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8.570831-32 - BIZET, G.: Piano Music (Complete) (Severus)
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Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
Complete Music for Piano


In France […] you hear something new, sometimes very interesting, fresh, strong. Bizet is, of course, head and shoulders above them all. [He] is an artist who pays tribute to his century and the present, yet glows with genuine inspiration. Thus Tchaikovsky to his patroness Nadejda von Meck in 1880 and 1883.

Bizet was born on 25 October 1838, his father a singing teacher and composer and his mother a pianist. His musical talent was fostered from an early age, and when Bizet was nine, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied the piano with Antoine Marmontel and composition with Pierre Zimmerman and Fromental Halévy, all of them former students of Cherubini. He was also strongly influenced by his friend and mentor Charles Gounod. At the age of sixteen he wrote his first symphony, and at the age of eighteen won a composition prize for an operetta offered by Jacques Offenbach and the Prix de Rome, which provided him with a five-year-state scholarship, with a three-year-stay at the Villa Medici, the residence of the Académie Française in Rome. After three intense years in Italy and a moving farewell to Rome (“I have never lived anything like that […] I wept for five hours”, he wrote in a letter on 17 August 1860), his return to Paris and the expiration of his scholarship, a new period of life began for him. For many years he was forced to give private lessons in piano and composition and to accept commissions for transcriptions, orchestration and composition to earn his living, tasks which he greatly disliked: “If you were forced to orchestrate a horrible waltz by X., you would think a farm labourer happy!”, he wrote to his friend and pupil Edmond Galabert in September 1866, “Believe me, it drives me mad having to interrupt my cherished work for two days to write cornet solos. But one must live! I have taken revenge. I made the orchestra nastier than it naturally is!” His frequent illnesses, mostly heart trouble, did not prevent him from working tirelessly. As a teacher Bizet was dedicated and generous: to some talented pupils, he gave free lessons.

In the 1860s Bizet wrote the operas Ivan IV, Les pêcheurs de perles, La jolie fille de Perth, the Fantaisie symphonique: Souvenirs de Rome, many songs and the larger works for piano, in the 1870s the incidental music L’Arlésienne, later made into two concert suites, the cycle Jeux d’enfants for piano four hands and the operas Djamileh (1871) and Carmen, the latter having its première on 3 March 1875. He did not live to see the success of Carmen. He died at the age of 36 in Bougival nearby Paris on 3 June 1875, the sixth anniversary of his marriage, probably through blood poisoning, and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. His sons Jean Reiter and Jacques Bizet, the latter a writer and friend of Proust, were the result of a relationship with Marie Reiter, his parents‘ maid, and from his marriage with Geneviève Halévy, the daughter of his professor in composition.

His large correspondence reveals him to be a frank and witty letter writer with wide interests: “I have read more than fifty partly historical, partly literary volumes”, he notes at the end of his first year in Rome. He was sure of himself but equally self-critical (“Finally I am sure to be a musician, something I doubted for such a long time”, 23 June 1860) and possessed a passionate, sometimes choleric nature: “Only my quarrelsome temperament is tenacious. A nudge with the elbow, a glance too long focused on me, and brrrrrr…I am in a fury!”, he writes on 26 November 1859 from Rome. “Anyhow, I do my best to improve […].”

In order to understand the significance of Bizet’s work for piano, it is worthwhile taking a closer look at Bizet as a pianist and the value he attributes to the instrument. “As to my playing the piano […] we have had a brilliant soirée at Mr Schnetz’s house”, the nineteen-year-old writes to his mother on 27 March 1858, “The French ambassador and the big hats of the French administration were present. As usual, I played those horrible pieces by Goria. That always makes a big impression.” Despite his success, Bizet played in public very rarely. He was afraid of being thought of more as a pianist than a composer. Even his precarious financial situation nearly ten years later does not change his attitude: “I play the piano very well and live on it very poorly as nothing in the world could make me play publicly. I find the profession of a pianist odious”, he comments in a letter from spring 1867. “Another aversion that costs me around 15000 francs a year. I sometimes play at the Princess Mathilde’s and in some houses where the artists are friends, not servants.”

That Bizet was a masterly sight-reader is confirmed by Berlioz in his article from 8 October 1863 in the Journal des Débats: “His talent as a pianist is so great that no difficulty can stop him when sight-reading orchestral scores. After Liszt and Mendelssohn one could see few sight-readers of his ability.”

Edmond Galabert describes his piano lessons and his way of playing: “These are the recommendations he gave me: to observe and criticize myself, to listen very attentively and to repeat the passages until the attack of the key produces the desired quality of sound, never to be content with an approximate result […] He obtained marvellous effects of softness by using simultaneously the two pedals and in the fortissimo adding always warmth and velvetiness to force and brilliance. […] He also thought it necessary to learn a piece by heart in order to study it profoundly and to make it perfect. He had, by the way, an extraordinary memory. He could compose large pieces without writing down one single note.” To Bizet, being a pianist was a precondition for becoming a composer: “In his view, a composer should become a pianist in order to get used to giving form to his ideas. He mentioned the names of great composers who were excellent pianists: Johann Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Meyerbeer etc.”

Bizet’s works for piano solo were composed in two periods of his short life: an early period from 1851 to 1857, which ended when he left for Rome at the age of nineteen, and a second which lasted from 1865 to 1868. Compared to his operas he wrote relatively little for the piano. It seems, however, that Bizet enjoyed trying out his talent by composing in a variety of genres. Apart from chopinesque lyricism (Nocturnes, Chansons sans paroles), one finds works of highly dramatic (Variations chromatiques) and epic (Chants du Rhin) character, virtuoso (Caprices, Chasse fantastique) and exotic pieces (Ronde turque), dances (Valses, Polka-mazurka) and spiritual music (Méditation religieuse). Besides the original works, Bizet wrote about two hundred transcriptions, some of his own, but mostly of other composers’ works, among the former L’Arlésienne. Bizet’s piano compositions have been discovered completely only in the course of time. Among the compositions published posthumously are the two Caprices originaux and the Nocturne in F major.

The Nocturne in F major and the Grande valse de concert in E flat major were both written when Bizet was barely sixteen. The Nocturne (Andante espressivo) contrasts restrained lyrical intensity in pianissimo with passionate drama and a climax reaching a triple forte. The waltz which Bizet performed in a concert in January 1855 is written as a rondo and characterized by a fresh elegance and an effortless combination of lyricism and virtuosity.

The Trois Esquisses musicales (Three Musical Sketches) of 1857 consist of the Ronde turque in A minor, a Sérénade in D flat major and a Caprice in A minor. After janissary music had entered European culture as a result of the Turkish wars, numerous works of Turkish flavour were composed, among them Mozart’s Rondo alla turca and Beethoven’s Variations Op. 73. At the beginning of the nineteenth century special pianos with a Janissary pedal were built, imitating the drum and Turkish crescent of the Janissaries. Bizet’s Ronde turque also contains elements of Turkish military music: recurrent rhythmic figures, sharply dotted notes, appoggiaturas and arpeggios, the melody turning narrowly around a central ostinato. In the Sérénade, distant singing on a windless moonlit night contrasts with a bacchanalian episode in which the numerous arpeggios, appoggiaturas and pedal-points refer to the Ronde turque. The Caprice takes up the A minor of the Ronde as well as pedal-points and ostinati; different parts follow each other like a carnival of masks.

Although it was written in 1868, fourteen years after the Nocturne in F major, Bizet gave the No. 1 to his Nocturne in D major. Far removed from the untroubled lyricism of the latter, it emerges from darkness with an expression of hauntedness and anguish that are reflected by the vagueness of form and tonality. D major becomes clear only at the end, in a culmination of trills and cascades in thirds on a triple fortissimo, eventually falling back into pianissimo.

In the same year 1868 Bizet wrote his most ambitious work for piano, the Variations chromatiques. He writes to Galabert: “I have just finished the Grandes variations chromatiques […]. It is about the theme I drafted this winter. I am, I admit it, totally satisfied with this piece. It is treated audaciously, you will see.” Obviously inspired by Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor, a work that Bizet admired and performed in public, it is the only one of his works for piano which is highly dramatic and in which the sense of doom is present from the very beginning – the variations in C major contained promising but deceptive redemption. Bizet’s indications reflect the broad spectrum of expression: maestoso, leggero con eleganza, grazioso, con fuoco, agitato, alla polacca, espressivo assai, appassionato, malinconico (melancholic), Quasi recitativo. Destiny fulfills itself at the end with all its force (tutta forza). Bizet performed the Variations chromatiques on 23 December 1871 in a concert of the Société nationale de musique.

Bizet wrote the Valse in C major, the four Préludes, the Thème brillant, and the two Caprices originaux before he was fifteen. The Waltz and the Thème are characterized by repetitions which give them respectively a grazioso and brilliant character. The Préludes and the Thème were probably conceived as parts of longer pieces. The first Caprice, in C sharp minor, oscillates between playful melancholy and exuberance, the second imitates the sound of bells (clochettes).

The Arlésienne Suites are distilled from Bizet’s incidental music to Alphonse Daudet‘s drama L’Arlésienne, which was first performed on 30 September 1872 in the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris. In the tragedy, Frédéri, passionately in love with a girl from Arles, the Arlésienne, whom he cannot marry, falls into despair and commits suicide. As the play had no success, it was suggested to Bizet that he transform the 27 pieces of the incidental music into a concert version. In the first suite, the Prélude, the overture of the incidental music, contains a song from the eighteenth century, the Marcho dei Rei (King’s March), followed by two contrasting parts, the second of which expresses Frédéri’s suffering from his fatal passion for the Arlésienne. The Minuetto had served as an interlude (Entr’acte No. 17), the Adagietto had been a part of the Mélodrame No. 19 and Entr’acte No. 22, and the Carillon had been the overture Entr’acte No. 18 of the third act.

The Chants du Rhin (Songs of the Rhine), a cycle of six pieces, based on poems by Joseph Méry, were written in 1865, and Bizet performed two of them on 16 April 1866 at a soirée of the Beaujolais Philharmonic Society. The songs are grouped symmetrically around La bohémienne as the central piece, framed by two meditatively yearning pieces (in E and D flat major) and two vividly exuberant ones (similarly in E and D flat major), with L’aurore serving as an introduction.

In this cycle Bizet takes up the theme of the gypsy girl which had already entered European music in the operas The Bohemian Girl by the Irish composer Michael William Balfe and Verdi’s Il trovatore, as well as in Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano. Bizet will return to it one year later in La jolie fille de Perth and ten years later in Carmen. The fourth piece Les confidences shows similarities in tonality, structure and motifs to the middle part of the third movement of Chopin’s Sonata in B minor.

The three pieces Méditiation religieuse (1855), Romance sans paroles and Casilda (both 1856), all written in C major, were published in the music supplement to the journal Magasin des familles. Meditation réligieuse, written for piano, organ or reed organ, pays tribute to the fact that Bizet entered François Benoist‘s organ class in 1852. The themes of the Romance sans paroles and Casilda are variations on that of the Méditation. Casilda, entitled Polka-Mazurka, combines elements of both dances.

Venise (1865) and Marine (1868) are both written in A minor. Venise, identical with Nadir’s aria Je crois entendre encore from The Pearl Fishers, is subtitled Barcarolle: the demisemiquavers marked scintillante (sparkling) in a high register over a calm movement of the waves seem to reflect the glittering of the water. Marine, dedicated to the Countess d’Alton Shee, can also be interpreted as a barcarolle with its wavelike movement in semiquavers over a tenor cantilena, becoming more and more intense and impetuous (con islancio). The Romance (Andante espressivo, 1851/52) reminds us of Chopin’s Nocturnes with its coloratura passages in the melody. The sombre, haunted middle part contrasts with the luminous lyricism of the outer parts.

The Chasse fantastique (1865), which Bizet dedicated to his former piano teacher Marmontel, belongs to the tradition of hunting music: among the most well-known are Haydn‘s Symphony No. 73, “La chasse”, and Weber’s Freischütz, in piano music Liszt’s studies La chasse sauvage and La chasse based on Paganini’s Caprice No. 9, as well as the study of the same title by Stephen Heller, which, performed by Liszt, made the former famous as a composer and which Bizet liked to play himself. Bizet had written an overture La chasse d’Ossian during his stay in Rome, and the first movement of the Roma Symphony initially had the title Une chasse dans la forêt d’Ostie. Chasse fantastique (Wild Hunt) suggests not only a group of huntsmen but is a phenomenon connected with a folk-myth dating back to the fifth century: thunderstorms at night, which are interpreted as a ghostly group of huntsmen, unidentified lost souls, deities, spirits, horses and hounds in mad pursuit across the skies. Mortals getting in the path of or following the hunt could be magically drawn into it. Bizet composed his Chasse fantastique on this subject: after an improvisational introduction on a fanfare the first and third parts are dominated by hunting motifs and echo effects whereas the middle part begins with a cantilena and gradually turns into a kind of demonic dance.

In the second Arlésienne Suite, the Pastorale is taken from the Entr’acte et Choeur – Pastorale No. 7, the Intermezzo from the Entr’acte No. 15, the Menuet, however, is from the third act of the opera La jolie fille de Perth. The suite finishes with a Farandole, originally a Provençal circle dance from the fourteenth century, accompanied by a pipe and a drum. It is taken from the Farandole No. 21 and the Choeur No. 23 of the incidental music.

Julia Severus

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