Georges Bizet was born in Paris on the 25 October 1838. His full name was Alexandre Cesar Leopold Bizet.
It was hardly surprising that Georges became a composer. With a father who was an untrained singing teacher (as well as a hairdresser and wig maker), a mother who was a great pianist and an uncle who was a singer and teacher performing for Louis Philippe and Napoleon III, it was very much in the blood.
It is believed his mother gave him his first piano lessons. Bizet was very good at learning difficult songs from
memory, along with identifying and analysing challenging chordal structures.
Young Bizet was such a good student, that at age 9, his parents were convinced he could study at the Conservatoire. At the time the minimum age was 10, however, Joseph Meifred who interviewed Georges was agreed and waived the age concern. He promised Georges a place as soon as one became available.
Georges Bizet started at the Conservatoire on the 9 October 1848, just weeks shy of his 10th birthday. He made quick progress, writing and winning first prize in Solfege within the first 6 months. This impressed Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmerman so much he offered Georges private lessons. This was how he met Charles Guonod, who was a major influence on Bizet for the rest of his life.
He was later tutored by Antoine Francois Martontel where he won second prize for piano in 1851, following this up with first prize the next year.
By the 1850’s Bizet was producing regular work, some of which included ‘Petite Margueite’ and ‘La Rose et l’abeile’, which were both published. He carried his success on with his first overturn for a large orchestra in 1855, along with preparing four-hand piano versions of some of Charles Guonod’s work.
Bizet continued to enter many competitions, many of which he won either singularly or with the composer Jacques Offenbach, who he now attended Friday night parties with. Through these parties Bizet met Rossini, who he was a great admirer of, declaring him ‘Rossini is the greatest of them all, because like Mozart, he had all the virtues.’
Bizet went on to enter the Prize de Rome in 1857 which he duly won. He was awarded a financial grant for the next 5 years; the first two of which were to be spent in Italy, then one in Germany and the remaining two years in Paris.
He arrived at Villa Medici in Rome on the 27 June 1858. He declared the house a ‘paradise’ in a letter. It was the perfect setting to pursue Bizet’s career, however, it did prove a distraction as he only produced one piece of work in the first 6 months! That piece sadly was unsuccessful and convinced Bizet never to submit another religious work again, a vow he remained faithful to for the rest of his life.
Bizet continued to produce work, some of which met with a favourable response initially but then was hastily forgotten. He had a tendency to begin but often leave much of the work unfinished, which didn’t help him to reach success.
The summer of 1859 saw Bizet take an extended trip to the mountains and forests before Naples and Pompeii. Naples didn’t gain a good response from him, whereas he loved Pompeii. The holiday provided the initial seeds for his symphony ‘Roma’, but true to Bizet’s character he didn’t complete this until 1868.
Having been so inspired by Italy, Bizet requested and was successful in spending his third year in Italy, thereby cancelling the Germany leg of his 5 years grant. At the time he cited ‘an important work’ for this change, but the purpose of this is unknown to this day.
Bizet was in Venice with a friend when he was informed his mother in Paris was dying in September 1860. He returned home to be with her. Initially he was financially stable back in Paris, but having only secured 8/54 Prix de Rome laureates meant less funding.
He was a well accomplished pianist who could have provided a lifetime career, however, the composer saw this as a vice and hid his talent away.
He began on a new work that was delayed due to his mother’s failing health which happened a year after his return to Paris. This signalled the start of troubled times for the composer. Whilst some of his pieces were performed to the public, the response was not great and his opera ‘Les Pecheurs de peries’ was cancelled after 18 performances. It would not be performed again until 1886.
He then went on to father a child with his family housekeeper, Marie Reiter in 1862. She withheld the son’s true parentage until her deathbed.
Further misfortunes followed when Bizet’s Prix de Rome grant ended and he was forced to tutor piano pupils to pay the bills. He also arranged other people’s work including transcriptions of hundreds of operas.
He continued to write many works in the 1860’s, but none had success.
In 1867 he met Genevieve Halevy and declared himself in love and engaged. Her family initially refused but the objections were dismissed and the couple married on 3 June 1869. The marriage was initially happy, but Genevieve had inherited her parent’s nervous instability. They had one son, Jacques.
Bizet continued to write until the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870. The work was abandoned and Bizet and his fellow composers joined the National Guard. They had their training, but whilst many of the former composers left Paris when it was surrounded by the Prussians, Bizet at first refused. He later took his family and left until the troubles had finished.
What should have been a turning point for Bizet’s work happened in 1873 when he first started work on a new opera entitled ‘Carmen.’ He endured many struggles to get this opera to be seen when both the content of the main character being raped stopped production. When it was reinstated, Bizet met with further difficulties with both the score and the manager’s sense of control. All of this was overturned and ‘Carmen’ was at last brought out on the 3 March 1875. The first performance was a staggering 4.5 hours long and had mixed reviews. Bizet declared ‘I forsee a definite and hopeless flop!’
Bizet was a heavy smoker who constantly suffered from throat complaints, made worse by excessive working up to 15 hours a day. Several times through the production of ‘Carmen’ he had been very ill and with the bad reviews, he grew depressed and his physical health worsened.
He went on holiday and at first his health improved, but it was short lived, when after a swim he went down with a fever, pain and a heart attack. After his wedding anniversary on 3 June 1875 he suffered a second heart attack of which he did not survive. He was only 36 years old when he died.
The unexpectedness of his sudden death led to many believing his death was suicide, and even physicians struggled at first with a cause of death, before coming to the conclusion of ‘a cardiac complication of acute articular rheumatism.’