The Romantic Period in music began in the late 18th century and was a dominant style in Western classical music in the 1800s. The period takes its name from the French term roman, which means novel.
Music of the Romantic period was expressionistic, dynamic, emotional, and passionate. In both the music and ballet of the time, there was an interest in fantasy, supernaturalism, and exoticism. Story and literature were important. Stories of the time often dealt with issues of good vs. evil, man vs. nature, and society vs. the supernatural.
Both serious and comic opera were transformed b during this period. The restrictions of classical structure and simplicity were loosened as composers worked to convey the full range of human emotion with precision and power. Some of the most famous operas in Western music were composed during this period.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) grew up in Paris, France. His mother was a pianist and his father was a vocal teacher and composer. Georges could read music by age four and entered the Paris Conservatory of Music at age nine. Paris was a huge center of opera at the time and composing opera was the way to fame and fortune for French composers. Bizet’s first opera Le Docteur Miracle (Doctor Miracle), written when he was 19, won a prestigious prize.The Pearl Fishers was his first significant work to be staged in Paris. In 1875, Bizet wrote Carmen, his most famous work and one of the most performed operas today.
The Pearl Fishers is a tale of love, betrayal, and sacrifice, centering around two friends, Nadir and Zurga, who vow to never let the love of a woman come between them and destroy their friendship. A mysterious priestess arrives to Ceylon, and Nadir recognizes her as his long lost love, Leïla, whom Zurga also loves. Torn once again, Nadir must choose between the oath he made to his friend and the love of his life.
The duet performed in this segment is “Au fond du temple saint” (“At the back of the holy temple”) and is one of the best-known songs in Western opera.
1. Have students ever seen an opera? What do they know about opera?
2. What is the song about? Do you like it?
3. How does it feel to listen to a song being sung in a language other than English? If you don’t read the English translation, does any feeling or meaning come across?
4. The song is about two friends whose friendship is threatened because they both fall in love with the same woman. Is this a situation students can relate to? Does the return to friendship expressed in the song seem realistic?
5. What do you think it takes for a singer to prepare for and collaborate in performing a piece like this? Do the singers seem to be enjoying themselves? (If there are student singers in the class, ask them to talk about the dynamics of performing solo or as part of a duet or group.)
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