Léo Delibes, Sylvia

Léo Delibes (1836-1891)

Léo Delibes (1836-1891) was at the center of the Paris music scene in the 1800s, working as the chorus master at the Théâtre Lyrique where he directed productions of works by Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, and Hector Berlioz.[1] These connections to opera composers led to him get his large scale ballets performed at the Paris Opera, Coppelia in 1870, and then Sylvia in 1876. While technically not an opera, Sylvia fits into the French operatic culture. Sylvia was performed in the same year as Jules Massenet’s La Roi de Lahore, both of which the Paris Opera produced at the brand new Palais Garnier.

Poster for Sylvia’s 1876 premiere

When Delibes wrote the ballet Sylvia, he used the alto saxophone as a solo instrument in Act III. The “Scéne et Barcarolle” (at 1:30:25 below) highlights the lyricism of this simple melody. Using the saxophone as a solo instrument during the ballet has already been established as a common practice by other opera composers like Ambroise Thomas. This is the first time the saxophone made it into a full ballet, separate from the opera. The saxophone represents the love Aminta, a simple shepherd, has for Sylvia, a huntress nymph, and the sorrow he feels when she’s gone.

Sylvia was not an immediate success after it’s premiere in 1876. Its popularity over the years has grown as more people discover Delibes’s music. Sylvia had its most recent staging in 2019.[2] Sylvia was ahead of its time, and it directly influenced the later Impressionists like Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky whose works with the Ballet Russes transformed the genre of ballet. Delibes’ use of the saxophone in ballet was also forward looking. As the twentieth century progressed, the saxophone found its way into ballets by composers like Sergei Prokofiev, Ralph Vaughn-Williams, Reynaldo Hahn, and even Heitor Villa-Lobos.

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[1] Macdonald, Hugh. “Delibes, (Clément Philibert) Léo” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy108.nclive.org/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000007469?rskey=bX06fs&result=1. Dated accessed 9/8/2020

[2] https://www.houstonballet.org/seasontickets/2018-19-season/sylvia/. Date accessed 9/8/2020

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