Delibes: Cortège de Bacchus (Sylvia)

I try not to pick favorites, I really do. But the first time I heard this piece of music I just kept yelling “What IS this?”WHO is this?” which tells you a lot about how much fun it is to hang out with me. This piece is so exhilarating and exciting and incidentally, my number 1 pick for classical music pieces to run to. Are you ready for Bacchus?

PIECE: Cortège de Bacchus (Procession of Bacchus) from Sylvia

COMPOSER: Léo Delibes

DATE: 1876

ERA: Romantic

GOOD FOR: Pump-up jams, power hours and running.

Let’s start with a little history of Delibes himself. Léo Delibes was born in what is now La Flèche in northwest France in 1836. When he was eleven he began to study composition at the Paris Conservatoire and started his voice lessons the next year. His keyboard and conducting skills proved to be better than his singing skills apparently, and he went on to take positions as a rehearsal accompanist and assistant chorus master with Paris opera companies. This must have been heaven for him because there is nothing Delibes appeared to love more than music for the stage. He almost exclusively wrote operas/operettas and ballets, plus a smattering of art songs.

This is believed to be the only known gif footage of Delibes

We’re talking today about a particularly awesome lil’ nugget from Delibes’ ballet Sylvia.

Sylvia was his third ballet and pretty much everyone seems to agree that the plot of the ballet was a total dud*, but the score is so wonderful that it managed to save this ballet from completely falling through the cracks. In 1952, new choreography, a superstar ballerina, and a shortened plot finally popularized the ballet.

*Except for this cool thing where it broke with romantic narrative tradition and featured a strong female huntress as the main character instead of a fairy/doll/princess (you get the idea). Go early feminism in ballet!

A big part of what makes Delibes’ ballet score so impressive is that he borrowed a technique from Wagner and incorporated leitmotifs into his ballets. Leitmotifs are little musical fragments (melodies or rhythmic gestures) that are associated with specific characters, objects or ideas. A great recent example of this is the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and thankfully someone already made an amazing video about it, which you should definitely click here to watch.

A lot of the writing about this work seems to agree that it’s full of romantic era clichés but also seems to have elevated itself in moments of real emotional sincerity and some cool innovations. The Barcarolle (A piece of music meant to invoke Venetian gondoliers’ songs) is a pretty typical little Barcarolle in many ways: it’s in 6/8 time signature to evoke a wave-like texture so you get that “on the canal” feel, it’s in a moderate tempo, and it’s pleasant BUT THEN THE SOLO INSTRUMENT COMES IN  AND I’M LIKE:

Listen for yourselves


Yes! That’s right, that IS a saxophone in this romantic French ballet from 1876. Sylvia features some of the earliest writing for alto saxophone in the “Barcarolle” which makes it feel surprisingly modern. Saxy times!

It’s also the source of the sweet-yet-sneaky sounding “Pizzicato” that shows up in cartoons, movies, and after making you this compilation youtube playlist, now haunts my dreams. (Click top left-hand corner in the video to pull down the playlist)

Sylvia also has a great bit of historical gossip associated with it. Apparently, Tchaikovsky (no stranger to writing ballets himself) had a Black Swan moment of his own upon hearing Sylvia, writing to his student:

[Sylvia is]the first ballet in which the music is not only the principal interest, but actually the only interest …It exudes such charm, such elegance, such abundance of inventive rhythm and harmony. If I had known this music earlier I would never have dared to write Swan Lake.”

Well, thank god no one told mopey Tchaikovsky about this ballet earlier otherwise Natalie Portman wouldn’t have an Oscar.

But let’s get to the main event: The “Cortège de Bacchus”

Because the plot has been so highly criticized, I am not even going to get into it because our featured movement today exists outside the main plotline anyway. Truly, all you need to know for this “Cortège de Bacchus” is that it’s ancient Greece, and Bacchus (aka Dionysus in Greek) is the god of wine, wine-making, and partying hearty. This movement actually follows a Song to Bacchus and a Dance of the Bacchantes (priests/priestesses/followers) so there’s been a whole lot of preparation before this procession of Bacchus himself (or at least his idol).

Ain’t no party like a Bacchus party

The procession is announced with a trumpet fanfare in a respectable moderato tempo, a solo at first that picks up some gusto as it approaches the Bacchantes. This piece is all about excitement and frenzy and Delibes does an amazing job creating tension that builds and never releases quite the way you expect it to. One of the first ways he does this is in the timpani and bass parts at about 20 seconds in, where he writes in this alternating bass figure between E and B

which creates a sort of heartbeat in this work that is rapid and relentless…and SO EXCITING in combination with that sexy chromatic downward gesture in the melody, ending in a tremolo for strings, and a ruff (double grace note) in the timpani part, adding a little extra flutter to our heartbeat.

These guys shimmy in time with the music. I swear it’s amazing.

The fanfare returns (around 0:50) and we get a big build up to…a giant rest before Delibes drops the beat 1870’s style into an exultant celebration with big offbeat accents to put you in that drunk dancing mood.

Then we change keys to A major around letter E in the score (1:19 in the recording) and things get softer and sweeter for a minute. Like all the girls of the corps just showed up and everyone tried to sober up for a minute. Strings dominate and take over the melody, while the brass and the bass have a slower version of our “heartbeat” from earlier.

At letter G (1:56) the woodwinds and triangles take over with some distinctly “fairy-like” music and lead us into the unexpected key of A-flat. Pizzicato strings back up the woodwinds and triangles and Delibes adds in the harp when we get to a mini processional march at letter H (2:12). The melody here is the same melody we’ll hear later when Bacchus FINALLY gets here, but this is the cute and sweet version.

Procession of the Bachanettes

There’s a bit of a struggle between the brass/percussion frenzy and the warm string melody from earlier but in the end, they’re interrupted by an abrupt fanfare at letter K (3:08) changing us back to E–major! Except that this time instead of resolving the fanfare into a cadence, it just keeps chromatically rising up to a very tense Dominant 7 chord (V chords always feel like they want to resolve back to Tonic/Homebase)

‘cuz it’s a V chord GET IT???

….and then a rest.This rest is amazing. Delibes builds tension on tension and then just when you can’t take it anymore he completely stops everything.Out of the silence, the timpani starts up the heartbeat again (3:32) only this time it’s faster and now it’s in 6/8. Before, when we were in 2/4 there were four 8th notes per measure, but now we are squeezing in six 8th notes per measure, so the melody gets a little extra oomph added to it. I made a video comparing the two so you can hear how the melody changes from the first iteration in 2/4 to the return in 6/8.

The main procession of Bacchus is so soon you guys. The orchestra is basically losing their minds with excitement about Bacchus’s arrival. As we build into the grand entrance at letter O (in this particular recording, brilliantly timed at 4:20) everything broadens and finally, he arrives…

I wouldn’t have guessed it but there are a lot of sparkly Dionysus gifs out there

Our processional march is properly here and proceeds in a very grand Largo with all the pomp and glory an orchestra can provide.

But this is Bacchus…and this is a Bacchanale*…

Less pomp, more pinot

So the pomp only lasts so long before drunken frenzy retakes the orchestra back into 6/8 at letter R (4:52) and then it’s a party till the finish.

Ready to party?

Hope you enjoyed the Bacchanale

Canon Fodder is partnering with Awesöme Orchestra to bring you content about their upcoming performances. Awesöme Orchestra Collective brings together Bay Area music-lovers for orchestral adventures. They hold drop-in reading sessions that are open to all musicians, and free for everybody in an informal setting. You can hear them perform “Cortège de Bacchus” from Sylvia,  E.T. Adventures from Earth by John Williams and premiering  “Introit” from Requiem Without Words by Arturo Rodriguez, written for the victims of the Oakland Ghost Ship Fire, at the Oakland Public Library (central branch) on August 1st from 6pm-9pm 

*Yes, yes there is a musical form called a Bacchanale and this is not that because that is a musical depiction OF the party, this is a procession happening AT a bacchanale. I don’t like it either.

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