Cycle Bizet, ‘l'oiseau rebelle‘

Georges Bizet, who died 150 years ago, marked his era with an avant-garde musical production.
A look back at a legacy that extends far beyond the success of Carmen.

The composer of the most frequently performed French opera in the world today, Georges Bizet (1838-1875), died at the age of 36, so did not live long enough to enjoy its success. Legend has it that the poor reception of Carmen was to blame for his death. Albeit an exaggeration, that does give us some indication of what the avant-garde artist had to contend with at that time: indeed, between the 1850s and the 1870s Bizet composed a body of work that was not fully appreciated until the 1880s onwards. A brilliant student at the Paris Conservatoire, a winner of the Prix de Rome, an active member of the Société nationale de musique, he belonged to the generation that was born just as Romanticism was emerging – a generation that was therefore responsible for strengthening the movement by bringing in new ideas. However, audiences were not yet ready for that.

‘We have come to the point where any composer today who is concerned with scenic effect and the expression of feelings and characters is infallibly accused of Wagnerism.’
(Johannes Weber, Le Temps, 5 June 1872)

‘And really, every time I heard Carmen I seemed to myself more of a philosopher, a better philosopher, than I generally consider myself.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner [Der Fall Wagner], 1888

First steps
Bizet received his early musical education from his father, who was a hairdresser and wigmaker turned singing teacher, and his mother, who was an accomplished amateur pianist. He proved a gifted pupil, and in 1848, thanks to the intervention of his maternal uncle, François Delsarte, a future theoretician of the Romantic movement, he was allowed to enrol before the minimum entry age of ten at the Paris Conservatoire. Soon he was awarded premiers prix in the classes of Marmontel (piano), Benoist (organ) and Halévy (composition). At the same time, he received private lessons from Zimmermann, and that was how he met Gounod, who often assisted the latter in his teaching. Gounod was to have a decisive influence on Bizet’s musical style, as his masterly Symphony in C major (1855) shows. Bizet was exceptionally precocious, particularly in his orchestral skills, and soon he began to meet with success: in 1856 he was awarded first prize in a competition organised by Offenbach for the composition of an opérette (Le Docteur Miracle), and in 1857 he won the Grand Prix de Rome, which earned him an extended stay (three years) at the French Academy (Villa Medici) in Rome. On his return to Paris with a new opera, Don Procopio, he decided to make composing his career.

Exploring exoticism
Before creating an opera in his own name, Bizet earned his living by working for others. For the Choudens publishing house, he made piano-vocal reductions of recent operatic works (Reyer’s La Statue, for example), and for Charles Gounod he orchestrated the opera La Reine de Saba. Thus, he demonstrated his expertise, and theatre directors were soon commissioning him to write works reflecting the vogue for exoticism that had taken hold in France. He composed Les Pêcheurs de perles (1863), La Jolie Fille de Perth (1867) and Djamileh (1872), while his grand opera, Ivan IV, on a libretto originally offered to Gounod, was successively rejected by Baden-Baden and the Paris Opéra. In small touches he explored the modal system at a time when Saint-Saëns was composing Samson et Dalila and Verdi his Aida. Berlioz considered the score of Les Pêcheurs de perles ‘beautifully expressive, richly coloured and full of fire’; however, audiences and critics alike proved wary of the young composer. With his masterful musical technique and subtle orchestration, his use of chromaticism and recurrent themes – leitmotifs – might he not be a follower of the Wagnerian school?

‘The further I go, the more I pity the fools who have failed to understand the happiness of the residents of the Académie. I am, more than ever, certain of my future.’ Letter from Georges Bizet to his mother, c.1858
Bizet was an excellent pianist, but he never had ambitions of becoming a concert virtuoso. He did, however, put his instrumental skills at the service of his colleagues via the Société nationale de musique, of which he was one of the first active members. Created in 1871 with the idea of enabling the younger generation of composers to present their works in public, that organisation set a new course for French music in the aftermath of France’s defeat at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War, which marked the end of the Second Empire. At the concerts organised by the society, Bizet played recent scores for piano four-hands or two pianos by Massenet (Scènes hongroises, 1871), Saint-Saëns (Le Rouet d’Omphale, 1872) and Guiraud (Ouverture de concert, 1874). He was also the accompanist at the premiere of Lalo’s Violin Sonata (1873). At the same time, some of his compositions were performed at the concert societies founded by Jules Pasdeloup and Édouard Colonne. The Roma Symphony (1866, revised in 1869), the orchestral suite L’Arlésienne (1872) and his ‘Patrie’ Overture (1874) were all well received by audiences more willing to accept modernity in music than those of the opera houses.

Carmen became the high point of Bizet’s career by sheer force of circumstances. Indeed, the composer died three months after the premiere. Yet it is by no means a testamentary score: every page is vibrant with life, even to the point of excess, in order to convey the insane passion that takes hold of Don José and leads him to commit murder. Choosing the opéra-comique genre to portray a drama, taking his exploration of musical exoticism even further, having the main character stabbed to death on stage at the Salle Favart, magnifying a woman of questionable morality: Carmen seemed to be challenging contemporary conventions, cocking a snoot at the civilised society of France under President MacMahon. Its reception at the Paris premiere on 3 March 1875 was lukewarm, and after eleven months and forty-eight performances it was taken off. But it was not long before Carmen achieved international recognition, successfully performed in Vienna, Brussels, Antwerp, Budapest, Liège, St Petersburg, Stockholm, London, Dublin, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Melbourne, San Francisco, and elsewhere. In five years, it was taken all over the world, and subsequently its revival in Paris in 1883 marked its definitive entry into the repertoire. In 1904, Carmen received its one-thousandth performance at the Opéra-Comique.

‘Here come the toreros: the picadores, the chulos, the banderilleros, and the espada. Joyfully the trumpets blare, the voices cheer the arrival of the actors in the bloody drama. It is a splendid scene, and the sets and costumes appear to have been inspired directly by Goya’s Tauromaquia, in which with his pencil strokes he so fiercely disembowelled the bull.’
Armand Gouzien, L’Événement, 6 March 1875