An Inside Look at Bizet

An “inside” look at our San Francisco Ballet Orchestra Bizet recording courtesy of the liner notes by Victor and Marina Ledin.


Bizet lived 36 years, dying three months after the production of Carmen. Biographers recount that having walked the streets of Paris after the first night his opera premiered, Bizet mourned the failure of his Carmen, so disillusioned, he retired to his home to die of a broken heart. Not quite true. Carmen received 37 performances in its first season, but did not immediately win extraordinary success, this came later. In reality, Bizet’s death came after the 33rd presentation of Carmen. He suffered from angina pectoris (a chest discomfort that occurs when the heart is not getting enough blood). Bizet died in Switzerland during such an attack.

Bizet was born Alexandre César Léopold, October 25th 1838, in Paris. His godfather, disregarding the impressive appellation, called the baby “Georges”, and Georges Bizet he was from that time forth. George’s father was a teacher of singing. His mother was a pianist. By four, Georges was showing such an acute response to music that his mother began teaching him notes along with his ABC’s. Georges enjoyed the game, and before long, was singing and playing the piano. It was clear to his parents that he
had outgrown home instruction. However, the Paris Conservatoire did not accept children. Nevertheless, his father convinced Conservatoire officials to audition Georges. Playing the piano well, sight-reading with ease, and naming any chord or interval, he astonished the officials. Within weeks Georges was admitted.

Bizet was a joy to his teachers-–bubbling over with friendliness and good nature. He studied piano with Marmontel, harmony with Zimmerman and composition with Halévy. For the next 9 years he collected awards for composition, and performance on piano and organ. Bizet entered his Le Docteur Miracle among 78 other competitors for the best setting of a one-act opera bouffe. He won first prize (from Jacques Offenbach). By 18, Bizet won his final grand prize (for Clovis et Clotilde), the dream of every French music student—the Prix de Rome.

Bizet spent three happy years in Rome, and despite poor health, enjoyed the country, the people, and the music. He completed a Te Deum, the opera Don Procopio, and an ode-symphony Vasco de Gama. In July 1860, Bizet left Rome, leisurely traveling through Italy. In Venice he received shocking news: his mother had been hospitalized. She died September 8th, 1861, shortly after his arrival to Paris.

Distraught, Bizet attempted the life of a concert pianist. Performing did not go beyond playing at musical parties and charity events. He continued composing unabated, penning the Scherzo and Marche funèbre, and the overture La chasse d’Ossian. Bizet’s first major work, the opera Les Pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) received an important performance at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in September 1863. It was a mature work, filled with memorable melodies and harmonic coloring. Musicologist Arthur Hervey wrote: “The languidly enervating melodies, full of luscious sweetness, are redolent of Eastern climes. The score is imbued with poetical sentiment and strong dramatic temperament.” Unfortunately, Les Pêcheurs de perles, La Jolie Fille de Perth (1866) and Djamileh (1871) were not successes. In 1869, Bizet married Geneviève Halévy, the daughter of his teacher at the Conservatoire. The Bizets’ only child, Jacques, was born in 1872. In 1871 Bizet composed his suite for piano duet, Jeux d’enfants, from which he orchestrated five of the sections, which were premiered March 2nd, 1873 as a Petite suite d’orchestre. In 1872 Bizet wrote the incidental music for Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne. His score attracted little attention when the play was produced, but a suite derived from the score became one of Bizet’s best known works.

In 1872, Bizet wrote: “I am asked to write three acts for the Opéra-Comique. Meilhac and Halévy will do the piece. It will be bright, but of a brightness that allows style.” Thus Bizet worked on what became his final masterpiece—the opera Carmen. Based on Prosper Mérimée’s famous story, Carmen was staged March 3rd, 1875 at the Opéra-Comique. Later that month Bizet developed an acute inflammation of the tonsils, followed by deafness in his left ear, then an attack of rheumatism, followed by a severe heart attack. His funeral was June 5th, 1875 at the Montmartre church of La Trinité. He was buried in Pére Lachaise.

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