b. Paris, 25 October 1838; d. Bougival, 3 June 1875
Acclaimed in his lifetime as a composer of concert music who had regrettably dabbled with the theatre, Bizet tragically died before his final masterpiece, Carmen, went on to conquer the opera houses of the world.
Bizet was a precocious child, reading music by the age of four, playing Mozart piano sonatas from memory by the time he was nine, and entering the Paris Conservatoire before his tenth birthday. He studied there with Jacques-François Halévy (whose daughter he later married) but learnt most in private lessons during the 1850s with Charles Gounod, who assisted in the gestation of Bizet's first major work, the Symphony in C of 1855. Bizet's first operas date from this time, but they were Italian-influenced works that he later disowned. By the 1860s the influence of Donizetti and Rossini was beginning to yield to that of Gounod, Meyerbeer and Halévy, and Bizet's own distinctive lyrical voice first emerged in The Pearl Fishers in 1863. Premiered in 1867, La jolie fille de Perth (based on Walter Scott's Fair Maid of Perth) proved another success and Bizet seemed to be getting into his stride. However, his next five projects got no further than sketches before he finally completed the one-act Djamileh in 1871. This so impressed the director of the Opéra Comique that Bizet was invited to compose a full-length work with the librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (Offenbach's former collaborators). Unfortunately, when Carmen was premiered in March 1875, it was savaged by the Parisian critics for its supposed vulgarity and lack of originality; and, although a small band of devotees hailed it as a masterpiece, Bizet was shattered. Plagued by illness and obsessed by what he took to be his failure, he died three months (and two heart attacks) later, aged just 36. Tragically, it was only after his death that Carmen began its unstoppable rise to global popularity.
In an age dominated by Verdi and Wagner, Bizet was one of the very few opera composers to create a genuinely individual style. His music might have evolved from the opéras lyriques of Gounod and Delibes, but with Carmen he took French opera into a new dimension. In his homeland it was Massenet who most strongly continued where Bizet had left off, and in Russia his legacy is clear in the operas of Tchaikovsky, but it was in Italy that Bizet had the biggest impact, for Carmen can truly be called the very first verismo opera.
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