He was a composer born Alexander-Cesar-Leopold Bizet on 25th October 1838 in Paris, France, but was baptised in 1840 with the name Georges. His father was a composer, singer and teacher, his mother played the piano, and his aunt was a vocal instructor. Georges received music lessons from his father at four years of age.
He attended the Paris Conservatoire where he studied counterpoint and fugue with Pierre Zimmerman, whose assistant teacher was none other than Georges’ idol, Charles Gounod, and Jacques Halevy. He also studied organ with Francois Benoist and piano with Antoine Francois Marmontel. By the time he was fourteen, he was already considered a piano virtuoso.
He wrote his “Symphony in C” in 1855, when he was seventeen. Although today it is considered an early masterpiece, Georges hid it away because he thought it was too similar to Charles Gounod’s symphonies. It was only discovered through the Conservatoire library archives in 1933 after Reynaldo Hahn had deposited it there when he had been given it by Bizet’s widow. “Symphony in C” was premiered in 1935, eighty years after its composition, and sixty years after Georges’ death.
Aside from Charles Gounod, Georges’ other influences included Leo Delibes, Jules Massenet, Jacques Offenbach and Camille Saint-Saens, although some have likened his “Symphony in C” to Franz Schubert’s work. This is ironic, as he left many of his own compositions unfinished. In 1857, he left no fewer than five cantatas incomplete, although Clovis et Clotilde was good enough to win him the Prix de Rome.
A couple of his early operas, Le Docteur Miracle and Don Procopio, were also written around this time, as was Te Deum, a religious work he entered into the Prix Rodrigues, a competition for winners of the Prix de Rome. It didn’t win, and wasn’t even published until 1971. Another work, a musical travelogue inspired by Florence, Naples, Rome and Venice, came to be known as the “Roma Suite” or “Roma Symphony”, and was posthumously published in 1880.
Georges studied in Rome until 1860, when his mother became gravely ill, and returned to his hometown of Paris. She passed away in 1861. He took comfort in the arms of his family’s chambermaid, Marie Reiter, and they had a son together, Jean Bizet. Perhaps to avoid a scandal, Jean was raised with the misconception that he was Georges’ younger brother, but Marie eventually told him the truth.
In 1862, Jacques Halevy died, leaving behind an unfinished opera entitled Noe. Georges completed his former teacher’s work, but again, it did not receive its first production until well after his own death.
Georges’ own operas were often ill-fated or greeted with less than enthusiastic reviews. La guzla de l’emir was aborted midway through rehearsals at Opera-Comique. Georges was asked to write another opera, Les pecheurs de perles, known in English as The Pearl Fishers. It premiered in 1963, but was damned with faint praise, or praised with faint damns.
In order to facilitate his son’s compositional endeavors, Adolphe Bizet purchased some land near Paris and built a pair of bungalows, providing a place for Georges to write in peace. He would soon have company, however. On his way from Paris to Le Vesinet via train, he met a woman named Celeste Venard, whose eclectic pursuits included singing, dancing, writing, equestrianism, theatre, and prostitution. She became the inspiration for the title character of his most beloved opera, Carmen. Their friendship was frowned upon by the Halevy family, as Georges was to marry Jacques’ daughter, Genevieve.
In the meantime, Georges continued working on operas, some incomplete or since lost, but one of them, La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth) was mounted at Theatre-Lyrique on 26th December 1867, and remains in the operatic repertoire to this day.
Genevieve and Georges wed on 3rd June 1869. It was not a happy marriage—mental illness ran through the Halevy lineage—and a year later, Georges enlisted in the National Guard during the onset of the Franco-Prussian war. The war officially came to an end in January 1871, but the bloodshed continued with a civil uprising, and the Bizets left Paris for Le Vesinet.
Although Georges turned down teaching jobs because he wanted to devote himself to composing, he served on several examination committees at the Conservatoire, including those devoted to composition, counterpoint, fugue, harp, and piano.
Georges also eschewed a career as a concert pianist for the same reason, although none other than Franz Liszt proclaimed him to be “one of the three finest pianists in Europe”. He was considered to be one of the most brilliant sight-readers of his time, and he wrote approximately 150 piano pieces. One of these, “Jeux d’enfants”, penned in 1871 for piano four hands, was famously orchestrated into a petite suite. The final movement, “Galop”, was used in an early scene in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol.
In 1872, the Bizets gave birth to Jacques, probably named after Genevieve’s father. They were poor, however, and Georges developed health issues and struggled with depression. He was an insecure artist, highly sensitive to criticism, even his own, as evidenced by the number of works he started and never finished. Like many artists, he was more appreciated after his death than he was during his lifetime.
On 22nd May 1872, one of his operas, an opera comique in one act entitled Djamileh, made its debut, and it so impressed Opera-Comique co-director Camille du Locle, that he asked Georges to collaborate with librettists Ludovic Halevy (his cousin-in-law) and Henri Meilhac on Carmen.
Georges had also written incidental music for the stage-play L’Arlesienne, and although neither the play nor the music were appreciated, he arranged a suite of the music that opened to good reviews and is still performed and recorded on a regular basis. A second suite was arranged by Ernest Guirad, and they are often performed and recorded together. Two movements, “Carillon” and “Farandole”, can frequently be found on Christmas compilations.
In 1873, he wrote his Patrie overture and work began in earnest on Carmen. Its beginnings were fraught with controversy, as Camille du Locle’s co-director, Adolph de Leuven, objected to the opera’s sordid subject matter. A feud ensued, with Camille and the opera’s stars siding with Georges, and Georges’ librettists siding with Adolph. Georges was displeased with the lyrics of “Habanera”, and rewrote them a total of thirteen times. The opera took over a year to complete. It was a stressful time and the Bizets actually separated at one point for a couple of months.
Finally, on 3rd March 1975, Carmen made its debut. Like many of his other operas, it received a tepid response. It enjoyed a three-month run, however, and was therefore the crowning achievement of his lifetime. This was small consolation to Georges, who felt that as an artist, he was misunderstood.
Although the general public was less than overwhelmed, Georges’ contemporaries had a differing opinion: His genius was lauded by Johannes Brahms, who attended it more than twenty times, Claude Debussy, Charles Gounod, Edvard Grieg, Giacomo Puccini, Frederick Nietzsche, Camille Saint-Saens, Richard Strauss, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Richard Wagner. Tchaikovsky predicted that Carmen would one day be “the most popular opera in the repertory”. He was not far off the mark. It is to this day one of the most often performed operas in the world.
Like many artists, however, Georges died before he had a chance to see his works achieve popularity. On 3rd June 1875, he shuffled off his mortal coil in a small town named Bougival on the outskirts of Paris.
The cause of his death seems to be somewhat of a mystery. Some say heart failure. One theory suggests that he died of a chill after engaging in a swimming contest. Homicide and suicide have even been mentioned because of a mark that resembled a bullet wound on his neck. This was debunked when it was interpreted as a perforated and swelled lymph node. Acute articular rheumatism, quinsy, and systemic streptococcal infection have also been mentioned. Whatever the case, he passed away on the sixth anniversary of his marriage to Genevieve, and precisely three months following the debut of Carmen.
Georges was interred at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, the burial ground of Frederic Chopin and Gioacchino Rossini.
Carmen was cancelled after Georges’ death, but re-emerged stronger than ever in a few years with a world tour of sorts that saw it performed in Brussels, Germany, London, New York City, Russia, and Vienna. Years hence, it made a triumphant return to Paris, was greeted with glowing reviews, and a long, successful run.
The King’s Singers recordings
Patapan and Farandole (Georges Bizet/Jeremy Jackman/Bernard de la Monnoye)
EMI 49909 (CD: A Little Christmas Music)
Jeremy Jackson – Countertenor and composer
Alastair Hume – Countertenor
Bob Chilcott – Tenor and Arranger
Bruce Russell – Baritone
Simon Carrington – Baritone
Stephen Connolly – Bass