Bizet, Georges (Alexandre Cesar Leopold)


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.

Bizet's first success came with the overture to Sardou's Patrie, which was played at one of the Popular concerts in Paris, shortly after their inauguration by Pasdeloup. His incidental music to Daudet's play, L'Arlesienne, given first in 1872, was most successful, and later, when arranged as two orchestral suites, was extremely popular. The suite, Roma, was given under Pasdeloup's direction, in 1869, at the Crystal Palace, London, and another suite, Jeux d'Enfants, also attracted a good deal of attention from musical critics. Carmen, the composer's masterpiece, an opera in four acts, with a libretto written by Meilhac and Halevy,  after the famous novel of Prosper Merimee, was produced for the first time at the Opera Comique, Paris, in 1875, with Mme. Galli-Marie in the title role. Before the opera was brought out, it was eagerly awaited and its composer was looked upon as one of the most interesting personalities of the mod- ern French School. It was not, however, an immediate success and its real vogue did not begin until it was sung in London three years later, with Mme. Minnie Hauck in the part of the cigarette girl. The picturesqueness and beauty of the score failed to arouse any interest at the time of its first production. It was called by some, commonplace, by others, radical and daring and the character of Carmen brutal and coarse. The critics and public alike were agreed that it was not a great work, or one destined to live. The night of its production, Bizet walked the streets of Paris till morning, because of his distress and disappointment at what he believed to have been a failure. He had, however, the greatest belief in the future fame of the work, and felt certain that it was worthy of success and bound to triumph eventually. He had always been a prodigious worker, and finally his overtaxed strength gave way. He was stricken with an attack of heart disease and died three months after the production of Carmen. Overwork and grief over the failure of the opera, upon which he had built such high hopes and which was destined to one day attain the utmost fame and popularity, were too much for him and he never lived to know of his success. Great hopes had been entertained of Bizet's future and his sudden death was universally regretted and lamented. He died in the arms of his young wife, and left, besides his widow, a five-year-old son.

Shortly after the composer's death, Carmen, once considered a failure, was acclaimed a success and now holds the stage for all time, in all probability. L'Arlesienne has been heard and admired the world over and his earlier operas have been revived and sung in many lands and in many languages. Although Bizet did not meet with any popular success during his lifetime, he was not exactly neglected by the public of his day as so many composers have been. L'Arlesienne and others of his works had given him an enviable reputation and he was decorated by his country with the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor.

Carmen achieved a veritable triumph after it had been heard in London and its popularity is still undiminished. It is the greatest of all the composer's works and has a universal appeal and an eternal interest for all lovers of opera.

Bizet always loved to infuse into his works plenty of local color. The music of Carmen is peculiarly Spanish and the dance forms of the Spaniards, which they had borrowed from the Moors with their Oriental rhythm and grace, are freely used in it and undoubtedly add much to its interest. The opera is a vital and brilliant work, and its story is dramatic and impressive. With its thoroughly characteristic   music and spirited action, it remains one of the greatest operatic works of the century and one that is destined to live.

Bizet's fame and renown must rest upon L'Arlesienne and upon Carmen and his rank as an operatic composer must be decided by Carmen alone, as it placed him in the front rank of modern French composers. By some, L'Arlesienne is considered his greatest work. Its motive is a song of Provence, attributed by some to Lully and by others to King Rene. This orchestral suite, made from the Jncidental music to Daudet's tragedy, shows all the composer's rare dramatic power and remains one of the best and most popular of concert pieces. It was first played at a Popular concert in Paris in 1872 and was first introduced to America by the late Theodore Thomas.

Bizet's work throughout shows sincerity, a quality that most French composers lack, his instrumentation is skilful and scholarly and his melodies are marked by grace, originality and great beauty. In France the composer was known as one of the most ferocious of the French Wagnerian school, as it was called, although he hated the phrase, despite his admiration for Wagner. He acknowledged a love for the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini and Meyerbeer and his preference for and his indebtedness to the German composers, Wagner among the others. Although he never appeared in public as a pianist, Bizet used to delight his hearers in private salons with nis exquisite playing. He was especially noted for his wonderful sight-reading of orchestral scores and was distinguished in a great many different ways. It was often said by his friends that if Bizet had not been a great musician he would undoubtedly have been a man of letters, for he wrote as brilliantly as he composed.

His other works besides those mentioned are the operas, Numa and Djamileh, produced at the Opera Comique in 1875; Ivan the Terrible, an opera never performed; a symphonic ode, Vasco da Gama; a symphony; a suite, Jeux d'Enfants; much piano music, including Venice, a song without words, Marine Nocturne, and transcriptions for both two and four hands; and twenty-six songs, among the most popular of which is Les Adieux de 1'Hotesse Arabe.

Bizet left few compositions and those that he did not destroy prior to his death were in such an unfinished state as to be practically illegible. Very few biographies of the composer have ever been written. The only important one was published by Charles Pigot in 1886 and is entitled Bizet and his Work. Mile. Cecile Chaminade, the famous composer and a pupil and friend of Bizet, contributed a brief but valuable article to the Century Library of Music, in which she praises him highly as man and musician.