Sylvia in the summer of 1876. We know this from a footnote which Tchaikovsky added to the letter he sent to his brother Modest on 8/20 August 1876, a few days after he had rushed off from Bayreuth, having fulfilled his obligation to sit through the first complete performance of The Ring in order to report on it for a newspaper in Moscow. In this letter Tchaikovsky describes the ordeal he had endured, which was hardly compensated by the many 'symphonic' beauties of Wagner's music, and adds in a revealing note: "How many thousand times dearer to me is the ballet Sylvia!" Modest Tchaikovsky, commenting on this letter in his biography of the composer, explains that it was during this trip abroad in the summer of 1876 that his brother had first become acquainted with Delibes's music thanks to a copy of the piano score of Sylvia, and that back in Russia he had played it through enthusiastically three or four times [4].

The above comparison between Wagner's monumental Ring cycle and Delibes's tuneful ballet, with the latter attracting all of Tchaikovsky's spontaneous sympathy (although of course he recognized Wagner's genius — for "symphonic" music!), is one that would eventually be extended by the Russian composer into a comparison between German and French music. In several letters to Nadezhda von Meck, some of which are quoted in the list below, Tchaikovsky makes it clear that he regarded music in Germany as having entered a phase of steep decline (exemplified by the two polar extremes of Wagner and Brahms, whom elsewhere he described as a "caricature of Beethoven"), whereas in France a regeneration of music had been launched by such composers as the late Bizet, in particular, but also by Delibes and a few others. This "new phalanx" of French composers was distinguished by the way in which it "does not pursue depth, but carefully avoids routine, looking for new forms and paying more attention to musical beauty than to the observance of established traditions, in contrast to the Germans" [5].

Tchaikovsky's enthusiastic remarks about Sylvia prompted Nadezhda von Meck to ask him if he was also familiar with Delibes's comic opera Le roi l'a dit (1873) and his earlier ballet Coppélia (Paris Opéra, 1870) [6]. Tchaikovsky replied saying that he thought this opera "delightful" but that he was unfortunately not yet acquainted with Coppélia: he intended, however, to get hold of a copy of the score very soon. Unfortunately, it is not clear when exactly Tchaikovsky managed to study the score, or actually see a performance, of Coppélia (which was first shown in Russia in 1884, in a staging by Marius Petipa). But judging from Kashkin's memoirs as quoted above, Tchaikovsky came to appreciate the vivid and rich music of Coppélia even more than that of Sylvia, and it was the earlier ballet, loosely based on a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, which would serve as a model for The Nutcracker in the scenario that Ivan Vsevolozhsky and Petipa drew up for Tchaikovsky in 1890–91. The encounter between human emotions and the world of automata, which in contrast to Hoffmann's original story was rendered quite harmless in the French ballet (since Dr Coppélius's doll always remains a lifeless dummy), takes on more sinister overtones in Act I of The Nutcracker [7].

On 17 April 1883 [N.S.], during his long stay in Paris that year, Tchaikovsky was able to attend, together with his brother Modest, one of the first performances of Delibes's most popular opera, Lakmé, at the Opéra-Comique [8]. Tchaikovsky does not seem to have left any comments on this masterpiece, but from a diary entry we know that at Maydanovo in the summer of 1886 he played through the vocal-piano reduction of Le roi l'a dit, and that in the following summer he was also studying (unspecified) works by Delibes [9].

Tchaikovsky had a couple of chances to meet Delibes during his stay in Paris in 1886 (from late May to late June [N.S.], but although in the course of these four weeks he managed to make the acquaintance of many prominent figures in the musical life of the French capital, including Ambroise Thomas, Pauline Viardot, Édouard Lalo, and Gabriel Fauré, fate seemed to conspire to prevent him that year from actually speaking to the French composer he admired most (after Bizet and possibly Gounod). This was not for want of opportunities, though, for in his diary he wrote down on 8/20 June 1886: "Back at the hotel I found Léo Delibes's visiting card, with an inscription" [10]. The following day Tchaikovsky set off for Delibes's house, but the composer wasn't at home. The fact that Delibes had been the first to seek him out and had even left his card at the hotel was evidently flattering to Tchaikovsky's self-esteem in a city which he felt had until then shown but little interest in his music. Thus, a few days later he wrote to his brother Modest: "Léo Delibes called on me first — that really moved me! Indeed, it turns out that I'm not at all so unknown in Paris as I had thought!" [11]. That he did not actually meet Delibes on this occasion is clear from an exchange of letters with Nadezhda von Meck once he was back in Russia. Very soon after reaching Saint Petersburg (on 15/27 June), he had written to his benefactress with a brief report on his impressions of Paris: "Of the most outstanding figures [in the city's musical life] I was particularly touched by the attention I received from Ambroise Thomas and Léo Delibes" [12]. Nadezhda von Meck had understood this to mean that Tchaikovsky had actually met both these eminent composers, and in her reply (sent to Maydanovo, where Tchaikovsky intended to spend the rest of the summer), she asked him if Delibes was as nice in real life as he seemed to be from the "very kind and ingenuous expression" of his face on photographs [13]. In his next letter to her, Tchaikovsky cleared up the misunderstanding:

I did not get to see Léo Delibes and so I cannot answer your question. He went to my hotel one day, but I wasn't in, so he left his card with a most flattering inscription. The next day I went to call on him, but he wasn't at home either. Then we were supposed to see each other at the Conservatoire, where I had been invited by A. Thomas to attend a piano examination, but some meeting at the Academy [of Fine Arts] meant he couldn't come. Thus, Delibes bowled me over with his kindness (which I value especially, since after Bizet I consider him to be the most talented French composer), without ever having set eyes on me [14].

Within less than two years, though, Tchaikovsky did finally get to meet Delibes in Paris. In February–March 1888, he was in the French capital as part of his first concert tour to Western Europe as the conductor of his own works, and it seems that at the second of the three concerts he conducted there (at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 4 March 1888 [N.S.]), Delibes was present in the audience. The two composers may also have met at the many receptions which Édouard Colonne organized in his house in honour of the illustrious visitor from Russia. At any rate, a few days after that concert Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest: "The celebrations I am receiving in my honour are quite sincere. At the concert [ Gounod]] expressed his enthusiasm in a very demonstrative fashion; all the young musicians are also very kind to me. I have become acquainted with everyone. Delibes is the nicest of them all" [15].

Two days after Tchaikovsky's death, an interview with his loyal publisher and friend Pyotr Jurgenson was published in the Petersburg Gazette. One of the questions Jurgenson was asked was which composers Tchaikovsky had liked the most. He replied as follows: "Pyotr Ilyich worshipped Mozart […] He was also a great admirer of Bizet and Delibes […] In Moscow I once had the opportunity to go and see some ballet by Delibes with him. Tchaikovsky was so delighted by it that he cried out: 'Now that is real ballet! […] There's no way the monsters I've produced can compare with it!'" [16].

That he could say this about Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker is characteristic of Tchaikovsky's modesty and also confirms something he himself had pointed out in an article of 1875 — namely, that authors were liable to be too critical of their own works! (see TH 304).

General Reflections on Delibes

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

So this is what Wagner's opera reform is striving after? Composers in the past sought to delight people with their music; now what they do instead is to torment and exhaust them. Of course, there are wondrous details, but everything taken together is frightfully boring!!! [Footnote by Tchaikovsky:] How many thousand times dearer to me is the ballet Sylvia.

{{quote|After the opera [Cherubini's Der Wasserträger] we saw a staging of the ballet Sylvia, whose music is being talked about very much now. It really is a chef-d'oeuvre of its kind. The author of this music is a Frenchman: Léo Delibes. I really wish that you were able to get a copy of the score of this ballet. Never before in ballet music has there been such gracefulness, such a richness of melodies and rhythms, such a splendid instrumentation. Without any false modesty whatsoever, I can assure you that The Lake of Swans is not fit even to hold a candle to Sylvia. I was utterly enchanted! [17]."/>

On the whole it does seem to me that in terms of music Germany is in decline. I think it's now the Frenchmen who are coming on centre-stage. They now have a lot of new and strong talents. Recently I heard Delibes's music for the ballet Sylvia — a music which in its own way really is touched by genius. Thanks to a piano transcription I had familiarized myself with this wonderful music before, but in the splendid performance I heard from the Viennese orchestra it has quite simply enchanted me, especially in the first part. The Lake of Swans is mere rubbish in comparison with Sylvia. Indeed, over the last few years I cannot think of anything apart from [Bizet]]'s] Carmen and Delibes's ballet that has so seriously enchanted me. Perhaps Russia, too, will contribute a new word, like the rest of Europe in fact. In Germany, though, we're seeing a steep decline. Wagner is the great representative of this period of decadence.

We [18] are often going to the theatre in the evenings. We've heard: Der Wasserträger by Cherubini, Sylvia (a ballet) by Delibes, Die Walküre by Wagner, and Aida. The last of these was staged very poorly. Out of all this I have been most enchantingly impressed by Der Wasserträger and Sylvia, which are staged as a double-bill in one evening.

On the other hand, I also heard in Vienna the ballet Sylvia by Leo Delibes — yes, I mean heard because this is the first ballet in which the music constitutes not just the principal, but also the sole interest. What charm, what gracefulness, what melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic richness! I was ashamed of myself. If I had known this music before, I wouldn't have written The Lake of Swans.

  • Letter 707 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 December 1877/5 January 1878, in which Tchaikovsky first discusses at length his views on the state of music in Russia, with some critical remarks about the "Mighty Handful", and in Germany:

As for the French, they are now moving forward in a very pronounced manner. Of course it is only now that they've started to play Berlioz, that is ten years after his death, but still a lot of new talents and energetic fighters against routine have emerged there [...] Of the contemporary French composers my favourites are Bizet and Delibes.

I don't know Coppélia, but at the next convenient opportunity I definitely intend to acquaint myself with it. Le roi l'a dit is a delightful opera by virtue of both its music and plot, but Delibes's chef-d'oeuvre still remains Sylvia.

I really do not understand what you mean by ballet music and why you are so against it. Do you call ballet music every cheerful tune with a dance rhythm? Well, in that case you must also be against most of Beethoven's symphonies, in which one continually comes across such melodies […] Indeed, I just cannot understand why there should be something reprehensible in the phrase 'ballet music'! After all, ballet music is not always bad; it can sometimes be very good (for example, Léo Delibes's Sylvia). And when it is good, what difference does it make if Sobeshchanskaya [19] is dancing to it or not?

Tonight I'm going to hear the opera Jean de Nivelle by Leo Delibes — a composer whose talent I find very appealing. This opera has been enormously successful, and I had quite a bit of trouble getting hold of a ticket for tonight's performance.

Over the last few days I've been studying two new operas at the same time: Rubinstein's The Merchant Kalashnikov and Leo Delibes's Jean de Nivelle. The former is an extremely poor work. Indeed, Rubinstein is behaving just like a singer who has already lost her voice but still imagines that she can captivate her audience. His is a talent that has played out long ago and lost all its charm. He ought to stop and be content with what he has achieved in the past. I pray to God that I don't eventually fall into the same mistake! As for Delibes's opera, that produces an altogether different impression. It's a fresh, elegant, and highly talented work. Perhaps, dear friend, you might like to look through this opera yourself?

  • Letter 2113 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 20 September/2 October 1882, in which Tchaikovsky discusses his intention of creating a suite (TH 219) from his first ballet (this intention was not realised):

You know that the French composer Delibes has written ballets. Since ballet is a thing without firm foundations, he made a concert suite from it. The other day I thought about my own Swan Lake, and I wanted very much to save this music from oblivion, since it contains some fine things. And so I decided to make a suite from it, like Delibes.

  • Letter 2215 to Nadezhda von Meck, 31 January/12 February–9/21 February 1883, from Paris, in which Tchaikovsky first gives his general impressions of contemporary French music:

If we compare the new French school with what is currently being composed in Germany, then it is impossible not to recognize that German music is in a terrible state of decline, and that they are not doing anything else other than constantly rehashing the elements introduced by Mendelssohn and Schumann, on the one hand, and by Liszt and Wagner, on the other. In France, on the contrary, one can hear something which is new and at times very interesting, fresh, and striking. Bizet, of course, is head and shoulders above them all, but still Massenet, Delibes, Guiraud, Lalo, Godard, Saint-Saëns, etc are people with talent and, most importantly, people who are at any rate a long way from the dry routine manner of contemporary Germans.

My dear friend. What a misfortune the death of Delibes is!!! He was my great favourite among French composers.

In Interviews with Tchaikovsky

  • A Conversation with P. I. Tchaikovsky (TH 324), interview for the periodical Petersburg Life, 12 November 1892 [O.S.], in which Tchaikovsky is asked, amongst other things, about his views on the state of music in Western Europe:

One sees a lot of activity and forward movement in France, too, which can rightly pride itself on such artists as Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Delibes, Massenet

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Notes and References

  1. Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 117.
  2. Die Puppenfee (The Fairy Doll) is a one-act pantomimic divertissement with music by Josef Bayer (1852–1913) and choreography by Joseph Hassreiter (1845–1940), first staged at the Hofoper in Vienna on 4 October 1888.
  3. Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 119–120.
  4. See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 467.
  5. From Letter 777 to Nadezhda von Meck, 3/15 March 1878, in which Tchaikovsky praises warmly Édouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole.
  6. Letter from Nadezhda von Meck to Tchaikovsky, 4/16 January 1878.
  7. See also the contribution by Rüdiger Herpich to the archived Tchaikovsky Forum discussion "Drosselmeyer's musical symbolism" [1].
  8. See also Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества' (1940), p. 290, which refers to an entry from Modest Tchaikovsky's diary recording this visit to the opera.
  9. Diary entries for 7/19 and 8/20 August 1886, as well as 23 March/4 April 1887, in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 86 and p. 134 respectively.
  10. Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p.69.
  11. Letter 2971 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 11/23 June 1886.
  12. Letter 2975 to Nadezhda von Meck, 17/29–18/30 June 1886.
  13. Letter from Nadezhda von Meck to Tchaikovsky, 22 June/4 July 1886.
  14. Letter 2988 to Nadezhda von Meck, 28 June/10 July 1886.
  15. Letter 3507 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 25 February/8 March 1888.
  16. This interview with Pyotr Jurgenson from the Petersburg Gazette (Петербургская газета), 27 October 1893 [O.S.] is included (in German) in: Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 273–275.
  17. Tchaikovsky is referring to his first ballet by its original designation: The Lake of Swans (Озеро лебедей), rather than the title which eventually prevailed: Swan Lake (Лебединое озеро). When the ballet was premiered at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 20 February/4 March 1877 (with choreography by Julius Reisinger) it was received fairly well and it remained in the repertoire until the 1882/83 season.
  18. Tchaikovsky was in Vienna with his brother Anatoly and the violinist Iosif Kotek.
  19. Anna Sobeshchanskaya (1842–1918), Russian ballerina; she danced Odette in the first production of Swan Lake (1877), although it was Pelageya Karpakova (1845–1920) who created the role at the premiere of the ballet.