Bizet, Georges (baptismal names, Alexandre-César-Léopold)

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Bizet, Georges (baptismal names, Alexandre-César-Léopold)

Bizet, Georges (baptismal names, Alexandre-César-Léopold), great French opera composer; b. Paris, Oct. 25, 1838; d. Bougival, June 3, 1875. His parents were both professional musicians: his father, a singing teacher and composer; his mother, an excellent pianist. Bizet’s talent developed early in childhood. At the age of 9, he entered the Paris Cons., his teachers being Marmontel (piano), Benoist (organ), Zimmerman (harmony), and Halévy (composition), whose daughter, Geneviève, married Bizet in 1869. In 1852 he won a first prize for piano, in 1855 for organ and for fugue, and in 1857 the Grand Prix de Rome. Also in 1857 he shared (with Lecocq) a prize offered by Offenbach for a setting of a one-act opera, Le Docteur Miracle; Bizet’s setting was produced at the Bouffes-Parisiens on April 9, 1857. Instead of the prescribed Mass, he sent from Rome during his first year a two-act Italian opera buffa, Don Procopio (not produced until March 10, 1906, when it was given in Monte Carlo in an incongruously ed. version); later he sent 2 movements of a sym., an overture (La Chasse d’Ossian), and a 1-act opera (La Guzla de l’Émir; accepted by the Paris Opéra-Comique, but withdrawn by Bizet prior to production). Returning to Paris, he produced a grand opera, Les Pêcheurs de perles (Théâtre-Lyrique, Sept. 30, 1863); but this work, like La Jolie Fille de Perth (Dec. 26, 1867), failed to win popular approval. A one-act opera, Djamileh (Opéra-Comique, May 22, 1872), fared no better. Bizet’s incidental music for Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne (Oct. 1, 1872) was ignored by the audiences and literary critics; it was not fully appreciated until its revival in 1885. But an orch. suite from L’Arlésienne brought out by Pasdeloup (Nov. 10, 1872) was acclaimed; a second suite was made by Guiraud after Bizet’s death. Bizet’s next major work was his masterpiece, Carmen (based on a tale by Mérimée, text by Halévy and Meilhac), produced, after many difficulties with the management and the cast, at the Opéra-Comique (March 3, 1875). The reception of the public was not enthusiastic; several critics attacked the opera for its lurid subject, and the music for its supposed adoption of Wagner’s methods. Bizet received a generous sum (25, 000 francs) for the score from the publisher Choudens and won other honors (he was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur on the eve of the premiere of Carmen); although the attendance was not high, the opera was maintained in the repertoire. There were 37 performances before the end of the season; the original cast included Galli-Marie as Carmen, Lhérie as Don José, and Bouhy as Escamillo. Bizet was chagrined by the controversial reception of the opera, but it is a melodramatic invention to state (as some biographers have done) that the alleged failure of Carmen precipitated the composer’s death (he died on the night of the 31st perf. of the opera). Soon Carmen became a triumphant success all over the world; it was staged in London (in Italian at Her Majesty’s Theatre, June 22, 1878), St. Petersburg, Vienna, Brussels, Naples, Florence, Mainz, N.Y. (Academy of Music, Oct. 23, 1878), etc. The Metropolitan Opera produced Carmen first in Italian (Jan. 9, 1884), then in French, with Calvé as Carmen (Dec. 20, 1893). It should be pointed out that the famous Habanera is not Bizet’s own, but a melody by the Spanish composer Yradier; Bizet inserted it in Carmen (with slight alterations), mistaking it for a folk song. Bizet also wrote an operetta, La Prêtresse (1854); the operas Numa (1871) and Ivan le Terrible, in 4 acts (Bordeaux, Oct. 12, 1951; the score was believed to have been destroyed by Bizet, but was discovered among the MSS bequeathed to the Paris Cons, by the second husband of Bizet’s widow); the cantatas David (1856) and Clovis et Clothilde (1857); Vasco da Gama, symphonic ode, with Chorus (1859); Souvenirs de Rome, symphonic suite in 3 movements (Paris, Feb. 28, 1869; publ. in 1880 as a four-movement suite, Roma); orch. overture, Patrie (Paris, Feb. 15, 1874); Jeux d’enfants, suite for Piano, Four-Hands; about 150 piano pieces of all kinds (Bizet was a brilliant pianist); etc. Bizet’s First Sym., written at the age of 17, was discovered in the Bizet collection at the Paris Cons, in 1933, and was given its first performance by Felix Weingartner in Basel on Feb. 26, 1935; it rapidly became popular in the concert repertoire. Bizet also completed Halévy’s biblical opera, Noë (1869).


E. Galabert, G. B. (Paris, 1877); C. Pigot, B. et son oeuvre (1886; new éd., 1911); C. Bellaigue, B. (1891); P. Voss, B. (Leipzig, 1899); A. Weissmann, B. (Berlin, 1907); H. Gauthier-Villars, B.: Biographie critique (Paris, 1911); R. Brancour, La Vie et l’oeuvre de B. (Paris, 1913); J. Rabe, B. (Stockholm, 1925); D.C. Parker, B., His Life and Works (London, 1926); E. Istel, B. und Carmen (Stuttgart, 1927); R. Laparra, B. et l’Espagne (Paris, 1934); M. Cooper, B. (London, 1938); W. Dean, G. B.: His Life and Work (London, 1948; 3rd éd., 1975); M. Curtiss, B. and His World (N.Y., 1958); J. Roy, B. (Paris, 1983); G. Corapi, Invito all’ascolto di G. B. (Milan, 1992); R. Strieker, G. B.: 1838-1875 (Paris, 1999).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire