Georges Alexandre Cesar Leopold Bizet, composer of Carmen, was born in Paris on October 25, 1838, into a musical family.
His father was an amateur composer and singer and his mother was the sister of a famous singing teacher. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in October 1848, just prior to his tenth birthday, and developed an exceptional talent as a pianist, organist, and score-reader. Bizet would put those skills to use for the rest of his life, working as a rehearsal pianist and score arranger to supplement his income. In the process, he gained a vast and flexible knowledge of all the current trends in Parisian music, knowledge which he consistently put to use in his own scores. In his time at the Conservatoire, Bizet developed a great fondness for the music of Gounod. At the age of 17, he composed a Symphony in C Major, written very much in Gounod’s style, which is still highly regarded as a concert piece.
His first attempt at opera was a one-act comedy, La maison du docteur, written about 1855 and intended for classroom use only. His second opera, Le Docteur Miracle, was a one-act operetta written in 1856 for a competition sponsored by Jacques Offenbach. This opera shows Bizet as a competent composer of light French music perfectly suited to audience tastes. The work won Bizet a shared first prize and performances of his work at Offenbach’s theater, the Bouffes-Parisiens. It was Bizet’s public debut, although it made no impression on the public.
Bizet subsequently was awarded the Prix de Rome, and set out for Italy for three years of study. Influenced by the operas of Gaetano Donizetti (he even went so far as to attempt to write new music for a forgotten Donizetti opera, Parisiana), he composed a comedy, Don Procopio, completing it in 1859. Written entirely in an airy, Italian style, scrubbed of any French influences, Bizet seemed exceptionally proud of his achievement. He sent the work off to the Academie, hoping for it to be produced. Meanwhile, Bizet was swamped with many ideas for other operas, but he had no librettist as a working partner. Still in the flush of exultation, he began writing his own libretto based on a work by Moliere. However, around this time the Academie let loose their cold response to Don Procopio and a discouraged Bizet gave up and abandoned most of his grand designs.
He returned to Paris in 1860, and began work on a number of projects. He was eventually offered a libretto from the Theatre Lyrique which became The Pearl Fishers. Excited by the prestigious commission, he dropped everything he was doing, withdrew an opera of his that was already in rehearsal at the Opera-Comique, and set to work on The Pearl Fishers (reportedly gutting and reusing many of his abandoned works in the process). Bizet was excited by the prospect of working on a full-length opera and finally confirming his status as a true composer, no longer a student. Premiered on September 30, 1863, this three-act work is set in Ceylon, and shows Bizet’s gift for writing operas with exotic backgrounds and strong dramatic conflicts as part of the story. It also showed his keen ear for orchestral color. The opera, however, met with mixed reaction and was not an overwhelming success. It, too, was relegated to the status of forgotten work, and was revived only after the composer’s death.
From that disappointment, Bizet had at least been able to salvage an ally, Leon Carvalho, director of the Theater Lyrique, who continued to offer Bizet work throughout the 1860’s. Despite often postponing or burying the works Bizet created, Carvalho consistently offered Bizet work and was convinced of his talents. In July 1866, he offered Bizet a libretto based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Fair Maid of Perth, which became La jolie fille de Perth and premiered December 1867. This was another failure, despite being a collection of audience-pleasing operatic pieces. Throughout the decade, Bizet drifted from one unrealized project to another (including an adaptation of Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe, an opera about Caesar’s Gallic campaigns, and a work based on the Indian epic Ramayana), struggling to find work and his voice as a composer. Indeed, due to his frequent changes in interest and his inveterate habit of cannibalizing his own works, most of what Bizet did produce was marred by lack of a single dramatic vision, with profusion of competing idea drowning the potential of the work.
In 1869, Bizet married Genevieve Halevy, the daughter of his late teacher. Around the same time, in 1870, Bizet joined the National Guard at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. After France’s defeat, Bizet and his wife fled Paris to escape the bloody, tumultuous reign of the Commune. After events had settled, Bizet returned to Paris and immediately began composing again. The Opera-Comique, after rejected an opera Bizet had presented, offered him the libretto to a one-act opera, Djamileh. Bizet began work immediately and, though the opera was another failure, it marked the full flowering of Bizet’s mature, subtle style. Bizet himself finally believed he had found his voice. Then the still supportive Opera-Comique offered Bizet a chance to work with two of France’s leading librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy. Bizet suggested the short novel, Carmen, written by Prosper Merimee in 1845. Work began in late 1873, but was interrupted twice, once by the Opera-Comique itself (who wished for Bizet to set another libretto) and once by Carvalho (who wished him to write melodrames). During this tense period his marriage began to break apart, and Bizet separated from his wife for two months in the midst of his work. He finally completed Carmen in the summer of 1874.
Even while in rehearsal, his Carmen was subjected to revisions that did not altogether meet Bizet’s approval. Nevertheless, he created a work which reflected all the lessons he had learned and absorbed during his life. It premiered March 3, 1875 and received a hostile reception from audiences and critics. Bizet died three months later, at the age of 36. Even his death was mired in controversy, with many believing it either a murder or a suicide. Seemingly, he died of an infection, but a perforated, swollen lymph node looked like a gun shot wound to his neck. Bizet’s considerable disappointment at the perceived failure of his masterwork probably hastened his demise. It was only after his death that Carmen traveled the world, returned to Paris in triumph and became one of the most beloved operas in history. Bizet died believing his greatest work was to be written off and forgotten.