The grave of Georges Bizet in Cimeterie du Pere Lachaise, Paris © Neil Setchfield
The grave of Georges Bizet in Cimeterie du Pere Lachaise, Paris © Neil Setchfield

10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about Georges Bizet

During the second half of the 19th century, the genius musician Georges Bizet gave to the French music a wave of audacity even though he remained greatly misunderstood. You’ll find here ten little things you may not have known about that classical music monument.

His life was very short. And yet George Bizet was an inspired composer who found inspiration in literature, Italian landscapes and, most of all, in the human emotional torments that he experienced himself, like all of us. Even if George Bizet’s success, with a wide audience, was humble when he was alive, his fellow composers soon considered his work as the renewal of French music.

This little prodigy joined the Conservatoire de Paris when he was ten years old in Léo Delibes’s promotion. 

The Conservatoire’s rule in 1847 said clearly that a child had to be ten years old at least to be admitted as a student. George Bizet had just celebrated his ninth birthday on the 25th of October 1847. Determined to get round that rule, George Bizet’s father listed all the people he knew at the Conservatoire and introduced his son to Joseph-Jean-Pierre-Emile Meifred, a French horn teacher who was also a member of the teaching comity. The man was astonished by the boy’s talent and got him to attend Marmontel piano class as an observer. On the 9th of October of the following year, George Bizet passed the class piano exam and got in as an official student. Léo Delibes was also amongst the lucky ones that year – they were only four. 

He rejected religion in all of its aspects 

In the 1850’s, the young Bizet used to replace M. Rémy as the following organist in Montmartre. He also took Charles Gounod’s place in October 1857 playing the Bougival’s church organ – city where we finished Carmen and died in 1875. Despite his talent playing that instrument, he was never able to ask for an organist permanent office since he was deeply anticlerical. Incidentally he realized he had great difficulties composing religious pieces when he visited the Villa Medici.

A year after his admission at the Conservatoire he was training for the Prix de Rome competition. 

He is precisely eleven years and five months old when he starts to work for the Prix de Rome competition. He used at the time an old one-voice cantata. We only have the first orchestral introduction bar written in reduction for piano. But the competition was organised in two steps: a fugue and a choir and the composition of the dramatic cantata for soloist and orchestra. If he started his training in 1850 he would not participate to the competition before 1853.

The hard-working Charles Gounod’s shadow

Faust, Act III, Scene II, by Charles Gounod, Paris, 1859 © De Agostini Picture Library
Faust, Act III, Scene II, by Charles Gounod, Paris, 1859 © De Agostini Picture Library

George Bizet was an excellent partition reader and mastered quickly the writing technique. As he was a great admirer of Gounod, the latter enjoyed these talents greatly. He gave his trust to the young pianist but he might have taken advantage of his position as a mentor as well. Gounod started to turn to Bizet more often when he had too much work, so much so that he was intrusive in some occasions. Yet Bizet loved to realise opera reductions or took interest in transposing and knowing better Gounod’s work. And when Bizet became Gounod’s répétiteur and arranger he discovered the theatres universe. 

He started teaching when he was only fifteen years old

His great knowledge of piano offered him three careers: teacher, performer or choirmaster. During his studies while he was hardly fifteen he started giving lessons. Thereafter he dedicated a lot of his time to teaching except during his time spent at the Villa Medicis even though he found no pleasure in it and did it in order to take care of his family.

An unresolved Oedipus complex…

Georges Bizet was very close to his mother. Very close indeed. Aimée Bizet introduced at a very young age her only child to the piano and looked after him all his life as if he had never grown up, even if it meant she could be intrusive sometimes. That very strong connection is obvious in the letters they sent to each other when Bizet was staying in Rome. Aimée Bizet was constantly worried for her son hygiene and he kept reassuring her: “I had all of my collars cleaned, it goes without saying. You can see that I am meticulous. If you came to my room, you wouldn’t find anything to clean up”. On top of that, he always asked her mother for her approval on his work and idealized her until her death, seeing her as an incarnation of a virtuous Madonna. 

He never went to high school

He compensated the education he missed in high school with the three years he spent at the Villa Medici. Going from music to literature or philosophy, George Bizet borrowed everything he could from the library. His self-teaching didn’t stop at reading and Bizet took notes, summarized his readings and wrote critical pages. He especially liked Beaumarchais and some of the writer’s characters’ psychology can be found in his music, Carmen in particular. 

He was influenced by the universe of Victor Hugo

At the end of December 1858 Bizet had to send to the Institute a piece. He thought for a while of writing an opera inspired by the booklet Esmeralda taken from Victor Hugo Notre-Dame de Paris. He admired the man a lot and some ideas found in Carmen, such as the destructive passion or the undeniable fate, can be found in Hugo’s work as well. 

All his life he had financial difficulties

These difficulties reached such a point that he quickly had to deal with all the people who ordered him for a piece. There is proof of his financial instability since his return from Rome in the letters he wrote to his mother. He easily made a connection between his career as a musician and the question of money and would refuse all his life to take advantage of his talents as a performer. De nature enthousiaste et joviale il était pourtant sujet à des accès de colère

If his nature was enthusiast and jovial he still had angry outbursts 

While he was travelling to Venice with his friend Guiraud in September 1860, Bizet heard that his mother was sick. After he read the news, he almost strangled the gondolier standing next to him but his friend stopped him. In a letter to his father, Bizet said “the pain is soon replaced by anger with me. I almost strangled a gondolier but fortunately Guiraud took him away from me”. 

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