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Georges Bizet

Georges Bizet (25 October 1838 – 3 June 1875) was a Frenchmarker composer and pianist of the Romantic era. He is best known for the opera Carmen.

Life and career

Bizet was born at 26 rue de la Tour d'Auvergne in the 9th arrondissement of Parismarker in 1838. He was registered with the legal name Alexandre César Léopold Bizet, but he was baptised on 16 March 1840 with the first name Georges, and he was always known thereafter as Georges Bizet. His father Adolphe Armand Bizet (1810-86) was an amateur singer and composer, and his mother, Aimée Léopoldine Joséphine née Delsarte (1814-61), was the sister of the famous singing teacher François Delsarte.

He entered the Paris Conservatory of Musicmarker on 9 October 1848, a fortnight before his tenth birthday. His teachers there were Pierre Zimmermann (fugue and counterpoint; often assisted by his son-in-law Charles Gounod), Antoine François Marmontel (piano), François Benoist (organ) and, on Zimmermann's death, Fromental Halévy, whose daughter he himself later married. He won first prizes for organ and fugue in 1855 and completed his earliest compositions.

His first symphony, the Symphony in C, was written in November 1855, when he was seventeen, evidently as a student assignment. It was unknown to the world until 1933, when it was discovered in the archives of the Paris Conservatory library. Upon its first performance in 1935, it was immediately hailed as a junior masterwork and a welcome addition to the early Romantic period repertoire. The symphony bears a stylistic resemblance to the first symphony of Gounod, first played earlier in the same year, and which Bizet had arranged for two pianos although present-day listeners may discern a similarity to music of Franz Schubert, whose work was little known in France at the time the symphony was written .

In 1857, a setting of the one-act operetta Le docteur Miracle won him a share in a prize offered by Jacques Offenbach. He also won the music composition scholarship of the Prix de Rome, the conditions of which required him to study in Romemarker for three years. There, his talent developed as he wrote such works as the opera buffa Don Procopio (1858-59). There he also composed his only major sacred work, Te Deum (1858), which he submitted to the Prix Rodrigues competition, a contest for Prix de Rome winners only. Bizet failed to win the Prix Rodrigues, and the Te Deum score remained unpublished until 1971. He made two attempts to write another symphony in 1859, but destroyed the manuscripts in December of that year. Apart from this period in Rome, Bizet lived in the Parismarker area all his life.

Shortly after leaving Rome in July 1860, but while still touring in Italy, he had the idea of writing a symphony in which each of the four movements would be a musical evocation of a different Italian city – Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples. On hearing of his mother's serious illness he cut short his Italian travels and returned to Paris in September 1860; she died a year later. The Scherzo of the symphony was completed by November 1861, but it was not until 1866 that the first version of the whole symphony was written. He subjected it to a number of revisions through to 1871, but died before ever producing what he considered the definitive version. For this reason, the work is sometimes described as "unfinished", but this is an inaccurate description as it was fully scored. It was published in 1880 as the Roma Symphony.

In June 1862 the family maid, Mary Reiter, gave birth to a son, Jean. The boy was brought up to believe that his father was Adolphe Bizet, and that he was Georges's half-brother, but his mother later revealed that his true father was Georges Bizet. His former teacher Halévy died in 1862, leaving his last opera Noé unfinished. Bizet completed it, but it was not performed until 1885, ten years after Bizet's own death.

He composed the opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), a drama of love and ritual in Ceylon (today's Sri Lankamarker) for the Théâtre Lyriquemarker in 1863, which was initially a failure. In 1866 he was contracted to arrange two of Ambroise Thomas's operas for both solo and duo piano. The works of his youth displayed his power of evoking exotic atmosphere such as La jolie fille de Perth (after Walter Scott's novel), which takes place in a romanticized Scotland (premiered also in the Théâtre Lyrique, in 1867), and a symphony titled Roma (1868). Although these operas were not overwhelmingly successful, they established Bizet's reputation as a composer to be reckoned with.

On 3 June 1869, Bizet married Geneviève (1849-1926), the daughter of his late teacher Fromental Halévy. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July of 1870, Bizet joined the French National Guard, as did some other well-known composers. This delayed his progress on several works. The armistice of January 1871 was followed by a civil uprising, which resulted in a two-month period of bloodshed and unrest in Paris. Bizet and his wife fled to Le Vésinetmarker near Paris, to escape the violence. From November 1871 until his death Bizet was a member of the Conservatoire examination committees for composition, counterpoint and fugue, and for piano and harp.

Bizet wrote Jeux d'enfants (Children's games) for piano duet in 1871. The following year (22 May 1872) saw the production of the one-act opéra comique Djamileh, which is often seen as a precursor to Carmen. He wrote incidental music for a play L'Arlésienne by Alphonse Daudet, first performed on 1 October 1872. Bizet derived a L'Arlésienne Suite from the music (first performed 10 November 1872), and Ernest Guiraud later arranged a second suite; both contain considerable rewriting of the original score (many performances of the second suite omit any mention of Guiraud's contribution). His overture Patrie was written in 1873 (it had no connection with Victorien Sardou's play Patrie!).

Carmen (1875) is Bizet's best-known work and is based on a novella of the same title written in 1846 by Prosper Mérimée. Bizet composed the title role for a mezzo-soprano. It was substantially composed during the summer of 1873, but not finished until the end of 1874, during which time his marriage came under severe strain and he separated from his wife for two months. Carmen premiered on 3 March 1875 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, and was not initially well-received, although it ran for 37 performances in the next three months, an average of three a week; it was Bizet's greatest success so far. Bizet had put every ounce of his genius into Carmen, and its lukewarm reception was a bitter disappointment. Praise for it eventually came from well-known contemporaries including Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky. Brahms attended over twenty performances of it, and considered it the greatest opera produced in Europe since the Franco-Prussian War. The views of these composers proved to be prophetic, as Carmen has since become one of the most popular works in the entire operatic repertoire. Carmen contains two of Bizet's most famous songs, the "Habanera" and "The Toreador's Song", which compete for popularity with the tenor-baritone duet "Au fond du temple saint" ("In the depths of the temple") from The Pearl Fishers.

However, Bizet did not live to see Carmen's success. He died from a heart attack at the age of 36 in Bougivalmarker (Yvelinesmarker), about 10 miles west of Paris. It has been suggested that Élie-Miriam Delaborde, who was believed to be the illegitimate son of Charles-Valentin Alkan, may have been indirectly responsible for Bizet's death, which followed a swimming competition between the two, as a result of which Bizet caught a chill. He died on his sixth wedding anniversary, exactly three months after Carmen's first performance. His death came just when he had found his mature style. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemeterymarker in Paris, alongside other greats like Chopin and Rossini. Carmen was then immediately dropped by the Opéra-Comique. Yet within three years, it had made its way to Vienna and Brussels, London and New York. Five years later, it returned to Paris, where it was received rapturously and launched on its fabulously successful career. Today it is one of the world's best-loved operas.


His widow Geneviève later had an alliance with Élie-Miriam Delaborde; indeed, there exists the application for registration of a marriage between them, which never took place. Instead, she married Émile Straus, a banker with Rothschild family connections, and became a noted society hostess. Marcel Proust used her as a model for the Duchesse de Guermantes in his roman fleuve À la recherche du temps perdu. The Bizets' son Jacques (1872-1922), a writer, had been a school-friend of Proust.

Bizet's music has been used in the twentieth century as the basis for several important ballets. The Soviet-era Carmen Suite (1967), set to music drawn from Carmen arranged by Rodion Shchedrin, gave the Bolshoimarker ballerina Maya Plisetskaya one of her signature roles; it was choreographed by Alberto Alonso. In the West the L'Arlesienne of Roland Petit is well-regarded, and Symphony in C by George Balanchine is considered to be one of the great ballets of the twentieth century. It was first presented as Le Palais de Crystal by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, and has been in the repertory there ever since. The ballet has no story; it simply fits the music: each movement of the symphony has its own ballerina, cavalier, and corps de ballet, all of whom dance together in the finale.

Bizet's work as a composer has overshadowed how fine a pianist he was. He could easily have had a career as a concert pianist had he so wished. On 26 May 1861, at a dinner party at the Halévys at which Franz Liszt was present, Bizet gave a faultless performance of an elaborate work of Liszt's, reading at sight from the unpublished manuscript. Liszt proclaimed that Bizet was one of the three finest pianists in Europe. Bizet's pianistic skill was also praised by Hector Berlioz, his teacher Marmontel, and many others.



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