Léo Delibes (pronounce: LAY-oh De-LEEB) (born St. Germain-du-Val, France, 21 February 1836; died St. Germain-du-Val 16 January 1891) was a French composer of Romantic music. He is particularly famous for his ballets, especially Coppélia, and operettas and operas, of which Lakmé is the most famous.
Delibes’s father worked for the post office. His mother was musical and played the piano. Her father, the composer’s grandfather, had been a baritone in the Opéra-Comique and she had a brother who was an organist and professor at the Paris Conservatoire.
When Delibes’s father died in 1847 his family moved to Paris so that the young Léo, who was 11, could continue having a good musical education. At first he found it difficult living in a large city as he was used to the countryside. He was a student of the well-known composer and teacher Adolphe Adam. At first he did well in his music lessons and won prizes, but after a few years he no longer won any prizes. He never tried to win the Prix de Rome which is what all French students of composition normally want to do. As a young boy he sang in choirs. Later he became a church organist and an accompanist at the Théâtre-Lyrique.
Soon Delibes started to composer operettas. He wrote 14 operettas in 14 years. He was commissioned to write some music to celebrate the emperor’s return from Algiers. The piece he wrote was called Alger. It was a huge success. The emperor gave him a gold medal, personally fastening a pin with diamonds to his . In 1864 he became chorus master at the Opéra where he coached the chorus to sing many famous operas. Two years later he started to write ballets. These became very successful and three years later he stopped writing operettas.
In 1870 his ballet Coppélia was produced. By 1884 it had been performed 100 times. Together with La Sylphide and Giselle it was one of the most popular of all ballets. The story is about a man who makes a mechanical doll. Another popular ballet he wrote was Sylvia. His most successful opera was Lakmé which was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in 1883. It gives great opportunity for the main soprano, especially in the song called the Bell Song. Musicians usually think Lakmé is his greatest work.
Delibes started to compose at a time when ballet had become less popular in France than it had been earlier. Around the time of the Revolution there had been lots of performances of ballet, but during the 19th century there was less interest with the exception of La Sylphide and Giselle. Delibes was to change that. He had a great gift for writing easy melodies. At one time he thought he ought to compose like Wagner, using richer harmonies and leitmotifs, but fortunately he chose not to, following instead the style to which he was so well suited. Coppélia is in the repertoire of all major ballet companies, and several of its tunes are familiar to people even if they do not know where they come from. The Flower duet from Lakmé became particularly well known in recent years through an advert for British Airways.