Who was Georges Bizet?
Georges Bizet was a Romantic era French composer best known for his final work, ‘Carmen,’ an opera in four acts. Trained at the Paris Conservatoire under well-known teachers like Antoine François Marmontel, Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, Charles Gounod and Fromental Halévy, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome at the age of nineteen. Thereafter, he spent three years in Rome before returning to Paris, where he spent the rest of his short life, composing music. Although he was a great pianist, he hardly ever performed in public and spent his time and energy on composing marvelous pieces. Unfortunately, very few of them received attention during his lifetime and many of the manuscripts were lost in the intervening years. It was only from the end of the nineteenth century that his works started being rediscovered or revived. However, their true worth started being recognized only from the early twentieth century. Today he has been acclaimed as a brilliant composer, whose early death was a tremendous loss to French music.
Childhood & Early Years
Georges Bizet was born on 25 October 1838 in Paris. Although he was registered as Alexandre César Léopold, for some unknown reason, he was baptized on 16 March 1840 as Georges and from that point he began to be known by that name.
His father, Adolphe Armand Bizet, was originally a hairdresser and wigmaker but later he took up music teaching as his vocation. He also composed a few pieces and at least one of them was published.
His mother, Aimée Léopoldine Joséphine née Delsarte, was an accomplished pianist. She came from an impoverished, but highly cultured family. Her brother, François Delsarte, was a distinguished singer, who used to perform at the courts of King Louis Philippe and Emperor Napoleon III.
Georges, their only child, showed an aptitude for music early in his life. He probably received his first piano lesson from his mother. Standing at the door, listening to his father giving music lessons to his students, he learned to sing difficult songs accurately from memory.
In the same way, he also learned to identify and analyze structure of chords, some of which were quite complex. This convinced his parents that their son was ready for formal training at the Conservatoire de Paris even though he was yet to reach ten, the minimum age for admission to the Conservatoire.
Subsequently, at the recommendation of François Delsarte, Georges appeared for an interview before horn virtuoso Joseph Meifred, who was also a member of the Committee of Studies of the Conservatoire. Impressed by the boy’s skill, he agreed to bypass the age restriction and take him as soon as there was a vacant seat.
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At the Conservatoire
On 9 October 1848, sixteen days before his tenth birthday, Georges entered the Conservatoire de Paris. Here, apart from studying organ and theory, he also studied piano with Antoine François Marmontel, benefiting much from the association.
At the Conservatoire, Georges made an early impression, winning within six months the first prize in solfège. It impressed Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, who had just retired from service, to such an extent that he offered to give young Georges private lessons in counterpoint and fugue.
Thus along with studying at the Conservatoire, Georges started studying with Zimmermann. It was during one of these classes that he came in contact with Charles Gounod, who left a lasting impression on his young mind.
Marmontel also yielded a great impression on young Georges. Under his tutelage, his skills in piano began to develop rapidly. In 1851, he won the second prize and in 1852, the first prize for piano.
Thereafter from 1853, he started studying composition with Fromental Halévy. While his first recorded composition dates back to 1850, under Halévy’s guidance, the quality of his works became more sophisticated.
In 1855, he wrote his first recorded symphony, ‘Symphony in C Major’. It was soon lost but fortunately it was rediscovered decades later and performed in 1935. Although Charles Gounod’s influence can be detected in this piece it also reveals his own musical personality.
In 1856, he unsuccessfully competed for the Prix de Rome. In the following year, Bizet composed ‘Le Docteur Miracle’, which he submitted in a competition organized by Jacques Offenbach, receiving the first prize jointly with Charles Lecocq.
Offenbach was looking for new material for his Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens and when ‘Le Docteur Miracle’ was performed at the theater in 1857 it got noticed by well known musicians. Bizet soon received entry into the right circles and was invited by Gioachino Rossini to his famous Saturday evening soirées.
Also in 1857, Bizet was awarded Prix de Rome for his cantata ‘Clovis et Clotilde’ and with it, he received a financial grant for the next five years. However, it also required him to spend first two years in Rome, the third year in Germany and the last two years in Paris.
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Georges Bizet reached Rome on 27 January 1858. Here he put up at Villa Medici, which housed the French Académie in Rome and offered a very convivial environment. He now began to study the works of Robert Schumann, Carl Maria von Weber, Mendelssohn, and Gounod.
Subsequently, he wrote ‘Te Deum’ for a competition on religious work, open to Prix de Rome winners. However, it failed to impress the judges. As a result it remained forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1971. Moreover, Bizet was so disappointed that he vowed not to take up religious works anymore.
But, the rules required that each year he submit an original envoi and the first one should be a mass. Breaking the rule, Bizet decided to submit 'Don Procopio', a two-act opera buffa with an Italian libretto. Although he was apprehensive about the breach of rule it was well received by the authority.
For his second envoi he submitted ‘Ode Symphony Vasco de Gama', which was based on Luís Vaz de Camões' epic poem ‘The Lusiad.’ It is possible that he did not complete any other work during this period but used the opportunity to travel around in Italy.
On his return to Rome, he successfully persuaded the Académie to allow him to spend the third year in Italy. While on a trip to Rimini in 1860, he planned to write ‘Symphony in C Roma’ in which he thought of dedicating the four movements to four different Italian cities – Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples.
It is possible that he started the work here. But in September, he came to known that his mother was seriously ill and so he immediately returned to Paris.
Back to Paris
With two years of the grant remaining, Georges Bizet lived in Paris with comparative ease. Here he resumed his work on ‘Roma’ and also on his third envoi. However, it all got delayed, as his mother died in September 1861. Bizet was now plunged into grief.
Eventually he submitted a trio of orchestral works for his envoi: an overture, a scherzo and a funeral march. The overture had been lost since then and the others were absorbed in his later works. Next in 1862, he submitted a one-act opera, ‘La guzla de l'émir’ as his final envoi.
In 1863, he wrote ‘Les pêcheurs de perles’, based on a libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon. It was moderately successful even though the libretto lacked dramatic effect. However, it was revived in 1891; but by then the Bizet was long dead.
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As the grant came to an end, he now began to support himself by giving piano lessons. His career as a composer was not very successful either and money remained a constant worry. He wrote a number of songs, which he hoped to sell.
In 1864, he wrote ‘Ivan IV’, but it could not be premiered until 1946. His next work, ‘La jolie fille de Perth’ had comparatively better luck. Although he completed the work by 1866, it was premiered sometime in December 1867 but had only a handful of performances.
‘Marlborough s'en va-t-en guerre’, also performed in December 1867, was perhaps the only noteworthy success. This was also the period, when he finally completed ‘Symphony in C Roma’.
Although he later reworked on it, ‘Roma’ was first premiered in 1869 and received a fair share of applauds, hisses and catcalls. He jokingly noted that it was a success.
The Year 1870 & After
In July 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, like many others, Georges Bizet too was swept with nationalism and joined the Paris National Guard. His fervor turned into disappointment when he came across the old fashioned arms with which they were supposed to fight.
He did not have to take part in actual war. On 2 September, Napoleon III was captured and deposed and by 17 September the Prussian armies surrounded Paris. While many fled from the city, Bizet refused to do so because he thought that would be cowardly.
However, when La Commune de Paris, a radical socialist and revolutionary government, was established in Paris on 18 March 1871, Bizet did not feel safe any longer. He and his wife escaped first to Compiègne and from there they moved to Le Vésinet, returning to Paris sometime after 28 May.
As normalcy returned to Paris, Bizet set to work once again. Among other incomplete works, he also wrote two complete pieces, a piano duet entitled ‘Jeux d'enfants’, and a one-act opera, ‘Djamileh’.
Among them, ‘Djamileh’ opened at the Opéra-Comique in May 1872. But poorly staged and sung, it closed after only eleven performances. In spite of that, his professional expertise was there for everyone to see and therefore, it led to further commissions from the theatre. Incidentally, the opera was revived much later in 1938.
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Commissioned by Opéra-Comique, Bizet now began to work on ‘Carmen’, a four act opera based on a novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée.’ The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. It was premiered in Paris on 3 March 1875.
Bizet is best remembered for his last opera, ‘Carmen’. Going into production in September 1874, it opened on 3 March 1875. The audience, who was expecting a comic opera, was presented with this revolutionary work. It shocked them into silence.
On the second night, the audience who came prepared was mesmerized. But the reviews continued to be negative. The opera staggered on for 48 performances, never having a full house.
In spite of its initial failure, it achieved international acclaim within ten years. Today, it has become one of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the western canon, bridging the gap between the tradition of opéra comique and the verismo of the late nineteenth century.
Awards & Achievements
The only major award that Georges Bizet received in his short lifespan was the Prix de Rome Award of 1857.
In the morning of March 3, 1875, the day ‘Carmen’ was to be premiered, it was announced that Bizet was nominated for the Légion d'honneur. He died within three months of the announcement and nothing came out of it.
Personal Life & Legacy
On 3 June 1869, Georges Bizet married Geneviève Halévy, the younger daughter of composer Jacques-Fromental Halévy. The couple had one son, Jacques Bizet, born in 1871. Initially they were happy. But later difference cropped up between them, mainly because of Geneviève's nervous instability.
Bizet had been Halévy’s student and over the years he had become very close to the family. Having good relations with Madam Halévy, he allowed her to interfere in their personal affairs. Contrarily, Geneviève had a difficult relationship with her mother and this was another reason for their strained relationship.
Bizet also had another son, Jean Reiter, born in 1862, out of a liaison with the family's housekeeper, Marie Reiter. However, Jean believed that he was Adolphe Bizet's child and came to know about his true paternity in 1913, years after Bizet’s death.
Bizet was a heavy smoker and suffered from recurrent throat problems throughout his life. In 1874, while he was working on ‘Carmen’ he was severely afflicted with throat issues, which recurred again in March 1875 and then in May.
At that time, he was also suffering from depression not only due to marital problems but also because of the apparent failure of ‘Carmen’. As a result, his recovery was very slow. At the end of May, he moved to his holiday home at Bougival.
There on 1 June, he developed high fever and pain, which might have led to a heart attack. Although he recovered temporarily, on 3 June 1875 he had a second attack and died from it. He was then only 36 years old.
Eventually it was determined that he died from "a cardiac complication of acute articular rheumatism". The funeral was held on 5 June at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Montmartre. It was attended by 4,000 people among whom there were many well known musicians like Gounod, Thomas, Ludovic Halévy, Léon Halévy and Massenet.
Later, he was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery. On his death, he got the felicitation, which he missed in his lifetime. The media, which had previously condemned his works, especially ‘Carmen’, now called him a master.
After his death, Geneviève showed little interest in preserving his works. Many of his manuscripts were lost while others were tampered with. Apart from ‘Carmen’ and the ‘L'Arlésienne suite’, few other works were performed.
It was only in the twentieth century that his true worth was recognized. It is also believed that it was his realistic approach, which influenced the verismo school of opera towards the end of the nineteenth century.