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On This Day – January 16

Today we look at a French composer of ballets, operas and other works for stage, who is most well known for the British Airlines advertisement. Léo Delibes, died on this day in 1891.

Born on the 21st of February, 1836 in Saint-Germain-du-Val, France, his father was a mailman and his mother a talented amateur musician. Raised by his mother and uncle following his father’s early death, he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1847 as a composition student of Adolphe Adam. A year later he began taking voice lessons, though he would become a much better organist than singer.

He held positions as a rehearsal accompanist and chorus master at the Théâtre Lyrique, second chorus master at the Paris Opéra, and organist at Saint-Pierre-de-Chaillot between 1865 and 1871. In 1856 his first operetta was Deux sous de charbon (Two sous-worth of coal).

Algers, A ceremonial cantata for Napoleon III on the theme of Algiers, brought him to official attention, however it wasn’t until 1870 that he achieved true fame with the success of Coppélia, a ballet about a mechanical dancing doll that distracts a village swain from his beloved and appears to come to life.

Among his operas, his last, Lakmé, contains the famous coloratura showpiece known as the Légende du Paria or Bell Song (“Où va la jeune Indoue?”), and The Flower Duet (“Sous le dôme epais”), which became familiar to non-opera-goers in the 1990’s thanks to the British Airways commercials. Delibes’ operas impressed Tchaikovsky enough for him to rate Delibes more highly than Brahms – though Tchaikovsky did consider Brahms “a giftless bastard” so this might be faint praise.

Here we hear the two famous songs from Lakmé, both featuring Sumi Jo, first on her own with The Bell Song, then joined by Ah-Kyung Lee for The Flower Duet. Then we see the Mazurka from Coppelia performed by the Royal Ballet.

And for a bit of reminiscing, here is a couple of British Airways ads which feature The Flower Duet.

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