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Georges Bizet: Georges Bizet (b. Paris, 25 Oct 1838; d. Bougival, 3 June 1875).
Georges Bizet was born of musical parents- his father a singing teacher and his mother a gifted pianist whose brother was the fashionable singing teacher Delsarte. He showed an early gift for music and was admitted to the Conservatoire just before his eleventh birthday. He won a first prize in solfege before he was twelve and joined the counterpoint class of Zimmerman, an ageing professor whose place was often taken by Charles Gounod, his son-in-law. The effect of Gounod's influence on Georges Bizet's musical development was traceable to the end of his life, although Georges Bizet soon passed into Halevy's composition class. As a pianist Georges Bizet proved a brilliant pupil of Marmontel, and he was later to earn the praise of Liszt himself. He was already composing songs and piano pieces, and before he was seventeen he had written the Symphony in C major, only discovered and performed for the first time in 1935 and worthy to rank with the finest works written at the same age by Mozart or Mendelssohn. In 1857 he won the Grand Prix de Rome. He greatly enjoyed the Italian climate and countryside, the carefree life and the company which was congenial particularly after the arrival of Ernest Guiraud, prize-winner of 1859 and a lifelong friend. The most important of his Rome compositions was Don Procopio, an Italian comedy in the same vein as Donizetti's Don Pasquale. But even while he was composing this light-hearted music, he began to undergo a crise de conscience occasioned by what he guiltily felt to be his almost indecent facility. He communicated his worries in a letter to Gounod, whose example he determined to imitate, in the belief that this was an advance on his own spontaneous inspiration. Such a contradiction of his own nature inevitably brought confusion of purpose, and he took up and abandoned many new projects before eventually settling on an ode-symphony based on an incident in Camoens's Lusiads. The result, though Georges Bizet himself was pleased with it, proved much less satisfactory than his Don Procopio, which he dismissed as feeble.
Georges Bizet left Rome in July 1860, accompanied by Guiraud, and travelled in a leisurely way through Northern Italy to Venice, where he received news of his mother's serious illness. He hurried home, arriving in Paris in September and his mother did not in fact die until the following year. A one-act opera comique, La Guzla de I 'Emir, was put into rehearsal at the Theatre Lyrique, but withdrawn before performance in order to qualify Georges Bizet to compete for a handsome prize for a three-act opera by a Rome Prize-winner. This was Les Pecheurs de perles, which probably contains much of the music originally written for the earlier one-acter, and it was given its first performance on the 30th September 1863. The success with the public was very moderate, and the music is in fact uneven, though Berlioz praised the work discriminatingly in what proved to be his last critical article. It is not difficult to identify passages in which Georges Bizet, consciously or unconsciously, imitates Gounod, Verdi and even Mendelssohn, but the opera is still well above the average piece of the day. He spent much of his time in a country cottage built by his father at Le Vesinet, a few miles from Paris in those days, and pleasantly situated on the Seine. His time was taken up to a great extent with hackwork for publishers and piano lessons, unrewarding except financially. An opera Ivan le Terrible proved another abortive attempt and the composer must have been glad when he received a commission from the Theatre Lyrique to compose a libretto based on Walter Scott's 'The Fair Maid of Perth'. This was in July 1866 and the opera had its first performance on the 26th December 1867. It was well received by the press, with the exception of Le Temps, to whose critic Georges Bizet wrote acknowledging the justness of many of his adverse criticisms and pledging himself to abandon henceforward 'the school offlonflons, trills and falsehoods'.
In 1868 Georges Bizet was thirty and had still achieved nothing that unmistakably bore out the very bright promise of his early years. He seems to have found it impossible to concentrate his energies, partly no doubt owing to the pressing necessity to earn his living; and his prolonged lack of any coherent philosophy of life or aesthetic principles is reflected in the imitative character of much of his music, his repeated abandoning of work on librettos which had at first filled him with enthusiasm and in an easy-going, undemanding way of life reflected in his relationship with the fantastic adventuress Celeste Mogador, his neighbour at Le Vesinet. Many of Georges Bizet's doubts, self-questionings and philosophical speculations are contained in his correspondence with Edmond Galabert, who became his friend and pupil in 1865. In this he appears as a youthful cynic aware of the incompatibility between his cynicism and the ideals in some sense forced upon him by his extraordinary musical gifts and insights. His subscribing to the fashionable Positivism of the day was half-hearted and provided no real solution to his problems. Inasmuch as he reached any such solution it was through the change in his personal life which accompanied his marriage on the 3rd June 1869 to Genevieve Halevy, the daughter of his old composition-master at the Conservatoire. Although he wrote little during the first nine months of this year, a Fantaisie symphonique - Souvenirs de Rome was performed in February by Pasdeloup. These three orchestral movements, published in 1880 under the title Roma, are in fact pieces written, or at least, begun in Rome and they hardly suggest the quality of the mature Georges Bizet's gifts. After his marriage he settled with his wife in a house shared with some of his wife's relations, including Ludovic Halevy, a librettist well known for his collaboration with Henri Meilhac in pieces for Offenbach. The completion of his late father-in-law's opera Noe a work of family piety, took up much of his time; and the rest was occupied with three librettos given him by the Opera-Comique - Valendal, Griselidis and Clarissa Harlowe. All three proved abortive, though he was working on them during the summer of 1870, which he spent with his wife at Barbizon. There he was surprised by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (15th July), which brought him and his wife back to Paris. Georges Bizet enlisted in the National Guard and spent the months of the war and the Commune in Paris. The Opera-Comique turned down Griselidis on the grounds of expense and in compensation one of the directors, Camille du Locle, gave him another libretto, Louis Gallet's Djamileh which, after many delays, was performed at the Opera-Comique on the 22nd May 1872. Although a monstrous miscasting of the title role caused this to fail dismally, it contains music of a new originality which was immediately noticed by two composers, Ernest Reyer and Camille Saint-Saens. The libretto certainly lacks action but Georges Bizet's lyrical gift, his evocation of a conventional but still highly decorative oriental setting and the exquisite workmanship of the score were to make the work a favourite of Gustav Mahler's. This workmanship was also shown in a small work also written in 1871 - the twelve pieces for piano duet entitled Jeux d'enfants, five of which were converted by the composer into a Petite Suited 'or chestre. Georges Bizet himself was confident and wrote to Galabert of 'the absolute certainty of having found my path'. In the same letter he announced a new commission from the Opera-Comique, the setting of a three-act libretto by Halevy and Meilhac. 'It will be gay,' he wrote, 'but with a gaiety that permits style'. The work to which he refers is Carmen.
Georges Bizet's son, Jacques, was born on the 10th July 1872 and on the 1st October of the same year Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlesienne was produced at the Vaudeville with incidental music by Georges Bizet. He had an orchestra of only 26 players at his disposal; but this restriction put him on his mettle and his incidental music, which failed dismally at the theatrical performance, was immediately successful six weeks later when a selection from it, rescored by the composer, was performed as an orchestral suite. This was immediately repeated and Georges Bizet now only needed a single large-scale success to establish him as a leading composer in France. When Carmen was finally produced on the 3rd March 1875 a large section of the public was alienated by what they considered the shocking realism of Merimee's story, despite the librettists' attempts to modify this. At the end of the month Georges Bizet was taken seriously ill with the throat infection from which he had suffered intermittently since his student days in Rome, and on the 3rd June he died at Bougival, just as Carmen was beginning to receive the acclaim which it has enjoyed ever since. In this last work Georges Bizet, at the age of thirty-seven, fulfilled unambiguously and on a large scale, the fabulous promise of the symphony which he had written some twenty years earlier and his death was the greatest single blow sustained by French music in the 19th century.
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