Georges Bizet’s Life

Bizet was of the opinion that one should combat the prejudice that only non-artists can judge impartially a work of art. He did not realize that he himself had the most to suffer from the adverse criticism of his fellow musicians. Although today the recognition of Bizet’s genius is almost universal, there prevails still in certain musical quarters the tendency to classify him among the light opera composers; and I have heard a well known modernist speak with superciliousness, yea disdain, of his Carmen and Arlesienne.

Lightness with these connoisseurs means lack of worth. When the music is not exuberant with counterpoint, with polyphonic intricacies, when the orchestration is not filled with numberless clumsy instruments, the work belongs in their opinion to an inferior order; it is not an opera, but an “operetta.”

They approve of Humperdinck, whose Hansel and Gretel, fairy opera, hardly justifies the overburdened, Wagnerian instrumentation. Somebody said that he “shot with cannons at sparrows.” They would perhaps reproach Bizet with “shooting at lions with children’s pistols” in his tragic opera Carmen. It is impossible to please everybody.

Fortunately, there are very few musicians whose short sightedness prevents them from appreciating and enjoying the treasures of Bizet inspirations. I, for my part, although brought up in the severe German school of Friedrich Kiel and Max Bruch, feel mightily attracted by the charming muse of the French composer.

Sympathies and antipathies, especially in music, are hard to explain. Here, more than in anything else, prevails the saying: De gustibus non est desputandum. Tschaikowsky could not hear the music of Brahms. Brahms equally could not endure Tschaikowsky; although there was nothing personal in that disliking. Wagner could not tolerate Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn did not understand Berlioz.

The Divine Speak

There is not the slightest doubt that Bizet was born with the divine spark of genius. When he was only four years old he received the first notions of music from his mother. In the intervals between instruction the child, instead of playing, listened through the door to the lessons his father, a singing teacher, gave in his studio; and when four years later the father wanted to start the child’s regular musical education he was deeply surprised and rejoiced to discover that he, the child, only by help of his own intelligence and his prodigious memory had already overcome many obstacles.

One day as he made him sing a lesson of solfege full of difficulty intervals, he was impressed by the exactness with which he hit the right notes. He raised his eyes and noticed that the young reader was looking away from the open book. The child, unaware of the surveillance of his teacher, continued to sing without looking at the notes. He had often heard that lesson through the door and had learned it by heart.

The father resolved to send him to the conservatory and went with him to Meifred, a member of the committee of studies.

“Your child is very young,” remarked Meifred, with a look at the diminutive candidate.

“It is true,” replied the father, “but, if he is small of stature he is great in knowledge.”

“Ah, truly, and what can he do?”

“Strike any chord on the piano and he will name it.”

The test was tried directly and the boy, with his back turned to the instrument, named all the chords he heard, which were chosen purposely in the most distant tonalities. At the same time with an astonishing easiness, he explained the different functions of the chords, without making the slightest mistake. Meifred could not restrain his admiration. “You will some day be elected as a member of the Institute,” he said. And this prophecy would have been easily realized but for the early death of Bizet.

The child was admitted to the piano classes of Mermontel, the renowned teacher of Paladilhe, Duvernoy, Wieniawsky and Dubois. Six months later he won the first prize for solfege. It was then that he was introduced to the old Professor Zimmerman, who for a long time had headed the courses of counterpoint and fugue; and, although Zimmerman had decided to retire from teaching, he made an exception in favor of young Bizet, and took him as his pupil in counterpoint. It was under this famous educator that Bizet had his first tuition in the pure science.  These wonderful chances are not given to every young musician. It must be owned, however, that this good fortune was brought about by the rare gifts of the boy.

Being, however, in poor health, Zimmerman often turned over his disciple to Charles Gounod, another inspiring teacher, who soon took the greatest affection for Bizet. He worked simultaneously for the two classes, and 1851 he captured again a prize for piano. The next year, being 14 years old, he divided the first prize with his colleague Savary.

A Remarkable Virtuoso

Marmontel in his book Symphonistes et Virtuoses writes about him: “Bizet was a remarkable virtuoso, a fearless reader and a model accompanist. His execution, always sure and brilliant, had acquired a broad sonority and a great variety of colors which imparted to his playing an unusual charm. He excelled in modulating the tone under the gentle or intense pressure of his fingers and in rendering luminous the melody, veiled however by the transparent harmonies. One was fascinated by the suavity and fluency of his touch.”

He soon acquired great reputation as a wonderful reader. Nobody, indeed, understood as he did how to arrange at sight for piano the most intricate orchestra scores. Berlioz was one of the first to recognize the exceptional talent of the young artist.

After the death of Zimmermann, Bizet entered the composition classes of Halevy. The author of La Juive received him with open arms and declared that he was already fit to take part at the contest for the Grand Prix. Bizet however did not try until 1856. After long hesitation the jury decided that the first prize could not be awarded; and Bizet was given only a second prize, probably on account of his tender age.

In 1857 he won, together with his classmate, Leqoecq, a prize offered by Offenbach for an opera buffa. Bizet, however, did not persist in this frivolous direction, but began in the same year a lyric scene, Clovis and Clotilde, which won him the honor of laureate of the Academy. The cantata was performed by the Institute and had a decided success. Bizet went to Rome full of enthusiasm and hope for the future, carrying with him a letter of recommendation by the Italian maestro Carafa to Mereadante in Naples. Although many considered in that time the prescribed travel to Rome nearly useless for musicians, who could not find in the Eternal City the same inspiration as the painters and sculptors sent by the French government, Bizet was happy to find himself transplanted in the country of the azure sky and of joyous life. There he wrote an opera buffa, Don Procopio, whose libretto had been formerly put to music by Fioravanti. Auber, one of the judges of the Institute, laid is aside, and it was discovered only thirty-five years later by Malherbe, the librarian of the opera and performed after another eleven years at the theatre in Monte Carlo with great success.

A Humiliating Letter

In 1859 young Bizet was on his way to Naples to bring to Mercadante the letter of Carafa. Curious to see the contents of the missive, he opened it and – oh disillusion! – he read, “Il giovae che ti ci mettera – questa lettera ha fatto ottimi studii. Ha avato la prima ricompensa del nostro conservatorio, Ma secondo la mia debole opinione non sara mai un compositore teatrale, perche non ha estro per un….”(here an untranslatable word).

“The youth who will bring you this letter has had a thorough musical training. He won first prize at our conservatory, but, according to my modest opinion, he never will success as a composer of opera as he has not genius for a fig.”

“Old idiot,” exclaimed Bizet, “I will write thy biography and give this autograph at the end.” How he was glad of his indiscretion. “I decided,” he wrote, “never to give out of my hands a closed letter of introduction.”

I am tempted to relate here, as a kind of intermezzo, a similar case, although it has nothing to do with Bizet. A waelthy Russian lady, whom I happened to know in St. Petersburg, was sent to Carlsbad with a closed letter of recommendation of her doctor to another doctor in Carlsbad. She was alos curious to read the content of the letter, and having opened it, she read: “I send you a golden goose. I have plucked her for a long time, now you may pluck her in turn.” Flattering! Is it not?

Some of the older French musicians remember having seen old Carafa at the conservatory. He died 1872.

Returned home Bizet found himself in the usual condition of all young musicians, trying to meet the cost of living through piano lessons, piano transcriptions, orchestrating dance music and waiting for an opportunity. This opportunity presented itself quite unexpectedly. Count Walewsky, minister of fine arts, preparing to retire from his office, made a gift of 100,000 francs to the Theatre Lyric. Bizet was the first to benefit by the ministerial generosity, receiving the commission to compose to the Libretto, The Pearl Fishers, which however did not meet with an over enthusiastic reception.

To the Oriental hues of the Pecheurs des Perles and of his later opera Diamileh followed the poetically perfumed Arlesienne, on a Drama of Daudet. The first performance of this work took place in 1872.

Bizet’s Masterpiece

To Carmen, however, Bizet owes the greatest part of his fame. It was performed in 1878 and received rather indifferently. The prelude of the second act was encored, the Toreador aria and the quintet applauded; but that was all. Bizet was deeply depressed; but at the fifth performance the public commenced to show more appreciation. The most ridiculous accusation against the work was that of immorality. Also a number of minor indictments were expressed. Some found his harmonic combinations too daring, some his concessions to the popular taste to vulgar.

The libretto is written after the famous novel of Prosper Merimee, which portrays the bizarre customs of the gypsies. Of course, Merimee does not hesitate to introduce us to the most abject collections of crooks and bandits; but who would accuse of immorality the fascinating writer? Carmen is the history of the bandit Don Jose Navarro, whom the author of the novel met in the mountains of the Sierra. Touched by the sympathy this stranger had shown to him Jose opens to him his heart and lays bare the ravages made in his soul, formerly the soul of an honest man, by the black eyes of the cursed Bohemian, the frenetic love which has mastered him at the sight of the heartless girl. He had enrolled in a regiment of dragoons in Seville, rapidly had gained the degree of brigadier and was waiting a further advancement. One day he was put to watch the manufacture of tobacco and charged to escort to prison Carmencita, a gypsy girl who, in a violent scene, had wounded a companion with her knife. On the way to prison she tries the power of her charms and Don Jose succumbs to her witchery and consents to let her escape. He is degraded and thrown into prison, but as soon as he comes out he meets again Carmen who generously pays her debt of gratitude. However, the inconstant Carmen cannot limit herself for along time to a single love. She repels him. One evening he surprises Carmen in company with an officer of the dragoons. Maddened by jealousy Jose insults his superior. A duel ensues in which Jose kills his rival. He must save himself in the mountains and becomes a smuggler. That pleases Don Jose, who says to Carmen: “When I have you in the mountains there is no officer there with whom I must divide you.”

“Idiot that you are, to be jealous. Don’t you see that I love you as I do not ask your money.”

“I would have strangled her,” says Jose. He is admitted into the band of Dancaire, to which Carmen was since long time affiliated. Then begins the life of a bandit. He would like to become again an honest man and carry with him Carmen to America, but she refuses; she has enough of him; she hates him; she throws away the ring he gave her. Jose flushed with rage strikes her once, twice – he kills her.

Meilhac and Halevy, the authors of the libretto had to effect numerous changes, the most important, the introduction of the sweet Micaela who contrasts effectively with the wicked Carmen.

The score is exuberant with striking inspirations, the Habanera was written by Bizet during the rehearsals, to please Galli-Marie, who did not find the previous aria to her taste. The Seguidilla is one of the warmest pages of the score; the charming duo of Micaela and Don Jose, the chanson Boheme in the tavern, the Toreador aria, the quintet and the card scene will always be considered as gems of operatic art.

An Eminent Pianist

As has already been mentioned, Bizet was an eminent pianist. Edmond Galabert in his introduction to Bizet’s Lettres a un ami, relates that Bizet advised him to seriously devote himself to the piano, to watch, to criticise himself, to repeat difficult passages until the touch attained the desired quality, to use the pedal with the greatest discretion and exactness. He obtained marvelous effects through the simultaneous use of both pedals and even in the fortissimo his tone never lost the mellowness of velvety quality. Accompanying himself at the piano he succeeded with his tenor voice in singing all the woman, tenor and bass parts. Among his favorite numbers were some beautiful pages from the Conquest of Troy, by Berlioz; the Etude, La Chasse, by Heller; the Nuits Blanches, of the same composer, and Bach’s preludes and fugues. His technic was faultless and his musicanship of the highest order.

He thought that the pianist, in order to reach true artistic emotion, ought to hum and sing the different passages and melodies, as he did always, coloring, animating, emphasizing, especially in the orchestral compositions, when he imitated the different instruments. He possessed such a great variety of touches that he was able to suggest the different timbres without the aid of the voice.

The readers of the Etude remember my often mentioning the unlimited possibilities of the piano in reproducing the instrumental colors and I am glad to find myself in complete agreement with the illustrious French master.

Further Galabert writes: “One knows generally Bizet only as the author of Arlesienne and Carmen; but that should not prevent us from appreciating the beauties of the “Pecheurs de peries,” of the “Jolie fille de Parth,” Diamileh, the dramatic overture Patrie, his songs Adieux de Photesse Arabe, Vous ne Priez Pas, Ma vie a Son Secret, his Funeral March for piano.

Bizet was an eclectic, non-secretarian, and opposed to prejudice. As critic he had not the scintillating style of Gautler or Reyer, but on the other hand he stove to be absolutely impartial and not to be influenced by friendship or enmity. “I will always ignore what kind of label is pasted on the artistic work. Respect to all, neither incensed nor insult. Is not genius a privilege of all countries, of all times? The beautiful, the true never die. A poet, a painter, a musician devotes the purest part of his soul to conceive, to create his work. He believes, he despairs, he suffers; and when, more trembling than a criminal, he tells us, “See and judge!” instead of showing sympathy for him, we ask his passport, his opinions, his relations, his antecedents. That is not criticism; that is police. The artist has no name, no nationality. He is inspired or not; he has genius or he has none. If he has, we must adopt him; if not, let us pity him and forget him. Name yourself Rossini, Gounod, Wagner, Berlioz – what do I care? Let me laugh or weep, depict me love or hatred, fanaticism or crime, charm me, stun me, transport me, and I shall not insult you, classifying, labeling you as the naturalist does with the different bugs…Let us not demand of a great artist the qualities he lacks; let us enjoy those he possesses!”

Beautiful thoughts, fitly expressed!

Resuming we find in Bizet’s life a fervent love of art manifesting itself from earliest childhood. Severe studies completed under the leadership of great masters like Marmontel, Zimmermann, Halevy and Gounod.

His teachings could be summarized as follows:

Strive to become a great pianist and learn the true expression, the right phrasing. Hum and sing passages and melodies with deep feeling. Try to suggest on the piano, through a great variety of touches, the different instruments. Become proficient in accompanying and reading intricate orchestral scores.

Endeavor to be original, but do not become narrow minded; and have eyes and ears open to the manifestations of genius wherever they may appear.

Do not ask for the label of a composition.

Do not be discouraged by partisan criticism.

Had Bizet lived longer than only 37 years, what could we not have expected from the composer of Carmen?