ClassicsOnline Home » BIZET, G.: Clovis et Clotilde / Te Deum (Jovanovic, Do, Schnaible, Pas-de-Calais North Regional Choir, Lille National Orchestra, J.-C. Casadesus)
This fascinating disc presents the young Georges Bizet’s first composition after having won the prestigious Prix de Rome, the grandiose Te Deum, which remained unpublished until 1971, and his Prix de Rome cantata Clovis et Clotilde, which recounts the tale of the Frankish King Clovis’s conversion to Christianity by his wife Clotilde. Both scores are abundantly theatrical, as one would expect from the future composer of Carmen (8.660005–07), and are performed by three outstanding young singers and two internationally renowned French ensembles directed by the distinguished conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus.
By Edward Greenfield
Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
Clovis et Clotilde • Te Deum
Georges Bizet was born in Paris in 1838, the son of Adolphe Armand Bizet, descendant of a family of craftsmen from Rouen and established in Paris at first as a wig-maker and barber, but by the time of his marriage in 1837 described as a singing-teacher. His mother, who had married in spite of her family’s objections, was a gifted pianist. Bizet had his first music lessons with his parents, from his uncle, a successful and fashionable singing-teacher, and his aunt, a pianist, who taught him elementary theory and harmony. His early musical ability and a remarkable musical memory led his father to propose for his only child a career as a composer, fulfilling his own early ambition, only sketchily realised. The boy was admitted to the Conservatoire at the age of ten, going on to win various prizes and to take some lessons, at least, with Charles Gounod. In 1853 he joined the class of Fromental Halévy, a prolific composer of opera, whose daughter, subject like her mother to intermittent bouts of mental instability, he married in 1869.
Bizet’s first attempt at the Prix de Rome, with its demand for the composition of a cantata on a set text, to be written under stringent conditions, was in 1856. The customary set text on this occasion was David, by Mlle Chevalier de Montréal, writing under her penname of Gaston d’Albano. This time the first prize, which promised a period at the Villa Medici in Rome and a five-year stipend, was not awarded and Bizet was given second prize, an honour that allowed him free admission to all music theatres in Paris. In 1857 the set text for the competition was Clovis et Clotilde, by Amédée Burion, an ambitious if uninspired writer. On this occasion the music panel of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France awarded the first prize, with its five-year scholarship, to Charles Colin, later professor of oboe at the Conservatoire, and the second prize of a four-year stipend to Bizet. In the event the full body of the Académie, with representatives of all the arts, gave the Grand Prix de Rome to Bizet, allowing him to leave for Rome in late December 1857, reaching the city eventually towards the end of January.
The Prix de Rome cantata Clovis et Clotilde has a text that apparently pleased Bizet’s mentor Gounod, who was always at hand with advice. The writer Amédée Burion, author of a later series of works of religious interest, was of no great distinction. His libretto, the winning entry in the competition for a Prix de Rome text, tells the story of the conversion of the Frankish King Clovis to Christianity through his wife Clotilda. The historical Clovis defeated the Alamanni in a battle on the banks of the Rhine in 496, attributing his victory to Christ. He was baptized by Bishop Remigius (Rémy) in Rheims Cathedral, his subsequent achievement Frankish domination throughout what is now France, uniting the Franks and the Galloromans, and the establishment of Catholic rather than Arian Christianity in his realm.
Bizet’s setting of the text suggests his growing ability as a composer for the theatre, here within the conventions of the Prix de Rome. The score includes the
expected illustrative writing, the imploring prayer, the sounds of battle and despair, as Clovis recounts the story of his victory, and the necessary wisdom of age from St Remigius. As with the Te Deum, Bizet found a chance to use again some of the material from the cantata in his opera Les pêcheurs de perles, with elements borrowed from each work. The cantata provided Léila’s Act II aria O courageuse enfant and the Te Deum was used again for part of the Act I prayer to Brahma. Clovis et Clotilde was first revived for performance in 1988, in celebration of the sesquicentenary of Bizet’s birth.
The Prix de Rome brought various obligations, in particular the requirement that a holder of the prize should submit annual envois, compositions, for the approval of the Académie. Bizet’s first composition in Rome, however, was a setting of the Te Deum, which he submitted for the Rodrigues Prize, an award open to holders of the Prix de Rome. The work failed to win the prize and Bizet, diffident as so often about a new composition of his, found himself ill-suited to religious music, resolving not to submit a Mass setting as an envoi to Paris. In fact he found himself generally drawn to Mozart and to Rossini, whom he regarded as the greatest musicians, while preserving due respect for Beethoven and Meyerbeer, as he admitted in a letter home. His first envoi de Rome was a comic opera, Don Procopio, which was at first well received by the committee in Paris, in spite of the breach of the regulations, which earned a later rebuke from Ambroise Thomas, who reminded him of the obligations of the prize. His second envoi was an Ode- Symphonique, Vasco da Gama, based on Camõens and his third two movements of an unfinished symphony, later part of the symphony Roma, and an overture, La chasse d’Ossian. These compositions proved reasonably acceptable to the Paris authorities.
Bizet returned to Paris in September 1860, rather earlier than he had planned, brought home by the illness of his mother. He now earned a living by hackwork for the theatre and for publishers, interspersed with more ambitious undertakings, including the opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), staged with moderate success at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1863, followed, in 1867, by La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth) at the same theatre. In 1872 the opera Djamileh, staged at the Opéra-Comique, was a failure, as was the original score for the melodrama L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles), a collaboration with Alphonse Daudet. He won his greatest and most lasting success with the opera Carmen, staged, after considerable difficulty, in 1875, and still running at the time of Bizet’s sudden death in the same year.
There is something to be said for Bizet’s assessment of his own abilities, which, as he saw, lay chiefly in the theatre, although many of his operatic projects remained either unfinished or abandoned at an earlier stage. His Te Deum failed to win the competition for which it was entered, the prize going to the only other competitor, Adrien Barthe, who was in the fifth and final year of his scholarship. The work, which originally included an ophicleide in its instrumentation, a part now generally given to a tuba, opens in grandiose and emphatic style, modified at the words Tibi omnes Angeli (To thee all angels), proclaimed in quieter tones, accompanied by clarinets, bassoons and off-beat strings, over the persistent dotted rhythm of cellos and double basses. The four-part chorus gives way to a lightly accompanied solo tenor at the words Patrem immensae majestatis (Father of an infinite majesty). The solo soprano sings out the words Sanctus, Sanctus, taken up by the chorus. The movement ends as it began, with the opening words and their setting repeated in a setting that treats the text of the canticle with some freedom. The second section of the work brings a dotted operatic accompanying rhythm from the strings and an opening trombone solo, before the soprano soloist takes up the theme. The tenor soloist follows, joined, at the words Judex crederis (We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge) by the basses, sotto voce, and then by the whole body of singers. The third section, Te ergo quaesumus (We therefore pray thee) starts with the woodwind, followed by muted strings accompanying the soprano soloist, later joined by the chorus. The final Fiat misericordia tua (O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us) brings the fugal writing expected in compositions of this kind, the fugal subject shortened as it leads into the final hymn of praise with which the work had started.
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BIZET, G.: Clovis et Clotilde / Te Deum (Jovanovic...