Bizet was born in Paris in 1838, the son of a pianist and a
singing teacher. He was quick to master the rudiments of music and
his father had great hopes that he would become a composer. At the
age of ten he entered the Paris Conservatoire and studied with
Charles Gounod and Jacques Halevy, whose daughter Bizet was later
to marry. An exceptional student, Bizet won many prizes, initially
for his piano playing and later for composition. Chief among these
was the prestigious Prix dc Rome, won when he was 18 and resulting
in a fave-уеаг pension. One of his notable early works is the
Symphony in С from 1855. The score was lost for many years and
the piece was not performed until 1935.
Bizet's first mature opera was the love story Les pecheurs
dc perles (The Pearl Fishers), performed at the Theatre
Lyrique in Paris in 1863. It drew the attention of other
composers, Berlioz being a particular admirer; but it failed to
gain widespread acceptance by audiences and ran for only 18
performances. Other, equally unsuccessful operas — including the
unjustly neglected La jolie fille de Perth (The fair maid
of Perth) — appeared during the next few years, leaving Bizet's
future as a composer uncertain.
At the same time that his musical activities failed to live up
to the promise of earlier years, Bizet's personal life also took
an unhappy turn. In 1867 his engagement to Genevieve Halevy was
broken off, and although they did in fact marry in 1869, she
showed signs of increasing mental instability and had a breakdown
a year before the birth of their only child in 1872.
In 1872 Bizet wrote L'Arlesieune, the incidental music
for a play by Daudet. Scored for 26 instruments, including a
saxophone, the music was greeted coolly, although when rescored
for full orchestra it gained the attention and audience
appreciation it deserved.
Without a doubt Bizet's greatest achievement, however, was the
opera Carmen, which he wrote towards the end of his short
life. Despite being termed an opera comiquc, due to its
inclusion of spoken dialogue, it hardly amounts to a humorous
evening's entertainment. Based on Prosper Merimee's story of the
life, love affairs, and tragic death of the gypsy Carmen, it did
not achieve immediate success. Critics claimed that it was too
sensational, the story "obscene", and that it had no tunes; while
many of the audience were outraged at the sight of women smoking
Today Carmen is one of the best-loved operas in the
repertoire, and songs such as "Habanera" and "The Toreador's Song"
remain consistently popular. The opera reached a wider audience
through Carmen Jones, in which the story was updated by
Oscar Hammerstein to 1940s America. Unaware of how hugely
successful his creation would become, Bizet died near Paris in
1875 a bitterly disappointed man.