Bizet, Georges (Alexandre Cesar Leopold)

1838-1875

A brilliant and richly endowed composer, whose career, which promised so much, was cut short by death at the age of thirty-six, and whose masterpiece, Carmen, is the most popular and intensely dramatic, perhaps, of all the operas in the modern French repertory.

Bizet, whose real given names were Alexandre Cesar Leopold, but whose uncle gave him the name of Georges, by which he was ever afterward known, was born in Paris and was the son of poor but talented parents, his father being a singing teacher and his mother an excellent pianist, who had taken prizes at the Conservatory. She was a sister of Mme. Delsarte, also a noted pianist, and Bizet's uncle, a musician, was the founder of the famous Delsarte system. His mother taught him the rudiments of music when he was four years of age and at nine he was sent to the Conservatory. He is said to have not cared particularly for music in those days, but to have been exceedingly fond of books, with aspirations to become a writer. However, he learned to love his studies and made remarkable progress under his teachers. They were Marmontel, who instructed him on the piano; Benoist, who taught him to play the organ; Zimmermann, from whom he learned harmony, and Halevy, who taught him composition and whose opera, Noah, he completed in after years, and whose daughter he married.

When Bizet was fourteen he was a master of the piano, and delighted his teachers with the progress he made. He carried off prize after prize at the Conservatory and, in 1857, won the Offenbach first prize, jointly with Lecocq, for an opera buffa, entitled Le Docteur Miracle, which was produced in Paris at the Bouffes Parisiens with striking success six years later. He shortly afterward won the Grand Prize of Rome, and while studying in Italy, sent back to Paris, instead of the mass prescribed by the rules, an opera, Don Procopio, which was highly praised by Ambroise Thomas for its brilliancy and the freshness and boldness of its style. Bizet's next compositions were the two movements of a symphony; an overture, La Chasse d'Ossian; and a light opera, La Guzzla de l'Emir.

After his return to Paris from Rome, in 1861, he taught music for a living and spent his spare time making piano arrangements of airs from other operas. Bizet did not at once gain the recognition through his compositions that he had hoped for, although he wrote constantly. His operas were rather conventional and reminiscent of other works and it was only after the world had succumbed to the charm of Carmen, that they received any attention from musicians. His next works were the overture, Patrie, and his interludes to Daudet's L'Arlesienne (The Woman of Aries), afterwards published as two orchestral suites. His two operas, The Pearl Fishers (Les Pecheurs de Perles) and The Fair Maid of Perth, were produced at the Theatre Lyrique, Paris, the former in 1863, the latter in 1867, but with only a fair amount of success. While composing the music to the last-named opera, Bizet often worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day, and supported himself by giving lessons, arranging dance music for orchestras, correcting proofs and writing songs. It was his incessant industry and long hours of ceaseless activity that undoubtedly hastened his death.

When The Pearl Fishers was brought out it was applauded by some, while others criticized it in the harshest terms, attributing Wagnerian tendencies to the composer, and accusing him of copying Verdi and others. Berlioz alone praised it, and in later years musicians have agreed that it is a remarkable work to have been written by a man of only twenty-five. Bizet, shortly after its production set to work on the score of Noah, the biblical opera left unfinished by his former teacher, Halevy, and also wrote other music, most of which he destroyed. In 1869 he married Genevieve Halevy, the daughter of the operatic composer and teacher. After the invasion of France, he served in the national guard.