Hugh Macdonald’s new book Bizet in Italy is the first English translation of Bizet’s letters and journals from the composer’s nearly three-year stay in Italy (1857-1860). Bizet never wrote any memoirs and only in Italy did he keep a journal—albeit fragmentary at times—so this period, is in fact the best documented part of the composer’s life. We thank Dr. Macdonald for sharing this overview of his book, which is available now.
I decided to write this book when working on my online Bizet Catalogue (http://digital.wustl.edu/bizet/ref/), first posted in 2014 in the same year that my biography of Bizet was published by Oxford University Press in the series Master Musicians. I was familiar with the journals Bizet wrote during his years in Italy, but I had not devoted much time to them since they are extremely difficult to read. This, I concluded, was the reason why Bizet’s earlier biographers, Hervé Lacombe and Rémy Stricker, had also done little more than quote a few lines from them, principally the racy entries about visits to brothels.
But Bizet’s overwhelming interest as he travelled around Italy was in Italian Renaissance art, which he records in great detail, visiting churches and museums and palazzi, and when I began patiently to transcribe the journals I found a remarkable store of observations about art which revealed a whole new side to the composer’s personality.
The journals are written on both sides of thin, lined paper, so the text is often overlaid by the writing on the other side; in addition, Bizet’s handwriting was always little better than a scrawl, using abbreviations and little punctuation. To transcribe these texts precisely would be a superhuman task, but to translate them into English allows the creation of a readable, punctuated text, even if some nuance is lost. The journals have never been published before.
The documentation of Bizet’s three years in Italy is complemented by a series of over eighty letters written to his parents, one approximately every two weeks. He was only nineteen when he left Paris, and he was as concerned with the health and welfare of his parents as they were of his. He had a lot of growing up to do, and he describes his experiences unselfconsciously, with thumbnail sketches of the artists and musicians who, like him, had won the Prix de Rome and taken up residence in the Villa Medici in Rome where they were officially posted.
Although he was conscientious in his work as a composer, Bizet loved the open air, and when he could he went for long hikes in the countryside with his companions. Some of these are recorded in the journals, although he appears not to have kept a journal when he was back in Rome itself. The trip to Naples and Pompeii in 1859 is not recorded in the journals, but his final trip in 1860, from Rome through Perugia, Assissi, Ravenna, Bologna, and finally to Venice, provides the bulk of his observation of cities, churches and their contents.
The book is illustrated by a number of pictures by Jules Didier, the landscape painter who was probably Bizet’s closest friend in Italy, who shared his love of the outdoors. His portraits of Italian life complement Bizet’s descriptions and records.
This guest post was written by Hugh Macdonald, who was the Avis Blewett Professor of Music, Washington University, St Louis from 1987 to2011. He is the author of many important books, including Beethoven’s Century: Essays on Composers and Themes (URP, 2008), Music in 1853: the Biography of a Year (Boydell Press, 2012), and Saint-Saëns and the Stage (CUP, 2019).
Banner image credit: Credit: Georges Bizet (1838-1875) by Charles Sellier, circa 1858. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.