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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

A History of Music for Singers – The Romantic Era

A History of Music for SingersThe Romantic Period in musical history is so termed because it’s an era of music that’s endlessly high on emotion whether in art, music, or literature. Largely, this “Romanticism” is considered to be a reaction to the developing Industrial Revolution which saw machines take over from people and cities grow sprawling and black with coal. Artists wanted to stand against this de-humanising and un-natural direction and instead bring out human emotions and natural themes. Compare the top picture of the Victorian City with the painting by Turner from 1839 below.

Victorian City

For composers, this was the start of two centuries of experimentation. Music became more focussed on emotional communication rather than technical elegance, giving scope for complex chromatic harmonies and vast, dramatic orchestrations. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique) and compare it to some of the music by Mozart in the previous post on Classical Music – it’s a totally different listening experience.The Romantic Period in music covers most of the 19th Century, the era of Queen Victoria for us Brits, and relative political stability in many countries, although there were still plenty of Civil Wars, and International Conflicts.

However, the biggest changes were social, with everything from the introduction of workhouses, to the invention of blue jeans. This is also the age of the novel, with literature becoming more popular as printing has become mechanised for the masses. Music is also printed more frequently now, and music books develop into the forms we have them today. The Romantic period is generally thought of as ending in the 1910s, as the Great War was looming and political unrest began to plague Europe again.

For singers, the biggest change that happens is that composers begin to use the voice as an instrument. Art songs, a trend which began in the Classical era, develop into a huge genre with its own internal divisions (English songs are quite distinct from German Lieder and French Mélodie). The lyrics are mostly poetic settings, written by Romantic poets, but the words are subsumed into a soundworld that tells the story whether or not you can understand the words. Have a listen to this beautiful setting by Fauré. The poem is by an anonymous Italian, but was translated into French by Romain Bussine.

The other main feature of the Romantic period for singers is the rise, rise and rise of Opera, reaching its zenith with Wagner at the end of the 19th Century. Wagner is responsible for the image of the opera singer as fat, Viking-horned, singing full pelt with plenty of vibrato! However, there were plenty of other kinds of opera on offer which are slightly less intense. Here’s an aria from Verdi’s opera, Il Trovatore that shows the dramatic potential of high romantic opera.

Popular music was also developing new trends. As published music became more accessible and pianos more affordable, the broadside ballads of previous eras developed into parlour songs for the rich and music hall for the not-so-rich. Mass employment in factories led to more people living in cities, and more people with set working hours that gave them distinct leisure time – and people with leisure time wanted entertainment. Music Halls provided a good sing-a-long of bawdy songs and comic sketches for the work-weary masses. Here’s an early recording (1907) of music hall star Vesta Victoria singing a well known song Wating at the Church.

Music Hall and Parlour Songs also gave rise to a new type of musical show – the operetta. Operettas had more of the feel of the music hall, while still keeping the kinds of stories and orchestrations of opera, and borrowing spoken dialogue from theatrical plays. The masters of this genre were Gilbert and Sullivan, and here’s an aria you might recognise.

The final trend related to song that was a huge part of the Romantic period was nationalism. Nationalism was a huge issue in the 19th Century as modern nation states began to take shape under their own governments. This often led to an interest in the cultural heritage of the people who made up the modern nation, and (in the wake of the Grand Tour of the classical era) interested individuals began to “collect” traditional music. In countries across Europe and beyond, composers collected volumes of songs sung by ordinary people, writing them down and sometimes arranging them as art songs, or collating different versions into a “best” version. One of the most famous collectors of them all was a Scot by the name of Robert Burns. Burns collected hundreds of Scottish folk songs and arranged many of them into the tunes that are now so famous. The clip below is the result of Burns listening to a dozen different versions of Ae Fond Kiss, collating them together to select the most effective combination of words and music from different versions, and then publishing his work. Burns is possibly one of the most famous editors in all of history!

The key forms of music for voice in the Romantic era were:

  • Opera
  • Operetta and early musical theatre
  • Songs (lieder, chanson) often about love, nature, or both
  • National anthems
  • Transcription of folk songs
  • Parlour songs and music hall
  • Almost complete separation of religious song from mainstream composition

When you’re trying to decide if something is Romantic music, listen out for:

  • Dramatic, emotive & descriptive
  • Virtuosic
  • Full of contrasts
  • Thicker texture
  • Complex harmonies with chromatic movement
  • Lyrics which are as descriptive as the music
  • Draws on national musical traditions

Composers to Remember:

 

–> Next week: The Modern (20th Century) Era

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