On this day in 1838, the great composer Georges Bizet was born. Had he lived longer, he doubtless would have been hugely influential — especially with regard to opera. But he died suddenly and young. So he exists as a kind of idiosyncratic bit of musical genius in the second half of the 19th century. He is especially known for his great melodies and I think in this way (and many others), he is comparable to Mozart. Sadly, most of Bizet’s professional life was spent arranging and orchestrating the works of others — skills that also shine brightly in his own work.
Bizet’s focus was on composing for the human voice — both opera and song. But he was also a fine composer for orchestra. In fact, the only real success he had during his life was the suite he created based upon incidental music he wrote for the play L’Arlésienne by Alphonse Daudet. But that doesn’t mean the rest of his orchestral music wasn’t great. Take, for example, Petite Suite based upon his Jeux d’Enfants, which was a collection of a dozen piano duets. It is a wonderfully charming work:
Probably the biggest reason that Bizet did not have success as an opera composer during his life is because he worked with poor librettos. In particular, two of his later operas — Les Pêcheurs de Perles and La Jolie Fille de Perth — are great from a musical standpoint, but make weak drama. I don’t tend to think about that much; to me it is all about the music. But that wasn’t the case for the audiences at the time.
Bizet’s last composition is his greatest and his most renowned, Carmen. Sadly, the first performance of the opera did not go well. Ironically, it didn’t go well for the one of the reasons that it has become a classic: it is racy. It tells the story of Jose who is led astray by the seductress Carmen. And after abandoning everything in his life for her, she dumps him for a toreador. In a fit a jealousy, Jose stabs Carmen to death. Here is the last number from the opera, “C’est toi! – C’est moi!” There are no English subtitles, but it should be clear enough what’s going on. Let me just note that after the stabbing, there is a small fantasy sequence. Carmen wasn’t secretly in love with Jose; this is just his brief delusion. Regardless, this is beautiful production:
Happy birthday Georges Bizet!