October is here and it’s time for a new Composer of the Month
This month, to time with this composer’s birthday, I’ve chosen one of the “one hit wonders” of the musical world. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that many composers who are now only known for one work struggled for years, writing many other things before lighting on their best work.
Lived in: Paris, France
Fame Rating: Mezzopiano
Bizet was born in Paris, and lived most of his life there. He showed exceedingly early promise – learning to sing by listening at the door while his father was teaching – and entered the Conservatoire de Paris aged only 9. While there, he won numerous prizes and graduated with a scholarship to travel around Europe.
Bizet’s scholarship took him first to Rome, where he composed an oratorio work – a setting of religious words. However, this was not received very well, and this, along with his atheism meant that Bizet never set religious words again. Instead, he turned to opera, and he requested to stay in Rome for an additional year to work on this further, rather than travel to Germany as part of his scholarship.
Unfortunately, Bizet’s mother fell ill during this extra year (1860), and he was forced to return to Paris to care for her. In Paris, he continued composing, but once the scholarship money ran out, he was unable to survive simply as a composer. Paris, like many big cities with conservatoires, was overrun with musicians and composers. To make things even worse, the main opera houses were very traditional and did not often commission or produce new work. Bizet, like most composers, became a teacher to supplement his income.
Life was not entirely miserable for Bizet – in 1869, he married his composition teacher’s daughter who had been a longstanding friend. He had also, by this time, completed his two other well-known operas, Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth, which were both staged in Paris. Unfortunately, neither was considered to be terribly good by the critics.
Things did not improve for Bizet. In 1870, war struck France as Napoleon II declared war over Prussia. The Emperor was defeated and deposed by the end of the year, and Paris became subsumed into a civil war. Others fled the city, but Bizet held out for several months before even he decided it was too dangerous and moved out until peace was restored.
On returning to Paris, Bizet was appointed as chorus-master at the Paris Opera, and he also received another commission for the Opéra-Comique. Unfortunately, however, the director of the Opéra-Comique found the subject matter of the opera to be too controversial. Bizet had to wait for the director to resign before he was able to proceed with what would later be considered his most important work.
Carmen premiered to an audience filled with Bizet’s composer friends and peers, as well as critics and ordinary theatre-goers. The reaction was as mixed as the audience. Massenet and Saint-Sans congratulated Bizet on his success, while his friend, Charles Gounod, seemed to accused him of plagiarism! The critics were equally as divided with many of them expressing concern that the heroine of the piece was an amoral gypsy woman.
Bizet, sadly, would never know how famous and respected his work would become. A matter of months after the opening of Carmen, he suffered two suspected heart attacks within days of one another. The second was fatal, and he died on 3rd June 1875. The performance of Carmen was suspended on the day of his funeral, and the eulogy was given by his long-standing friend and competitor Gounod.
Today Carmen remains one of the most popular and famous operas of all time, and Bizet’s other works are also gaining recognition, with Les pêcheurs de perles ranking at number 41 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame 2013
Famous Historical Events During Bizet’s Lifetime:
- 1845-49 – Irish potato famine
- 1853-58 – The Crimean War
- 1859 – Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species
- 1861-65 – The American Civil War
- 1870-71 – The Franco-Prussian War leads to the unification of Germany and Italy.