Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)
Georges Alexandre César Léopold Bizet was born on October 25, 1838 in Paris. His mother was a pianist and his father taught voice and composed. It seems likely that Bizet was probably as musically precocious as Mendelssohn or Mozart. It is said that he could read and write music by the age of four, and with a very encouraging family (his parents actually hid books from him to suppress his literary bent and encourage more diligent applications to music), Bizet's future in music was pre-ordained.

Bizet entered the Paris Conservatory de Musique in 1848 at the age of nine, and studied under Zimmerman, Halévy and Gounod until the age of twenty. His years there were punctuated by a series of prizes for theory, piano, organ and composition. In 1855, at the age of seventeen, he composed his lovely Symphony in C. This piece was not performed until 1935 because Bizet was afraid that he would be charged with imitation, it was that strongly influenced by his teacher Gounod. In fact, on careful listening, this piece recalls Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert and Mozart as well as Gounod's Symphony in D. Although Bizet chose not to have this symphony performed, he did later quote it in Les Pêcheurs de Perles and La Jolie Fille de Perth.

Bizet was a Parisian at a time when Paris was a world center of opera, boasting some of the best-equipped opera houses and theatres, including the Paris Opéra. Nearly every 19th century composer of opera, from Wagner to Verdi, wanted to have his works staged there. For French composers, writing opera was the one sure way to musical fame and fortune. Like all French composers of his time, Bizet desperately wanted to write successful operas. Bizet did win the coveted Prix de Rome for composition in 1857 with the premiere of his sparkling operetta Le Docteur Miracle, and the 1867 premiere of his opera La Jolie Fille de Perth, was also favorably received by the press. But from then on, his career was followed by bad luck which pursued him to the grave.

After a succession of failures, Bizet pinned all his hopes of Carmen, which was to be his last opera. At its premiere in Paris on March 3, 1875, many in the audience were shocked by its stark realism: Carmen and her co-workers from a cigarette factory smoking on stage and the sordid stabbing at the end. The sheer dramatic power of the music also proved a little too much for those who had come to the theatre simply to be entertained. Today, Carmen is regarded as among the finest examples of 19th century Romantic music written for the theatre, but Bizet never knew of its great success. His health and spirit shattered by the critical reception of his Carmen, Bizet retreated to the family home at Bougival.

Bizet died on June 3, 1875, at the age of 37. On his death, Carmen became a huge success, and Bizet was hailed as a master. Although chiefly known for his Carmen, he was also as inspired a melodist as Schubert and knew exactly how to spice a tune with pungent harmonies, catchy rhythms and instrumental colors.

Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932)
Composer and pianist Rodion Shchedrin is among the more prominent figures to emerge from the Soviet Union after Dmitry Shostakovich. Shchedrin's extensive catalog of compositions, which encompasses many genres, has evolved from tonal to aleatoric to what he has called "post-avant-garde," and he has often incorporated folk music and liturgical themes. Among his most popular works are his ballets written or arranged for his wife, prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya.

Shchedrin was born in Moscow, then the capital of the Soviet Union, on December 16, 1932. The son of a music theorist and writer, he was encouraged in his musical interests from a very young age. Initial studies at the Moscow Conservatory were interrupted by Russia's participation in World War II, but in 1948, he entered the Moscow Choral School, and three years later, he returned to the Conservatory where he studied piano with Yakov Flier and composition with Yuri Shaporin. At the same time, his interest in Russian folk music came to the surface; he led a 1951 trip to Belorussia to collect folk songs, some of which turned up in his early Piano Quintet (1952). Folk songs also play a role in his brilliant Piano Concerto No. 1 (1954), which he wrote and premiered as his graduation composition from the Conservatory.

Not long after his graduation, Shchedrin began what has become one of his best-known works, the ballet Konek-gorbunok ("The Little Humpbacked Horse," 1956), which quickly became a staple of the Bolshoi Ballet. Shchedrin married ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, a soloist in the Bolshoi Ballet, in 1958. Another very popular work in Russia was the opera Not love alone (1961). In the mid-'60s, Shchedrin started to incorporate modern sounds and techniques like tone-rows and aleatorics (chance elements) into works like his Symphony No. 2 (1962 to 1965) and the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1966). Since that time, Shchedrin has consistently exhibited an eclectic taste; elements of the avant-garde, neo-Classicism, folk, jazz, and pop music have all played roles in his music, which he has called "post-avant-garde."

From 1964 to 1969, Shchedrin taught composition at the Moscow Conservatory while gaining recognition as one of the most successful Russian composers of his time. Music fans around the world have come to know The Carmen Ballet, his 1968 arrangement of parts of Georges Bizet's Carmen for strings and percussion, produced for Plisetskaya, who was by then the prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre. He also wrote the full-length ballet Anna Karenina (1972) for her. In 1973, Shchedrin succeeded Shostakovich as the chairman of the Composers' Union of Russia, serving in this role until 1989, and since then as its honorary chairman.

Although elements of Russian Orthodox chants appeared in early works like the Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 ("The Chimes") (1967) (written for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic), it was not until the 1980s that explicit liturgical themes found their way into works like Stihira (1987) and The Sealed Angel (1988). Shchedrin has written, among many other works, six piano concertos, five concertos for orchestra, and three symphonies; the most recent of these (subtitled "Scenes of Russian Fairy Tales") was premiered in Berlin in 2000. In the new century, Shchedrin has continued to write profusely. He has penned more than 40 works since his third symphony, including a Commemoration Mass for Maya Plisetskaya (2018), who died in 2015. He followed that in 2020 with The Adventures of an Ape, for narrator and orchestra.