Category Archives: Composer of the Month

Composer of the Month: Georges Bizet

Logo Composer of the Month

October is here and it’s time for a new Composer of the Month

This month, to time with this composer’s birthday, I’ve chosen one of the “one hit wonders” of the musical world. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that many composers who are now only known for one work struggled for years, writing many other things before lighting on their best work.

Bizet, George

Bizet Image



Born: 1838
Died:  1875
Nationality: French
Lived in: Paris, France
Fame Rating: Mezzopiano



Bizet was born in Paris, and lived most of his life there. He showed exceedingly early promise – learning to sing by listening at the door while his father was teaching – and entered the Conservatoire de Paris aged only 9. While there, he won numerous prizes and graduated with a scholarship to travel around Europe.

Bizet’s scholarship took him first to Rome, where he composed an oratorio work – a setting of religious words. However, this was not received very well, and this, along with his atheism meant that Bizet never set religious words again. Instead, he turned to opera, and he requested to stay in Rome for an additional year to work on this further, rather than travel to Germany as part of his scholarship.

Unfortunately, Bizet’s mother fell ill during this extra year (1860), and he was forced to return to Paris to care for her. In Paris, he continued composing, but once the scholarship money ran out, he was unable to survive simply as a composer. Paris, like many big cities with conservatoires, was overrun with musicians and composers. To make things even worse, the main opera houses were very traditional and did not often commission or produce new work. Bizet, like most composers, became a teacher to supplement his income.

Life was not entirely miserable for Bizet – in 1869, he married his composition teacher’s daughter who had been a longstanding friend. He had also, by this time, completed his two other well-known operas, Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth, which were both staged in Paris. Unfortunately, neither was considered to be terribly good by the critics.

Things did not improve for Bizet. In 1870, war struck France as Napoleon II declared war over Prussia. The Emperor was defeated and deposed by the end of the year, and Paris became subsumed into a civil war. Others fled the city, but Bizet held out for several months before even he decided it was too dangerous and moved out until peace was restored.

On returning to Paris, Bizet was appointed as chorus-master at the Paris Opera, and he also received another commission for the Opéra-Comique. Unfortunately, however, the director of the Opéra-Comique found the subject matter of the opera to be too controversial. Bizet had to wait for the director to resign before he was able to proceed with what would later be considered his most important work.

Carmen premiered to an audience filled with Bizet’s composer friends and peers, as well as critics and ordinary theatre-goers. The reaction was as mixed as the audience. Massenet and Saint-Sans congratulated Bizet on his success, while his friend, Charles Gounod, seemed to accused him of plagiarism! The critics were equally as divided with many of them expressing concern that the heroine of the piece was an amoral gypsy woman.

Bizet, sadly, would never know how famous and respected his work would become. A matter of months after the opening of Carmen, he suffered two suspected heart attacks within days of one another. The second was fatal, and he died on 3rd June 1875. The performance of Carmen was suspended on the day of his funeral, and the eulogy was given by his long-standing friend and competitor Gounod.

Today Carmen remains one of the most popular and famous operas of all time, and Bizet’s other works are also gaining recognition, with Les pêcheurs de perles ranking at number 41 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame 2013

Famous Historical Events During Bizet’s Lifetime:

  • 1845-49 – Irish potato famine
  • 1853-58 – The Crimean War
  • 1859 – Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species
  • 1861-65 – The American Civil War
  • 1870-71 – The Franco-Prussian War leads to the unification of Germany and Italy.

Find out more about Bizet elsewhere online:
Classics for Kids – BBC Radio 3 – Classic FM – Wikipedia

Repertoire Corner



Happiness and joy are our themes this week, and I’ve selected two intermediate level songs


Schubert – Seligkeit (Heavenly Bliss)


This song has quite a long introduction which should be used by the singer to prepare mentally for the mood of the song. The melody here needs attention to detail. It’s vital to get the trill at the start of each verse right, and all the slurred notes need to be clean. Watch especially for the large jumps in the second half – they shouldn’t become glissandos. This song needs good, clear top notes without too much vibrato to reflect Schubert’s semi-classical style. Each verse should be sung with a different character to reflect the meaning of the words regardless of whether the song is sung in English or German. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

* * *

Lerner/Loewe – I Could Have Danced All Night (My Fair Lady)

Watch the key change in the opening recit to this song – it’s easy to think it’s a repeated phrase, but it’s not! Once the main theme gets going, it’s important to sing right through every note, shaping it roundly. Dynamic variation is also important to communicating the story of this song. Breathing needs to planned carefully to ensure every note is really well supported. Finally, this song needs a good dose of raw enthusiasm to be truly excellent. [Lyrics] [YouTube]

Composer of the Month for September: George Frideric Handel

Logo Composer of the MonthWelcome to the very first Composer of the Month. This is a new regular series in which I will explore the vocal music of different composers. As part of Composer of the Month, a free pdf will be available of this month’s composer for you to use with your students. I will also post at least two posts, one with a biography of the composer, and one with a selection of typical vocal works and some notes on what makes their music famous.

This month, we’re beginning with one of my favourite composers of all time:

Handel, GF

Handel Image


Born: 1685
Nationality: German (Prussian)
Lived in: Brandenburg-Prussia, Italy, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Fame Rating: Fortissimo!


George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg. Halle is in the east of modern Germany, but when Handel was born, it was in a country called Brandenburg-Prussia which became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701 (Handel was 16).

Handel loved music from an early age, but his father wanted him to become a lawyer. Young George was forbidden from studying music, so the story goes, and he practiced in secret. Then, during a visit to relatives, he surprised everyone with his ability to play. This convinced his father he should continue to have musical training, although not enough to dissuade him that the career for Handel was the law.

Just as his father wished, Handel headed off to law study at the University of Halle, but this commitment didn’t last long. Within a year, Handel accepted a job as violinist and harpsichordist for the Opera in Hamburg (at the time, an independently governed imperial city in the Holy Roman Empire, and now in northern Germany).

After a few years of working as a musician and composer, Handel left the Holy Roman Empire for Italy at the invitation of the powerful Medici family. Italy was the place to be in the early 18th Century for composers as it was at the cutting edge of musical fashion. Opera was booming business and Handel was soon adding his own sound to the mix. Handel also worked for the Papacy, writing sacred music for the Roman Catholic church in the form of cantatas (songs) and oratorios (choral works).

In 1710, Handel returned to Germany, where he became court musician and composer for Georg, Elector of Hanover. As part of this role, he travelled to London, where only a few years later his patron would also move. In 1714, Georg of Hanover became King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

In London, Handel thrived, holding posts with the Royal Academy of Music, and the Royal Opera in Covent Garden. He also continued to work for the Hanover family, composing one of his most famous works, Zadok the Priest, for the coronation of George II. It was this royal music which includes Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music which would fix Handel in the history of music as one of the most famous composers of all time.

Handel continued to write operas in London, and also travelled Europe recruiting for choirs and  orchestras. Later, he returned to religious music, as this seemed to be more popular among the London audiences. His most famous work, the Messiah, was first performed in 1742 and has been performed constantly ever since.

When he died in 1759, Handel was one of the rare breed of artist who was recognised as great during his lifetime as well as after. He was buried with full state honours in Westminster Abbey. Three thousand mourners attended the funeral.

Today, his works live on amongst the most popular works of all time. This year (2013), the Messiah placed at 22 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame (an annual public vote of favourite classical music).

Famous Historical Events During Handel’s Lifetime:

  • 1688 – The Glorious Revolution makes England a constitutional monarchy
  • 1703 – Peter the Great founds St Petersburg and moves the Russian capital there
  • 1707 – Act of Union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland
  • 1714 – George, Elector of Hanover, becomes King George I of Great Britain
  • 1715 – “First Jacobite Rebellion” happens in Scotland (it’s not really the first one though…)
  • 1720s – Bad financial management causes the “South Sea Bubble” – one of the first Capitalist market crashes
  • 1729-30 – The Wesley brothers found Methodism in England

Find out more about Handel elsewhere online:
Classics for Kids – BBC Radio 3 – Classic FMWikipedia