Georges Bizet – a centennial tribute (Gramophone, October 1938)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

From the archive: John W Klein's appraisal of the composer from Gramophone in October 1938

One hundred years have passed since Georges Bizet - in Delius's opinion 'the greatest French composer' - was born (on October 25) in Paris. It is interesting to note that he was twenty years younger than Gounod and four years older than Massenet, his two most successful French operatic contemporaries. Unfortunately his span of life was only half the length of theirs and we may well echo Romain Rolland's words: 'What a place he might have taken in French art, if only he had lived twenty years longer!'

But fate decreed otherwise, and Bizet's work – despite its beauty and vigour – is disconcertingly fragmentary. It is after all surprising that a man of Bizet's undeniable genius should have created – comparatively speaking - so little; somehow one cannot help feeling that the musician who was capable of writing a Carmen in five months whilst in failing health, did not give the world what it had a right to expect from one so splendidly gifted. True, he died young, yet so did Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bellini, Wolf - and yet in each of these cases one feels that the composer had to a great extent accomplished his task at the time of his death. Far more tragic, in my opinion, is the fate of the great artist who - like Bizet or Mussorgsky - appears to have been prevented, partly by adverse circumstances, partly by defects of character or judgment, from doing full justice to himself and the priceless gift entrusted to him.

In Bizet's case there are many extenuating circumstances: his health was delicate; he was obliged to earn a precarious livelihood by giving lessons and transcribing for the piano popular works of minor value, slaving occasionally fourteen or fifteen hours a day. This tiresome and monotonous - occasionally humiliating - work, from which he shrank with the utmost loathing, gradually wore him out before his time. Then, when he was at last beginning to make a little headway, the Franco-Prussian War rudely interfered with his creative activity; the operatic theatres were more or less at a standstill for almost two years; Bizet feared that his career in France was at an end and for a moment even toyed with the idea of emigrating to America.

Moreover, it must - however reluctantly - be admitted that Bizet himself was partly to blame for the scantiness of his output. Though he had exceptional facility and remarkable creative force, he was at times too strongly influenced by the decisions - occasionally even the whims - of theatrical managers and also by what Gluck has appropriately termed 'the perverse vanity' of fashionable vocalists. He experienced the greatest difficulty in withstanding the inartistic demands of people whom in his heart of hearts he despised, but whose power he instinctively dreaded and on whose goodwill he felt he was dependent. He was not, indeed, the type of musician who goes straight ahead, contemptuously regardless of opposition, with sublime confidence in his mission. Like his great contemporary, Mussorgsky, he did not always have th e courage of his convictions. He was apt to lose interest in a work - even though it had previously awakened his enthusiasm - if it did not happen to meet with the approbation of the manager or the singer for whom he had intended it. For in his heart of hearts he knew only too well that financial success could alone save him from the humiliating drudgery and unremunerative toil that had embittered his father's existence and that did, in fact, subsequently shorten his own.

It would, however, be unjust to accuse Bizet of having lacked inner convictions, of having - like Meyerbeer, or even, at moments, Gounod - deliberately pandered to the baser passions of the multitude. For despite his desire to conciliate his managers, he could never entirely disguise his real convictions or his innate originality; he had a sincerity, an outspokenness, an ingenuous openness of nature that irritated those who were past-masters in the art of intrigue. 'If I had been less frank or less honest I might have been more successful,' he once remarked bitterly. Saint-Saëns has bluntly declared that the obstacles placed in Bizet's path were frequently the result of the worst kind of malignity. 'The policy imposed on Bizet,' he affirms, 'deprived us of five or six masterpieces that would now be the glory of France.' It is difficult for many of us nowadays to appreciate Bizet 's creations at their true value. They are too often belittled by people with little - or no - historical sense, who do not in the least realise that their composer is one of the prime milestones in the development of French opera, people who are not aware of the difficulties Bizet had to face and did in fact succeed in overcoming. 'Opera comique' in Bizet's time was a fairly trivial form of entertainment, which Bizet himself regarded with unconcealed disdain and which he incessantly strove to bring into closer contact with life - and reality. How well he succeeded a glimpse at Carmen is sufficient to reveal. The result of his efforts was, indeed, as far removed from the traditional 'opéra comique' (with its convention of the happy ending which he was after all the first to break down) as it was from grand opera, whose portentous solemnity always repelled him. Bizet certainly succeeded in creating a new genre, a kind of realistic, yet singularly entertaining music-drama, which was almost entirely lacking in the absurdities that have rendered opera the laughing-stock of so many cultured people. He was, moreover, the first French operatic composer to realise the growing demand for dramatic plots with rapid action. His initial failure was chiefly due to the fact that his Parisian audiences were still in the Ambroise Thomas stage - sentimental idyll - and were not prepared to welcome the new style: swift, concise, virile and at times uncompromising in its realism.

It is interesting to trace the development of Bizet's genius from his earliest works. Bizet was one of the most exceptionally precocious of all composers, one who from the very outset was singularly sure of himself. Probably only Mozart and Mendelssohn have equalled him in this respect. He showed extraordinary facility in all kinds of directions and was a pianist of the first order at an early age. The recently discovered Symphony in C Major (written at the age of 17) is - whatever its youthful defects - one of the most astounding examples of precocity in all music. Apart from a rather conventional finale, there is a striking individuality about this work; the technique and ingenuity it displays can hardly be too highly praised. It is, moreover, characterised by a quality of delicacy and even subtlety most unusual in one so young. Its most delightful and personal movement is undoubtedly the second - an adagio of tender lyrical charm, and great melodic beauty, but the following allegro is also typically Bizetian in its spontaneity and irresistible gaiety.

The Pearl Fishers, Bizet's first full-length opera, has frequently been denounced as 'bad Verdi', and there are, indeed, one or two scenes that do reveal Bizet as a rather slavish imitator of the great Italian maestro. His emotions and ideas do not always succeed in expressing themselves in this early work in an absolutely sincere and personal way. He also occasionally loses grip of the drama in a delightful - but too frequently lyrical - exercise of his art. On the whole, one has to admit that the first act alone is entirely satisfying. Yet the mind behind this music was already a remarkable instrument, vigorous, swift, assimilative, with an astonishing sense of the dramatically effective. There are impressive pages in The Pearl Fishers that already reveal Bizet at his best and most characteristic. The little dance that opens the opera is a positive marvel of freshness and vigour, whilst the great duet in the first act has a touch of visionary beauty and a sustained grandeur that render it one of the most inspired pages in the opera of his time.

Bizet's second opera, The Fair Maid of Perth, is a charming and fragrant work, but it is undoubtedly the least dramatic of all his operas. As a matter of fact, there was singularly little in the inane libretto - that shocking travesty of Sir Walter Scott's novel - that could be properly exploited from a purely dramatic point of view. But to denounce the opera as 'a mere imitation of Meyerbeer,' as Landormy has done, is absurd. Bizet – like Mozart - was a born opera-composer capable of writing good, even excellent music on a subject imposed on him and for which he did not in the least care. There is a delicacy of touch, a happy grace, an almost pensive charm that reveal a new aspect of Bizet's genius and that have endeared the work to many otherwise severe judges, despite its dramatic shortcomings and its fairly frequent concessions to the 'perverse vanity' of the singers. Besides, how characteristic of the later Bizet is already the romantically tender Serenade, the electrifying 'Dance Bohemienne' or the enchanting little minuet in the last act! Bizet's genius could never be entirely stifled, even in these early works, even when he was striving most feverishly to attain the popular success of his dreams. It is, indeed, understandable that The Fair Maid has always had its admirers, though it is in some respects so little Bizetian. Sir Thomas Beecham considers it one of the most delightful of all operas, whilst Ernest Newman has affirmed that there are certain things in it that Mozart himself could not have bettered.

Whenever Bizet was depressed at his lack of success in the operatic field, he thought of devoting himself to symphony or oratorio. After the failure of The Fair Maid, he completed his Roma Symphony; after the fiasco of Carmen he set to work on an oratorio, Sainte Genevieve de Paris. But there was always something savouring of despair in these attempts; Bizet had not - and knew that he had not - the symphonic temperament. The Roma Symphony (so stupidly and inappropriately termed the Roma Suite) is again a compromise. Bizet seldom succeeds in achieving a wholly individual mode of utterance. He was obviously striving - somewhat against the grain - to write in the approved classical style, with an occasional glance at Mendelssohn or Weber. Yet Roma is not simply a pale imitation; there are moments when it lives with a life of its own, and it certainly does succeed in revealing a new phase of Bizet's genius. The first movement has a breadth and dignity that surprise and impress us; there are also moments of delightful charm and piquancy when Bizet timidly - but unmistakably - reveals a more personal style. And there can be no denying the vigour and verve of the final movement; it is Bizet at his most exuberant. His joie de vivre flashes out with truly enchanting effect.

There was a gap of four years between The Fair Maid and Djamileh, Bizet's next important work. By many this one-act opera is considered the turning-point in the composer's career, by others it is denounced as unoriginal and uninspired. Bizet himself - on the whole, a fairly good judge of his own work - triumphantly proclaimed that he had at last struck out a path of his own and that he would never swerve from it again. And there can be little doubt that Djamileh reveals a definite personality. It is surely one of the most subtle and delicate one-act operas ever composed by a musician of genius. How skilfully and charmingly does Bizet succeed in creating the requisite atmosphere! Perhaps in a sense he devotes more care to the frame than to the picture itself, and his interest in the landscape appears to dwarf that in the characters. Yet it would be churlish to blame him entirely for this; there was too little in the plot (which is woefully lacking in dramatic feeling and climax) that could fire his imagination, whilst the characters as conceived by the librettist - are distressingly insipid. Bizet courageously made the best of a bad job, and succeeded in creating an essentially original and vital work. There is surely no more ravishing music than the deliciously piquant and picturesque little prelude (almost Stravinskian at times) and the melancholy and haunting romance of the Nile boatsmen - a jewel in a setting of marvellous and dream-like beauty. It is scarcely surprising that after this enchanting opening the tenor's first air - charming though it is - jars on us. Yet - despite the fact that the level of inspiration appears to drop fairly precipitately after this scene - there is much that is rare and lovely in the rest of the work. There are passages whose naive and delicate charrn recalls Mozart; there are moments in which the later Bizet – impetuous and exuberant- is vividly revealed. The electrifying dance of the Almée is the harbinger of some of the most stirring pages of Carmen and L'Arlésienne, whilst the lament of Djamileh, infinitely sad, of such poignant beauty, is yet one further instance of a growing intensity and depth in Bizet's art.

1872 was a decisive year in the composer's life. In this year he created Djamileh and was 'absolutely convinced' that he had at last found his way. In this year he wrote the incidental music to L'Arlésienne at last a genuinely inspiring subject - and the illustrious Daudet - displaying more insight than the music critics - dedicated his moving work to 'mon cher et grand Bizet,' the unknown composer who had as yet met with nothing but disdain and failure. Finally, it was in 1872 that Bizet decided that the subject of Prosper Mérimée's Carmen was an eminently suitable one for an opera and timidly proposed it to Du Locle, the Director of the Opéra Comique. By the end of the year the composer had been commissioned to write a full-length opera on the subject he had himself chosen (the only theme he had ever been allowed to choose for himself; every other libretto had been foisted upon him against his will).

It is regrettable that L'Arlésienne (Bizet's most poignant work) should never be performed in its entirety outside France. The subtle and brilliant music is marvellously apt and appropriate to the drama for which it was written; it underlines every passing thought, every touch of emotion with the most delicate skill and the most acute psychological insight. It is consequently highly inartistic to separate this finely sensitive music from its context, and even more so to provide us - as is so frequently done - with a mutilated version of the original suite; so skilfully arranged by Bizet himself and culminating in the poignant 'Carillon'. In a misguided endeavour to render the suite more palatable to the general public, the 'Carillon' - which is incomparable in its blend of exuberant gaiety and intense, heart-searching pathos - is frequently replaced by the bustling 'Farandole'. A more fearful anti-climax after the simple and tender beauty of the Adagietto can scarcely be imagined.

'Time is short. One must not die without having given what is in one,' wrote Bizet some time before his death. As though he had a presentiment that he was already doomed, he hurried through his marvellous achievement of Carmen in less than six months. Friends noticed something feverish and tense in his manner and attitude. Yet though the music occasionally reflects this state of mind, it is, on the whole, more gay and exuberant than that of Bizet's earlier works.

The French theatre possesses no more compelling creation than Carmen. There is a new and indescribable source of life in this work; the intoxicating beauty of mere living has perhaps never been so well expressed. Already the opening bars of the prelude are the most eloquent proof of this. It is sad to think that owing to the fact that the work has - like L'Arlésienne - become hackneyed, its unique qualities (above all, its extraordinary inventiveness) are generally overlooked. I doubt if there is a more convincingly human opera in existence. The final duet - which Nietzsche considered 'a dramatic masterpiece to study for climax, logic' - has not been surpassed for poignancy and truth. After hearing this duet that touches the heights both of great drama and great music, Tchaikovsky declared that Bizet 'towered head and shoulders above his French contemporaries' - and it is difficult not to share his enthusiasm. He who is insensitive to the intense pathos and tragic exaltation of this scene, which works up to such an unforgettable climax in Don Jose's last magnificent outburst, must, indeed, be a thick-skinned listener. 'Have more painful, more tragic accents ever been heard on the stage before! ' exclaims Nietzsche: Busoni, not by any means a lenient judge, rightly declared it one of the greatest achievements in music. Yet it has become the fashion nowadays to belittle Carmen, to dismiss it airily and contemptuously (and, let us add, stupidly and obtusely) as 'a light opera', as 'at best, only a flimsily delicate little opera.' (GB Shaw)

Bizet sadly remarked after the fiasco of his greatest work that he had written it 'for three or four of my friends who scoff at me behind my back.' He was mistaken. He had written it - as Tolstoy wrote his short stories - for all mankind. Everybody can understand Carmen, it is the simplest, most lucid, most straightforward of operas. And yet it is never really vulgar or commonplace; even the Toreador song – which Bizet was forced to write and which has been so extravagantly denounced - is excellent in its own way; it admirably depicts the fatuous character of the light-hearted and vainglorious bull-fighter. No doubt Bizet's original conception was more subtle and refined, and yet it can scarcely have been more appropriate. The principal figures, indeed, stand out with a surprising intensity of effect, and it would be impossible to overrate Bizet's remarkable gift of musical characterisation. And if there are one or two regrettable concessions (eg the fortissimo passage for the two voices in unison at the climax of the Don Jose/Micaela duet) we should remember that such lapses are comparatively rare and that even the sentimental figure of Micaela is occasionally ennobled by a certain simple and touching beauty.

Yet though Carmen was written for the multitude, and not for a few connoisseurs, as Bizet sadly imagined, it contains also striking and arresting beauties for 'the three or four friends,' treasures that are generally overlooked by the multitude. The singularly intense and voluptuous music that accompanies the entrance of the cigarette girls is a delightful example of this.

It is as though Bizet were saying: 'My friends, whilst everybody is engaged in looking at these beautiful girls, admiring their grace and carriage and gorgeous clothes, listen to me, listen, and you cannot listen intently enough.' It is at such moments that the true musician in Bizet - the subtle, delicate and profoundly original musician - comes into his own.

Frequently the stage spectacle is so brilliant that the vast majority of spectators scarcely notice such brief snatches of exquisite and elusive music. Neither is much attention paid to the significant little terzetto that immediately precedes the final duet. Mercedes and Frasquita warn Carmen of her danger to the accompaniment of a curiously suggestive melody that throws light on a peculiar aspect of Bizet's music - the strange underlying current of almost pleasurable excitement that is rarely absent, even when the situation is most tense and forbidding. It was obviously of this element in Bizet that Dame Ethel Smyth was thinking when she declared that he was 'one of the great who speak tragedy with a smile on their lips.'

These moments of subtle beauty constitute the most personal accents of Bizet's genius. The creator of Carmen was essentially a refined and even fastidious artist who revelled in the minutest details of orchestration, as a glance at works such as Djamileh or the fascinating little suite Jeux d'Enfants is sufficient to reveal. And yet we must welcome that last passionate bid for success and popularity that induced Bizet to cast aside all reserve and to become the interpreter of elemental passions rather than the artisan of exquisite miniatures. Whatever his art may have lost in distinction, it gained immeasurably in spontaneity and power. Never before had there been French operatic music with such a puissant and vital rhythm; never before had the French lyrical stage produced a work that was such an exquisite blend of strength and sweetness; so full of elemental vigour and yet with such delicacy of touch and so marvellous a feeling for exact nuance.

The age that idolised Bizet has unfortunately passed; it was the age of Nietzsche and Brahms, of Hugo Wolf and Tchaikovsky. A generation has come that speaks of him with disrespect; it is the age of Shaw and Jean Cocteau. It is, indeed, sickening to think how frequently he is nowadays dismissed as a mere writer of popular tunes, likened to Delibes, Thomas and Massenet, men who - whatever their ability in their own respective spheres - were certainly not of his stature. His masterpiece – which must always remain an extremely important landmark in the history of opera - is referred to with undisguised disdain; what is infinitely worse, it is often performed in a music-hall spirit. Bizet, however, will survive these criticisms, even these mediocre and slipshod performances. Whatever his concessions -however much we may deplore them - we should not forget that he was a great musician who fought manfully and in the end successfully for French opera at a time when the national taste was at its lowest ebb. His inspiration was fresh and exuberant; the morbid nature of the themes he chose served only to enhance the fundamental sanity of his work. Daring and original, he was one of the great instinctive musicians, the most effortlessly spontaneous of all French composers, one who - to quote the late Sir Charles Stanford – was 'a musician, not by the strength of his will, but by the divine grace of God.'

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