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Books on Bizet by Winton Dean and Mina Murtiss were published in 1948 and 1958 respectively, and two more recent biographies are in French, so a fine new biography of Bizet in English was long overdue. as always, Macdonald’s prose is lucid, elegant and a great pleasure to read. only very occasionally does a sentence strike me as slightly awkward (see p64 ‘Jean held his real father ...’). In his book Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year (published 2012) he showed a marvellous grasp of the musical scene at a given time, and here again he is infinitely painstaking in providing context, not merely musical (especially operatic) but also social and political. What else was happening in Paris, the centre of the musical world, while Bizet was struggling to have operas produced there? Among the many other French composers active at this time, Gounod in particular became Bizet’s mentor.

In the book’s appendices, Macdonald lists operas under ‘performable’, ‘fragmentary’ and ‘projected or lost’. The second and third categories account for 20 titles. If one considers Bizet’s other works – more than 50 songs, nine orchestral works, incidental music, choral works, piano music, etc – and the vast amount of arranging and editing he was asked to do, one may well wonder at the industriousness of a man who died at about the same age as Mozart. In addition to the pre-eminent Carmen, there are eight other ‘performable’ operas. Macdonald writes with such enthusiasm for The Pearl Fishers, The Fair Maid of Perth, Ivan IV, Don Rodrigue and Djamileh that one is anxious to hear these unfamiliar scores.

Contemporary accounts indicate that Bizet was generally well liked, though he was a womaniser who sired one illegitimate child. On p229 the author writes ‘... could be moody … normally gregarious, gossipy, opinionated’ while Bizet’s colleagues and acquaintances found him ‘kind, generous, faithful to all his beliefs’, ‘gentle and refined’, ‘modest’, ‘loyal and sincere’ (p230). On his talent: ‘everyone was dazzled by his extraordinary musicianship and facile piano playing.’ engaging and marvellously researched, this is yet another thoroughly recommendable book from Hugh Macdonald.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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