Georges Bizet was born on October 25th, 1838 in
Paris. His father, Adolphe Armand Bizet, was an amateur singer and composer and
his mother was the sister of François
Delsarte, a well-known singing teacher. Just shy of his tenth birthday in 1848,
Bizet was enrolled in the prestigious Paris Conservatoire where he studied
composition, piano and organ. He was an exceptional student, winning first
prizes for organ and fugue in 1855 and later the illustrious Prix de Rome. His
earliest compositions come from his time as a student including a Symphony in
C, written in 1855, that remained stored in the Conservatoire library and
unknown to the music world until 1933. In addition, he developed a fine
technique at the piano. Though Bizet never pursued a career as a concert
pianist, and even detested the thought of doing so, his talents on the
instrument were praised highly by none other than Franz Liszt.
As a requirement of his winning the Prix de Rome, Bizet
spent three years studying in Rome. His skills grew as he spent time in the
great city, producing works such as the opera buffa Don Procopio and his only sacred work, Te Deum. While touring Italy, he conceived of a symphony in which
each movement would depict a different city of the Italian peninsula—Rome,
Venice, Florence and Naples. The work had a remarkably long genesis and was
never completely finished. Begun in 1861, a complete version was not produced until
1866. Bizet continued to revise the work through 1871, though he died before completing
a final version.
Following his return to Paris, where he would spend the
remainder of his life, Bizet produced two operas: Les pêcheurs de perles in 1863 and La jolie fille de Perth, based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, in
1866. While both were only marginally successful, Bizet's skill for composition
was well-established by these works.
In 1873-4, Bizet produced his most well-known work and the
one that would ultimately define his career: Carmen. Based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée,
the opera premiered on March 3rd, 1875. During its composition,
Bizet put his intellect to the test in an attempt to produce the finest work
possible. Though it ran for thirty-seven performances in the three months after
its premiere, its somewhat unenthusiastic reception was a blow to Bizet.
Nevertheless, the opera eventually drew the praise of Bizet's contemporaries.
Even Johannes Brahms considered it the greatest opera produced in Europe since
the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Regretfully, Bizet did not live to see Carmen's full success. Three months to
the day after its premiere, Bizet died of heart failure at the young age of 36.
Though immediately dropped by the Opéra-Comique,
Carmen made its way to the major
cities of Europe and America, including Vienna, London and New York City, and
eventually even spread to Russia. Three years later, it was staged again in
Paris to great success and ever since it has been one of the most well-known
and oft-performed operas.
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