“To me, this music seems perfect,” gushes Friedrich Nietzsche in a letter about Georges Bizet’s Carmen, describing it as unaffected, sincere, light, supple, and amiable – music that “doesn’t sweat.” Here the philosopher finally finds a counterpole to Wagner after having turned away from the composer in such dramatic fashion.
On March 3, 1875 Carmen is premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris. The rehearsals prove to be a challenge: the orchestra complains about unplayable passages, the choir about the unusual acting demands, and the theater administrators find the plot too offensive. What’s more, the audience’s reaction after the premiere is “ice-cold,” according to the librettist Ludovic Halévy, a cousin of Bizet’s wife. The opera only begins its triumphal march in Vienna half a year later. The composer does not live to see this success, however, passing away on June 3, 1875 (his sixth wedding anniversary) at the age of only thirty-six. There are rumors of suicide and a broken heart. But the truth is much more banal: a heavy smoker, he experiences a bout of angina that his already weak heart is unable to withstand.
His Carmen, however, becomes one of the most popular and frequently-performed operas, which it remains to this day.
Born as Alexandre César Léopold Bizet on October 25, 1838 in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. His father is a barber, wig maker, and amateur singer, his mother a talented pianist. Georges remains an only child.
His mother Aimée teaches him to read music as a small child. He begins lessons at the conservatory when he is only nine – the minimum age is specially lowered for him. First surviving attempts at composition in 1850.
1855 the seventeen-year-old composes his Symphony in C major in just one month, probably as a student assignment. He never made a single mention of this work during his lifetime and it was only rediscovered and premiered in the 1930s.
1857 wins the Prix de Rome (like an Oscar for French composers) on his second attempt. The prize entails a scholarship for a residency in Rome, where he spends three years.
For several years he stays financially afloat by working as a piano teacher, accompanist, and arranger. He writes in his letters: “I am working myself to death. I am leading a meaningless existence,” and “Ah, music! What a beautiful art, but what a miserable profession.”
1869 marries Genevieve Halévy, the daughter of his late teacher Jacques Fromental Halévy, despite the fact that his family rejects him as a “poor devil, left-winger, and anti-religious Bohemian.” Their son Jacques is born in 1872.
1870/71 volunteer member of the Parisian National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War. He complains about the antiquated equipment, commenting that the guns are more dangerous to those holding them than to the enemy.
Bizet’s catalogue of works is short; many manuscripts were lost. Nonetheless, it includes 31 stage works; besides Carmen, however, only a few are performed, like Les pecheurs de perles, Djamileh, and La jolie fille de Perth.
Did you know?
Bizet is popular and has a sense of humor, but is also feared for being quick to argue, even to the point of physical altercations.
He is an outstanding pianist. During a dinner in the presence of Franz Liszt, he flawlessly sight-reads one of Liszt’s extremely difficult works, to the elder composer’s amazement.
Bizet struggles throughout his life with self-doubt and is afraid of failing as a composer. He writes: “The only person who is truly happy is he who, in the middle of the darkness of art, does not break his neck.”
1862 Bizet becomes the father of a son out of wedlock, Jean, whose mother is the family’s housekeeper, Marie Reiter. The boy grows up believing that his father is Bizet senior; Reiter only reveals to him the truth on her deathbed.
Bizet is an ardent atheist and considers religion a “pretext for ambition, injustice, and vice.” When he is expected to compose a religious work in connection with the Prix de Rome, he presents an opera buffa instead.
Bizet owes his title “Knight of the Legion of Honor” to a misunderstanding: the minister believes that he is the author of the play, and not of the stage music.
Marcel Proust’s first (unrequited) love is Bizet’s son Jacques, his classmate at the lycée. Bizet’s widow Genevieve serves as Proust’s model for a character in his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time.