Family background and childhood
Georges Bizet was born in Paris on 25 October 1838. He was registered as Alexandre César Léopold, but baptised as "Georges" on 16 March 1840, and was known by this name for the rest of his life. His father, Adolphe Bizet, had been a hairdresser and wigmaker before becoming a singing teacher despite his lack of formal training. He also composed a few works, including at least one published song. In 1837, Adolphe married Aimée Delsarte, against the wishes of her family who considered him a poor prospect; the Delsartes, though impoverished, were a cultured and highly musical family. Aimée was an accomplished pianist, while her brother François Delsarte was a distinguished singer and teacher who performed at the courts of both Louis Philippe and Napoleon III. François Delsarte's wife Rosine, a musical prodigy, had been an assistant professor of solfège at the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 13. At least one author has suggested that his mother was from a Jewish family but this is not substantiated in any of his official biographies.
Georges, an only child, showed early aptitude for music and quickly picked up the basics of musical notation from his mother, who probably gave him his first piano lessons. By listening at the door of the room where Adolphe conducted his classes, Georges learned to sing difficult songs accurately from memory and developed an ability to identify and analyse complex chordal structures. This precocity convinced his ambitious parents that he was ready to begin studying at the Conservatoire even though he was still only nine years old (the minimum entry age was 10). Georges was interviewed by Joseph Meifred, the horn virtuoso who was a member of the Conservatoire's Committee of Studies. Meifred was so struck by the boy's demonstration of his skills that he waived the age rule and offered to take him as soon as a place became available.
Bizet was admitted to the Conservatoire on 9 October 1848, two weeks before his 10th birthday. He made an early impression; within six months he had won first prize in solfège, a feat that impressed Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmerman, the Conservatoire's former professor of piano. Zimmerman gave Bizet private lessons in counterpoint and fugue, which continued until the old man's death in 1853. Through these classes, Bizet met Zimmerman's son-in-law, the composer Charles Gounod, who became a lasting influence on the young pupil's musical style—although their relationship was often strained in later years. He also met another of Gounod's young students, the 13-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns, who remained a firm friend of Bizet's. Under the tuition of Antoine François Marmontel, the Conservatoire's professor of piano, Bizet's pianism developed rapidly; he won the Conservatoire's second prize for piano in 1851, and first prize the following year. Bizet would later write to Marmontel: "In your class one learns something besides the piano; one becomes a musician".
, depicted here in later life, was a mentor and inspiration to Bizet in the latter's Conservatoire years.
Bizet's first preserved compositions, two wordless songs for soprano, date from around 1850. In 1853, he joined Fromental Halévy's composition class and began to produce works of increasing sophistication and quality. Two of his songs, "Petite Marguerite" and "La Rose et l'abeille", were published in 1854. In 1855, he wrote an ambitious overture for a large orchestra, and prepared four-hand piano versions of two of Gounod's works: the opera La nonne sanglante and the Symphony in D. Bizet's work on the Gounod symphony inspired him, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, to write his own symphony, which bore a close resemblance to Gounod's—note for note in some passages. Bizet's symphony was subsequently lost, rediscovered in 1933 and finally performed in 1935.
In 1856, Bizet competed for the prestigious Prix de Rome. His entry was not successful, but nor were any of the others; the musician's prize was not awarded that year. After this rebuff, Bizet entered an opera competition which Jacques Offenbach had organised for young composers, with a prize of 1,200 francs. The challenge was to set the one-act libretto of Le docteur Miracle by Léon Battu and Ludovic Halévy. The prize was awarded jointly to Bizet and Charles Lecocq, a compromise which years later Lecocq criticised on the grounds of the jury's manipulation by Fromental Halévy in favour of Bizet.[n 1] As a result of his success, Bizet became a regular guest at Offenbach's Friday evening parties, where among other musicians he met the aged Gioachino Rossini, who presented the young man with a signed photograph.[n 2] Bizet was a great admirer of Rossini's music, and wrote not long after their first meeting that "Rossini is the greatest of them all, because like Mozart, he has all the virtues".
For his 1857 Prix de Rome entry, Bizet, with Gounod's enthusiastic approval, chose to set the cantata Clovis et Clotilde by Amédée Burion. Bizet was awarded the prize after a ballot of the members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts overturned the judges' initial decision, which was in favour of the oboist Charles Colin. Under the terms of the award, Bizet received a financial grant for five years, the first two to be spent in Rome, the third in Germany and the final two in Paris. The only other requirement was the submission each year of an "envoi", a piece of original work to the satisfaction of the Académie. Before his departure for Rome in December 1857, Bizet's prize cantata was performed at the Académie to an enthusiastic reception.
The Villa Medici, the official home of the French Académie in Rome since 1803
On 27 January 1858, Bizet arrived at the Villa Medici, a 16th-century palace that since 1803 had housed the French Académie in Rome and which he described in a letter home as "paradise". Under its director, the painter Jean-Victor Schnetz, the villa provided an ideal environment in which Bizet and his fellow-laureates could pursue their artistic endeavours. Bizet relished the convivial atmosphere, and quickly involved himself in the distractions of its social life; in his first six months in Rome, his only composition was a Te Deum written for the Rodrigues Prize, a competition for a new religious work open to Prix de Rome winners. This piece failed to impress the judges, who awarded the prize to Adrien Barthe, the only other entrant. Bizet was discouraged to the extent that he vowed to write no more religious music. His Te Deum remained forgotten and unpublished until 1971.
Through the winter of 1858–59, Bizet worked on his first envoi, an opera buffa setting of Carlo Cambiaggio's libretto Don Procopio. Under the terms of his prize, Bizet's first envoi was supposed to be a mass, but after his Te Deum experience, he was averse to writing religious music. He was apprehensive about how this breach of the rules would be received at the Académie, but their response to Don Procopio was initially positive, with praise for the composer's "easy and brilliant touch" and "youthful and bold style".
Georges Bizet photographed in about 1860
For his second envoi, not wishing to test the Académie's tolerance too far, Bizet proposed to submit a quasi-religious work in the form of a secular mass on a text by Horace. This work, entitled Carmen Saeculare, was intended as a song to Apollo and Diana. No trace exists, and it is unlikely that Bizet ever started it. A tendency to conceive ambitious projects, only to quickly abandon them, became a feature of Bizet's Rome years; in addition to Carmen Saeculare, he considered and discarded at least five opera projects, two attempts at a symphony, and a symphonic ode on the theme of Ulysses and Circe. After Don Procopio, Bizet completed only one further work in Rome, the symphonic poem Vasco da Gama. This replaced Carmen Saeculare as his second envoi, and was well received by the Académie, though swiftly forgotten thereafter.
In the summer of 1859, Bizet and several companions travelled in the mountains and forests around Anagni and Frosinone. They also visited a convict settlement at Anzio; Bizet sent an enthusiastic letter to Marmontel, recounting his experiences. In August, he made an extended journey south to Naples and Pompeii, where he was unimpressed with the former but delighted with the latter: "Here you live with the ancients; you see their temples, their theatres, their houses in which you find their furniture, their kitchen utensils..." Bizet began sketching a symphony based on his Italian experiences, but made little immediate headway; the project, which became his Roma symphony, was not finished until 1868. On his return to Rome, Bizet successfully requested permission to extend his stay in Italy into a third year, rather than going to Germany, so that he could complete "an important work" (which has not been identified). In September 1860, while visiting Venice with his friend and fellow-laureate Ernest Guiraud, Bizet received news that his mother was gravely ill in Paris, and made his way home.
The Théâtre Historique in Paris, one of the homes of the Théâtre Lyrique company, pictured in 1862
Back in Paris with two years of his grant remaining, Bizet was temporarily secure financially and could ignore for the moment the difficulties that other young composers faced in the city. The two state-subsidised opera houses, the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique,[n 3] each presented traditional repertoires that tended to stifle and frustrate new homegrown talent; only eight of the 54 Prix de Rome laureates between 1830 and 1860 had had works staged at the Opéra. Although French composers were better represented at the Opéra-Comique, the style and character of productions had remained largely unchanged since the 1830s. A number of smaller theatres catered for operetta, a field in which Offenbach was then paramount, while the Théâtre Italien specialised in second-rate Italian opera. The best prospect for aspirant opera composers was the Théâtre Lyrique company which, despite repeated financial crises, operated intermittently in various premises under its resourceful manager Léon Carvalho. This company had staged the first performances of Gounod's Faust and his Roméo et Juliette, and of a shortened version of Berlioz's Les Troyens.
On 13 March 1861, Bizet attended the Paris premiere of Wagner's opera Tannhäuser, a performance greeted by audience riots that were stage-managed by the influential Jockey-Club de Paris. Despite this distraction, Bizet revised his opinions of Wagner's music, which he had previously dismissed as merely eccentric. He now declared Wagner "above and beyond all living composers". Thereafter, accusations of "Wagnerism" were often laid against Bizet, throughout his compositional career.
As a pianist, Bizet had showed considerable skill from his earliest years. A contemporary asserted that he could have assured a future on the concert platform, but chose to conceal his talent "as though it were a vice". In May 1861 Bizet gave a rare demonstration of his virtuoso skills when, at a dinner party at which Liszt was present, he astonished everyone by playing on sight, flawlessly, one of the maestro's most difficult pieces. Liszt commented: "I thought there were only two men able to surmount the difficulties ... there are three, and ... the youngest is perhaps the boldest and most brilliant."
A scene from Act II of Les pêcheurs de perles
Bizet's third envoi was delayed for nearly a year by the prolonged illness and death, in September 1861, of his mother. He eventually submitted a trio of orchestral works: an overture entitled La Chasse d'Ossian, a scherzo and a funeral march. The overture has been lost; the scherzo was later absorbed into the Roma symphony, and the funeral march music was adapted and used in a later opera. Bizet's fourth and final envoi, which occupied him for much of 1862, was a one-act opera, La guzla de l'émir. As a state-subsidised theatre, the Opéra-Comique was obliged from time to time to stage the works of Prix de Rome laureates, and La guzla duly went into rehearsal in 1863. However, in April Bizet received an offer, which originated from Count Walewski, to compose the music for a three-act opera. This was Les pêcheurs de perles, based on a libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon. Because a condition of this offer was that the opera should be the composer's first publicly staged work, Bizet hurriedly withdrew La guzla from production and incorporated parts of its music into the new opera. The first performance of Les pêcheurs de perles, by the Théâtre Lyrique company, was on 30 September 1863. Critical opinion was generally hostile, though Berlioz praised the work, writing that it "does M. Bizet the greatest honour". Public reaction was lukewarm, and the opera's run ended after 18 performances. It was not performed again until 1886.
In 1862, Bizet had fathered a child with the family's housekeeper, Marie Reiter. The boy was brought up to believe that he was Adolphe Bizet's child; only on her deathbed in 1913 did Reiter reveal her son's true paternity.
Years of struggle
Caricature of Bizet, 1863, from the French magazine Diogène
When his Prix de Rome grant expired, Bizet found he could not make a living from writing music. He accepted piano pupils and some composition students, two of whom, Edmond Galabert and Paul Lacombe, became his close friends. He also worked as an accompanist at rehearsals and auditions for various staged works, including Berlioz's oratorio L'enfance du Christ and Gounod's opera Mireille. However, his main work in this period was as an arranger of others' works. He made piano transcriptions for hundreds of operas and other pieces and prepared vocal scores and orchestral arrangements for all kinds of music. He was also, briefly, a music critic for La Revue Nationale et Étrangère, under the assumed name of "Gaston de Betzi". Bizet's single contribution in this capacity appeared on 3 August 1867, after which he quarrelled with the magazine's new editor and resigned.
Since 1862, Bizet had been working intermittently on Ivan IV, an opera based on the life of Ivan the Terrible. Carvalho failed to deliver on his promise to produce it, so in December 1865, Bizet offered it to the Opéra, which rejected it; the work remained unperformed until 1946. In July 1866, Bizet signed another contract with Carvalho, for La jolie fille de Perth, the libretto for which, by J.H. Vernoy de Saint-Georges after Sir Walter Scott, is described by Bizet's biographer Winton Dean as "the worst Bizet was ever called upon to set". Problems over the casting and other issues delayed its premiere for a year before it was finally performed by the Théâtre Lyrique on 26 December 1867. Its press reception was more favourable than that for any of Bizet's other operas; Le Ménestral's critic hailed the second act as "a masterpiece from beginning to end". Despite the opera's success, Carvalho's financial difficulties meant a run of only 18 performances.
While La jolie fille was in rehearsal, Bizet worked with three other composers, each of whom contributed a single act to a four-act operetta Marlborough s'en va-t-en guerre. When the work was performed at the Théâtre de l'Athénée on 13 December 1867, it was a great success, and the Revue et Gazette Musicale's critic lavished particular praise on Bizet's act: "Nothing could be more stylish, smarter and, at the same time, more distinguished". Bizet also found time to finish his long-gestating Roma symphony and wrote numerous keyboard works and songs. Nevertheless, this period of Bizet's life was marked by significant disappointments. At least two projected operas were abandoned with little or no work done.[n 4] Several competition entries, including a cantata and a hymn composed for the Paris Exhibition of 1867, were unsuccessful. La Coupe du Roi de Thulé, his entry for an opera competition, was not placed in the first five; from the fragments of this score that survive, analysts have discerned pre-echoes of Carmen. On 28 February 1869, the Roma symphony was performed at the Cirque Napoléon, under Jules Pasdeloup. Afterwards, Bizet informed Galabert that on the basis of proportionate applause, hisses, and catcalls, the work was a success.[n 5]
Not long after Fromental Halévy's death in 1862, Bizet had been approached on behalf of Mme. Halévy about completing his old tutor's unfinished opera Noé. Although no action was taken at that time, Bizet remained on friendly terms with the Halévy family. Fromental had left two daughters; the elder, Esther, died in 1864, an event which so traumatised Mme. Halévy that she could not tolerate the company of her younger daughter Geneviève, who from the age of 15 lived with other family members. It is unclear when Geneviève and Bizet became emotionally attached, but in October 1867, he informed Galabert: "I have met an adorable girl whom I love! In two years she will be my wife!" The pair became engaged, although the Halévy family initially disallowed the match. According to Bizet they considered him an unsuitable catch: "penniless, left-wing, anti-religious and Bohemian", which Dean observes are odd grounds of objection from "a family bristling with artists and eccentrics". By summer 1869, their objections had been overcome, and the wedding took place on 3 June 1869. Ludovic Halévy wrote in his journal: "Bizet has spirit and talent. He should succeed".
As a belated homage to his late father-in-law, Bizet took up the Noé manuscript and completed it. Parts of his moribund Vasco da Gama and Ivan IV were incorporated into the score, but a projected production at the Théâtre Lyrique failed to materialise when Carvalho's company finally went bankrupt, and Noé remained unperformed until 1885. Bizet's marriage was initially happy, but was affected by Geneviève's nervous instability (inherited from both her parents), her difficult relations with her mother and by Mme. Halévy's interference in the couple's affairs. Despite this, Bizet kept on good terms with his mother-in-law and maintained an extensive correspondence with her. In the year following the marriage, he considered plans for at least half a dozen new operas and began to sketch the music for two of them: Clarissa Harlowe based on Samuel Richardson's novel Clarissa, and Grisélidis with a libretto from Victorien Sardou. However, his progress on these projects was brought to a halt in July 1870, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.
War and upheaval
Paris during the siege, 1870–71. A contemporary English cartoon
After a series of perceived provocations from Prussia, culminating in the offer of the Spanish crown to the Prussian Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern, the French Emperor Napoleon III declared war on 15 July 1870. Initially, this step was supported by an outbreak of patriotic fervour and confident expectations of victory. Bizet, along with other composers and artists, joined the National Guard and began training. He was critical of the antiquated equipment with which he was supposed to fight; his unit's guns, he said, were more dangerous to themselves than to the enemy. The national mood was soon depressed by news of successive reverses; at Sedan on 2 September, the French armies suffered an overwhelming defeat; Napoleon was captured and deposed, and the Second Empire came to a sudden end.
Bizet greeted with enthusiasm the proclamation in Paris of the Third Republic.
The new government did not sue for peace, and by 17 September, the Prussian armies had surrounded Paris. Unlike Gounod, who fled to England, Bizet rejected opportunities to leave the besieged city: "I can't leave Paris! It's impossible! It would be quite simply an act of cowardice", he wrote to Mme Halévy. Life in the city became frugal and harsh,[n 6] although, by October, there were efforts to re-establish normality. Pasdeloup resumed his regular Sunday concerts, and on 5 November, the Opéra reopened with excerpts from works by Gluck, Rossini, and Meyerbeer.
An armistice was signed on 26 January 1871, but the departure of the Prussian troops from Paris in March presaged a period of confusion and civil disturbance. Following an uprising, the city's municipal authority was taken over by dissidents who established the Paris Commune. Bizet decided that he was no longer safe in the city, and he and Geneviève escaped to Compiègne. Later, they moved to Le Vésinet where they sat out the two months of the Commune, within hearing distance of the gunfire that resounded as government troops gradually crushed the uprising: "The cannons are rumbling with unbelievable violence", Bizet wrote to his mother-in-law on 12 May.
Djamileh, L'Arlésienne and Don Rodrigue
As life in Paris returned to normal, in June 1871, Bizet's appointment as chorus-master at The Opéra was seemingly confirmed by its director, Émile Perrin. Bizet was due to begin his duties in October, but on 1 November, the post was assumed by Hector Salomon. In her biography of Bizet, Mina Curtiss surmises that he either resigned or refused to take up the position as a protest against what he thought was the director's unjustified closing of Ernest Reyer's opera Erostrate after only two performances. Bizet resumed work on Clarissa Harlowe and Grisélidis, but plans for the latter to be staged at the Opéra-Comique fell through, and neither work was finished; only fragments of their music survive. Bizet's other completed works in 1871 were the piano duet entitled Jeux d'enfants, and a one-act opera, Djamileh, which opened at the Opéra-Comique in May 1872. It was poorly staged and incompetently sung; at one point the leading singer missed 32 bars of music. It closed after 11 performances, not to be heard again until 1938. On 10 July Geneviève gave birth to the couple's only child, a son, Jacques.
The Opéra, destroyed by fire, 29 October 1873
Bizet's next major assignment came from Carvalho, who was now managing Paris' Vaudeville theatre and wanted incidental music for Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlésienne. When the play opened on 1 October, the music was dismissed by critics as too complex for popular taste. However, encouraged by Reyer and Massenet, Bizet fashioned a four-movement suite from the music, which was performed under Pasdeloup on 10 November to an enthusiastic reception.[n 7] In the winter of 1872–73, Bizet supervised preparations for a revival of the still-absent Gounod's Roméo et Juliette at the Opéra-Comique. Relations between the two had been cool for some years, but Bizet responded positively to his former mentor's request for help, writing: "You were the beginning of my life as an artist. I spring from you".
In June 1872, Bizet informed Galabert: "I have just been ordered to compose three acts for the Opéra-Comique. [Henri] Meilhac and [Ludovic] Halévy are doing my piece". The subject chosen for this project was Prosper Mérimée's short novel, Carmen. Bizet began the music in the summer of 1873, but the Opéra-Comique's management was concerned about the suitability of this risqué story for a theatre that generally provided wholesome entertainment, and work was suspended. Bizet then began composing Don Rodrigue, an adaptation of the El Cid story by Louis Gallet and Édouard Blau. He played a piano version to a select audience that included the Opéra's principal baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, hoping that the singer's approval might influence the directors of the Opéra to stage the work. However, on the night of 28–29 October, the Opéra burned to the ground; the directors, amid other pressing concerns, set Don Rodrigue aside. It was never completed; Bizet later adapted a theme from its final act as the basis of his 1875 overture, Patrie.
Poster from Carmen'
Adolphe de Leuven, the co-director of the Opéra-Comique most bitterly opposed to the Carmen project, resigned early in 1874, removing the main barrier to the work's production. Bizet finished the score during the summer and was pleased with the outcome: "I have written a work that is all clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody". The renowned mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié (known professionally as "Galli-Marié") was engaged to sing the title role. According to Dean, she was as delighted by the part as Bizet was by her suitability for it. There were rumours that he and the singer pursued a brief affair; his relations with Geneviève were strained at this time, and they lived apart for several months.
When rehearsals began in October 1874, the orchestra had difficulties with the score, finding some parts unplayable. The chorus likewise declared some of their music impossible to sing and were dismayed that they had to act as individuals, smoking and fighting onstage rather than merely standing in line. Bizet also had to counter further attempts at the Opéra-Comique to modify parts of the action which they deemed improper. Only when the leading singers threatened to withdraw from the production did the management give way. Resolving these issues delayed the first night until 3 March 1875 on which morning, by chance, Bizet's appointment as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour was announced.
Among leading musical figures at the premiere were Jules Massenet, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Charles Gounod. Geneviève, suffering from an abscess in her right eye, was unable to be present. The opera's first performance extended to four-and-a-half hours; the final act did not begin until after midnight. Afterwards, Massenet and Saint-Saëns were congratulatory, Gounod less so. According to one account, he accused Bizet of plagiarism: "Georges has robbed me! Take the Spanish airs and mine out of the score and there remains nothing to Bizet's credit but the sauce that masks the fish".[n 8] Much of the press comment was negative, expressing consternation that the heroine was an amoral seductress rather than a woman of virtue. Galli-Marié's performance was described by one critic as "the very incarnation of vice". Others complained of a lack of melody and made unfavourable comparisons with the traditional Opéra-Comique fare of Auber and Boieldieu. Léon Escudier in L'Art Musical called the music "dull and obscure ... the ear grows weary of waiting for the cadence that never comes". There was, however, praise from the poet Théodore de Banville, who applauded Bizet for presenting a drama with real men and women instead of the usual Opéra-Comique "puppets". The public's reaction was lukewarm, and Bizet soon became convinced of its failure: "I foresee a definite and hopeless flop".
Illness and death
Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris, where Bizet's funeral service was held on 5 June 1875
For most of his life, Bizet had suffered from a recurrent throat complaint. A heavy smoker, he may have further undermined his health by overwork during the mid-1860s, when he toiled over publishers' transcriptions for up to 16 hours a day. In 1868, he informed Galabert that he had been very ill with abscesses in the windpipe: "I suffered like a dog". In 1871, and again in 1874, while completing Carmen, he had been disabled by severe bouts of what he described as "throat angina", and suffered a further attack in late March 1875. At that time, depressed by the evident failure of Carmen, Bizet was slow to recover and fell ill again in May. At the end of the month, he went to his holiday home at Bougival and, feeling a little better, went for a swim in the Seine. On the next day, 1 June, he was afflicted by high fever and pain, which was followed by an apparent heart attack. He seemed temporarily to recover, but in the early hours of 3 June, his wedding anniversary, he suffered a fatal second attack. He was 36 years old.
The suddenness of Bizet's death, and awareness of his depressed mental state, fuelled rumours of suicide. Although the exact cause of death was never settled with certainty, physicians eventually determined the cause as "a cardiac complication of acute articular rheumatism".[n 9] News of the death stunned the Paris musical world, and because Galli-Marié was too upset to appear, that evening's performance of Carmen was cancelled and replaced with Boieldieu's La dame blanche.
More than 4,000 people were present at the funeral on 5 June, at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Montmartre. Adolphe Bizet led the mourners, who included Gounod, Thomas, Ludovic Halévy, Léon Halévy, and Massenet. An orchestra, under Jules Pasdeloup, played Patrie, and the organist improvised a fantasy on themes from Carmen. At the burial which followed at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Gounod gave the eulogy. He said that Bizet had been struck down just as he was becoming recognised as a true artist. Towards the end of his address, Gounod broke down and was unable to deliver his peroration. After a special performance of Carmen at the Opéra-Comique that night, the press, which had almost universally condemned the piece three months earlier, now declared Bizet a master.