The Composer Georges Bizet
Georges Bizet (France, 1838-1875) was a romantic composer. His last work, the opera Carmen, has become one of the most popular and most frequently performed works in the entire opera repertoire. However, during his life, neither his works nor his abilities were recognized. After the premiere of Carmen in March 1875, Bizet was convinced that his work was a failure and that he created another definite and hopeless flop. He was depressed and died of a heart attack three months later, unaware that it would prove a spectacular and enduring success.
Childhood and Youth of Bizet
Georges Bizet was the only child of Adolphe and Aimee Bizet. Adolphe Bizet was a hairdresser and wigmaker before becoming a singing teacher. He composed at least one published song. In 1837, Adolphe married Aimee who came from an impoverished but cultured and musical family. Aimee was an accomplished pianist and probably gave their son George his first piano lessons. By listening at the door of the room where his father Adolphe held his classes, Georges learned to sing difficult songs accurately from memory, and developed an ability to identify and analyze complex chordal structures. This precocity convinced his ambitious parents that he was ready to begin studying at the Paris Conservatoire even though he was still only nine years old while the minimum entry age was 10.
Bizet was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire in October 1848, two weeks before his 10th birthday. Within six months he won first prize in solfège, a music education method. In 1851, Bizet won the Conservatoire's second prize for piano and first prize the following year. He started composing and two of his songs, "Petite Marguerite" and "La Rose et l'abeille", were published when he was 16 years old. Bizet became friends with the 20 years older and famous composer Charles Gounod (France, 1818-1893) as well as Camille Saint-Saëns (France 1835-1921), who was the age of Bizet and a student of Gounod.
In 1855, Bizet wrote an ambitious overture for a large orchestra, and prepared four-hand piano versions of two of Charles Gounod's works: The opera La nonne sanglante and the Symphony in D. Especially his work on the Gounod symphony inspired him, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, to write his own symphony, which bore a close resemblance to Gounod's—note for note in some passages.
In 1857, Bizet won the prestigious Prix de Rome through which he received a financial grant to study two years in Rome, one year in Germany and 2 years in Paris.
During his stay in Rome that he extended to three years, Bizet got distracted by the social life at Villa Medici which was the official home of the French Academie in Rome. He composed only very few works and got little recognition for them. In 1860, he went back to Paris because his mother fell seriously ill and died in 1861. Due to the Prix de Rome, Bizet had financial security for another 2 years and did not need to earn his living through performing as pianist although he was recognized as an outstanding pianist. In May 1861, Bizet gave a rare demonstration of his virtuoso skills and astonished everyone by playing on sight, flawlessly, one of Franz Liszt's most difficult pieces. Liszt (Hungarian, 1811-1886) who was present commented: "I thought there were only two men able to surmount the difficulties... there are three, and... the youngest is perhaps the boldest and most brilliant."
Restless for success as composer, he began many theatrical projects during the 1860s, most of which were abandoned. His opera Les pêcheurs de perles reached the stage but was not successful. Bizet found that the main Parisian opera theatres preferred the established classical repertoire to the works of newcomers. During this time, Bizet chose to earn a living by arranging and transcribing the music of others and also accepted piano and composition students.
In 1867 however, his opera La jolie fille de Perth was a success but due to financial constraints it was performed only 18 times. In the same year, Bizet had another success with his act of the operetta Marlborough s'en va-t-en guerre. The four-act operetta was a joined project with three other composers, each of whom contributed a single act.
In June 1869, Georges Bizet married Genevieve Halevy with whom he had one son in July 1871.
The marriage was initially happy, but was affected by Geneviève's nervous instability and her difficult relations with her mother who also interfered in the couple's affairs. Bizet however, kept on good terms with his mother-in-law and maintained an extensive correspondence with her.
In the year following the marriage he considered plans for at least half a dozen new operas, and began to sketch the music for two of them: Clarissa Harlowe and Grisélidis. However, his progress on these projects was brought to a halt in July 1870, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Bizet, along with other composers and artists, joined the National Guard and began training.
In June 1871, life in Paris returned to normal and Bizet resumed work on Clarissa Harlowe and Grisélidis but neither work was finished. Bizet's completed works in 1871 were the piano duet entitled Jeux d'enfants, and a one-act opera, Djamileh, which opened at the Opéra-Comique in May 1872. However, it was poorly staged and incompetently sung. Bizet started to work on Carmen in 1873.
Bizet was a heavy smoker and suffered for many years from a recurrent throat complaint which got worse in 1871 and again in 1874. From March 1875 until his death in June, he permanently suffered from this more serious getting disease. On June 1, he had a first heart attack and a second, fatal attack on June 3, 1875 at the age of 36.
After a special performance of Carmen at the Opéra-Comique on the night of Bizet’s burial on June 5, the press which had almost universally condemned the piece three months earlier now declared Bizet a master.