Georges Bizet

(25 October 1838 - 3 June 1875)

Georges Bizet was a French composer of the Romantic era. He composed many piano and orchestral works throughout this career, however he is best known for his operas, most notably Carmen, which has gained a reputation as one of the most popular and often performed operas of any era. He also spent a large portion of his life as an arranger and accompanist, valued for his superior orchestration technique and his skills as a pianist. Unfortunately, Bizet lived quite a harsh life, filled with frustration and anxiety regarding his career as a composer. This constant state self-doubt often caused him to be unproductive during particular periods of his life by continuously abandoning his projects and compositions. Despite this, he had achieved notable successes and attracted the attention of many other composers of his era such as Liszt and Berlioz. Today, his works are recognised and performed all over the world.

Georges Bizet was born Alexandre-César-Léopold Bizet in Paris on 25 October 1838. His father, Adolphe-Armand Bizet, was a singing teacher and his mother, Aimée Delsarte was an accomplished pianist. From a very young age, Bizet exhibited impressive musical talents. He was educated in music theory and it is likely that his mother taught him the piano. On 9 October 1848, just before his tenth birthday, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire where he spent the next nine years of his life developing his skills as a composer and pianist.

At the Conservatoire, Bizet was taught by several influential teachers including the composer, Fromental Halévy. Bizet was highly inspired by the many prestigious elements of Halévy's musical career and became very close with him and his family, later marrying his daughter, Geneviève. Bizet was also greatly inspired by Charles Gounod, a critical figure who influenced Bizet's musical style, which can be perceived in the work which he produced in his formative years. Each had an intimate enthusiasm for the other's work for many years after Bizet left the Conservatoire.

Bizet was awarded many prizes during his student years including a premier prix for piano in 1852 and a premier prix for both organ and fugue in 1855. His most prestigious and significant award however, was undoubtedly the Prix de Rome of which he received in 1857 for his cantata Clovis et Clotilde. This prize included a five-year state pension; two years of which were to be spent at the French Academy in Rome.

In Rome, Bizet developed an interest for Italian music, particularly that of Rossini. He happily explored the land, art and architecture of Italy; this break away from his Parisian way of life led to a pleasant and somewhat boisterous lifestyle. With reference from letters he sent to his mother back in Paris, it is clear that he was quite dissatisfied and frustrated with his progress as a composer during his time in Italy.

Bizet became an amiable member of the French community at Villa Medici and he was often in high demand for his skills a pianist. He attended many social events and made many new friends, including boulevardier and travel writer, Edmond About. However, with the exception of a few musicians including Ernest Guiraud, Bizet was quite disinterested in Italian musical life and felt that there was a lack of good music in Rome. He focused his interest on composers such as Rossini, Mozart and Mendelssohn.

Ah, music! What a beautiful art! But what a wretched profession!

His spirits were further dampened after failing to win the Rodriques prize with his Te Deum in 1858, which sadly remained unpublished until 1971. It is possible that his frustration and anxiety encouraged him to begin and abandon many projects, including an ode-symphony and an orchestral symphony on Homer, Ulysse et Circé. Despite his uncertain progression, he did, in fact have several successes. His Italian-style buffa, Don Procopio was excellently received and admired, although it was not performed until 1906. In 1859, he composed an ode-symphony titled Vasco de Gama, for soloists, chorus and orchestra. This was also wonderfully received and at the time, Bizet had considered it the best work he has ever composed.

After his leisurely but somewhat anxious time in Rome, Bizet returned to Paris in 1860 and was set to face years of struggle as a composer. From then on he spent the majority of his time in Paris, and only travelled on occasion. He spent much time courting opera performances and patrons and he made a living by arranging works for other composers and Parisian publishers. Renowned for his skills as a pianist and sight-reader, it is also likely that he earned a regular income as an accompanist. Because he was receiving the Prix de Rome pension for a further two years, he would remain financially stable until 1863; however he still had extreme feelings of anxiety regarding his prospects as a composer. Further strain was put on him when his mother fell ill shortly after his return to Paris and passed away in 1861. The following year, his mentor Fromental Halévy also passed away and this added yet more emotional pain to his life. Additionally, his relationship with his father was under much strain, particularly after their house maid, Mary Reiter, gave birth to a son of whom Georges was the father.

Despite this stream of dramatic personal events, Bizet was, in fact, incredibly productive over the next number of years. In 1862, he composed the libretto La guzla de l'émir which he submitted as his envoi for that year. Its lively style was very well received in the public forum. Although it is now lost, it is likely that parts of the libretto were brought into his more popular work, Les pêcheurs de perles which was commissioned by the Théâtre Lyrique and composed in 1863. The work was reasonably successful hence he was invited by the theatre’s director to compose Ivan IV for production in 1864. However after the promises of performance gradually perished, a frustrated Bizet withdrew his work from the Théâtre Lyrique and offered it to the Opéra, although they would not accept it. Unfortunately the work, among many others, was not performed until long after the composer's death.

The following two years were less productive for Bizet. His income from the Conservatoire had now ended and financial issues were a serious concern for him. He worked mainly as an accompanist and arranger and completed several arrangements, including a piano solo for the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. He also published several works of his own, including a collection of piano works and the six Chants du Rhin. Additionally, he began to teach composition.

In 1866, Bizet's prospects began to look up as he was commissioned to compose an opera for the Théâtre Lyrique. The libretto was written by a friend of Bizet's, Jules Adenis and was based on Scott's The Fair Maid of Perth. Bizet enthusiastically worked on the opera and by the end of the year La jolie fille de Perth was completed. It was staged in December 1867 and was very well received, however it did not draw the crowds that Bizet had hoped and it only saw eighteen performances, the exact number of performances Les pêcheurs de perles enjoyed four years earlier. Bizet was happy with how the opera was received by critics; however he was highly disappointed with lack of public attention it attracted.


1867 proved to be a busy and eventful year for Bizet. He completed his Second Symphony, titled Souvenirs de Rome, which he had originally started in 1860. It was performed in Feb 1969 by Pasdeloup at the Circue Napoléon; its only performance during Bizet's own lifetime. He completed other compositions as well as arrangements, including an arrangement of Thomas's Mignon for piano solo and piano duet. During this time he also became engaged to Fromental Halévy's daughter, Geneviève and married her two years later. They were both content during the beginning of the marriage and Geneviève gave birth to a son, Jacques, in 1872, in the same year that his L'Arlésienne suite was first performed. However, the final years of the marriage became strained and difficult, which put yet more pressure on the composer during the final stages of his career.

His progress as a composer was also put under strain after the eruption of the Franco-Prussian war. He joined the National Guard along with several other composers including Saint-Saëns. There was a serious delay in his work as France experienced disorder and misery as a result of the German invasion. The civil uprising which followed was a disastrous period for Paris; however Bizet and Geneviève luckily escaped to Le Vésinet and avoided the bloodshed. 

By the start of 1873 and long after the war had ceased, Bizet had begun work on his most successful opera, Carmen, which was based on Mérimée's novel. He had considered the opera to be a risky project as the story itself was thought to be quite controversial and distasteful to the majority of the public. Nonetheless, he became dedicated to the work and he spent his entire summer of 1873 orchestrating the opera and preparing the piano-vocal score. The work was completed by 1874. Although Carmen is without doubt Bizet's most popular masterpiece, its initial production and reception was rather poor. Many members of the orchestra felt that the music was too taxing to perform and the singers objected to many of the acting requirements. Despite this, its premier went ahead on 3 March 1875 and the opera enjoyed a total of forty five performances that year alone.

Sadly, Bizet had been suffering from ill health and after the opening night he began to deteriorate. It is also likely that he suffered from depression as a result of the opera's poor reception from critics and audiences and this possibly encouraged his sickness. He suffered two heart-attacks and a serious attack of rheumatism a few months later. He died at the age of 36, on 3 June 1875.

Although Bizet lived a short life, he has produced many thrilling and inspiring works. Carmen's worldwide success has resulted in its endless screen and stage adaptations and its music is being continuously performed by orchestras and ensembles globally. Although a substantial portion of Bizet's works have been lost throughout the years, or possibly had never been written, many of his masterpieces remain today, such as his first full-length opera Les pêcheurs de perles and his imaginative and colourfully orchestrated Symphony in C, to mention but a few. Unfortunately Bizet did not experience this popularity in his own lifetime and it is evident that he struggled through a career or self-doubt, anxiety and uncertainty. He has however, enriched the musical period in which he lived as well as many great composers and eras that followed.

Gabriel Fauré

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