Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was a French Romantic composer best known for his opera Carmen and the instrumental music for the play L'Arlésienne. None of his earlier operas had enjoyed any great success, and even Carmen took several months to gain public and critical acclaim, too late for the composer, who died of a heart attack aged 36, to witness.
Alexandre César Leopold Bizet (later known simply as Georges Bizet) was born in Paris on 25 October 1838. His father, Adolphe Bizet, was a wig-maker and hairdresser, but he taught singing occasionally. Georges's mother, Aiméé Delsarte, was the daughter of a successful businessman, and she also had musical talent, this time as a pianist. Georges showed his own great musical talent at an early age, and he was enrolled in the Conservatory in Paris aged just nine (one year younger than was usually permitted, but his aunt and maternal uncle pulled some strings). In 1855, when he was just 17, Georges wrote his Symphony in C. Georges was a star pupil at the Conservatory where he won the 1857 Prix de Rome along with several other prizes such as for composition, his entry being the one-act opera Le docteur miracle. Other prizes were gained for his piano and organ playing and for two cantatas, David and Clovis et Clotilde.
One of Bizet's composition teachers was Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), significantly, a composer of operas. Bizet became a great admirer of the German opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), whom he described as "a thundering dramatic genius" (Schonberg, 269). Another influence on the young composer was Charles Gounod (1818-1893) whose operas included Faust (1859). Above all, Bizet believed in melody, and he admired those who could produce it.
Upon graduation in 1858, Bizet went to Rome – paid for out of his prizes – where he spent the next three years visiting the ancient sites and composing. Bizet enjoyed Italy and was beginning to find himself. He said, "I am beginning to think of myself as an artist but what howlers, what failures" (Steen, 585). Here in Italy, he composed a comic opera, Don Procopia (not performed until 1906), and various orchestral works but not the mass he was supposed to have composed as a condition of his grant. The orchestral works would be rearranged into the composer's Roma symphony, not fully completed to his satisfaction until 1871. It was in the Italian capital that Bizet first began to have the problem with his throat that plagued him for the rest of his life.
Personal Life & Character
The music historian C. Schonberg gives the following summary of Bizet's character and appearance:
There was nothing in music he could not do – this plump, short-tempered young man, always elegantly dressed, constantly nibbling on sweets, cakes, chocolate, and petits four. (To get on the good side of Bizet one had to cater to his sweet tooth).
Bizet had an affair with a maid in his parents' home, Marie Reiter, which produced a child in June 1862. In the 1860s, Bizet lived with his father at Le Vésinet outside Paris where they had a bungalow side by side. Here the composer enjoyed walking with his dog along the Seine. On 3 June 1869, Bizet married the second daughter of his former teacher, Geneviève Halévy. The couple had been romantically involved for some years and engaged since 1867, but Geneviève's family disapproved of the match. The marriage and Geneviève's handsome dowry relieved Bizet of his financial worries. The couple had a son, Jacques, born in 1872.
Operas & Suites
Bizet could have earned a good living as a virtuous piano player, but he preferred to compose. He once said, "I am not made for the symphony; I need the theatre, I can do nothing without it" (Thompson, 121). He returned to Paris in 1860 and began to pursue his dream of writing operas. In this period, he wrote Ivan IV but never completed it. Another opera, Jean Le Terrible has since been lost. His first staged opera came in 1863, thanks to support from the theatre director Léon Carvalho who had money to spend via a government subsidy specifically aimed at helping former Prix de Rome winners. Bizet was chosen, and he came up with Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). Unfortunately, audiences and critics at the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris were not overly impressed, and the run lasted a mere 18 performances. Today, one song from this opera remains popular, Au fond du temple saint, a duet from Act I, and the opera enjoyed a revival in the 20th century. It is true that the libretto, fashionably set in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), left something to be desired, a fact the writers regretted when they later realised the great talent of the composer that had commissioned it; they themselves described it as "that white elephant" (Schonberg, 375). One critic memorably stated: "There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music" (Steen, 587).
Bizet was undeterred by the setback, and he continued to write more operas while earning an income writing indifferent songs and piano works for music publishers, giving piano lessons, and playing at theatre rehearsals. In December 1867, Bizet's opera La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth), which was based in part on the novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), had its premiere, again thanks to Carvalho, but it was another disappointment and, like Les pêcheurs de perles, managed only 18 performances. Again, the chief weakness was the libretto.
The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) caused the closure of theatres in Paris, and Bizet joined the National Guard (although he was exempt from service thanks to his Prix de Rome win). Bizet manned a defensive fortress in Paris and helped in one of the capital's hospitals. Fortunately, the conflict was short, and still in 1871, Bizet completed his Jeux d'enfants (Children's Games), a suite of pieces for piano duet. The next year in May, Bizet's opera Djamileh was put on at the prestigious Opéra-Comique in Paris, but it was another failure, this time managing just eleven performances (it would not be restaged until 1938). Still confident in his musical beliefs despite all the setbacks, Bizet knew what he wanted to write no matter what the critics thought, even if he suffered plenty of private moments of doubt. As the composer once noted, "I have the courage to prefer Raphael to Michelangelo, Mozart to Beethoven, Rossini to Meyerbeer" (Schonberg, 375).
Also in 1872, Bizet was commissioned to write the instrumental music for L'Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles), a play by Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) based on his own novella. The music (nowadays collected into two suites) features an unusual alto saxophone solo and continues to be a popular piece in the concert repertory. The supremely melodic minuetto from Suite No. 1 leaves the listener wondering what might have been if Bizet's career had been longer.
In 1873, Bizet pressed on with his dream of writing a successful opera and began composing Don Rodrigue but never completed it. In 1875, the overture Patrie was a great success, and the composer was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Bizet was now ready for his signature masterpiece, and this time, there would be no chancing with the libretto. This, his finest work, was commissioned by Camille du Locle in 1872 (he had also commissioned Djamileh).
Bizet completed Carmen in 1874. The story of the four-act opera tells of a Gypsy called Carmen and is based on Carmen, an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870). The libretto is by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (nephew of Fromental Halévy). The story in its original form was told through spoken dialogue rather than recitative (melodic speech).
The plot is set in Seville and has a Corporal Don José become infatuated with the Gypsy Carmen, who works in a cigarette factory, but he is frustrated when she is arrested. Don José tries to get Carmen released but is himself arrested. Both are released, but Carmen becomes in turn infatuated with a bullfighter called Escamillo. Carmen and Escamillo decide to elope in the company of a group of smugglers, but Don José gives chase. Escamillo and Don José fight, the latter is then consoled by his friend Micaëla. Carmen promises herself to Escamillo if he wins his next bullfight, but Don José stabs and kills her as she waits outside the arena. After victory, meanwhile, Escamillo exits the arena with an adoring crowd. Triumph and tragedy.
Carmen's powerful score features rousing segments – including surely the most recognisable overture of any opera – along with unusual percussion instruments like castanets and tambourines. Even the Entr'acte is a masterpiece of melody (Herbert von Karajan's version is recommended here).
Carmen premiered at the Opéra-Comique on 3 March 1875. It was not a success at first, audiences at the Opéra-Comique were more used to light dramas with plenty of sentimentality and a happy ending to cheer them on their way home. Critics and the press were initially scandalised by the verismo story of Carmen and its immoral characters. The work was also innovative since it was the first spoken comic opera, the first to have a somewhat unlikeable heroine, and the first to end in true tragedy. The score was also packed with episodes of originality. Composers like Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) would later make a specialty of such theatricals, but for the moment, critics and audiences were not entirely sure what to make of this new approach to opera.
Bizet, once more defeated and depressed by a lukewarm public reaction, called his opera "a definite and a hopeless flop" (Schonberg, 376). This was an exaggeration and, further, the initiated knew what they were seeing and hearing. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) commented (when the production's fate was still undecided) that Carmen "would become the most popular opera in the world" in the next decade (Sadie, 305); he was not wrong. The composer later warmed even more to the opera: "To my mind, it is a masterly work in the full sense of the word, i.e. one of those things which are destined to reflect the musical endeavours of a whole epoch in the greatest measure" (Panenka). The (then) most respected of all opera composers, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) praised Bizet: "Here, thank God, at last for a change is somebody with ideas in his head" (Schonberg, 377). The heavy-weight backing continued when Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), who saw the opera 20 times, publicly declared that he was quite prepared to walk to the ends of the earth to be able to embrace Carmen's creator.
Eventually, both the critics and the public – in France and abroad – forgot about the more shocking elements and were won over by the sheer drama of it all and that magnificent, sweeping score. Carmen was staged in Vienna in October (after being shortened and with a German recitative script added by Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud), London in June 1878, and New York in October 1878. Ultimately, Carmen did indeed become one of the most popular operas of them all. It is a great pity that the composer did not see this success come to fruition.
Bizet's Most Famous Works
Georges Bizet's most famous works, with their first performance dates noted in brackets, include:
Symphony in C (1855)
Les pêcheurs de perles opera – The Pearl Fishers (1863)
Roma symphony (1869 & revised in 1871)
Jeux d'enfants suite – Children's Games (1871)
L'Arlésienne suite – The Girl from Arles (1872)
Carmen opera (1875)
Don Procopio opera (1906)
Death & Legacy
As Carmen was being staged in Paris, Bizet was suffering from rheumatic fever which aggravated his long-term heart condition. The composer carried on working regardless, composing a commissioned oratorio (work for concert performance), Geneviève de Paris. He would never complete it. Georges Bizet died of a heart attack in Bougival outside Paris on 3 June 1875 – his sixth wedding anniversary and exactly three months after Carmen's premiere. The night that Bizet died, the soprano playing his Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié (1840-1905), fainted on stage. Oddly, this happened during the fortune-telling scene when Carmen is told of her own future death.
Not only is Carmen still regularly performed worldwide but the opera also inspired a large number of derivative works in stage and cinema. The 1913 Cecil B. DeMille silent film Carmen (one of a handful of others at the time) was based on the opera. The 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones was based on Bizet's opera but reset during the Second World War (1939-45); the music remains faithful to Bizet's score but has additional lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. A pioneering cinematic version of Carmen Jones with an all-black cast directed by Otto Preminger was made in 1953, which won the Golden Globe Award for best film. In 1949, a ballet based on the story of Carmen with Bizet's music as its score was first performed in London, and it continues to be staged around the world today. There was even an ice-skating version of Carmen in 1990. Into the 21st century, the Carmen character continues to attract the biggest names in show business with the film Carmen: A Hip Hopera starring Beyoncé Knowles.