Léo Delibes was born in St.-Germain-du-Val, France, on February 21, 1836, and died in Paris on January 16, 1891. His music for the ballet Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane was first performed at the Paris Opéra on June 14, 1876. The Cortège de Bacchus received its first San Francisco Symphony performance under the direction of Basil Cameron in a Standard Hour radio broadcast of October 1930. The most recent performance here was in September 2010 with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets and two cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, and strings. Performance time: about six minutes.
As a child, Delibes studied music with his mother and with an uncle who was an organist, and when he entered the Paris Conservatory he decided to study organ himself. In 1853, he began work at two jobs, as organist at St. Pierre-de-Chaillot in Paris, and as pianist at the Théâtre-Lyrique. He managed to balance service to both the sacred and the profane, but he enjoyed his theater experience so much that he began composing operettas. After the success of this first stage work, he continued to write a new operetta annually for the next fourteen years.
It was with ballet music that Delibes hit his stride. As chorus master of the Paris Opéra, he collaborated on a score for the ballet La Source, first heard in 1866. Four years later he struck gold on his own with music for Coppélia. In 1876 came Sylvia. These two ballets, together with his 1883 opera Lakmé, are the works for which he is best remembered today.
For Sylvia, set in a mythological arcadia, Delibes wrote a score that has long been admired—most notably by Tchaikovsky, who is said to have preferred it to his own music for Swan Lake. The Cortège de Bacchus is from Act III. Sylvia, a nymph in the retinue of the goddess Diana—and thus sworn to chastity—is in love with Amyntas, who arrives at Diana’s temple as Bacchus himself makes his entrance. Sylvia is next on the scene. Earlier misunderstandings are resolved and strictures are relaxed. With help from Eros, the lovers’ union receives Diana’s blessing.
Delibes took ballet music seriously, as did Tchaikovsky, bringing to it symphonic sensibilities and strategies. In the both composers’ ballets, the hard work that went into construction results in a gracefulness and polish that seems always fresh. The Procession of Bacchus, which we hear this evening, evokes an elegance we might associate with the early years of the Third Republic. From the fanfares with which it opens to its grand close, this music tells us that Sylvia is not only ideal music for the dance, but also for listening. Standing on its own, the Cortège de Bacchus is also a blood-stirring curtain raiser (or closer).
Larry Rothe, former editor of the San Francisco Symphony’s program book, is author of the SFS history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and at sfsymphony.org/store.
More About the Music
Recordings: Anatole Fistoulari with the London Symphony Orchestra (Newton Classics) | Graham Bond with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra (Opus Arte)
Reading: French Music, by Martin Cooper (Oxford) | Adolphe Adam and Léo Delibes: A Guide to Research, by W.E. Studwell (Garland Pub)