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Georges Bizet

Biography

Born: 1838   Died: 1875   Country: France   Period: Romantic
Known for one of the world's most popular operas, Carmen, Georges Bizet deserves attention as well for other works of remarkable melodic charm. Many of his works received cool receptions on their premieres but are now considered central to the repertory of classical music.

Bizet was born in Paris on October 25, 1838, and grew up in a happy, musical family that encouraged his talents. He learned to read music at the same time he learned to
Read more read letters, and equally well. Entering the Paris Conservatory before he was ten, he earned first prize in solfège within six months, a first prize in piano in 1852, and eventually, the coveted Prix de Rome in 1857 for his cantata Clovis et Clotilde. His teachers had included Marmontel for piano and Halévy for composition, but the greatest influence on him was Charles Gounod, of whom Bizet later said "You were the beginning of my life as an artist." Bizet himself hid away his Symphony in C, written when he was 17, feeling it was too much like its models, Gounod's symphonies. The two years spent in Rome after winning his prize, would be the only extensive time, and a greatly impressionable one, that Bizet would spend outside of Paris in his brief life. When he returned to Paris, he lost confidence in his natural talents and began to substitute dry Germanic or academic writing for his own developing idiom. He composed a one-act opera for production at the Opéra-Comique, but the theater's director engaged him to write a full-length opera instead, Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). It was not a success at the time, but despite a few weaknesses, the work was revived in 1886, and its sheer beauty has earned it a respected position among the lesser-played operatic repertory. In 1863 Bizet's father bought land outside Paris where he built two bungalows, one of which Bizet frequently used as a compositional retreat. He began a friendship (apparently not a physical one) with a neighbor-woman named Céleste Mogador, a former actress, author, courtesan, circus rider, and dance-hall girl. She is said to have been the model for his masterpiece's title role of Carmen. Bizet earned his living as an accompanist and publishing house arranger. Meanwhile, he poured his creative efforts into an immense five-act opera in the grand tradition, Ivan IV, but it was never performed. This proved to be a pattern for the rest of his career. Bizet would work hard to get an opera produced, and even if he did, it would usually receive only a handful of performances. Bizet's corpus of unfinished works is large, and testifies to his unsettled existence and his difficulty in finding a place in France's notoriously hierarchical and conservative musical world. In 1869 Bizet married Geneviève Halévy, daughter of his teacher. The marriage did not turn out to be a happy one, primarily due to her family's history of mental illness. In 1872, Bizet's splendid incidental music for the play L'arlèsienne was poorly received, but when the composer assembled the music into an orchestral suite for a November performance, it found great acclaim. At last confident of his creative vision, Bizet was able to steer his final masterpiece through various obstacles, including the objections of singers and theater directors who were shocked by Carmen's subject matter. When the opera had its premiere on March 3, 1875, it was received barely well enough to hang on for future productions. Although it took audiences only a few weeks to catch on, Bizet died convinced it was a failure. Read less
Bizet: Carmen / Krasteva, Antonenko, Märzendorfer, Et Al
Release Date: 10/18/2005   Label: Euroarts  
Catalog: 2054528   Number of Discs: 1
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Bizet: Carmen / Kaufmann, Kasarova, Welser-Most
Release Date: 10/27/2014   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 002188409   Number of Discs: 1
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Bizet: Les Pecheurs De Perles / Fournet, Simoneau, Alarie
Release Date: 11/08/2011   Label: Guild  
Catalog: 2382/83   Number of Discs: 2
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Bizet: Carmen / Pretre, Callas, Guiot, Gedda, Massard
Release Date: 09/23/2014   Label: Warner Classics  
Catalog: 634110   Number of Discs: 2
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Bizet: Carmen / Ozawa, Norman, Freni, Schicoff, Estes
Release Date: 08/07/1989   Label: Philips  
Catalog: 422366   Number of Discs: 3
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Work: Carmen

 

About This Work
The reception history of Georges Bizet's final dramatic work, Carmen, is rife with ironies. Although almost unanimously condemned by Parisian critics after its first performances in 1875 for its overt sexuality and graphic final scene, Carmen Read more intrigued a number of sophisticated minds and ultimately reached the public in a way that perhaps no other opera has. Bizet's aim in composing Carmen had been to transform the flaccid, moralistic bourgeois genre of opéra comique into a more sophisticated type of staged work. With a libretto by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, Carmen survives in no single authoritative version despite its enormous popularity and influence. Guiraud converted the original sections of spoken dialogue into recitative for the 1875 Vienna performances. In recent years the original version has made a striking comeback, and one can argue that it is far more telling dramatically than the traditional version with the recitatives. There is also a popular orchestral suite drawn from the opera, and several violin and piano fantasies on its themes also exist. Carmen is cornerstone item in any opera collection. It is ironic that Bizet composed one of music's most evocative landscapes of Spain without ever having been there.

Bizet based his opéra comique on Prosper Mérimée's story, Carmen, which had appeared in October 1845. Librettists Halévy and Meilhac emphasized the exotic characters of Mérimée's story and retained the themes of social class distinctions, overt sexuality, and misogyny that emerge so forcefully in Mérimée's model. Bizet gave musical expression to the libretto using recurring motives, a distinctive melodic style, and manipulations of genre conventions to give each character a musical significance and a unique expressive idiom. The opera's prelude introduces some of the most important themes, including Escamillo's toreador music and an exotic and sinewy chromatic motive that permeates the opera as a musical symbol for both Carmen's character and the insurmountable power of fate. The gypsy fortune-teller Carmen sings in dance numbers, such as the habanera ("L'amour est un oiseau rebelle") and the seguidilla ("Près des ramparts de Seville") of Act One, and the Gypsy song ("Les tringles des sisters tintaient") of Act Two. Traversing boundaries of diatonic harmony, the sultry chromaticism of Carmen's habanera theme underscores her status as both ethnic outsider and sexually adventuresome female. In this she stands in sharp contrast to Micaëla, whose Act Three aria ("Je sais que rien ne m'épouvante") is set in the ternary form of the elevated bel canto French grand opera aria. The bullfighter Escamillo announces his trade and masculine prowess in the rollicking Act Two toreador song ("Toréador, en garde!"), which carries the musical suggestion of battle in its fanfare opening and insistent march rhythm. Don José's musical styles reflect different levels in his descent from dutiful soldier to the underworld of obsession. In Act One, Don José sings in a duet with Micaëla ("Ma mère, je la vois"), adopting her elevated lyrical vocal style. In Act Two, after his imprisonment, Don José sings a more popular march-like tune ("Halte-là! Qui va là? Dragon d'Alcala"), reflecting his lower social status. His angst-ridden wailings in the opera's final scene defy clear formal arrangement and convey the psychological turmoil of an obsessed and defeated individual. Thus did Bizet forge a work that both summed up the musical resources available to him and had enough color and sheer melodic attractiveness to insinuate itself permanently into the public mind. Carmen, indeed, has been the subject of several popular-music adaptations over the years.

-- All Music Guide Read less

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