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

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

10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about Georges Bizet
The grave of Georges Bizet in Cimeterie du Pere Lachaise, Paris © Neil Setchfield

Despite his very short life, George Bizet was a passionate composer who found inspiration in literature, Italian landscapes and, most of all, the human emotional torments that he himself experienced himself. Though George Bizet’s success with audiences was modest during his lifetime, his fellow composers gradually considered his work as the renewal of French music.

This little prodigy joined the Conservatoire de Paris when he was ten years old, alongside Léo Delibes. 

The Conservatoire’s rule in 1847 clearly stated that a child must 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 circumvent the 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 committee. The man was astonished by the boy’s talent and brought him as an observer to a piano class by Marmontel. On 9 October of the following year, George Bizet passed the class piano exam and was admitted as an official student. Léo Delibes was also amongst the lucky ones that year – they were only four in total. 

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He rejected religion in all its forms

In the 1850’s, the young Bizet often replaced M. Rémy as the Montmartre organist. He also succeeded Charles Gounod in October 1857 as the church organist of Bougival (city in which he completed Carmen and eventually died in 1875). Despite his natural talent at the organ, Bizet was never able to request a permanent position as a church organist, since he was deeply anticlerical. Furthermore, upon attending the Villa Medici, the composer realised he had great difficulties composing religious works.

Barely a year after his admission to the Conservatoire, he was preparing for the Prix de Rome competition. 

Bizet was precisely eleven years and five months old when he started preparing for the Prix de Rome competition. He borrowed the text from an old one-voice cantata, of which only remains the opening bars of the orchestral introduction as a piano reduction. However, the competition was organised in two steps: firstly, an initial test requiring a fugue and a work for choir, followed by a dramatic cantata for soloist and orchestra. Though Bizet began preparing in 1850, he did not take part in  the competition until 1853.

Charles Gounod’s hard-working 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 score reader and quickly mastered the technique of orchestral writing. A great admirer of Gounod, the latter therefore benefited greatly from Bizet's talents. He placed his trust in the young pianist, though it may well be said that Gounod also took full advantage of his position as a mentor. He often turned to Bizet when he had too much work, so much so that he was intrusive in some occasions. Yet Bizet loved to realise operatic reductions and took great interest in transposing and learning more about Gounod’s work. And when Bizet became Gounod’s répétiteur and arranger, he eventually discovered the world of theatre.

He began teaching when he was only fifteen years old

His talents as a pianist offered him three possible careers: teacher, performer or choirmaster. During his studies at barely the age of fifteen, he began giving lessons. Thereafter he dedicated much of his time to teaching, except during his time spent at the Villa Medicis, even though he found no pleasure in it and only did so in order to contribute financially to the family.

An unresolved Oedipus complex…

Georges Bizet was very close to his mother. Very close indeed. Aimée Bizet introduced her only child to the piano at a very young age, and looked after him all his life (intrusively so, at times) as if he were still a child. 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's hygiene, and he kept reassuring her: “I have 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 his mother for her approval on his work, and idealised the woman until her death, seeing her as an incarnation of a virtuous Madonna. 

He never went to secondary school

Bizet compensated for having missed a secondary school education with the three years he spent at the Villa Medici. Studying subjects such as music, literature, and philosophy, George Bizet borrowed everything he could from the library. His self-education didn’t stop at reading and took regular notes, summarised his readings, and author numerous critical pages. He especially enjoyed the work of Beaumarchais, and the psychology of several of the writer’s characters can be found in his music, Carmen in particular.

He was influenced by the world of Victor Hugo

Near the end of December 1858, Bizet was required to send a musical composition to the Institut de France. He considered for a while writing an opera entitled Esmeralda, inspired by the literary work Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. Bizet greatly admired the famous author and various influences found in Carmen, such as the destructive nature of passion or the unavoidable force fate, can also be found in the works of Victor Hugo.

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He suffered financial difficulties his entire life

These difficulties reached such a point that he was forced to call upon all those who ordered him for a piece. There is also proof of his financial instability following his return from Rome in the letters he wrote to his mother. He often associated his career as a musician with the question of money, and refused until his death to use his talents as a performer as a source of income.

Though naturally enthusiastic and jovial, he was still prone to various outbursts of anger

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