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georges bizet

14 august 2023

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was from a musical family. He was a piano prodigy, and when he was a little kid, his mother would change his shirt while he was practicing, so that Georges would lose no time at the keyboard. And, one imagines, so that she could show him off.

There are many, many extremely listenable French 19th-century composers. If Bizet had never written Carmen, he would be just another on the list; tunes from L'Arlésienne might show up occasionally on compilation albums alongside items by Paul Taffanel and Cécile Chaminade. But Bizet did write Carmen, so Jérôme Bastianelli, in his brief biography, has to find some angle that isn't the Nth appreciation of Carmen. Bastianelli chooses a "what-if" approach. Not so much "what if Bizet had lived longer," but what if Bizet, instead of insisting on opera, had written symphonies, or cultivated his piano talent as a soloist/composer, or had followed the example of Offenbach and written operettas and other light entertainments.

Bizet, for instance, wrote his Symphony in C at the age of 17, and it remains one of his most-performed works. He never heard it performed, and in fact it did not premiere till 1935, sixty years after his death. Bizet apparently lacked confidence in the symphony; Bastianelli guesses that he didn't want to be perceived as imitating Gounod, whose own First Symphony had just appeared (and is now a footnote to Bizet's).

Could Bizet have emulated Chopin and Liszt and become a virtuoso player of his own work? Liszt himself praised Bizet's technique. But for a French composer of the 1850s and '60s, the big money and acclaim were no longer in études and piano recitals. It was opera or nothing. Bastianelli points to a paradox (54). If Bizet had concentrated on the piano, he'd have missed opera glory. But while he was trying to get established writing for the stage, he had to make his living by offering piano lessons and doing hackwork arrangements for music publishers.

While still in his teens, Bizet won a contest for operetta composition, the terms of which were set by Offenbach himself. The piece, Le docteur Miracle, disappeared quickly, but Bastianelli says that it's pretty clever. The talents Bizet would later demonstrate for melody and dramatic writing might have made him a musical-comedy wonder.

Instead, Bizet wrote ambitious, semi- or wholly-serious operas like Les pêcheurs de perles (1863), La jolie fille de Perth (1867), and Djamileh (1872). These pieces drew some praise and then vanished. "Never performed again in the composer's lifetime" is true of all of Bizet's operas, and he didn't place or even finish most operas he started writing. Of those early works, only Pêcheurs, "The Pearl Fishers," would become a standard, decades after Bizet's death. But it was not widely known outside of France till very recently; a new production at the Metropolitan Opera (2015) was the first there in a century.

At times, Bizet felt mighty discouraged, and it was not just hyperbolic youth talking. In 1863 he wrote

Je fais une rude école en ce moment. Les déboires, les froissements se multiplient autour de moi sans que je puisse en deviner la cause. (94)

I'm learning some tough lessons right now. Disappointments and injuries are piling up around me, and I can't figure out why.

L'Arlésienne, a play by Alphonse Daudet for which Bizet wrote incidental music, in a way that foreshadows film scores of the 20th century, was also a failure initially. Its music became best known in an orchestral suite that Bizet crafted out the the material. And even the first night of Carmen (1875) was not the smash hit one might think. Public opinion swiftly and permanently came round, but by then Bizet was deceased, the victim of an obscure sudden illness.

Bizet's sudden death and his penchant for melody recall Tchaikovsky, the subject of another engagingly-structured brief biography by Bastianelli. Tchaikovsky in turn was much-influenced by Carmen. Bastianelli quotes the Russian composer at length, reflecting on a bout of playing Bizet's score on his piano. The tunes from Carmen are so familiar, beyond over-played into a realm of indelibility, that it can be hard to hear back behind them to appreciate how good, and how highly admired, the opera has truly been.

Bastianelli quotes several vignettes of Bizet at work, humming or otherwise imitating the different instruments in his arrangements as he fit them to piano scores. One somehow imagines great composers majestically writing down the harmonies that proceed directly from their brains, but realistically, there must be a lot of rah-dum-bum-bum going on not just in their minds but aloud in their studios.

As usual in Actes Sud biographies, there is a suggested discography at the end, surveying the Bizet situation up through 2015. There appear to be too many recordings of Carmen and the two Arlésienne suites to settle on a definitive version, and perhaps not enough of anything else to constitute definitive versions. I own two Carmens: one conducted by Georg Solti, which Bastianelli calls sombre et grandiose (146) but thinks is fine. Tatiana Troyanos sings Carmen on that one (Decca 1976) and is compelling, though I can't hear many consonants in her performance; it is all fluid and lovely vocal music. She is wonderfully supported by Placido Domingo – Don José is one of his best roles – and Kiri Te Kanawa.

My other Carmen is conducted by Alain Lombard (Erato 1975) and is not easy or cheap to find. It has the same Escamillo as Solti's recording, José Van Dam. Van Dam must have been routinely on call in those years for some toreadoring. Régine Crespin is amazing as Carmen. Bastianelli does not mention this version (one of several that Crespin made), but as he says, there are so many to choose from that no quick survey can get to even the great ones.

I mentioned two Arlésienne suites, but only the first is by Bizet; the second is by Ernest Guiraud (150). One of the distinctive features of Bizet's music is that it's been endlessly reworked by other composers. It can be hard to find generically titled pieces by Bizet on the Internet, because if you search, say, for his duet for oboe and piano, you find about 65 different transcriptions of tunes from Carmen for oboe, piano, or both. Bizet didn't live to enjoy the payoff of his opera fixation, but in music-history terms, it has been enormous.

Bastianelli, Jérôme. Georges Bizet. n.p.: Actes Sud, 2015.