A French composer whose fame today rests on his operas Carmen
), Les Pêcheurs de perles
s), and La Jolie fille de Perth
(The Fair Maid of Perth
, after Scott
); and on his incidental music for L'Arlésienne
and his brilliantly exuberant
little Symphony in C
. The symphony was only performed long after his death, and he died suddenly during the run of Carmen
, without knowing what a success it would later be.
Alexandre César Léopold Bizet, his real name, was born in Paris on 25 October 1838, and his music-teacher father quickly found him to be a prodigy. At the age of nine he was admitted to the Conservatoire to study piano, organ, and composition, winning a first prize for piano. His first composition teacher Pierre Zimmermann dying in 1853, he was taken on by Fromental Halévy, who died in 1862. Bizet married Halévy's daughter Géneviève in 1869.
In 1857 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, and another prize sponsored by Jacques Offenbach for his operetta Le Docteur Miracle. On his return from Rome he composed a number of operas, some of which were unsuccessful, or never got to performance, or were destroyed by him, or were thought to be destroyed and only turned up a century later: La Guzla de l'Emir, Ivan le Terrible (or Ivan IV), Don Procopio, and Le Coupe du Roi de Thule were among these this decade, and only Les Pêcheurs de perles (1863) and La Jolie fille de Perth (1867) survived with a reputation.
In the remaining years of his life he completed his father-in-law's Noé then worked on opéra-comique, including Calendal, Clarissa Harlowe, Griséldis, Djamileh, and Don Rodrigue. After all these disappointments he thought Carmen was just one more badly received failure: condemned as obscene, as musically confused, as inauthentic for its Spanish setting, as too Wagnerian, and so on. He succumbed to acute depression, and to quinsy, and finally on 3 June 1875 he died of a heart attack at Bougival, near Paris.
He did create a number of non-opera works, though he had little success in his own lifetime even with these. Of the two best known today, Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlésienne was a failure, taking Bizet's suite with it; and the wonderfully joyous Symphony in C he wrote at the age of 17 was not performed until 1935.