BIZET [Alexandre César Léopold] GEORGES (1838–1875), French musical composer, was born at Bougival, near Paris, on the 25th of October 1838, the son of a singing-master. He displayed musical ability at an early age, and was sent to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under Halévy and speedily distinguished himself, carrying off prizes for organ and fugue, and finally in 1857, after an ineffectual attempt in the previous year, the Grand Prix de Rome for a cantata called Cloris et Clotilde. A success of a different kind also befell him at this time. Offenbach, then manager of the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, had organized a competition for an operetta, in which young Bizet was awarded the first prize in conjunction with Charles Lecocq, each of them writing an operetta called Docteur Miracle. After the three years spent in Rome, an obligation imposed by the French government on the winners of the first prize at the Conservatoire, Bizet returned to Paris, where he achieved a reputation as a pianist and accompanist. On the 23rd of September 1863 his first opera, Les Pêcheurs de perles, was brought out at the Théâtre Lyrique, but owing possibly to the somewhat uninteresting nature of the story, the opera did not enjoy a very long run. The qualities displayed by the composer, however, were amply recognized, although the music was stated, by some critics, to exhibit traces of Wagnerian influence. Wagnerism at that period was a sort of spectre that haunted the imagination of many leading members of the musical press. It sufficed for a work to be at all out of the common for the epithet “Wagnerian” to be applied to it. The term, it may be said, was intended to be condemnatory, and it was applied with little understanding as to its real meaning. The score of the Pêcheurs de perles contains several charming numbers; its dreamy melodies are well adapted to fit a story laid in Eastern climes, and the music reveals a decided dramatic temperament. Some of its dances are now usually introduced into the fourth act of Carmen.
On the 3rd of June 1865 Bizet married a daughter of his old master, Halévy. His second opera, La Jolie Fitte de Perth, produced at the Théâtre Lyrique on 26th December 1867, was scarcely a step in advance. The libretto was founded on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, but the opera lacks unity of style, and its pages are marred by concessions to the vocalist. One number has survived, the characteristic Bohemian dance which has been interpolated into the fourth act of Carmen. In his third opera Bizet returned to an oriental subject. Djamileh, a one-act opera given at the Opéra Comique on the 22nd of May 1872, is certainly one of his most individual efforts. Again were accusations of Wagnerism hurled at the composer’s head, and Djamileh did not achieve the success it undoubtedly deserved. The composer was more fortunate with the incidental music he wrote to Alphonse Daudet’s drama, L’Arlésienne, produced in October 1872. Different numbers from this, arranged in the form of suites, have often been heard in the concert-room. Rarely have poetry and imagination been so well allied as in these exquisite pages, which seem to reflect the sunny skies of Provence.
Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen, was brought out at the Opéra Comique on the 3rd of March 1875. It was based on a version by Meilhac and Halévy of a study by Prosper Mérimée—in which the dramatic element was obscured by much descriptive writing. The detection of the drama underlying this psychological narrative was in itself a brilliant discovery, and in reconstructing the story in dramatic form the authors produced one of the most famous libretti in the whole range of opera. Still more striking than the libretto was the music composed by Bizet, in which the peculiar use of the flute and of the lowest notes of the harp deserves particular attention.
On the 3rd of June, three months after the production of Carmen in Paris, the genial composer expired after a few hours’ illness from a heart affection. Before dying he had the satisfaction of knowing that Carmen had been accepted for production at Vienna. After the Austrian capital came Brussels, Berlin and, in 1878, London, when Carmen was brought out at Her Majesty’s theatre with immense success. The influence exercised by Bizet on dramatic music has been very great, and may be discerned in the realistic works of the young Italian school, as well as in those of his own countrymen.