Georges Bizet

On this date in 1838, composer Georges Bizet (Alexandre César Léopold Bizet) was born in Paris. The musical prodigy entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 9. Over the next decade he won virtually every prize available, including the Prix de Rome. Bizet refused a career as a concert pianist in order to compose operas. He wrote about 30, none particularly successful, until he composed "Carmen" in 1875, based on Prosper Merimee's novella about a Spanish gypsy girl.

"Carmen" was controversial not only because of its humble subject matter and passionate sweep, but for the fact that the libretto was written in French and (scandalously) could be understood by the audience. Criticism and a lukewarm reception closed the play after a brief run, although the composers of Bizet's day praised it. The dejected composer, who suffered from ill health, died of a heart attack three months later at the age of 36, never knowing "Carmen" would become the most-produced opera in history. Bizet also wrote "Jeux d'Enfants," 12 charming piano duets.

Bizet was a rationalist. As a young man, struggling with his religious and philosophical views, he was asked to write a Mass. Preferring to write a comedy, he replied: "I don't want to write a mass before being in a state to do it well, that is [as] a Christian. I have therefore taken a singular course to reconcile my ideas with the exigencies of Academy rules. They ask me for something religious: very well, I shall do something religious, but of the pagan religion." (Georges Bizet: His Life and Work by Winton Dean, 1965.)

In 1869 he married Geneviève Halévy, the nervously unstable daughter of composer Fromental Halévy. Her family initially opposed the match with a "penniless, left-wing, anti-religious Bohemian." (The Life and Times of the Great Composers by Michael Steen, 2003.) The marriage was intermittently happy and produced a son, Jacques. Bizet had fathered another son in 1862 with Marie Reiter, his father Adolphe's housekeeper. The boy was brought up as Adolphe's son; only on her deathbed in 1913 did Reiter reveal his true paternity.

A heavy smoker, he died at age 36 of a heart attack on his wedding anniversary on June 3, 1875. 

Photo: Bizet in the year he died.

“Religion is a means of exploitation employed by the strong against the weak; religion is a cloak of ambition, injustice and vice."

—Bizet, from "Bizet" by William Dean (1962)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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