About this Recording
8.573344 - BIZET, G.: Roma / Marche Funèbre / Patrie Overture / Petite Suite (Ireland RTÉ National Symphony, Tingaud)
English  French 

Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
Marche funèbre in B minor • Overture in A • Patrie • Petite suite • Roma


Georges Bizet was born in Paris in 1838, the son of a singing teacher. He entered the Conservatoire at the age of ten and even in childhood had some lessons from Charles Gounod. He later became a pupil of Fromental Halévy, a prolific composer of opera, whose daughter, subject like her mother to intermittent bouts of mental instability, he married in 1869. Ludovic Halévy, a cousin, collaborated on the libretto for Carmen. As a brilliant student at the Paris Conservatoire, Bizet won the many prizes expected of him, culminating in 1857 in the first prize in the Prix de Rome, followed by three years at the Villa Medici, in accordance with the terms of the award, modified to allow him to remain in Rome for the final year, rather than move to Germany. In Paris, where he returned in September 1860 on receiving news of his mother’s illness, he earned a living by hack-work for the theatre and for publishers, interspersed with more ambitious undertakings, including Les pêcheurs des perles (The Pearl Fishers), staged with moderate success by the Opéra-Comique in 1863, followed, in 1867, by La jolie fillede Perth at the Théâtre-Lyrique. In 1872 the opera Djamileh, mounted at the Opéra-Comique, was a failure, as was the original score for the melodrama L’arlésienne, a collaboration with Alphonse Daudet. He won a lasting although largely posthumous success with the opera Carmen, staged, after considerable difficulty, in 1875 and running at the time of Bizet’s sudden death in the same year.

In 1867 the Ministre des Beaux-Arts established a competition for three operas, for the Opéra, the Théâtre-Lyrique and the Opéra-Comique respectively. Librettos were submitted and that chosen for the Opéra was Lacoupe du roi de Thulé (The Cup of the King of Thule) by Louis Gallet and Edouard Blau, based on the ballad sung by Gretchen in the first part of Goethe’s Faust. The competition attracted a large number of entries, although, as so often, there were suspicions that the whole affair had been rigged by the administrators of the Opéra. In the event the winner was the more or less amateur composer Eugene-Emile Diaz de la Pena, who was thought to have had the assistance of Victor Massé, an experienced composer, teacher of Diaz and a member of the jury. Among the other competitors, some forty or more of them, were Massenet and Ernest Guiraud, placed second and third. Bizet, who had been anxious not to be revealed as a loser, was placed lower in the list, and was able to retrieve some elements from the score for other purposes. His opera, however, was lost, to survive only in fragments, including the Prélude, which became the Marche funèbre in B minor. The librettists had developed the original ballad very considerably, but the essence of the story remained. The old King of Thule treasures a gold cup left him by his wife. From this he drinks each day, and as he comes to die he hurls the cup into the sea. In the new libretto the King is dying for love of Myrrha, the mistress of the royal favourite Angus, retaining only the loyalty of the court jester Paddock. The gold cup, the gift of the Queen of the Sea, must be given to the King’s successor, but the King gives it to Paddock, who throws it into the sea, whence it is eventually retrieved by the young fisherman Yorick, the love of Myrrha to be his reward. He returns it to Myrrha, who joins with Angus to take power. Yorick has been promised immortality by the Queen of the Sea, and at last realising the situation calls on her for help. She answers his prayers and drowns the guilty usurpers in the waves. The Prélude sets the scene for this drama of love and vengeance, more aptly under its original title than as a funeral march. It contains elements of the story, from the menace of the opening to Yorick’s love for the siren Queen of the Sea, with motifs for her, for the gold cup and for Yorick, and ending in tragedy rather than the final happiness of Yorick.

The Overture in A minor dates from about 1855, before Bizet’s first attempt to secure the Prix de Rome, and was his first orchestral composition. It remained unpublished and apparently unperformed during his lifetime. The piece starts with a melancholy A minor Andante ma non troppo, leading to more gently lyrical material, before a tempestuous outburst, marked Allegro vivace. The third of the four sections into which the work is divided is a lyrical E major Andante espressivo. The piece ends with a vigorous A major Allegro vivace, with suggestions of the hunt.

Written in 1873 and first performed the following year, the dramatic overture Patrie came in the patriotic aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, a mood that the overture sets out to capture. Dedicated to Massenet, the work is scored for a large orchestra, including four horns, pairs of trumpets and cornets, three trombones and an ophicleide, the last cued into other parts for modern performances. The percussion section includes timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle and cymbals, with two harps and the usual strings. The first theme, with its martial connotations is heard at the outset, in C minor, repeated in C major. This leads to an F major second theme, marked un peu animé, entrusted first to clarinets, bassoons and violas. A funeral march in A minor appears, followed by an episode in triple time, an A major Andantino, the melody given to clarinet, cor anglais and viola at its first appearance. The first theme returns with a solo flute followed by the second theme, with the whole patriotic piece ending Moderato maestoso, fff and tuttaforza.

The set of twelve pieces for piano duet that constitute Jeux d’enfants was written in 1871 and from these Bizet orchestrated six or seven, with five of the pieces later published as the Petite suite d’orchestre. The first of the orchestrated pieces, Les quatre coins, not included in the suite but expanded in Bizet’s orchestral version, translates into music a children’s game that has something in common with the English ‘musical chairs’. Players occupy bases at the four corners of a square area, with, in the middle, a fifth player whose task is to occupy one of the corner bases, displacing one of the other children in the game. Pieces that were included in the posthumously published suite start with Marche: Trompette et tambour (March: Trumpet and Drum), followed by Berceuse: La poupée (Lullaby: The Doll), a doll’s gently lilting cradle-song. The third of the five pieces is Impromptu: La toupie (Impromptu: The Top), aptly reflected in its music. Duo: Petit mari, petite femme (Duo: Little Husband, Little Wife) has the children playing house, and the suite ends with the lively Galop: Le bal (Galop: The Ball).

It was in 1860, while Bizet was still in Italy after his triumph in the Prix de Rome, that he turned his attention to the writing of a new symphony. The task was to engage him intermittently over the next eleven years, with a final revision of the work in 1871.

Bizet had apparently contemplated an Italian symphony, its respective movements to be Rome, Venice, Florence, and Naples. This plan seems to have been abandoned in favour of a symphony without an overt programme, although the work continued to carry the title as first apparently envisaged for the first movement, Roma. By 1866 Bizet had completed, if not yet scored, the first version of the new symphony. This he revised in 1869, when Jules Pasdeloup conducted three movements of the work, without the Scherzo, under the title Fantaisie symphonique, Souvenirs de Rome, with individual movement titles given as Une Chasse dans la forêtd’Ostie (A Hunt in the Forest of Ostia), Une Procession and Carnaval à Rome. The final version of 1871 was performed under Pasdeloup, now with the less precise title Roma, Symphonie en quatre parties (Roma, Symphony in Four Movements). It was published by Choudens as Roma, troisième suite de concert (Roma, Third Concert Suite), with the title Carnaval retained for the last movement.¹

There is a clear hint of the hunt about the opening of the symphony, the theme entrusted first to the four horns, joined by woodwind and finally the strings. The music gathers pace, leading to a C minor Allegro agitato (manon troppo presto), with further contrasting thematic material until the return of the opening, with the horns resuming dominance once more. The Scherzo, in A flat major, starts with the first violins, second violins, violas and then cellos and double basses duly entering in fugal imitation. The opening figure of the theme has continued importance and is entrusted to the accompanying violas throughout the trio section. Strings introduce the third movement Andante, its F major theme marked Largo espressivo. The theme appears also in the woodwind before the appearance of a C major secondary theme, in 12/8. The last movement starts as a tarantella, its first theme given initially to the oboe. A contrasting episode is introduced, capped by the return of the tarantella. A third melody appears, played leggierissimo by the first violins, and a fourth is derived from the secondary theme of the slow movement, making its final return as the key of C major is re-established and the symphony comes to an end.

Keith Anderson

¹ For details of the genesis of Roma see Winton Dean, Georges Bizet: His Life and Work, London, 1965, pp. 139–143.

Close the window