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Georges Bizet and “Carmen”

Alexandre César Léopold (Georges) Bizet (October 25, 1838 –June 3, 1875) was a French composer, mainly of operas. whose final work, Carmen, became one of the most popular and frequently performed works in the entire opera repertory. Georges Bizet was born in Paris on October 25, 1838. He was registered as Alexandre César Léopold, but baptized as “Georges” on March 16, 1840, and was known by this name for the rest of his life. His father, Adolphe Bizet, had been a hairdresser and wigmaker before becoming a singing teacher despite his lack of formal training. He also composed a few works, including at least one published song. In 1837 Adolphe married Aimée Delsarte. The Delsartes, though impoverished, were a cultured and highly musical family. Aimée was an accomplished pianist.

Georges, an only child, showed early aptitude for music and quickly picked up the basics of musical notation from his mother, who probably gave him his first piano lessons. By listening at the door of the room where Adolphe conducted his classes, Georges learned to sing difficult songs accurately from memory, and developed an ability to identify and analyze complex chordal structures. This precocity convinced his ambitious parents that he was ready to begin studying at the Conservatoire, even though he was still only nine years old. The minimum entry age was 10. Georges was interviewed by Joseph Meifred, the horn virtuoso who was a member of the Conservatoire’s Committee of Studies. Meifred was so struck by the boy’s demonstration of his skills that he waived the age rule and offered to take him as soon as a place became available.

Bizet was admitted to the Conservatoire on October 9, 1848, two weeks before his 10th birthday. He made an early impression; within six months he had won first prize in solfège, a feat that impressed Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, the Conservatoire’s former professor of piano. Zimmermann gave Bizet private lessons in counterpoint and fugue, which continued until the older man’s death in 1853. Through these classes Bizet met Zimmermann’s son-in-law, the composer Charles Gounod, who became a lasting influence on the young pupil’s musical style—although their relationship was often strained in later years. Under the tuition of Antoine François Marmontel, the Conservatoire’s professor of piano, Bizet’s pianism developed rapidly; he won the Conservatoire’s second prize for piano in 1851, and first prize the following year.

Bizet’s first preserved compositions, two wordless songs for soprano, date from around 1850. In 1853 he joined Fromental Halévy’s composition class, and began to produce works of increasing sophistication and quality. Two of his songs, “Petite Marguerite” and “La Rose et l’abeille”, were published in 1854. In 1855 he wrote an ambitious overture for a large orchestra, and prepared four-hand piano versions of two of Gounod’s works: the opera La nonne sanglante and the Symphony in D. Bizet’s work on the Gounod symphony inspired him, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, to write his own symphony, which bore a close resemblance to Gounod’s. Bizet’s symphony was subsequently lost, rediscovered in 1933 and finally performed in 1935. In 1856 Bizet competed for the prestigious Prix de Rome. His entry was not successful, but nor were any of the others; the musician’s prize was not awarded that year. After this rebuff Bizet entered an opera competition which Jacques Offenbach had organized for young composers, with a prize of 1,200 francs. The challenge was to set the one-act libretto of Le docteur Miracle by Léon Battu and Ludovic Halévy. The prize was awarded jointly to Bizet and Charles Lecocq. As a result of his success Bizet became a regular guest at Offenbach’s Friday evening parties, where among other musicians he met the aged Gioachino Rossini.

For his 1857 Prix de Rome entry Bizet, with Gounod’s enthusiastic approval, chose to set the cantata Clovis et Clotilde by Amédée Burion. Bizet was awarded the prize after a ballot of the members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts overturned the judges’ initial decision, which was in favor of the oboist Charles Colin. Under the terms of the award, Bizet received a financial grant for five years, the first two to be spent in Rome, the third in Germany and the final two in Paris. The only other requirement was the submission each year of an “envoi”, a piece of original work to the satisfaction of the Académie. Before his departure for Rome in December 1857, Bizet’s prize cantata was performed at the Académie to an enthusiastic reception. On January 27, 1858 Bizet arrived at the Villa Medici, a 16th-century palace that since 1803 had housed the French Académie in Rome. In his first six months in Rome his only composition was a Te Deum written for the Rodrigues Prize, a competition for a new religious work open to Prix de Rome winners. This piece failed to impress the judges, who awarded the prize to Adrien Barthe, the only other entrant.

Through the winter of 1858–59 Bizet worked on his first envoi, an opera buffa setting of Carlo Cambiaggio’s libretto Don Procopio. Under the terms of his prize, Bizet’s first envoi was supposed to be a mass, and he was apprehensive about how this breach of the rules would be received at the Académie, but their response to Don Procopio was initially positive, with praise for the composer’s “easy and brilliant touch” and “youthful and bold style.” For his second envoi, not wishing to test the Académie’s tolerance too far, Bizet proposed to submit a quasi-religious work in the form of a secular mass on a text by Horace. This work, entitled Carmen Saeculare, was intended as a song to Apollo and Diana. No trace exists, and it is unlikely that Bizet ever started it. After Don Procopio Bizet completed only one further work in Rome, the symphonic poem Vasco da Gama. This replaced Carmen Saeculare as his second envoi, and was well received by the Académie.

In September 1860, while visiting Venice with his friend and fellow-laureate Ernest Guiraud, Bizet received news that his mother was gravely ill in Paris, and made his way home. On March 13.1861 Bizet attended the Paris premiere of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser and declared Wagner “above and beyond all living composers”. As a pianist, Bizet had showed considerable skill from his earliest years, and in May 1861 he gave a rare demonstration of his virtuoso skills when, at a dinner party at which Liszt as present, he astonished everyone by playing on sight, flawlessly, one of the maestro’s most difficult pieces. Bizet’s third envoi was delayed for nearly a year by the prolonged illness and eventual death, in September 1861, of his mother. He eventually submitted a trio of orchestral works: an overture entitled La Chasse d’Ossian, a scherzo and a funeral march. The overture has been lost; the scherzo was later absorbed into the Roma symphony, and the funeral march music was adapted and used in Les pêcheurs de perles.

Bizet’s fourth and final envoi, which occupied him for much of 1862, was a one-act opera, La guzla de l’émir. As a state-subsidised theatre, the Opéra-Comique was obliged from time to time to stage the works of Prix de Rome laureates, and La guzla duly went into rehearsal in 1863. However, in April Bizet received an offer, which originated from Count Walewski, to write a three-act opera, Les pêcheurs de perles, using a libretto by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon. Because a condition of the offer was that the opera should be the composer’s first publicly staged work, Bizet hurriedly withdrew La guzla from production and incorporated parts of its music into the new opera. The first performance of Les pêcheurs de perles, by the Théâtre Lyrique company, was on September 30. When his Prix de Rome grant expired, Bizet soon found he could not make a living from writing music. He accepted piano pupils and some composition students, two of whom, Edmond Galabert and Paul Lacombe, became his close friends. He also worked as an accompanist at rehearsals and auditions for various staged works, including Berlioz’s oratorio L’enfance du Christ and Gounod’s opera Mireille. However, his main work in this period was as an arranger of others’ works. He made piano transcriptions for hundreds of operas and other pieces, and prepared vocal scores and orchestral arrangements for all kinds of music.[ He was also, briefly, a music critic for La Revue Nationale et Étrangère, under the assumed name of “Gaston de Betzi”.

Since 1862 Bizet had been working intermittently on Ivan IV, an opera based on the life of Ivan the Terrible. Carvalho failed to deliver on his promise to produce it, so in December 1865 Bizet offered it to the Opéra, which rejected it; the work remained unperformed until 1946. In July 1866 Bizet signed another contract with Carvalho, for La jolie fille de Perth, with libretto by J.H. Vernoy de Saint-Georges after Sir Walter Scott. It was finally performed by the Théâtre Lyrique on December 26,1867. While La jolie fille was in rehearsal, Bizet worked with three other composers, each of whom contributed a single act to a four-act operetta Marlborough s’en va-t-en guerre. Bizet also found time to finish his long-gestating Roma symphony, and wrote numerous keyboard works and songs. Nevertheless, this period of Bizet’s life was marked by significant disappointments. At least two projected operas were abandoned with little or no work done. Several competition entries, including a cantata and a hymn composed for the Paris Exhibition of 1867 were unsuccessful. La Coupe du Roi de Thulé, his entry for an opera competition, was not placed in the first five.

Not long after Fromental Halévy’s death in 1862, Bizet had been approached on behalf of Mme. Halévy about completing his old tutor’s unfinished opera Noé. Although no action was taken at that time, Bizet remained on friendly terms with the Halévy family. Fromental had left two daughters. The elder, Esther, died in 1864. The younger daughter Geneviève and Bizet became emotionally attached, and in October 1867 he wrote, “I have met an adorable girl whom I love! In two years she will be my wife!” The pair became engaged, and the wedding took place on June 3, 1869. As a belated homage to his late father-in-law, Bizet took up the Noé manuscript and completed it. Parts of his moribund Vasco da Gama and Ivan IV were incorporated into the score, but a projected production at the Théâtre Lyrique failed to materialise when Carvalho’s company finally went bankrupt, and Noé remained unperformed until 1885. In the year following the marriage he considered plans for at least half a dozen new operas, and began to sketch the music for two of them: Clarissa Harlowe based on Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, and Grisélidis with a libretto from Victorien Sardou. However, his progress on these projects was brought to a halt in July 1870, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.

As life in Paris returned to normal, in June 1871 Bizet’s appointment as chorus-master at The Opéra was seemingly confirmed by its director, Émile Perrin. Bizet was due to begin his duties in October, but on November 1 the post was assumed by Hector Salomon. Bizet resumed work on Clarissa Harlowe and Grisélidis, but plans for the latter to be staged at the Opéra-Comique fell through, and neither work was finished; only fragments of their music survive. Bizet’s other completed works in 1871 were the piano duet entitled Jeux d’enfants, and a one-act opera, Djamileh, which opened at the Opéra-Comique in May 1872. On July 10 Geneviève gave birth to the couple’s only child, a son, Jacques. Bizet’s next major assignment came from Carvalho, now managing Paris’s Vaudeville theatre, who wanted incidental music for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne, and the play opened on October 1 the music was dismissed by critics as too complex for popular taste. Bizet fashioned a four-movement suite from the music, which was performed under Pasdeloup on November 10to an enthusiastic reception. In June 1872 Bizet wrote, “I have just been ordered to compose three acts for the Opéra-Comique. [Henri] Meilhac and [Ludovic] Halévy are doing my piece.”

The subject chosen for this project was Prosper Mérimée’s short novel Carmen. Bizet began the music in the summer of 1873, but the Opéra-Comique’s management was concerned about the suitability of this story for a theatre, and work was suspended. Bizet then began composing Don Rodrigue, an adaptation of the El Cid story by Louis Gallet and Édouard Blau. However, on the night of 28–29 October, the Opéra burned to the ground. Don Rodrigue aside] was never completed; Bizet later adapted a theme from its final act as the basis of his 1875 overture, Patrie. Adolphe de Leuven, the co-director of the Opéra-Comique most bitterly opposed to the Carmen project, resigned early in 1874, removing the main barrier to the work’s production. Bizet finished the score during the summer, and rehearsals began in October 1874. Opening night was March 3, 1875 on which morning, by chance, Bizet’s appointment as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour was announced. The public’s reaction was lukewarm, and Bizet soon became convinced of its failure: “I foresee a definite and hopeless flop.”

For most of his life Bizet had suffered from a recurrent throat complaint. A heavy smoker, he may have further undermined his health by overwork during the mid-1860s, when he toiled over publishers’ transcriptions for up to 16 hours a day. In 1874 while completing Carmen, he had been disabled by severe bouts of what he described as “throat angina”, and suffered a further attack in late March 1875. At that time, depressed by the evident failure of Carmen, Bizet was slow to recover and fell ill again in May. At the end of the month he went to his holiday home at Bougival and, feeling a little better, went for a swim in the Seine. On the next day, 1 June, he was afflicted by high fever and pain, which was followed by an apparent heart attack. He seemed temporarily to recover, but in the early hours of June 3, his wedding anniversary, he suffered a fatal second attack. Physicians eventually determined the cause as “a cardiac complication of acute articular rheumatism.”

My collection includes the following works by Georges Bizet:

Carmen (1875): Suite No. 1.
Carmen (1875): Suite No. 2.
Jeux d’enfents (Children’s Games, 1871): Petite Suite (Little Suite) d’orchestre.
La Jolie Fille de Perth (1867): Scenes Bohemiennes.
L’Arlesienne (1872): Suite No. 1.
L’Arlesienne (1872): Suite No. 2.
Symphony in CM (1855).


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