Bizet's family was immersed in music, his father a singing teacher and his mother a fine pianist. Georges showed musical talent when very young, and through the influence of his mother's brother François Delsart, a well-known singer, was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine where he was taught by Antoine-François Marmontel. Standards at the Conservatoire at that time were not universally high, and of all those who taught Bizet between 1848 and 1657 only Marmontel, Fromental Halévy and Charles Gounod inspired him.
In 1855 Bizet, just 17 years old, wrote his first symphony, the Symphony in C, in six weeks: it bears the marks of his fascination with Gounod's music, but its vitality and sound palette are equally revealing of Bizet's own strong musical personality. In 1857, in response to a competition organized by Jacques Offenbach who was looking for new material for his Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Bizet completed his second operetta, Le Docteur Miracle. Bizet and Charles Lecocq shared first prize and Miracle was mounted at the theater, helping to spread Bizet's name in the right circles. As a result, he was adopted by Gioachino Rossini who invited him to his famous Saturday evening soirées. The same year the Académie de Musique awarded Bizet the Prix de Rome for his cantata Clovis et Clotilde, written to a turgid text by Amédée Burion. In late 1857 Bizet departed for Rome, armed with a glowing letter of recommendation from Rossini to many of his old contacts there. From the first Bizet enjoyed his time in the ancient city, writing to his mother: "Life is too happy…we chat, we keep warm, we play cards…in short, we couldn't have a better time".
During his time in Rome, Bizet completed Don Procopio, an opéra bouffe in two acts written in a deliberately Italian style, which he delivered to the Académie towards the end of 1859. Their response was encouraging: "This work has a brilliant and easy touch, precious qualities far the comic genre for which the composer has shown a clear affinity". Bizet's high spirits on receipt of this judgment were soon dissipated on a string of abandoned projects, including no less than two symphonies. Having proved his adeptness at light comedy, he was attempting more ambitious projects with the type of historical background beloved by his friend Gounod, but not suited to his own more quicksilver genius. His second composition for the Academic in Rome was an ode-symphony, Vasco da Gama, based on Luís Vaz de Camões' epic poem The Lusiad. This uninspired piece has rarely been heard. His last months in Rome were spent in the company of the 1859 winner, Ernest Guiraud, who was to remain a lifelong friend and a posthumous collaborator, preparing the grand-opera recitatives of Bizet's Carmen in place of the original dialogue.
Bizet arrived back in Paris in late 1860 to find his mother in poor health. As she lingered on, Bizet attempted to complete the Rome symphony. When his mother died in 1861, Bizet was plunged into agonies of regret; she had been the most important relationship in his life. Gounod, deep in preparations for the premiere of La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba), deliberately involved Bizet in the opera's production to help him get over the loss. A rest cure in Baden-Baden left Bizet tense and irascible, his fiery temper to the fore. The major cause for his irascibility was the birth of a son, Jean, to a maid called Marie who had nursed his mother in Paris. Not until long after Georges was dead did Marie reveal that Georges was the child's father.
The greater part of 1863 was spent writing Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) to a commission from the Theatre-Lyrique. It is commonly accepted that the librettists Eugene Cormon and Michel Carré, unaware of Bizet's talents, made little effort to write a libretto for the opera; in fact Cormon later admitted that had they heard some of the music (they heard nothing until the final rehearsals), they would have tried at least to make the libretto make dramatic sense. As it is, the opera contains wonderful melodic invention from Bizet. and shows his instinct for exoticism (the opera is set in Ceylon). It also contains the famous duet, "Au fond du temple saint". It was a modest success, Bizet's music receiving just one positive review (from Berlioz), and had to wait until 1893 for its first Paris revival, by which time the composer was long dead and Carmen had eclipsed all Bizet's other stage works.
In 1864 Bizet moved into a small cottage in Le Vésinet some 12 miles outside Paris, purchased by his father. There he concentrated on a score he had long failed to develop, Ivan IV based on a libretto passed on to him by Gounod. The music was written in the grand opera style of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Unfortunately for Bizet, Meyerbeer had died the year before, his genre dying with him, and Ivan IV could not have been presented to the Paris opera companies at a worse time. The score had to wait until a German production in the middle of World War II for its premiere.
Bizet's career remained static for nearly a year, during which time he befriended influential women such as Princess Mathilde Bonaparte and Celeste Venard, the former a great patroness of the arts, the latter a reformed courtesan and popular novelist who had a property adjacent to his in the country. In June 1866 the Theatre-Lyrique commissioned him to write the music to a libretto derived from a Walter Scott novel. By December 1867 La Jolie Fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth) was ready for its first performance. Like Pêcheurs before it, Jolie Fille was a failure, seeing only a handful of performances. Once again it was the libretto which was at fault, although the music is not Bizet's most distinguished either.
Money remained a constant worry as Bizet struggled to establish himself, though he continued to churn out a series of songs which he hoped to sell. Temporary optimism came in early 1869 when his symphony, Rome, finally received its premiere. He made light of the audience's reaction in a letter to a friend: "My symphony went very well: first movement: a round of applause, then hisses, then a catcall. Andante: a round of applause. Finale: applause, three times repeated, hisses, three or four catcalls. In short, a success".
In 1869 Bizet married Genevieve Halévy, daughter of the composer Fromental Halévy. This was not well received by Genevieve's family who felt she was marrying beneath her, but with her father dead and her period of mourning over, she felt a compulsion to renew life. Genevieve brought with her a dowry which alleviated any money worries for a while, and the match was a happy one. But they had only a year to enjoy Paris before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, followed by the occupation and the Commune of 1871. During the war Bizet was a member of the Paris National Guard, but with the onset of the Commune, Bizet felt that for Genevieve's sake they should move to his cottage at Le Vésinet. When order was restored, they returned to Paris.
Soon after, Bizet was commissioned by the Opéra-Comique to write the music to a libretto originally given to another composer, who had produced one aria in two years. Bizet rearranged the libretto for what eventually became the one-act Djamileh. Delays and complications at the Opera forced Bizet to shelve the project and take up others, including the delightful piano duet pieces, Jeux d'enlants, and the Petite Suite, which he extracted from the duet pieces and orchestrated.
Djamileh, though hindered by yet another feeble plot and indifferent libretto, was graced with luminescent scoring and memorable melodies, yet failed to make much of an impression at its opening in 1872. It was not helped by the mediocrity of the singers and poor casting. Bizet commented on opening night: "It's a total flop. You see what happens: you wear yourself out and do your best in vain. If you want to succeed today, you have to be dead – or German". Despite this failure, it is clear that, professionally at least, he had turned the corner.
Commissions from important clients were now frequent. The Opéra-Comique requested a new three-act opera, with Henri Meilhac and Halévy as his collaborators. "They will do something jolly which I will treat as lightly as possible", Bizet commented. This would later evolve into Carmen. From the Theatre-Lyrique came a request for incidental music to a play by Alphonse Daudet, L'Arlésienne. In 1872 Genevieve was delivered of a son, Jacques. Still buoyed by this happy event, Bizet completed the music for L'Arlésienne and it went into production. The score is one of Bizet's most subtle, intriguing and rewarding, though it is virtually never heard in its original context – as incidental music to a play which is where it works best. The two orchestral suites extracted from it (the first by Bizet, the second by Guiraud), though shorn of theatrical context, deservedly remain popular with concert audiences. Predictably, the play was a flop, the critics pasted it, and only the approval of a number of his musician friends kept Bizet sanguine as to his prospects. It was Jules Massenet who predicted a success for any suite drawn from the incidental music, and he was proved right: within months of the play having closed, a concert performance of the first suite drew ecstatic applause.
Bizet had begun considering Prosper Mérimée's story Carmen while L'Arlésienne was still in rehearsal, but did not begin serious work on it until after his involvement with Gounod's Roméo et Juliette was concluded by its performance at the Opéra-Comique in 1873. He worked quickly on the music for Carmen, expecting an early production, but rehearsals were constantly delayed, partly because the theater's management were nervous of having an opera at the Opéra-Comique in which the heroine dies at the end. The opera had been finished by autumn 1873, and only the hugely successful premiere of the overture, Patrie, Op. 19 (written 20 years earlier) in the meantime, served to calm Bizet's frazzled nerves. His state of mind had not been improved by a rift with Genevieve; from 1873 to early 1874 the couple had spent a good deal of time separated. Bizet was also suffering from angina of the throat.
Finally Carmen went into a production in September 1874 which was fraught with problems, especially with the chorus: they decided their part was physically impossible as they had to move and act as well as sing: a thing unheard of at the Opéra-Comique. On the morning of the opening night, March 3, 1875, it was announced that Bizet was nominated for the Légion d'honneur. It was the prelude to a disaster: the audience, prepared for a comic opera, was presented with Bizet's revolutionary work. Although the first act was greeted warmly by the end of the fourth the audience was stony and Bizet knew he had another flop on his hands. On the second night the audience was completely mesmerized, but this was negated by the singeing reviews. The opera staggered on for 48 performances but never had a full house. Carmen, which should have been a triumph, had failed in Paris.
Yet the theater commissioned another opera from him before he once again fell prey to an attack of throat angina, complicated by muscular rheumatism in the legs. Bizet, depressed by the failure of his marriage, was no longer able to fight such aliments with his usual vitality. On June 3, after moving to Bougival by the Seine in an effort to revive his health, he died from heart failure. It would be another eight years before Carmen was a runaway success in Paris, although by the end of 1875 it had already been well received in Vienna and elsewhere. Success had come too late for Bizet to enjoy it.