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Georges Bizet lived a somewhat frustrating life with his attempts at opera and other large-scale forms being scorned by a Parisian audience captivated by the charm and accessibility of the likes of Rossini. Even a work of the stature of Carmen did not receive recognition until after its composer's death. Bizet's works, therefore, are a tantalizing mix of pure genius and the routine hack work which he had to undertake merely to survive.
Only in the genre of the mélodie did Bizet find himself free from the pressures of commercial music-making, and Graham Johnson and Ann Murray have here devised an enchanting programme of twenty particularly fine songs.
Rossini was one of a handful of wily non-Frenchmen who had stormed the citadels of Parisian musical taste from within. The ongoing influence of what people took to be his lightweight, instantly appealing music (a description which is admittedly unfair to the wide range of Rossini’s output) was to blight Bizet’s operatic career as surely as it had destroyed Schubert’s chance of a fair operatic hearing in Vienna forty years earlier. In short, the composer featured on this disc was born about a decade too soon (and died just too early) to benefit from the different musical climate that would sustain a Fauré or a Duparc, both pupils of César Franck, a man older than Bizet but longer-lived and briefly his teacher in 1874. As Winton Dean points out in his biography of the composer, Bizet in his earlier works sometimes lapses into the manner of Rossini or Meyerbeer, second-rate Gounod, or even of the dreaded Auber. This makes for an output which is tantalizingly uneven, where genius peeps out audaciously from behind the curtain and then disappears in order to provide music in the banal style expected and encouraged by the Zeitgeist. Bizet’s world was that of France in the Second Empire; his musical talents, and his taste for innovation, would have been better suited to a less superficial period. But any young composer can only model himself on the music he has grown up with, and one cannot blame Bizet for not being entirely impervious to the tastes that were the musical fashion of his own epoch.
The geographical proximity of France and Germany has always been belied by an enormous aesthetical divide. The singular individuality of French culture, determined not to follow the precepts of its increasingly powerful neighbour, was played for all it was worth by musical jingoists, smugly proud of their intransigent opposition to outside influences. (They forgot that they had already been conquered by the Germans Meyerbeer and Offenbach who had cunningly catered for Parisian tastes and were counted as French composers.) The young Wagner had spent an inglorious period in Paris to no avail; even the great Verdi was to have his Parisian travails with Don Carlos. It is perhaps understandable that the French were frightened (if also fascinated) by Wagner who had returned to Germany in 1843 and, having stormed the homeland’s citadels, was knocking once again at the gates of Paris; but even Mozart and Beethoven had fared little better. At least Wagner was a composer of operas, and the French understood the idea of spectacle; they preferred to be enraged by opera than to be bored with chamber music. Any serious music which required thought and concentration threatened ennui – the worst thing imaginable for a French dilettante of the time – and was treated with derision. The French critics felt free to denounce anything in the way of ‘learned’ music as if it was something infectious and dirty. If you happened to like string quartets, sonatas or symphonies, musical life in Paris was barren unless you were rich or eccentric enough to mount your own private concerts. If you composed such ‘academic trash’ you felt yourself to be a part of a persecuted minority. And God forbid if one attempted to import into French opera any of the musical refinements that a sensitive musician would learn from the wider world of music. This was one of Bizet’s besetting ‘sins’ according to his many critics.
In those days the paying customer was always right. The aim of those in charge of the musical world was never to educate or uplift, but rather to cater and pander, sometimes pretending to be less educated than they were in order to keep in touch with their audiences. (Does this not strike a chill and familiar note at the end of our own century?) The blatantly unrefined and underdeveloped tastes of the majority were solemnly credited with a sort of purifying common sense: the punters were ‘too sensible’ to be taken in by anything that did not have instant appeal, therefore anything they did not like was pretentious rubbish. This triumph of the market (with greedy and opportunistic theatre managers too craven to gamble on anything new) succeeded in insidiously debasing French musical taste for half a century or more, and torturing the creative souls of a number of composers aiming for something more than an empty ‘hit’. Meaningful opera remained only a phantom. It took a personality as gigantic as Diaghilev to lead taste rather than slavishly to follow it, and it is perhaps significant that this great entrepreneur came from outside France and, with a spectacular coup d’état, dominated Parisian cultural life. But this is to jump forward half a century. The young composers of Bizet’s generation had no Diaghilev to give them a chance. In order to engineer an opportunity, even the most idealistic artists were drawn into the intrigue, and began to ‘play the game’ to the detriment of their own self-respect. This is also part of Bizet’s story. The capital was full of mediocre composers and incompetent critics who, in a healthier musical climate, would have been powerless to suppress real talent. In an inversion of all real artistic values, mediocrity was king; those who had lobbied themselves into powerful positions were determined to maintain the wretched status quo in their own interests – and all in the guise of being guardians of French art.
Georges Bizet had to do daily battle with hair-raising intrigue and corruption, where those in charge felt entitled to occupy the moral high ground in blocking any threatening innovation. After an auspicious start – an easy and distinguished studentship – Bizet suffered almost every possible misfortune to beset an aspiring composer: bad health, inadequate libretti, financial difficulties, an ambition to compose symphonic and piano music in an environment hostile to such serious enterprise, an unhappy marriage to a neurotic woman who was no help at all in his struggles, a political climate which was decadent in the extreme, the disruptive upheaval of armed conflict (the Franco-Prussian War broke out at a crucial time, interrupting important opera plans), and finally, and most bitterly, death just before his masterpiece Carmen was acknowledged as such. It was in many ways a pitiful life. He was a man of some passion and temper, also of some integrity. Reading his many letters it is sad to see how he had to learn to duck and weave in order to beat the system, and there is no doubt that in order to survive he involved himself in the sort of shady double-dealing which he would have scorned in happier circumstances. The French obsession with juries and prizes was at its height. Early in his life Bizet benefited from this by winning the Prix de Rome; but he was its victim later in his career when it came to submitting stage works to a jury. This was a common practice, and it seems the result was almost always rigged. More than once the composer was involved in a farce involving anonymous entries – he was too proud to be seen to fail as a winner, but he needed a performance so badly that he could not abstain altogether from entering. Any composer was only a cog in the wheeler-dealings of the theatre managers, and humiliation was the order of the day for anyone who tried to play the altruistic artist. Bizet made himself ill (he suffered from repeated bouts of quinsy) by working hard at everything that came his way: teaching (both the piano and composition); arranging scores, both important and undistinguished, into piano arrangements (he dashed off a staggering number of these); finishing or otherwise adapting music not his own; orchestrating music for incompetent but momentarily fashionable composers – and so on, endlessly. Hack work was what kept him going, and his greatest music was composed side by side with the soul-destroying tasks which he undertook to make a living. In this struggle to survive he had to rely on the goodwill of publishers and opera houses; so he was never really free to spurn a system by which he felt enslaved, but which was also his only source of potential recognition.
Given the tastes of the time, it was lucky that Bizet had the dramatic genius and all the musical qualifications to write a great opera. That he did this eventually with Carmen, and that in retrospect a good deal of his earlier music is much finer than it was first judged to be, seems both a triumph and a tragedy – for he was never to reap the benefits of his success. But the primacy of opera in his life places Bizet’s songs in a curious relationship to the rest of his work. Are they to be considered yet more hack work to raise a few more francs, or were they a welcome respite from the workload, a corner of the repertoire in which he could express himself without having to worry about securing performances? They could certainly make their mark in the salons of their own accord, without the patronage of theatre managers and without the intrigue needed to get them onto the stage. In this respect the composer was his own boss; a welcome change from the opera world where he came remarkably low in the pecking order.
Bizet was born just a little too early to be aware of the future importance of songs as a medium to be taken seriously (one can scarcely imagine Fauré, for example, without his songs). Of course, he could not help but notice Gounod’s successes in the medium, and his mélodies (like those of Saint-Saëns) show the older man’s influence as well as that of other contemporary song composers such as Léo Delibes, Félicien David, Henri Reber and Edouard Lalo. Although Bizet had elected not to visit Germany as part of his Prix de Rome period (he chose to stay a further year in Italy instead) it seems that he recognized the existence of the Lieder repertoire: his library contained some forty Schubert songs as well as three operatic overtures by that composer arranged as duets. In Bizet we have the rather extraordinary spectacle of someone writing innovative and wonderfully adventurous songs without seeming to realize that they formed an important link in the chain of masterpieces which was to make up the mélodie tradition. The first songs of Fauré date from the time that Bizet was writing his Feuilles d’album, Duparc’s Chanson triste is contemporary with Bizet’s La coccinelle; but the composer of Carmen was dead before the best of Fauré, Duparc and Chabrier, as well as the first songs of Debussy. It was perhaps only in the 1880s that the mélodie first showed itself in its fullest glory, and there is no telling what Bizet might have composed had he been thus challenged by his colleagues who benefited from a better-educated public with a newly awakened appetite for fine poetry set to music of taste and imagination. The thought that Bizet would have been only fifty when Debussy wrote the Ariettes oubliées provides us with a tantalizing vision of the composer of Carmen at the height of his powers collaborating with a poet as great as Verlaine.
Three important factors distinguish the Bizet mélodies from those of many of his contemporaries and account for their survival in the repertoire. First, they are superbly written for the voice. It was not for nothing that the composer’s father was a singing teacher (his mother was also musical) and that most of the songs were written when Bizet was actively engaged in writing operas with all the considerable skill at his command in making the best of all voice types. The music is always grateful to sing, but it is sometimes tinged with a virtuosity (Adieux à Suzon, Guitare, Le grillon and Tarentelle on this disc) which suggests the opera house and the demanding diva provided with something to show off her powers. And yet, in each case, the coloratura writing is at one with the characterization and appears a natural part of the music. If some of Bizet’s singers demanded a display piece, he never compromised his artistic integrity in giving it to them. Also crucially important is the fact that almost every song has a lively inner life of drama and vivacity which suggests a theatrical context. The parallel example of Britten comes to mind, whose genius for theatre is felt everywhere in his songs and who, like Bizet, composed many of his song cycles at the same time as he was working on larger operatic projects. In La coccinelle (a Hugo text set less interestingly by Saint-Saëns) Bizet is not content to recount the story of a young man losing his nerve as a lover; he gives us an enchanting off-stage orchestra playing a waltz. In his imagination, the whole incident takes place at a ball in a large country house, and the composer is his own régisseur in providing a backcloth for the scene. In this ‘staging’ of a lyric, where the poet’s ideas are supplemented and given new dimensions, Bizet is in good company, for it is also one of Schubert’s great gifts. Another Hugo setting, Guitare (also set by Liszt, Lalo and many others less free with the poet’s verses), is effective precisely because Bizet has surrounded the poem with a frame of his own. He adds ‘Tra la las’ to the short lyric, so lengthening the song and enabling us to meet the singer and come to terms with her as a character. The other settings of the same poem, charming and allusive, seem anonymous by comparison, for in this superb Spanish stylization (composed nine years before Carmen) it is one dancer who comes to the fore as a star turn, with her reckless melismas and a triumphantly steely change to the major key when she sings of love. ‘Don’t meddle with me because I mean business’ is the subtext, and we hear this behind, and in addition to, the lyric. It is a song which brings the house down and which, despite the textual lèse-majesté, reveals the meaning behind Hugo’s words.
The final hallmark of these songs is perhaps the most important, because it most clearly differentiates the works from those of Gounod who was, after all, Bizet’s most distinguished song-composing contemporary. This is to do with the piano accompaniments – happy, cleverly risqué, and full of light and air. Gounod, by contrast, only occasionally rouses himself to ask something exceptional of the pianist; he prefers to play safe with something idiomatic and gently supportive. This means that the Bizet songs have, to this day, a vivacity and joie de vivre which shine forth in bright colours, relatively free of the heaviness and faded plush which are the mark of Second Empire art when brought under a twentieth-century spotlight. Unlike the songs of Meyerbeer, which admittedly have their own power and interest, Bizet’s mélodies seem to come from another world altogether. They are singularly free from the heavy coat of varnish which renders so much music of the time stiff and lifeless.
The fact that Bizet’s songs seem to leap from the page is much to do with the composer’s own abilities as a pianist. There is a great deal of documentary evidence about his virtuosity on the instrument. The most famous story concerns Liszt who was astounded to discover that Bizet could effortlessly sight-read a piece which he had thought unplayable by anyone else; and someone as critical as Berlioz ranked Bizet on a par with both Liszt and Mendelssohn as a score-reader. There were countless tributes to his tone, his touch, his ability to suggest the colours of the instruments of the orchestra – and of course all these remarks complimented the fine song accompanist as much as the virtuoso pianist. Indeed, it is a curious fact that because of this tendency to view piano writing as something illustrative of words, the song accompaniments seem more comfortable and naturally idiomatic than the larger (and seldom performed) works for solo piano. His most important work for the instrument was the enchanting collection of piano duets entitled Jeux d’enfants, a model for later works in this manner by Fauré (Dolly) and Ravel (Ma mère l’oye). Nevertheless, Bizet was a highly respected solo pianist, admired for his performances of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Chopin. His improvisations on Offenbach and Wagner and composers of the Boïeldieu school were renowned, and on one occasion he spontaneously set a newspaper to music, including the advertisements. It was agreed that Bizet could have been one of the most famous concert pianists of the age, but life on the concert platform would probably have left him with no credibility as a composer for the theatre. He would have been expected to write transcriptions and fantasias for his instrument in the manner of many of the travelling virtuosi of the day, and nothing more.
Before the songs on this disc are considered individually, it may be as well for the reader to look at an outline of Bizet’s working life, the better to understand how his songs fit into the context of the operas, both famous and unknown, which were at the heart of his creative endeavours and his increasingly desperate hopes for success. There can be few composers who number so many abortive projects and incomplete works in their catalogues, and few composers could have left their papers in a more chaotic state. Bizet studies remain a musicological nightmare. Another misfortune is that few artists can have had a more careless widow than Geneviève Halévy-Bizet in safeguarding their posthumous interests. The disorder of the legacy affects the songs in that the second recueil of Seize mélodies (published in 1886) contains a number of items recycled from little-known stage works. These were given new words in order to make them commercially viable as songs. There are three such hybrid items on this disc: L’abandonnée, La chanson de la rose and Pastel – although it is not clear whether some of these items were allowed to retain the words to which they were originally composed. Ouvre ton cœur also comes from an early work (the Ode-Symphony Vasco de Gama) but it appears in the Deuxième Recueil with its original words.
A Bizet calendar
1838: Bizet is born in Paris in the 9th Arrondissement on the foothills of Montmartre, one of the very few mélodie composers before Poulenc to be born in the capital city.
1842-1846 (aged 4 to 8): Early musical training. The four-year-old Bizet takes his first lessons from his mother. He continues his musical studies with his father.
1847-1855 (aged 9 to 17): Student at the Conservatoire where he enjoys a precocious success, and Gounod is one of his first teachers. His earliest known compositions (two vocalises) date from 1850. He wins various prizes for piano and organ and later for fugue. He begins his studies with Halévy. His first songs were published in 1854, together with one by his father. The rather more famous Symphony in C major dates from 1855. The manuscript of this work was given by Geneviève Bizet, the composer’s widow, to Reynaldo Hahn who, surprisingly, thought nothing of it. It was only in the 1930s that it emerged as the most perfect of all Bizet’s early works, written with a wit and elegance which belie the composer’s youth.
1856-1857 (aged 18/19): Two attempts at winning the Prix de Rome. In 1856 he wins the Second Prize, but 1857 is a magical year: his operetta Le Docteur Miracle is produced at the Bouffes-Parisiens, and he wins the first Prix de Rome for his cantata Clovis et Clotilde.
1858-1860 (aged 20 to 22): The Rome years. On the whole, and in contrast to many prizewinners, these are happy times, with the composer learning much about art in general and benefiting from travel within Italy. The opera buffa Don Procopio is completed. A second symphony is started but comes to nothing. He opts to stay in Italy rather than spend a year in Germany. The Ode-Symphony Vasco de Gama is completed. Various other plans include large-scale symphonies (Roma), operas and cantatas.
1861-1862 (aged 23/24): Reorientation back in Paris. He makes friends with Liszt (who admires his piano playing) and he keeps company with Berlioz, Reyer and Gounod. From this time date Scherzo et Marche funèbre, the overture La chasse d’Ossian, the opéra-comique La guzla de l’émir, and the first plans for Ivan IV.
1863 (aged 25): Guzla is withdrawn from rehearsal because he is offered the libretto of Les pêcheurs de perles in April and he thinks he will have a greater chance of success with this. By August the music is ready, and the work is performed with a mixed reception.
1864-1865 (aged 26/27): Chastened by the failure of his big opera he returns to hack work. He helps prepare the first performance of Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ and continues with Ivan IV which is refused by the Opéra in 1865. He turns to writing piano music. His health suffers as a result of his heavy workload as arranger and musical hack.
1866 (aged 28): This is the first important year of song as far as Bizet is concerned: not only the six Feuilles d’album, but also three other important and well-known songs on this disc were composed. These were conceived alongside La jolie fille de Perth, an opera with a libretto clumsily adapted from Walter Scott but containing some of Bizet’s most approachable music. At the same time he was working on innumerable dance-music arrangements and vocal scores of operas. He was seriously overworked and complained of exhaustion.
1867 (aged 29): La jolie fille de Perth is produced at the end of a year of further failures, including the composer’s unsuccessful efforts to be a music critic. He becomes engaged to Geneviève Halévy, the daughter of Fromental Halévy who, for better or worse, ranks among the composers who influence him. The engagement is broken off.
1868 (aged 30): Bizet finishes Noé, an operatic fragment by Halévy. The publisher Hartmann issues another set of six Bizet songs, including La coccinelle, Pastorale and Berceuse. These are probably the best music of a year which includes the completion of the unwieldy symphonic poem Roma (started during the Prix de Rome period) and the Variations chromatiques for piano. The composer is further troubled by depression. He embarks on La coupe du roi de Thulé on a libretto set as a competition for aspiring composers. Although most of the music has been lost, Winton Dean ranks this opera as Bizet’s most important work after Carmen.
1869 (aged 31): Bizet finishes La coupe du roi de Thulé in the midst of embarrassing machinations concerning his status as an entrant into the competition. Noé is completed and, as if to cement his link with the Halévys, he marries the highly-strung Geneviève in June.
1870-1871 (aged 32/33): Years of political turmoil (the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune). His wife has a nervous breakdown. Bizet works in vain on Clarissa Harlowe and Grisélidis. The latter is eventually rejected by the Opéra-comique and he begins Djamileh. A brief time as chorus master at the Opéra is followed by resignation, probably on a matter of principle. The piano duet Jeux d’enfants is composed in September 1871.
1872 (aged 34): The last year of song-writing, including the mélodies which close the programme on this disc. Other notable events of the year were the birth of his son on 10 July and the successful premiere of the orchestral suite L’Arlésienne conducted by Pasdeloup. Djamileh, on the other hand, was a failure at the Opéra-comique.
1873 (aged 35): Bizet takes a caretaker role in the musical preparation of Roméo et Juliette by Gounod who is in London with Mrs Weldon (a story recounted in the Gounod issue in the Hyperion French Song Edition,). Carmen is begun in the spring but temporarily dropped in favour of Don Rodrigue. This is in turn abandoned when the Opéra burns down in late October.
1874-1875 (aged 36): Carmen is completed and rehearsals begin in October 1874. It is a sign of the composer’s fascination with the new trends beginning to sweep through French music after the fall of the Empire that he attends the organ class of César Franck. Carmen is produced on 3 March 1875 and Bizet is appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur on the morning of this fateful day in the history of French opera. The reception is mixed; the press is savage, and Bizet assumes the work is yet another failure. In late March he is taken ill. He recovers later in the month only to relapse in May. Georges Bizet dies on 3 June, still unaware that his opera will be a gigantic success. Only a short time after the composer’s death Carmen begins its triumphal progress around the great opera houses of the world. The work quickly conquers Vienna where someone as different from Bizet as Johannes Brahms is one of many fellow-composers to fall in love with the score.
Graham Johnson © 1998
Bizet naquit juste un peu trop tôt pour être conscient de l’importance future des mélodies comme moyen d’expression pris au sérieux (l’on a peine à imaginer Fauré, par exemple, sans ses mélodies). Certes, il ne put s’empêcher de noter les succès de Gounod dans ce domaine, et ses mélodies (comme celles de Saint-Saëns) montrent l’influence de son aîné, mais aussi d’autres compositeurs de mélodies contemporains, tels Léo Delibes, Félicien David, Henri Reber et Édouard Lalo. Quoique ayant choisi de ne pas visiter l’Allemagne dans le cadre de son Prix de Rome (il préféra rester une année supplémentaire en Italie), Bizet reconnut, semble-t-il, l’existence du répertoire des Lieder: sa bibliothèque contenait quelque quarante Lieder de Schubert, ainsi que trois ouvertures d’opéra du même compositeur, arrangées sous forme de duos. Bizet nous offre le spectacle assez extraordinaire de quelqu’un écrivant des mélodies novatrices et audacieuses sans sembler réaliser qu’elles formaient un maillon important dans la chaîne des chefs-d’œuvre qui allait constituer la tradition des mélodies. Les premières mélodies de Fauré et la Chanson triste de Duparc sont respectivement contemporaines des Feuilles d’album et de La coccinelle de Bizet; mais le compositeur de Carmen était mort avant les meilleures pièces de Fauré, Duparc et Chabrier et les premières mélodies de Debussy. Ce ne fut peut-être que dans les années 1880 que la mélodie parut pour la première fois au faîte de sa gloire, et point n’est besoin de dire ce que Bizet aurait composé s’il avait été ainsi défié par ses collègues, qui bénéficièrent d’un public mieux éduqué, avec un appétit neuf pour la belle poésie assortie d’une musique toute de goût et d’imagination. Songer qu’il n’aurait eu que cinquante ans lorsque Debussy écrivit ses Ariettes oubliées nous offre la vision alléchante d’un Bizet à l’apogée de sa puissances collaborant avec Verlaine.
Trois facteurs importants distinguent les mélodies de Bizet de celles de nombre de ses contemporains, expliquant qu’elles aient aisément survécu dans le répertoire. Tout d’abord, elles sont superbement écrites pour la voix – le père du compositeur était professeur de chant (sa mère était aussi musicienne), et la plupart des mélodies furent conçues alors que Bizet était activement occupé à composer des opéras, avec tout le talent considérable dont il disposait pour rendre le meilleur de chaque type de voix. La musique est toujours reconnaissante envers le chant, mais frôle parfois (Adieux à Suzon, Guitare, Le grillon et Tarentelle sur le présent disque) une virtuosité évocatrice de l’opéra, tandis que la diva exigeante y voit une opportunité d’exhiber ses moyens. L’écriture de coloratura n’en est pas moins à chaque fois inhérente à la peinture du personnage et semble être une partie naturelle de la musique. Si certaines de ses chanteuses lui demandèrent une pièce d’exhibition, Bizet ne compromit jamais son intégrité artistique en la leur procurant. Autre élément crucial: presque toutes les mélodies recèlent une vie intérieure animée, pleine de drame et de vivacité, à même de suggérer un contexte dramatique. Dans La coccinelle (un texte de Hugo mis en musique, de manière moins intéressante, par Saint-Saëns), Bizet ne se contente pas de narrer l’histoire d’un jeune amoureux perdant son sang-froid; il nous offre un orchestre enchanteur jouant une valse, derrière la scène. Dans son imagination, l’incident entier se déroule lors d’un bal dans une grande maison de campagne, et doter ainsi la scène d’une toile de fond lui permet de devenir son propre régisseur. Dans cette «mise en scène» d’un poème lyrique, où les idées du poète sont augmentées et reçoivent de nouvelles dimensions, Bizet est en bonne compagnie, car cet art était aussi l’un des grands dons de Schubert. Une autre mise en musique de Hugo, Guitare (également présente chez Liszt, Lalo et quantité d’autres compositeurs, moins libres avec les vers du poète), doit précisément son efficacité au fait que Bizet a entouré le bref poème lyrique d’un cadre spécifique, en ajoutant des ‘Tra la la’ qui allongent la mélodie et nous permettent de découvrir la chanteuse, d’arriver à l’accepter en tant que personnage. En comparaison, les autres mises en musique de ce poème semblent banales, car cette superbe stylisation espagnole (composée neuf ans avant Carmen) donne la vedette à une danseuse, avec ses mélismes téméraires et un changement, triomphalement inflexible, pour la tonalité majeure lorsqu’elle chante l’amour. «Ne me touchez pas, car je ne plaisante pas» est le filigrane du texte, que nous entendons en sus, derrière le poème lyrique. Cette mélodie, qui fait crouler la salle sous les applaudissements, révèle, en dépit du lèse-majesté textuel, le sens caché des mots de Hugo.
Le dernier sceau de ces mélodies est peut-être le plus important, car il les différencie très nettement des pièces de Gounod, lequel était, après tout, le plus éminent compositeur de mélodies contemporain de Bizet. Ce cachet particulier tient aux accompagnements de piano, tout de lumière et d’atmosphère, qui constituent l’écriture la plus heureuse (et intelligemment risquée) pour l’instrument. Par contraste, Gounod ne demande que rarement quelque chose d’exceptionnel au pianiste, préférant jouer la sécurité avec quelque chose d’idiomatique, source d’un soutien tranquille. Ce qui signifie que les mélodies de Bizet possèdent, aujourd’hui encore, une sorte de vivacité et de joie de vivre aux couleurs éclatantes, relativement dénuées de la lourdeur et de la pompe défraîchie, marques de l’art du Second empire vu à la lumière du XXe siècle. Contrairement à celles de Meyerbeer qui présentent, force est de le reconnaître, une puissance et un intérêt propres, les mélodies de Bizet semblent provenir d’un tout autre univers, en ce qu’elles sont singulièrement dépourvues de l’épaisse couche de vernis qui rend tant de musiques de l’époque rigides et ternes.
Le fait que les mélodies de Bizet paraissent sauter aux yeux doit beaucoup aux capacités de pianiste du compositeur, dont maintes preuves documentaires attestent la virtuosité. La plus célèbre histoire concerne Liszt, stupéfait de découvrir que Bizet put aisément déchiffrer à vue une pièce qu’il avait crue injouable; et quelqu’un d’aussi critique que Berlioz plaçait le déchiffreur de partitions Bizet au même rang que Liszt et Mendelssohn. D’innombrables hommages furent rendus à son ton, à sa touche et à sa capacité de suggestion des couleurs des instruments de l’orchestre – hommages qui s’adressaient, bien sûr, autant à l’excellent accompagnateur de mélodies qu’au pianiste virtuose. Phénomène curieux, cette tendance à considérer l’écriture pianistique comme illustrative fait que ses accompagnements de mélodies semblent beaucoup plus agréables et naturellement idiomatiques que ses œuvres pour piano solo, plus imposantes (et peu jouées). Sa plus importante œuvre pour piano fut l’enchanteur recueil de duos pianistiques intitulé Jeux d’enfants, qui servit de modèle aux œuvres ultérieures de Fauré (Dolly) et Ravel (Ma mère l’oye).
Graham Johnson © 1998