Alexandre César Léopold Bizet, who was known by his friends as Georges, was born in Paris. His father was a famous teacher of music, his mother a talented pianist, and his uncle, an accomplished musician, was founder of the Delsartesystem. At a very early age, Bizet exhibited a fondness for music, which his parents encouraged by instructing him as soon almost as he was able to sit alone on a piano stool. As he progressed, they provided him with every possible advantage to prepare him for the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied successively under Marmontel and Benoist. His interest was unflagging and his advance rapid, being qualified to take up composition, under Halévy, when he was only thirteen years old, and at nineteen (1857) he won the Prix de Rome, the highest honors that are bestowed upon graduates of the Paris school of music. But almost one year before his graduation he composed an operetta Docteur Miracle, which was so well thought of, the manager of theBouffes Parisiens gave it a production that was fairly successful.
Bizet applied himself energetically while in Rome, and upon his return he wrote Vasco de Gama, from which he expected much, but was doomed to disappointment, for it was very coldly received. It was withdrawn after a few representations. His next work, The Pearl Fishers soon followed, but with no better success, which so discouraged him that it was not until 1867 that he gave the public another composition, The Pretty Maid of Perth followed quickly by an overture, Patrie, and an interlude to Daudet’s L’Artesienne. In the years to follow, Bizet published as two orchestral suites, which were well received, the last being introduced to America by Theodore Thomas, with much enthusiasm. In 1872 Djamileh appeared: a rather weird, oriental creation that failed to please. Though it was set with gems of melody, the plot was poorly conceived, and the music was generally too heavy. Besides these operas and interludes, he composed Ivan the Terrible (not performed until 1940), Ossian the Hunter (an overture), two movements of a symphony, and several songs. However, it was not until the production of his Carmen, in March 1875, that he scored a genuine success. Previous to this, Bizet was looked upon rather as an accomplished pianist than a composer, for he had not before given evidence of the creative genius that was within him. He was credited with remarkable, almost marvelous, powers for sight-reading of orchestral scores, and also with possessing great originality, and other superior gifts. Though his talents were concededly great, the musicians of his time had little expectation of him producing a truly great opera.
The opinion was suddenly changed on the first representation of Carmen, which was immediately and universally hailed as the most melodic creation of any French composer since Gounod’s Faust. In a day, Bizet stepped from the ranks of the commonplace to a position among the most distinguished of the age, where his fame, though resting upon a single composition, is secure for all time.
Bizet married the daughter of his old instructor, Halévy, who proved a great aid in encouraging his endeavors, for she was, through all his disappointments, the one faithful, persistent and confident nurse to his ambitions, which she never doubted he would attain. Her joy at his success was exceeding great, but it was destined that he should not long taste the intense gratification that comes from hopes gained and desire accomplished. On June 3, little more than two months after the initial production of Carmen, he was suffered a heart attack, and died before help could be summoned.
Bizet became, during the last years of his life, a close student of Wagner, whose dramatic effects were especially appreciated, and the influence of this admiration is apparent in Carmen, for it is essentially theatrical, in which indeed its interest is probably most largely found. But the music of Carmen,is always delightful, picturesque, melodic, and descriptive. It is entitled to rank with the most popular of the grand operas.
An excerpt from: The Great Operas
by Giuseppe Verdi / edited by James W. Buel, PhD 1899
edited in 2012 by R. Clark