I consider it a masterpiece in the fullest sense of the word: one of those rare compositions which seems to reflect most strongly in itself the musical tendencies of a whole generation.”

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Vital Stats

Born: October 25, 1838, Paris

Died: June 3, 1875, Paris

Nationality: French

Genre: Romantic

Performed as: Pianist
Georges Bizet was born in Paris into a musical family: his father was an amateur singer and his mother was sister to François Delsarte, a renowned vocal teacher. His parents fostered his interest in music, and when he had absorbed everything they could teach him, they enrolled him at the Paris Conservatory. Bizet was barely 10 years old, the minimum age required for entry into the conservatory. There he studied composition with Fromental Halévy, whose daughter Geneviève he later married. He also developed into a virtuoso pianist, noted for his technical proficiency and full-score reading (playing the piano from an orchestral score).

In 1857 Bizet won the Prix de Rome scholarship for study in Italy; his first opera dates from the same year, the one-act Le Docteur Miracle. Besides composing, he often worked as a rehearsal pianist and orchestrator, which gave him an uncommon familiarity with the works of the Parisian theater. Today Bizet is remembered primarily as an opera composer, although he did not win fame as such during his short lifetime. In his 37 years he wrote six operas that survive in a performable format, as well as nearly 30 unpublished or incomplete works.

The first of Bizet's operas to reach the professional stage was Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers), which lasted 18 performances after its premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863. Of the various opera projects on which he worked, two more were staged-La Jolie Fille de Perth in 1867, Djamileh in 1872-without establishing him as a major talent. Though discouraged by the indifference of theater managers and the public, he continued to pursue his great love. With Carmen, at the Opéra Comique in 1875, the tide of fortune started to turn, but Bizet died that year, thinking he had written another failure. The work caught on soon afterward and, together with the incidental music for Daudet's play L'Arlésienne, has carried Bizet's reputation.

Bizet seemed to have trouble finding direction as a composer; he frequently began operatic projects but then abandoned them before completion. He often borrowed from these, incorporating their material into later projects. Bizet paid more attention to the meaning and emotional content of the words than to the rhythm and metrical patterns (called "word painting,"because the composer uses music to "paint" or illustrate the word's meaning). His choice of subject matter and compositional style presaged the development of verismo opera.

Carmen was drawn from a popular short novel of the same title by Prosper Mérimée (1845), inspired in turn by the writing of George Henry Borrow, an Englishman who had lived among the Spanish Gypsies. Bizet's libretto, conventionalized for the conservative, bourgeois audience of the Opéra Comique, was the work of Ludovic Halévy (a cousin of his wife's) and Henri Meilhac. Since the opéra-comique genre called for spoken dialogue, sung recitatives had to be added if the work was ever to be performed at a grand-opera theatre. This was done after Bizet's death by his friend Ernest Guiraoud. The work's initially poor reception is attributable to the novelty and daring of presenting "low life" in this genre and allowing the heroine to die instead of contriving the customary happy ending. Gypsies smoking cigarettes onstage was another risqué element, as was the "immoral" character of the heroine. Carmen survived to become one of the most frequently performed operas everywhere in the world. Several of its melodies are familiar to thousands who have never seen or heard an opera.

The Operas of Bizet

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