Lesson Tutor: Classical Composers Biography: George Bizet

Classical Composer : George Bizet
by Betty Fry

Bizet was born in Paris in 1838. The son of a hairdresser who also taught singing, he was originally christened Alexandre Cesar Leopold, though he was always known as George after a godfather. His mother also had a musical background, and with such parents his natural gift was soon recognized and encouraged, and at the age of ten Bizet was admitted into the Paris Conservatoire. He became a brilliant pianist, although he never played at concerts. Instead he studied composition under Jaques Halevy, and also encountered Charles Gounod, who was to be a great support and influence.

 At the age of 17 he wrote his wonderful ‘Symphony in C’ which somehow was lost for eighty years, and only surfaced for its first known performance in 1935. It was obviously written in emulation of Gounod’s Second Symphony, but far excelling it. Bizet was an outstanding student and won many prizes, including one from Offenbach for an operetta. Most importantly for Bizet he won the ‘Prix de Rome’ which took him to Italy for three years.  In Rome he dutifully produced the expected works, an opera, a symphony and a Te Deum (a musical setting of an ancient Latin hymn). But nothing much came of this work and Bizet returned to Paris to attempt a career as an opera composer.

 ‘The Pearl Fishers’  was produced in 1863 and was well received by the audience, but less so by the critics, and its successor ‘La Jolie Fille de Perth’was also not a great success. This was a depressing period for him and he was forced to make ends meet as a piano teacher and arranger.

 In 1869 he married Genevieve, the daughter of his old teacher Jaques Halevy, and although this was to lead to trouble from his domineering mother in law, it gave him the incentive to branch out into orchestral music.

Recently I listened to Bizet’s ‘Trompette et Tambour’ (Trumpet and Drum)
with a young friend who had come to visit me, and as I explained what the music was meant to convey, he listened with obvious delight, and even asked to hear it all over again. It paints an exquisite musical picture of children playing at soldiers on parade. Restrained trumpet calls and a gentle tattoo on the timpani innocently suggest an army in miniature. The music soon breaks into a jaunty, strutting march, accompanied by flutes and piccolos, tinkling triangle and clashing cymbals. This is the world of make believe, far removed from the realities of war.
 ‘Trompette et tambour’ was one of twelve piano duets that Bizet wrote in 1871 under the title ‘Jeux d’enfants’ (Children’s Games). He later orchestrated it – and four others – and re-titled the collection ‘Petite suite d’orchestre’ (Little Orchestral Suite).

 But at last his career seemed established and he was awarded the Legion d’ Honneur in 1874. Emboldened by this, and by his greater experience, he began work on the opera ‘Carmen’ based on Prosper Merimee’s novel.

 Bizet has been described as having been a lively, energetic man, with a sense of humor, and a temper – but not a very reflective or philosophical character. This can be seen in his music, which is always full of color and rhythm, beautifully orchestrated, dramatic even, but not often moving or thoughtful. Until Carmen

It is perhaps the best loved opera in the world, but it was not an instant success. At its premiere in Paris on 3rd March 1875, many in the audience were shocked by its stark realism: Carmen and her workmates from a cigarette factory smoking on stage, and the sordid stabbing at the end.
The sheer dramatic power of the music also proved a little too much for those who had come to the theatre simply to be entertained.

 Carmen is a wild Spanish gypsy girl who seduces a young soldier, Don Jose, then abandons him for the dashing toreador Escamillo.

 In his despair, Don Jose stabs Carmen to death on the day of the bullfight.

The prelude – as opposed to an overture – sets the scene and carries one straight to the heart of the action: a procession of bullfighters marching through the streets of Seville to the tune of Escamillo’s famous ‘Toreador’s Song’.

 I am listening to it now, and for me the music perfectly conveys the pageantry of the occasion, the proud swagger of Escamillo, and all the warmth, colour and romance of southern Spain.

 On the night of the 33rd performance, Celestine Galli-Marie. the singer who played the part of Carmen, collapsed as she left the stage, overcome by an unaccountable sense of foreboding. 

 At that moment George Bizet was dying from a heart attack just as his operatic masterpiece was becoming a spectacular success.

 It is likely that he was as musically precocious as Mendelssohn or Mozart. He was also as inspired a melodist as Schubert, and knew exactly how to spice a tune with pungent harmonies, catchy rhythms and instrumental colors.

 The result – be it his youthful and effervescent ‘Symphony in C’ or his operatic masterpiece ‘Carmen’ – is music that is as captivating and as enduring as that of any composer who ever lived.

 His immortality is assured, but we are still left with the tantalizing question of what he might have achieved had he lived longer than his thirty six years.

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