Born into a musical family - both his father and a maternal uncle were singing teachers - he entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine. He had a brilliant academic career, studying the piano with J. F. Marmontel and composition with Pierre Zimmermann, J. F. F. Halévy,Halevy, and Charles Gounod, and winning many prizes.
Bizet was admitted to the Conservatoire on 9 October 1848, two weeks before his 10th birthday. He made an early impression; within six months he had won first prize in solfège, a feat that impressed Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, the Conservatoire's former professor of piano. Zimmermann gave Bizet private lessons in counterpoint and fugue, which continued until the old man's death in 1853. Through these classes Bizet met Zimmermann's son-in-law, the composer Charles Gounod, who became a lasting influence on the young pupil's musical style—although their relationship was often strained in later years.
When he finally won the much coveted Prix de Rome in 1857, he had already composed a Symphony in C major comparable in quality with the works of Mozart and Mendelssohn written at the same age, and his one-act operetta Le Docteur Miracle had been awarded a first prize in the competition initiated by Jacques Offenbach.
Bizet spent nearly three years in Rome, more impressed by the natural beauties and the visual arts of Italy than the music. His comic opera Don Procopio, composed during this time, leans heavily on Donizetti, but Gounod remained for a long time the strongest influence upon Bizet among living composers, Mozart and Rossini among those of the past. He was an astonishingly brilliant pianist, admired by Liszt himself, who heard him play in May 1861, some months after Bizet's return to Paris from Rome.
All through his life Bizet was in the habit of starting work impulsively on librettos that caught his fancy and then abandoning them unfinished--one biographer lists some 20 of these abortive attempts--but his first complete opera to be performed was Les PêcheursPecheurs de perles (1863). Despite the manifest influence of Gounod and Giacomo Meyerbeer, its lyrical charm and exotic coloring have won it an honorable place in the French operatic repertory. Despite his gifts Bizet found it difficult to make a living, and he was obliged to undertake a large amount of hackwork for music publishers. This both undermined his health and distracted him from serious composition. His next completed opera was La jolie fille de Perth, produced at the end of 1867. A feeble libretto, based on Sir Walter Scott's Fair Maid of Perth, and the unfortunate concessions that Bizet made to his prima donna have always told against a score that nevertheless contains many attractive and some prophetic things.
Although all his gifts fitted him for the composition of full-length opera, the first works in which Bizet gave any clear idea of his potential stature as an artist (if we except the early symphony) were a set of piano-duet pieces Jeux d'enfants (1871); a one-act opera Djamileh (1872); and the incidental music to Alphonse Daudet's play L'ArlésienneL'Arlesienne (1872). His marriage in 1869 to GenevièveGenevieve Halévy,Halevy, the daughter of his old master Halévy,Halevy, brought him the regular life and the emotional stability that he had hitherto conspicuously lacked; and his experiences during the Franco-Prussian War--during which he served in the National Guard--and the Commune broadened and deepened his character. In fact it might not unfairly be said that Bizet, despite his musical precocity, remained emotionally immature until after the age of 30 and this prevented him from rising to his full stature as an artist. His desire for popular success and the financial rewards resulting from it, though doubtless exaggerated by his enemies, still played a part in inhibiting his full artistic development. Jeux d'enfants shows him as a witty and poetic miniaturist, and in Djamileh he further developed the gift of creating the local color, the poetic characterization, and the individual orchestral writing that are already noticeable in Les PêcheursPecheurs de perles. His music for L'ArlésienneL'Arlesienne represents a further advance, for in these suites he was able to evoke in a few dances, intermezzos, and "melodrames" not only the atmosphere of Provence but the lyrical or tragic elements of the drama.
A worthy field for the development of these remarkable gifts was offered him for the first time by the excellent libretto on which he next set to work--a dramatized version of Prosper Mérimée'sMerimee's Carmen, compiled by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.Halevy. Bizet started to compose this in 1872, but the first performance, at the Paris Opéra-Comique,Opera-Comique, was not until Mar. 3, 1875. After some initial uncertainty, owing to the subject (considered by the majority of critic too risquérisque for the stage), the opera gained steadily in popularity; but it was only the spectacular success of the work at the Vienna Opera in October 1875 that gave any inkling of its true quality