Georges Bizet - Biography
Georges Bizet the celebrated composer of Carmen was born in Paris on October 25th 1838 and died in Bougival France on June 3rd 1875. His parents were professional musicians, his father a singing teacher and minor composer, his mother an amateur musician whose sister was a well known singing coach. Bizet initially was named Alexendre-Cesar Leopold but when he was baptized a few years later it was simplified to Georges. Bizet had a musical talent that developed at an early age and he entered the famed Paris Conservatory at the very early age of nine. He developed quickly as a fine musician and a superb musician. During his teen years he wrote a number of short piano pieces and songs. He also won the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome in 1857 which allowed him to take advanced studies in Rome. An amazing work that he wrote when he was not quite seventeen was the suburb Symphony in C. This work was modeled after a Charles Gounod’s First Symphony it far surpasses its model and is full of beautiful melody worthy of mature Bizet. Amazingly this work which is now so popular was in the archives of the Paris Conservatory for nearly eighty years until it was discovered in 1933 and first conducted by the eminent conductor Felix Weingartner in Switzerland in 1935.
Bizet’s first attempt at an opera is the one act Doctor Miracle which won a prize and was produced in 1857. It was usual for Prix de Rome winners to write a setting of the Catholic Mass , he instead wrote a two act comic opera Don Procapio which comes down to us in a fragmentary state and his only sacred work a Te Deum. When he came back to Paris in 1863 he wrote what was to become his first hit opera Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) based on a plot whose action takes place in Ceylon The opera which was initially unsuccessful is enormously popular in France and has a celebrated tenor aria made famous by Caruso and an even more celebrated duet for Tenor and Baritone. In this music Bizet demonstrates one of his main talents that he doesn’t approach an exotic foreign subject with a cheap veneer but saturates the work with a unique piquancy that is a combination of piquant orchestration and harmony. Another opera that followed The Pearl Fishers lives on more as a popular orchestral suite derived from it; La Jolie Fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth). In 1869 he married Genevieve Halevy the daughter of his teacher Fromental Halevy the celebrated composer of the Jewish themed opera La Juive (due to the marriage in some reference books Bizet is misidentified as Jewish). Bizet during this period composed a picturesque four movement orchestral suite Roma and a noisy but effective overture for patriotic occasions La Patrie.
In the early 1870’s he wrote the vivacious piano duet Jeux d’Enfants (Children’s Games) and also music to a play by Alphonse Daudet L’Arlessienne that Bizet was to arrange as an Orchestral Suite (after his death the composer Guiraud arranged a Second Suite). Bizet composed a one act comic opera La Djamileh and an uncompleted draft for a grand opera Don Rodrigue. Bizet was to write his masterwork Carmen completed in 1875, based on a novella by Merime with a libretto by Halevy and Meilhac. The premiere at the Opera Comique had very mixed reviews; conservative critics were not ready for a violent naturalistic and contemporary opera. The initial presentation had spoken dialogue between the numbers the way operas were presented at the Opera Comique (for the Viennese premiere a few years later his friend Guiraud orchestrated the dialogue in order for it to be presented as a grand opera and it is this version that is usually heard outside of France). Between the premiere and his death Carmen received 37 performances at the Opera Comique, so the spurious story about Bizet dying of a broken heart because of the failure of Carmen is greatly exaggerated (he received 25,000 francs from the publisher Choudens for the performing rights). Bizet unfortunately did have a serious heart problem that he succumbed to on June 3 1875 a few months before his thirty seventh birthday. After his death Carmen was to become a worldwide sensation and probably the most famous of all operas. Madame Bizet was to remarry a Rothschild and was to live on as one of the most prominent members of Parisian high society.
Georges Bizet is one of the great unknowns in music history; a composer whose genius comes to full fruition just before he dies. Was Carmen a onetime wonder and would he have become just a minor master if he lived his full measure? Or would he have become a great composer in the league of Verdi or Wagner? Carmen had a powerful influence on Tchaikovsky which can be heard in certain sections of Swan Lake and the opening movement of his Fourth Symphony. Nietzsche after he broke with Wagner considered Carmen as a counter to Wagner’s Teutonic death obsessed music by offering a lighter Mediterranean alternative art. Bizet also should be considered the father of the Italian operatic movement Verisimo (truthful) wherein everyday common people have their small tragedies explored.