Personalities | Georges Bizet | Late Romantic | Classical
(Zhôrzh Be-za’) 1838–75
When Bizet died at the age of 37, he was considered a failure by the French musical establishment. He had had several operas produced in Paris, but none of them had been wholly successful; now his latest work, Carmen, had caused a scandal.
Bizet was born in Paris on 25 October 1838. At the age of 10 he was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire of Music. There he was influenced by Gounod, the future composer of Faust. At the age of 19, Bizet wrote a one-act operetta, Le Docteur Miracle, which won joint first prize in a competition organized by Offenbach, who produced it at his own theatre, the Bouffes-Parisiens. At the end of his studies at the Conservatory, Bizet won the Prix de Rome, a scholarship that paid him a stipend for five years, three of which were spent in Rome. During that period he wrote a two-act Italian comic opera, Don Procopio, which was not performed until 1906.
First Mature Operas
When his scholarship money ran out, Bizet realized he would have to earn his living. His father had been a singing teacher and Bizet felt it was not below him to teach others himself, so he began to give piano lessons. He also played for rehearsals at various theatres and made vocal scores and piano arrangements for music publishers to earn his way in the world. He continued to compose and wrote two operas for the Théâtre-Lyrique, an independent theatre whose director, Léon Carvalho, was one of his greatest admirers. Les pêcheurs de perles (‘The Pearl Fishers’) was produced in 1863, and La jolie fille de Perth (‘The Fair Maid of Perth’, loosely adapted from Walter Scott) in 1867. Both works received 18 performances, and were then forgotten until after Bizet’s death. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 caused the closure of all the Paris theatres. Bizet, though in poor health and exempt from military service as a winner of the Prix de Rome, joined the National Guard.
The ambition of all French composers was to write for one of the national theatres, the Paris Opéra or the Opéra-Comique. Between 1862 and 1865 Bizet worked on a grand opera, Ivan IV, but did not finish it. In 1872, he achieved part of that ambition when Djamileh was produced at the Opéra-Comique. This theatre did not only present comic operas, but also works in which the musical numbers were separated by spoken dialogue rather than sung recitative as in the Italian style. It was a theatre where families went to celebrate engagements or weddings, and audiences expected a mildly amusing, sentimental opera with a happy ending. Djamileh fulfilled these...
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