The average concert-goer probably only knows one work by Georges Bizet, but that work is among the best-known of all operas: Carmen. Bizet’s dangerously seductive heroine has made her mark not only on the opera stage but also on Broadway, the big screen, and even MTV. In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein II turned Carmen into a musical about African-American life. This version, entitled Carmen Jones, was adapted as a film in 1954. For her portrayal of Carmen, Dorothy Dandridge earned the first Best Actress Oscar nomination ever awarded to an African-American woman. More recently, the story of Carmen was retold on MTV in 2001 as a “hip-hopera,” featuring Beyoncé Knowles and blending rap with some of Bizet’s original melodies.
Born in Paris on October 25, 1838, Alexandre-César-Léopold Bizet was later known under the shorter name Georges. Sources differ as to why he adopted this name. One assertion is that he chose the name himself, preferring it to the names that he was given at birth. Another contention, however, is that his godfather bestowed it on him.
Whatever the case, he grew up in a very musical household. His father, Adolphe Bizet, was a voice teacher and an amateur composer and his mother, Aimée Bizet, was an accomplished pianist. Bizet learned how to read music and received his first piano lessons from his mother. Additionally, Bizet’s uncle was a well-known voice teacher in Paris and was married to a solfége professor at the Paris Conservatoire.
With such an accomplished family, it is perhaps not surprising that Bizet’s musical talent was discovered early. One day when his father was giving a voice lesson, he heard the young boy singing outside the door. He called him in and was surprised to find that Georges had quickly and independently learned the song that he was trying to teach his student. Thus, the following year, at the age of only nine, his father enrolled him in the Paris Conservatoire.
At the conservatory, Bizet proved himself to be tremendously gifted. Within six months, he won the first prize in solfége and over the next nine years won nearly every other prize for which he competed. Already an accomplished pianist, in 1852 he began organ lessons, and in 1853 he began studying composition with Fromental Halévy. During this time, Bizet was also earning income by arranging other composers’ works for publication, as well as by giving piano lessons.
He continued to stand out amongst his peers in his final two years at the conservatory. In 1856, he received the second prize in composition for his cantata David. In his final year, 1857, he was awarded the Prix de Rome, the conservatory’s highest honor, for his cantata Clovis et Clotilde.
As part of the prize, Bizet spent the following three years at the French Institute housed in the Villa Medici, Rome. His only obligation during this time was to write one piece each year, which was then submitted for review. This situation provided him with the opportunity to travel throughout Italy and to experience the many delights of Italian art and culture. While in Italy he was introduced to Italian opera, and he greatly appreciated the music of Rossini. However, he did not care for Verdi’s works, finding them to be crude.
During his first year in Rome he wrote a Te Deum for vocal soloists and orchestra, which was followed by the comic opera Don Procopio. His last year in Rome, however, was difficult for him compositionally. He started and abandoned many pieces before finally settling on an ode-symphony for vocal soloist, chorus, and orchestra. Titled Vasco de Gama, it was based on the explorer’s discovery of an all sea-route to India. Bizet considered this work to be his finest effort to date, but as his stay in Rome came to an end, he was quite anxious about what his future career held in store for him. Despite having produced several promising compositions, he had yet to secure permanent work in Paris. As Bizet prepared for the difficult road that lay ahead, he was frequently subject to feelings of self-doubt.
Return to Parisian Life; Early Career
In the summer of 1860 Bizet returned to Paris. There, Bizet faced the realities of a career as a composer: he spent time courting opera performances, patrons and performers, as well as organizing and conducting occasional concerts. He also earned a steady income by arranging works for various Parisian publishers and by working as an accompanist. Moreover, for the first two years following his return to Paris, he received an income from the Prix de Rome, so he did not have immediate financial concerns; however, he remained anxious.
Events in his life did little to ease his anxiety. His mother had fallen ill shortly before his return from Rome and had passed away in September of 1861. His relationship with his father, which had for some time been strained, was further complicated after the family maid, Mary Reiter, gave birth to a son. Initially the young boy was brought up to believe that Adolphe Bizet was his father, though years later Mary revealed that Georges Bizet was in fact the true father. Another cause for emotional distress during this time was the passing of Bizet’s teacher and mentor Fromental Halévy in 1862.
Nonetheless, the following years were very productive for Bizet. In 1862 he composed a one-act opera for the Opéra-Comique titled La guzla de l’émir (The Guzla of the Emir), which was based on a Turkish story. During the initial rehearsals for this piece, Bizet received a major commission from the Théâtre Lyrique for a full-length work, but in order to be eligible for this new commission he had to withdraw La guzla de l’émir from the Opéra-Comique.
The summer of 1863 was spent working on this commission, which resulted in his first well-known opera, Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). It is fairly certain that parts of the now lost La guzla de l’émir were absorbed into this new work and probably into later works as well. Prior to starting Les pêcheurs de perles, Bizet had written most of another opera, titled Ivan IV. The sudden urgency of composing the new opera, as it had been commissioned, meant Bizet had to put Ivan IV on hold, but parts of this shelved opera also found their way into Les pêcheurs de perles.
Les pêcheurs de perles was Bizet’s first full-length opera and it is still performed today by many opera houses. It had eighteen performances, which was very respectable by most standards, but Bizet was adversely affected by a hostile reaction from the critics, who considered the libretto ridiculous and the score noisy and offensive. However, in contrast, the director of the Théâtre Lyrique found in this work evidence of a promising composer and scheduled Ivan IV for the following spring season, although unforeseen delays kept it from being performed that year.
The next two years were less productive. He took on a few composition students and prepared several arrangements and collections for publishing. He also published some smaller solo piano and piano-vocal works during this time.
Marriage; The Franco-Prussian War
By 1866 Bizet was busily composing again. His Roma Symphonie received several performances and he published some solo piano works. He was also contracted to undertake the laborious task of arranging two of Ambroise Thomas’s operas for both solo and duo piano.
That year Bizet was engaged by the Théâtre Lyrique to write a four-act opera based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth. By the end of the year, La jolie fille de Perth was finished, although it was not staged until December of 1867. This opera was well received, but did not capture as much public interest as had been hoped. The following April it opened in Brussels, but it did not draw much attention in this location either, and Bizet himself did not particularly like the performance as it was staged there.
During this time a serious relationship developed between twenty-nine-year-old Bizet and eighteen-year-old Geneviève Halévy, daughter of his mentor. It is unclear when he began to court her, but by 1867 the couple was in love and engaged. Her family did not approve of the young girl marrying a composer who was only moderately successful, and they broke off the engagement. In spite of this opposition, the couple wed in a civil ceremony in June of 1869. Unfortunately, their happiness only lasted a short while and their marriage was a difficult one.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July of 1870, Bizet, as well as a handful of other well-known composers, joined the French National Guard. Consequently, his involvement delayed progress on several compositions. Additionally, the war brought about many hardships when Napoleon III was unsuccessful in repelling the German invasion and the realities of defeat created a state of chaos in France. Armistice was declared in January of 1871, but this brief period of calm was followed by a civil uprising, which resulted in a two-month period of bloodshed and unrest in Paris. Fortunately Bizet and his wife were able to flee to Le Vésinet near Paris, and to escape from the violence.
By January of 1873 Bizet had begun work on his opera Carmen, based on Prosper Mérimée’s novel of 1845. Much of the work was composed by the summer of that same year, but he delayed the completion of this work until the end of 1874, due to other more immediate obligations. Moreover, he considered Carmen to be somewhat of a professional gamble, since its subject matter was controversial: the title character was seen as having loose morals, and many people considered her graphic death to be distasteful.
In 1874, his marriage was experiencing serious difficulties and the couple separated for about two months, but soon reconciled and spent the summer at a villa in Bougival, outside of Paris. Over the summer Bizet orchestrated Carmen and prepared the piano-vocal score for rehearsal. When the rehearsals began in Paris, they did not go smoothly. Bizet received complaints from nearly everyone involved: the orchestra found the score difficult to play, the chorus had trouble acting as individual characters, and the women objected to smoking and fighting on stage. In spite of these obstacles, the work premiered on March 3, 1875. The opera ran for forty-five performances and more were scheduled for the next season. It was Bizet’s biggest success, but it nonetheless suffered from a poor critical reception and audiences that were outraged by its lurid portrayal of the heroine.
Shortly following the opening night Bizet developed quinsy, a condition that had afflicted him throughout his life. His illness degraded into rheumatism, and at the end of May, he took his family to Bougival to recuperate. Sadly his condition did not improve, and he suffered two heart attacks. On June 3, 1875 he passed away at the age of thirty-six. Carmen received its thirty-third performance on the day he died.
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