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The Composer of “Carmen” 

By Charles Willeby

WHAT little has been written about poor Bizet is not the
sort to satisfy. The men who have told of him cannot
have written with their best pen. Even those who, one can see,
have started well, albeit impelled rather than inspired by a profound
admiration for the artist and the man, have fallen all too short of
the mark, and ultimately drifted into the dullest of all dull things—
the compilation of mere dates and doings. I know of no pamphlet
devoted to him in this country. He was much misunderstood
in life ; he has been, I think, as much sinned against in death.
The symbol of posthumous appreciation which asserts itself to the
visitor to Père Lachaise, is exponential of compliment only when
reckoned by avoirdupois. Neglected in life, they have in death
weighed him down with an edifice that would have been obnoxious
to every instinct in his sprightly soul a memorial befitting per-
haps to such an one as Johannes Brahms, but repugnant as a
memento of the spirit that created “Carmen.” It is an emblem
of French formalism in its most determined aspect. And in
truth as Sainte-Beuve said of the Abbé Galiani “they owed to
him an honourable, choice, and purely delicate burial ; urna brevis,
a little urn which should not be larger than he.” The previous
inappreciation of his genius has given place to posthumous lauda-


                        64 The Composer of “Carmen”

tion, zealous indeed, but so indiscriminating as to be vulgar. Like
many another man, he had to take “a thrashing from life” ; and
although he stood up to it unflinchingly, it was only in his death
certificate that he acquired passport to fame.

Just eighteen years before it was that Bizet had written from
Rome : ” We are indeed sad, for there come to us the tidings of
the death of Léon Benouville. Really, one works oneself half
crazy to gain this Prix de Rome ; then comes the huge struggle
for position ; and after all, perchance to end by dying at thirty-
eight ! Truly, the picture is the reverse of encouraging.” Here
was his own destiny, nu comme la main, save that the fates be
grudged him even the thirty-eight years of his brother artist—
called him when he could not but

    The petty done—the undone vast.”

But his early life was not unhappy. He had no pitiful struggle
with poverty in childhood, at all events. Some tell us he was pre-
cocious—terribly so ; but I had rather take my cue from his own
words, “Je ne me suis donné à contre-coeur à la musique,” than
dwell upon his precocity, real or fictional. It was only heredi-
tarily consistent that he should have a musical organisation. His
father was a teacher of music, not without repute ; his mother
was a sister of François Delsarte, who, although unknown to
Grove, has two columns and more devoted to him by Fetis, by
whom he is described as an “artiste un peu étrange, quoique d’un
mérite incontestable, doué de facultés très diverses et de toutes les
qualités nécessaires à l’enseignement.” What there was of music in
their son the parents sought to encourage assiduously, and Bizet
himself has shown us in his work, more clearly than aught else
could, that the true dramatic sense was innate in him. And that


                        By Charles Willeby 65

he loved his literature too, was well proved by a glance at the
little appartement in the Rue de Douai, which he continued to
occupy until well-nigh the end.

In 1849—he was just over his tenth year—Delsarte took him
to Marmontel of the Conservatoire. “Without being in any
sense of the word a prodigy,” says the old pianoforte master, “he
played his Mozart with an unusual amount of taste. From the
moment I heard him I recognised his individuality, and I made it my
object to preserve it.” Then Zimmerman, with whom l’enseigne-
ment was a disease, heard of him and sought him for pupil. But
Zimmerman seems to have tired of him as he tired of so many
and ended by passing him on to Gounod. From entry to exit—
an interval of eight years—Bizet’s academic career was a series of
premiers et deuxièmes prix. They were to him but so many stepping-
stones to the coveted Grand Prix de Rome. He longed to secure
this—to fly the crowded town and seek the secluded shelter of
the Villa Medici. And in the end he had his way. In effect, he
commenced to live only after he had taken up his abode on the
little Pincian Hill. Even there life was a trifle close to him, and
some time passed before he really fixed his focus.

In Italy, more than in any other part of the world, the life of
the present rests upon the strata of successive past lives. And
although Bizet was no student, carrying in his knapsack a super-
fluity of culture, this place appealed to him from the moment that
he came to it, and the memory of it lingered long in after days.

The villa itself was a revelation to him. The masterpiece of
Renaissance façade over which the artist would seem to have
exhausted a veritable mine of Greek and Roman bas-reliefs ; the
garden with its lawns surrounded by hedges breast-high, trimmed
to the evenness of a stone-wall ; the green alleys overshadowed by
ilex trees ; the marble statues looking forlornly regretful at Time’s


                         66 The Composer of “Carmen”

defacing treatment ; the terrace with its oaks gnarled and twisted
with age ; the fountains ; the roses ; the flower-beds ; and in the
distance, “over the dumb Campagna-sea,” the hills melting into
light under the evening sky—all these made an intaglio upon him
such as was not readily to be effaced, and which he learned to love.
Perhaps because, after all, Italy is even more the land of beauty
than of what is venerable in art, he did not feel the want of what
Mr. Symonds calls the “mythopœic sense.” It is a land ever
young, in spite of age. Its monuments, assertive as they are, so
blend with the landscape, are so in harmony with the surroundings,
that the yawning gulf of years that would separate us from them
is made to vanish, and they come to live with us.

And the place was teeming with tradition. From the time,
1540, when it had been designed by Hannibal Lippi for Cardinal
Ricci, passing thence into the hands of Alexandro de’ Medici,
and later into those of Leo XI., it had been the home of art ; and
then, on its acquisition by the French Academy in 1804, it be-
came the home of artists. Here had lived and worked and dreamed
David, Ingres, Delaroche, Vernet, Hérold, Benoist, Halévy,
Berlioz, Thomas, Gounod, and the minor host of them. In truth
the list awed Bizet not a little, and had he needed an incentive
here it was. For the rest, he was supremely content. As a pen-
sionnaire of the Academy he had two hundred francs a month, and
he apportioned them in this wise : Nourriture, 75fr. ; vin 25fr. ;
retenue, 25 fr. ; location de piano, 15fr. ; blanchissage, 5fr. ; bois,
chandelles, timbre-poste, &c., 10fr. ; gants 5fr. ; perte sur le change
de la monnaie, 5fr. Even then he wrote : “I have more than
thirty francs pour faire le grand garçon.” In another letter he says :
“I seem to cling to Rome more than ever. The longer I know
it, the more I love it. Everything is so beautiful. Each street—
even the filthiest of them—has its own charm for me. And perhaps


                        By Charles Willeby 67

what is most astonishing of all, is that those very things which
startled me most on my arrival, have now become a part of and
necessary to my very existence—the madonnas with their little
lamps at every corner ; the linen hanging out to dry from the
windows ; the very refuse of the streets ; the beggars—all these
things really divert me, and I should cry out if so much as a
dung-heap were removed. . . . . More too, every day, do I pity
those imbeciles who have not been more fully able to appreciate
their good fortune in being pensionnaires of the Academy. But
then one cannot help observing that they are the very ones who
have achieved nothing. Halévy, Thomas, Gounod, Berlioz,
Massé—they all loved and adored their Rome.”

Then on the last day of the same year : “I seem to incline
more definitely towards the theatre, for I feel a certain sense of
drama, which, if I possessed it, I knew not of till now. So I
hope for the best. But that is not all. Hitherto I have vacillated
between Mozart and Beethoven, between Rossini and Meyerbeer,
and suddenly I know upon what, upon whom to fix my faith.
To me there are two distinct kinds of genius : the inspirational
and the purely rational, I mean the genius of nature and the
genius of erudition ; and whilst I have an immense admiration for
the second, I cannot deny that the first has all my sympathies.
So, mon cher, I have the courage to prefer, and to say I prefer,
Raphael to Michael Angelo, Mozart to Beethoven, Rossini to
Meyerbeer, which is, I suppose, much the same as saying that if
I had heard Rubini I would have preferred him to Duprez. Do
not think for a moment that I place one above the other—that
would be absurd. All I maintain is that the matter is one of
taste, and that the one exercises upon my nature a stronger
influence than does the other. When I hear the ‘Symphonie
Héroïque,’ or the fourth act of the ‘Huguenots,’ I am spell-


                        68 The Composer of “Carmen”

bound, aghast as it were ; I have not eyes, ears, intelligence,
enough even to admire. But when I see ‘L’ Ecole D’ Athènes,’
or ‘La Vierge de Foligno,’ when I hear ‘Les Noces de Figaro,’
or the second act of ‘Guillaume Tell,’ I am completely happy;
I experience a sense of comfort, a complete satisfaction : in effect,
I forget everything.”

This, then, is what Rome did for Bizet ; hut, be it said, for
Bizet très jeune encore. For a time the result is patent in his
work, but afterwards there comes, although no revulsion, a distinct
variation of feeling, which has in it something of compromise.
The genius innate in him was inspirational before it was—if it
ever was—erudite. Even in his later days there was for him no
cowering before his culture. In 1867 he wrote in the Revue
Nationale—the only critique, by the way, he ever wrote—under
the pseudonym of Gaston de Betzi : “The artist has no name,
no nationality. He is inspired or he is not. He has genius or he
has not. If he has, we welcome him ; if he has not, we can at
most respect him, if we do not pity and forget him.”
He was the same in all things : ” I have no comrades,” he said,
“only friends.” And there is one sentence that he wrote from
Rome that might well be held up to the gamins of the French
Conservatoire. ” Je ne veux rien faire de chic ; je veux avoir des
idèes avant de commencer un morceau.”

In August of his second year Bizet left Rome on a visit to
Naples. He carried a letter to Mercadente. On his return good
news and bad awaited him. Ernest Guiraud, his good friend and
quondam fellow-student in the class of Marmontel, has just been
proclaimed Prix de Rome. And this at the very moment Bizet
was to leave the Villa ; for the Academy would have it that their
musical pensionnaires should pass the third year in Germany.
The prospect was entirely repugnant to Bizet. So he went to


                         By Charles Willeby 69

work against it, directing his energies in the first place against
Schnetz, “the dear old director” as they called him. Schnetz,
owning to a soft spot for his young pensionnaire, was overcome, and
through him I fancy the powers that were in Paris. However,
Bizet was permitted to remain in his beloved Rome. Delighted,
he wrote off to Marmontel : “I am daily expecting Guiraud, and
words cannot express how glad I shall be to see him. Would you
believe it, it is two years since I have spoken with an intelligent
musician ? My colleague Z—— bores me frightfully. He speaks
to me of Donizetti, of Fesca even, and I reply to him with
Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Gounod.”

This last year spent with Guiraud was perhaps the happiest of
his life. At the close of it the two set off together on a ramble
through the land, with fancy for their only guide. They had got
so far as Venice when news of his mother’s dangerous illness
called Bizet to her side. He arrived in time to say farewell, and
he never returned to Italy.

Of work done at the Villa, “Vasco de Gama” is the only
tangible sample ; “but I have not wasted my time,” he wrote,
“I have read a good many volumes of history, and ever so much
more literature of all kinds. I have travelled, I have learned
something of the history of art, and I really am a bit of a
connoisseur in painting and sculpture. All I want now, on my
return, are trois jolies actes for the Théâtre Lyrique.”

And shortly we find him in full swing with “Les Pecheurs des
Perles.” It was produced on the 30th September of 1863, and
had some eighteen representations. “La Jolie Fille de Perth,”
which followed it four years later, had, I think, twenty-one. In
between these two works, we are told, Bizet, in a fit of violent
admiration for Verdi, strove to emulate him in an opera entitled
“Ivan le Terrible.” It is said to have been completed and


The Yellow Book—Vol. II. E

                        70 The Composer of “Carmen”

handed to the management of the Théâtre Lyrique. Then
Bizet, recognising as suddenly that he had made a mistake, with-
drew the score and burned it.

M. Charles Pigot, who is chiefly responsible for this story,
goes on to say that the libretto was the work of MM. Louis
Gallet and Edouard Blau. But in that he is not correct, for
Gallet himself tells us that he knew Bizet only ever so slightly at
the time, and that neither to him nor to Blau is due a single line
of this “Ivan.”

Then there were “Griselidis,” of which, in a letter dated
February of 1871, Bizet speaks as très avancée; “Clarisse
Harlowe” ; and the “Calendal” of M. Sardou, to each of which
he referred in the same year as à peine commence. There was also
an opera in one act written by M. Carvalho, and actually put
into rehearsal at the Opéra Comique. But none of these saw the
light, and I have little doubt they all met their fate on a certain
eventful day, shortly before he died, when Bizet remorselessly
destroyed a whole pile of manuscript. And in truth these early
works had little value of themselves. They were but so many
rungs of the ladder by which he climbed to the heights of
“Djamileh,” of “L’Arlésienne,” and of “Carmen.” No musician
ever took longer to know himself than did Georges Bizet. His
period of hesitation, of vacillation, was unduly protracted. For
why, it is hard to tell ; but one cannot help feeling that the
terrible lutte pour la vie had a deal to do with it. Those early
years in Paris were very hard ones. “Believe me,” he wrote from
le Vésinet (always a favourite spot with him),” believe me, it is
exasperating to have one s work interrupted for days to write
solos de piston. But what would you ? I must live. I have just
rushed off at a gallop half-a-dozen melodies for Heugel. I trust
you may like them. At least I have carefully chosen the verses.


                        By Charles Willeby 71

. . . . My opera and my symphony are both of them en train. But
when, oh when, shall I finish them ? Yet I do nothing but work,
and I come only once a week to Paris. Here I am well out of
the way of all flaneurs, raseurs, diseurs de riens, du monde enfin,
hélas.” Then a few days later : “I am completely prostrate with
fatigue. I can do nothing. I have even been obliged to give up
orchestrating my symphony ; and now I feel it will be too late for
this winter. I am going to lie down, for I have not slept for
three nights, and all seems so dark to me. To-morrow, too, I
have la musique gaie to write.”

Just then time was pressing him hard. He was under con-
tract to produce “La Jolie Fille de Perth” by the end of the
year, and he was already well into October. It became a matter
of fifteen and sixteen hours work a day ; for there were lessons to
be given, proofs to be corrected, piano transcriptions to be made,
and the rest. And, truth to tell, he was terribly lacking in
method. He was choke-full of ideas, he was indeed borne along
by a very torrent of them ; and if only he could have stopped to
collect himself it would have been well for him. But no ; before
he realised it, “La Jolie Fille ” was finished and in rehearsal.
Then for the time he was able to put enough distance between
himself and his work to value it. And it seems to have pleased
him. “The final rehearsal,” he writes to Galabert (by this time
his confidant in most things), “has produced a great effect. The
piece is really highly interesting, the interpretation is excellent,
and the costumes are splendid. The scenery is new and the
orchestra and the artists are full of enthusiasm. But more than
all this, cher ami, the score of ‘La Jolie Fille’ is une bonne chose.
The orchestra lends to all a colour and relief for which, I confess,
I never dared to hope. I think I have arrived this time. Now,
il faut monter, monter, monter, toujours.”


                        72 The Composer of “Carmen”

Shortly after this he married Geneviève Halévy, the daughter of
the composer of “La Juive,” and lived almost exclusively at le
Vésinet. There, at 8, Rue des Cultures, a rustic place enough,
one might find Georges Bizet, seated in his favourite corner of the
lovely garden, en chapeau de canotier, smoking his pipe and chatting
to his friends. It had been the home of Jacques Halévy, and
Bizet had been wont to do his courting there. Now the old man
was no more, and in the long summer days, the daughter and the
son—for Halévy had been as a father to Bizet—missed sorely the
familiar figure hard at work with rake or hoe at his beloved flower-
beds. They were the passion of his later days, and they well-repaid
his care. Even in the middle of a lesson—and he taught up to well-
nigh the last weeks of his life—would he rush out to uproot a
noxious weed that might chance to catch his eye. “How well I
remember my first day there,” says Louis Gallet. “The war
was not long finished, and the traces of it were with us yet.
True, Paris had resumed her lovely girdle of green ; but beneath
this verdure reflected in the tardy waters of the Seine, there was
enough still to tell the terrible tale of ruin. One could not go to
Pecq or le Véinet without some difficulty. Bizet, to save me
trouble, had taken care to meet me at Rueil, whence we made for
the little place where he was staying for the summer. The day
was lovely, and ‘Djamileh’ made great strides as we talked and
paced the pretty garden walks. This habit of discussing while
walking, what was uppermost in his mind, was always, to me, a
powerful characteristic of Georges Bizet. I do not remember
any important discussion between us that did not take place
during a stroll, or at all events whilst walking, if only to and from
his study. We talked long that afternoon—of the influence of
Wagner on the future of musical art, of the reception in store for
‘Djamileh,’ both by the public and by the Opéra Comique itself.


                        By Charles Willeby 73

This latter, indeed, was no light matter. The Direction was
then undertaken by two parties : that of Du Locle, tending
towards advancement in every form ; that of De Leuven, clinging
with all the force of tradition to the past.

“Then in the evening nothing would do but Bizet should see
me well on my way to Paris. The bridges were not yet restored.
So we set off on foot, in company with Madame Bizet, to find
the ferry-boat. How delicious was that walk by the little islets in
the cool of the twilight ; along the towing-path so narrow and
overrun with growth that we were obliged to proceed in Indian
file. And how merry we were, until perchance we stumbled on
the fragment of a shell lying hidden in the grass, or came face to
face with some majestic tree, still smarting from its wounds,
when there would rise before us in all its vividness the terrible
scene so recently enacted on that spot. Then we talked of the
war and all its sorrows ; and we tried to descry there on the
right, in the shade of Mount Valerien, the spot where Henri
Regnault fell.

“At length we found the ferry, and reached the other bank.
There at the end of the path we could see the lights of the
station; so we separated. And although I made many after
visits, none remained so firmly fixed in my memory, or left me
so happy an impression as did this, my first to Bizet’s summer

During the siege itself, he had been forced to remain in Paris.
But it was much against his will, and he seems to have chafed
sorely at it. Yet it is difficult to picture Bizet bellicose. “Dear
friend,” he writes to Guiraud, who was stationed at some outpost,
“the description you give of the palace you are living in makes
us all believe that luck is with you. But every day we think of
the cold, the damp, the ice, the Prussians, and all the other


                        74 The Composer of “Carmen”

horrors that surround you. As for me, I continue to reproach
myself with my inaction, for in truth my conscience is anything
but at rest ; but you know well what keeps me here. We really
cannot be said to eat any longer. Suzanne has just brought in
some horse bones, which I believe are to form our meal. Gene-
viève dreams nightly of chickens and lobsters.”

Not till the following year, during the days of the Commune,
do we find him at le Vésinet. Then he writes (also to Guiraud):
“Here we are without half our things, without our books, with-
out anything in fact, and absolutely there are no means of getting
into Paris. . . . . So, dear friend, if you have any news, do, I
pray you, let us have it. I read the Versailles papers, but they
tell their wretched readers (and expect them to believe it) that
France is très tranquille, Paris alone excepted (sic). The day
before yesterday was anything but tranquil. For twelve hours
there was nothing but a continuous cannonade…. But we
are safe enough, for although the Prussian patrols continue to
increase in number we are not inconvenienced by them, and they
will not, in all probability, occupy le Vésinet. But it seems quite
impossible to say how all this is going to end. I am absolutely
discouraged, and what is more, I fear, dear friend, there is worse
trouble ahead of us. I am off now to the village to look at a
piano ; I must work and try to forget it all.”

He finished “Djamileh” at le Vésinet. It was produced at the
Opéra Comique in May of 1872. Gallet tells us that he did not
write the book specially for Bizet. Under the title of “Na-
mouna,” it had been given by M. du Locle to Jules Duprato, a
musician and a “prix de Rome.” But Duprato paressait agrè-
ablement, and never got much further with it than the compo-
sition of a certain air de danse to the verses commencing :
“Indolente, grave et lente,” which are to be found also in Bizet’s


                        By Charles Willeby 75

score. Then there came a time when the Opéra Comique, truly
one of the most good-natured of institutions in its own peculiar
way, so far belied its reputation as to tire of this idling on the
part of M. Duprato. So the work passed on to Bizet. He
suggested change of title, and “Namouna” became “Djamileh.”
But it remained nevertheless the poem of Musset.

    “Je vous dirais qu’ Hassan racheta Namouna
    * * * * *
    Qu’on reconnut trop tard cette tête adorée
    Et cette douce nuit qu’elle avait espérée
    Que pour prix de ses maux le ciel la lui donna.

    Je vous dirais surtout qu’ Hassan dans cette affaire
    Sentit que tot ou tard la femme avait son tour
    Et que l’amour de soi ne vaut pas l’autre amour.”

There you have the whole story. It is but an état d’âme—a little
love scene, simple enough in a way, yet so delicate and so full of
colour. It was a matter of “atmosphere,” not of structure, a
masterpiece of style rather than of situation ; and from its first
rehearsal as an opera it was doomed. In truth, these rehearsals
were amusing. There was old Avocat—they used to call him
Victor—the typical régisseur of tradition; a man who could tell
of the premières of “Pré-aux-Clercs ” and “La Dame Blanche,”
and, what is more, expected to be asked to tell of them. From his
corner in the wings he listened to the music of this “Djamileh,”
his face expressive of a pity far too keen for words. But it was a
matter of minutes only before his pity turned to rage, and eventu-
ally he stumped off to his sanctum, banging his door behind him
with a vehemence that augured badly for poor Bizet. As for
De Leuven, his co-director : had he not written “Postilion de

                                                Lonjumeau” ?

                        76 The Composer of “Carmen”

Lonjumeau”? and was it not the most successful work of
Boiledieu’s successor ? The fact had altered his whole life.
Ever after, all he sought in opera was some similarity with
Le Postillon. And there was nothing of Adam in this music,
still less anything of De Leuven in the poem. That was sufficient
for him. “Allons,” said he one day to Gallet, who arrived at
rehearsal just as Djamileh was about to sing her lamento :
“allons, vous arrivez pour le De Profundis.”

As for the public, they understood it not at all, this charming
miniature. “C’est indigne,” cried one; “c’est odieux,” from
another; “c’est très drôle,” said a third. “Quelle cacophonie,
quelle audace, c’est se moquer du monde. Voilà, où mène le culte
de Wagner à la folie. Ni tonalité, ni mesure, ni rythme ; ce
n’est plus de la musique,” and the rest. The press itself was
no better, no whit more rational. Yet this “Djamileh” was
rich in premonition of those very qualities that go to make
“Carmen” the immortal work it is. It so glows with true
Oriental colour, is so saturate with the true Eastern spirit, as to
make us wonder for the moment—as did Mr. Henry James about
Théophile Gautier—whether the natural attitude of the man was
not to recline in the perfumed dusk of a Turkish divan, puffing a
chibouque. Here the tints are stronger, mellower, and more
carefully laid on than in “Les Pêcheurs des Perles.” There is,
too, all the bizarrerie, as well as all the sensuousness of the East.
Yet there is no obliteration of the human element for sake of the
picturesque. Wagnerism was the cry raised against it on all
sides ; yet, if it be anything but Bizet, it is surely Schumann. It
was, in effect, all too good for the public—too fine for their vulgar
gaze, their indiscriminating comment. And Reyer, farseeing
amongst his fellows, spoke truth when he said in the Débats :
“I feel sure that if M. Bizet knows that his work has been


                        By Charles Willeby 77

appreciated by a small number of musicians—being cognoscenti
he will be more proud of that fact than he would be of a popular
success. ‘Djamileh,’ whatever be its fortunes, heralds a new
epoch in the career of this young master.”

Then came “L’Arlésienne,” as all the world knows, a dismal
failure enough. It was to Bizet a true labour of love. From the
day that Carvalho came to him proposing that he should add
des mèlodrames to this tale of fair Provence, to the day of its
production some four months later, he was absorbed in it. The
score as it now stands represents about half the music that he
wrote. The prelude to the third act of “Carmen,” and the
chorus, “Quant aux douaniers,” both belonged originally to
“L’Arlésienne.” The rest was blue pencilled at rehearsal. And
of all the care he lavished on it, perhaps the finest, certainly the
fondest, was given to his orchestra. Every instrument is minis-
tered to with loving care. Luckily for him, fortunately too for
us, he knew not then what sort of lot awaited this scrupulous score
of his. He knew he wrote for Carvalho—for the Vaudeville ; but
that was all. And they gave him twenty-five musicians—a
couple of flutes and an oboe (this latter to do duty too for the
cor-anglais) ; one clarinet, a couple of bassoons, a saxophone, two
horns, a kettle-drum, seven violins, one solitary alto, five celli,
two bass, and his choice of one other. The poor fellow chose a
piano ; but they never saw the irony of it. All credit to his little
band, they did their best. But the most that they could do was to
cull the tunes from out his score. The consolation that we have
is, that, so far as the piece as a piece is concerned, no orchestra
in the world could have saved it. It was doomed to failure for all
sorts of reasons. Daudet himself goes very near the mark when
he says that “it was unreasonable to suppose that in the middle of
the boulevard, in that coquettish corner of the Chausée d’ Antin,


                        78 The Composer of “Carmen”

right in the pathway of the fashions, the whims of the hour,
the flashing and changing vortex of all Paris, people could be
interested in this drama of love taking place in the farmyard in
the plain of Camargue, full of the odour of well-plenished granaries
and lavender in flower. It was a splendid failure ; clothed in the
prettiest music possible, with costumes of silk and velvet in the
centre of comic opera scenery.” Then he goes on to tell us : “I
came away discouraged and sickened, the silly laughter with which
the emotional scenes were greeted still ringing in my ears ; and
without attempting to defend myself in the papers, where on all
sides the attack was led against this play, wanting in surprises—
this painting in three acts of manners and events of which I alone
could appreciate the absolute fidelity. I resolved to write no
more plays, and heaped one upon the other all the hostile notices
as a rampart around my determination.”

At this time Bizet seems to have come a good deal into contact
with Jean Baptiste Faure. They met frequently at the Opéra.
“You really must do something more for Bizet,” said the baritone
to Louis Gallet. “Put your heads together, you and Blau, and
write something that shall be bien pour moi.” “Lorenzaccio,”
perhaps the strongest of De Musset’s dramatic efforts, first came
up. But Faure was not at all in touch with it. The rôle of
Brutus—fawning Judas that he is—revolted him. He had no
fancy to distort as menteur à triple étage ; so the subject was put
by. Then came Bizet one morning with an old issue of Le
Journal pour tous in his pocket. “Here is the very thing for
us : ‘Le Jeunesse du Cid’ of Guilhem de Castro ; not, mark
you, the Cid of Corneille alone, but the inceptive Cid in all the
glory of its pristine colour—the Cid, Don Rodrigue de Bivar, in
the words of Sainte-Beuve ‘the immortal flower of honour and of
love.'” The scène du mendiant held Bizet completely. It was to


                        By Charles Willeby 79

him simple, touching, and great. It showed Don Rodrigue in a
new light. Those—and there were many of them—who had
already cast their choice upon this legend, had recognised—but
recognised merely—in their hero, the son prepared to sacrifice his
love for filial duty, and to yield his life for love. But they had
not seen in him the Christian, the true and godly soul, the Good
Samaritan that De Castro represents. The scene of Rodrigue
with the leper, disdained and done away with by Corneille, with
which De Castro too was so reproached, was full of attraction for
Bizet. His whole interest centred round it. He was impatient
and hungered to get at it ; and “Carmen,” on which he was
already well at work, was even laid aside the while. Faure, too,
had expressed a sound approval and a hearty interest, and this
alone meant much. So Bizet once again was full of hope.
There follows a long and detailed correspondence on the subject
with Gallet, with which I have not space to deal ; but it shows
up splendidly the extreme nicety of the musician’s dramatic sense.
In the summer of 1873 “Don Rodrigue” was really finished,
and one evening Bizet called his friends to come and listen.
Around the piano were Edouard Blau, Louis Gallet, and Jean
Faure. Bizet had his score before him—to common gaze a skeleton
thing enough, for of “accompaniment” there was but little. But
to its creator it was well alive, and he sang—in the poorest possible
voice, it is true—the whole thing through from beginning to end.
Chorus, soprano, tenor, bass, yea, even the choicer “bits” for
orchestra—all came alike to him ; all were infused with life from
the spirit that created them. It was long past midnight when he
ceased, and then they sat and talked till dawn. All were en-
thusiastic, and in the opinion of Faure (given three years later)
this score was more than the equal of “Carmen.” His word is
all we have for it, but it carries with it something of conviction.


                        80 The Composer of “Carmen”

He was no bad judge of a work. Anyway, no sooner had he
heard it than he set about securing its speedy production at the
Opéra. And he succeeded in so far that it was put down early
on the list. But Fate had yet to be reckoned with. She was not
thus to be baulked of her prey : she had dogged the footsteps of
poor Bizet far too zealously for that ; and on the 28th October
(less than a week after he had put finis to his work), she stepped
in. On that day the Opéra was burned down.

As for the score, it was laid aside, and of its ultimate lot we are
in ignorance. Inquiry on the part of Gallet seems to have
elicited nothing more definite than a courteous letter from M.
Ludovic Halévy, to the effect that he was quite free to dispose of
the book to another composer. “It was George’s favourite,”
wrote his brother-in-law, “and he had great hopes for it ; but it
was not to be.”

Perhaps of all his powers Bizet’s greatest was that of recupera-
tion. It would be wrong to say he did not know defeat; he
knew it all too well, but he never let it get the better of him.
He was never without his irons upon the fire, never without a
project to fall back upon. And perhaps it is not too much to say
that he had no life outside his art. This too may in truth be
told of him : that in all the struggle and the scramble, in all his
fight with fortune, it was the sweeter qualities of his nature that
came uppermost. His strength of purpose stood on a sound basis
—a basis of confidence in, though not arrogance of, his own
power. Where he was most handicapped was in carrying on his
artistic progress coram populo. Had it been as gradual as most
men’s—had it been but the acquiring of an ordinary experience—
all might have been well ; he would probably have been accorded
his niche and would have occupied it. But he progressed by
leaps and bounds, and even then his ideal kept steadily miles ahead


                        By Charles Willeby 81

of his achievement. It was for long a very will-o’-the-wisp for
him. Now and again he caught it, and it is at such moments that
we have him at his best; but he can be said only to have captured
it completely—so far as we are in a position to tell—in
“L’Arlésienne” and certain parts of “Carmen.” His faculty
of self-criticism was developed in such an extraordinary degree
as to baulk him. He loved this Don Rodrigue and thought it
was his masterwork, and that too at the time when “Carmen”
must have been well forward. We know then that the loss is
not a small one.

It had not been alone the fate of the Opéra House that had stood
in the way. That institution had in course taken up its quarters
at the Salle Ventadour, and once installed there had proceeded
with the répertoire. But Bizet’s “Rodrigue,” although well
backed by Faure, was pushed aside for others. The three names
that it bore were all too impotent ; and when a new work was
announced, it was “L’Esclave” of Membrée that was seen to
grace the bills, and not ” “Don Rodrigue.”

Poor Bizet, disappointed and sore at heart, vanished to hide
himself once more by his beloved Seine. This time it was to
Bougival he went.

M. Massenet had recently produced his “Marie Madeleine”
and, curiously enough, it had been successful. This seems to have
spurred Bizet on to emulation. With his usual happy knack of
hitting on a subject, he wrote off to Gallet, requesting him to do
a book with Geneviève de Paris—the holy Geneviève of legend-
ary lore—for heroine. And Gallet, accommodating creature that
he was, forthwith proceeded to construct his tableaux. Together
they went off to Lamoureux and read the synopsis to him. He
approved it heartily, and Bizet got to work. “Carmen” was
then finished and was undergoing the usual stage of adjournment


                        82 The Composer of “Carmen”

sine die. Three times it had been put into rehearsal, only to be
withdrawn for apparently no reason, and poor Bizet was wearying
of opera and its ways. This sacred work was relief to him. But
hardly had he settled down to it when up came “Carmen” once
again, this time in good earnest. He was forced to leave
“Geneviève” and come to Paris for rehearsals. It was much
against his inclination that he did so, for his health was failing
fast. For long he had suffered from an abscess which had made
his life a burden to him. Nor had his terrible industry been
without its effect upon his physique. He did not know it, but
he had sacrificed to his work the very things he had worked for.
He felt exhausted, enfeebled, shattered. Probably the excitement
of rehearsing “Carmen” kept him up the while; but it had its
after-effect, and the strain proved all the more disastrous. A
profound melancholy, too, had come over him ; and do what he
would he could not beat it off. A young singer (some aspirant
for lyric fame) came one day to sing to him. “Ich grölle
nicht” and “Aus der Heimath” were chosen. “Quel chef-
d’oeuvre,” said he, “mais quelle désolation, c’est à vous donner
la nostalgie de la mort.” Then he sat down to the piano and
played the “Marche Funèbre” of Chopin. That was the frame
of mind he was in.

In his gayer moments he would often long for Italy. He had
never forgotten the happy days passed there with Guiraud. “I
dreamed last night” (he is writing to Guiraud) “that we were all
at Naples, installed in a most lovely villa, and living under a
government purely artistic. The Senate was made up by Beet-
hoven, Michael Angelo, Shakespeare, Giorgione, e tutti quanti.
The National Guard was no more. In place of it there was a
huge orchestra of which Litolff was the conductor. All suffrage
was denied to idiots, humbugs, schemers, and ignoramuses—that


                        By Charles Willeby 83

is to say, suffrage was cut down to the smallest proportions
imaginable. Geneviève was a little too amiable for Goethe, but
despite this trifling circumstance the awakening was terribly

“Carmen” was produced at last, on the 3rd of March in that
year (1875). The Habanera—of which, by the way, he wrote
for Mme. Galli-Marié no less than thirteen versions before he
came across, in an old book, the one we know—the prelude to
the second act, the toreador song, and the quintett were encored.
The rest fell absolutely flat.

The blow was a terrific one to Bizet. He had dreamed of
such a different lot for “Carmen.” Arm in arm with Guiraud
he left the theatre, and together they paced the streets of Paris
until dawn. Small wonder he felt bitter ; and in vain the kindly
Guiraud did his best to comfort him. Had not “Don Juan,” he
argued, been accorded a reception no whit better when it was
produced in Vienna ? and had not poor Mozart said “I have
written ‘Don Juan’ for myself and two of my friends” ? But he
found no consolation in the fact. The press, too, cut him to the
quick. This “Carmen,” said they, was immoral, banale ; it was
all head and no heart ; the composer had made up his mind to
show how learned he was, with the result that he was only dull
and obscure. Then again, the gipsy girl whose liaisons formed
the subject of the story was at best an odious creature ; the
actress’s gestures were the very incarnation of vice, there was
something licentious even in the tones of her voice ; the composer
evidently belonged to the school of civet sans lièvre; there was
no unity of style ; it was not dramatic, and could never live ; in a
word, there was no health in it.

Even Du Locle—who of all men should have supported it—
played him false. A minister of the Government wrote personally


                        84 The Composer of “Carmen”

to the director for a box for his family. Du Locle replied with
an invitation to the rehearsal, adding that he had rather that the
minister came himself before he brought his daughters.

Prostrate with it all, poor Bizet returned to Bougival. When
forced to give up “Genevieve,” he had written to Gallet : “I
shall give the whole of May, June, and July to it.” And now
May was already come, and he was in his bed. “Angine colos-
sale,” were the words he sent to Guiraud, who was to have been
with him the following Sunday. “Do not come as we arranged ;
imagine, if you can, a double pedal, A flat, E flat, straight through
your head from left to right. This is how I am just now.”

He never wrote more than a few pages of “Geneviève.” He
got worse and worse. But even so, the end came all too suddenly,
and on the night of the 2nd of June he died—died as nearly as
possible at the exact moment when Galli-Marié at the Opéra
Comique was singing her song of fate in the card scene of the
third act of his “Carmen.” The coincidence was true enough.
That night it was with difficulty that she sung her song. Her
nervousness, from some cause or another, was so great that it was
with the utmost effort she pronounced the words : “La carte
impitoyable ; réptéra la mort ; encor, toujours la mort.” On
finishing the scene, she fainted at the wings. Next morning
came the news of Bizet’s death. And some friends said—because
it was not meet for them to see the body—that the poor fellow
had killed himself. Small wonder if it were so !

MLA citation:

Willeby, Charles. “The Composer of ‘Carmen.’” The Yellow Book, vol. 2, July 1894, pp. 63-84. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.