Composer Biography: Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Georges Bizet was born in 1838, in Paris, to a musical family who encouraged his talents as a pianist from a very young age.  His father was a song teacher and his mother a pianist.  Bizet was another musical prodigy raised during the 19th Century period of Romanticism.  His parents taught Bizet to read and play music at the same time other children were just learning how to read.  Despite the rules for admission, Bizet was accepted to the Paris Conservatoire before the age of 10, where he studied under Jacques Halevy and Charles Gounod.  When he was 17, Bizet wrote his first Symphony C, which was heavily influenced by Gounod’s Symphony No. 1 in D and stylistically resembled Franz Schubert, who was not well-known in Paris at that time.  This symphony was not performed until 1935, however, long after Bizet’s death.  At that time, it was discovered in the Conservatoire’s library and performed in Basel, Switzerland under the conduction of Felix Weingartner.

By age 19, Bizet had also won the high honor of the Prix du Rome in 1857, for his cantata Clovis et Clotilde.  This scholarship, exclusive to extremely gifted students of the arts, allowed Bizet to study in Rome, at the expense of the King, for the next few years where his talents began to mature.  When he returned to Paris, his mother passed away and Bizet seemed to struggle, from that point forward, with finding his “voice” as a composer.  Often his works were left incomplete and the ones that were performed usually met with lukewarm response by audiences of the time.  Bizet cursed himself with constant criticism and doubt for much of his life about his natural talents.  Feeling misunderstood, he always remained an outsider in the French musical community.  In 1869, he married Professor Halevy’s daughter, Geneviève, but the marriage was not joyous, as Bizet battled with depression and his wife’s family also had a history of mental illness.  He died of heart failure on their sixth wedding anniversary, June 3, 1875 shortly after he completed composing the Opera that Bizet is best known for, Carmen.

Originally performed in 1875, Carmen was based on a book, written in 1846, with the same name, by Prosper Merimee.  The main character is believed to be based on a neighbor and friend to Bizet, Celeste Venard-Mogador.  Celeste was an actress, author, equestrian, and dance-hall girl.  She was also rumored to have been a prostitute and gypsy, although her friendship with Bizet is recorded to have remained strictly platonic.  The Opera is about a Spanish gypsy who falls in love with a soldier, Don Jose, then leaves him for a Matador.  In a jealous rage, Don Jose, the soldier, murders Carmen.  The content was quite racy for the era, thus it was demanded by the theatre owner that Bizet change the opera several times before the original performance was found suitable for the family theatre that premiered the masterpiece.  Due to either the changes or to the dramatic nature of the content, Carmen only ran initially for 45 shows.  This left Bizet quite despondent as to whether he would ever find success as a composer.

While his colleagues saw the brilliance in the work, it took audiences of the 19th Century some time to appreciate the colorful music paired with the harsh tone of the story.  Bizet would only live another three months, not long enough to see the predictions made by Tchaikovsky come true, that Carmen would become one of the most popular Operas of all time.  To date, it is still one of the chosen leaders in number of performances and a favorite by audiences the world over.  But, Carmen is not the only Opera of Bizet’s that audiences were slow to appreciate.

The first full-length Opera Bizet composed, Les Pescheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers)  in 1863, also met with large indifference.  While Carmen is the most famous Opera Bizet composed, Les Pescheurs de Perles contains one of the most famous male duets in Opera, Au Fond du Temple Saint.  This tenor-baritone duet comes at a pinnacle point in the first act of The Pearl Fishers Opera when two childhood friends are reunited only to discover that they were both in love with the same woman many years ago.

At the beginning of the piece both men sing of the joys of falling in love.  Then the form changes, as the mood of the music also changes to minor mode during the realization the friends make about the love they shared, finally at the end of the piece there is a climatic burst when the friends fear that their friendship will fall apart.  The song returns to the original tonic and melody when the friends agree not to let this come between their friendship again.  The piece ends with both men seeing the woman again, and the second act begins with the question as to whether the men can remain friends and who will ultimately win over the love of the woman.

Because the opera was set in Sri Lanka, many audiences had trouble identifying with the characters.  It wasn’t until the piece was performed by the London Symphony after Bizet’s death that it was also hailed as a true classic.  Because his music was underappreciated for much of his life, it is difficult to trace his impact on future generations of musicians.  However, George Bizet was widely respected by his colleagues for his brilliance and his gift of composure.  Today, musicians still marvel at the talent for musical composition he exuded from an exceptionally young age and are eager to perform much of the work he composed during his short life.


References

“Composer Bios: George Bizet”, The Arizona Opera, Retrieved from: http://www.azopera.com/learn.php?subcat=composerbios&composer=bizet

Dean, Winton, Georges Bizet: His life and work, J.M. Dent and Sons, London, 1965

“Georges Bizet: an overview of the classical composer”, Music Files Ltd, 1999-2011, Retrieved from: http://www.mfiles.co.uk/composers/Georges-Bizet.htm

“Au Fond du Temple Saint”, Czech Symphony Orchestra with Julian Bigg, Steven Page and John Oakland, CD: Summer Classics: South of France, 2009, Menuetto Classics

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