France’s Greatest Composer — Georges Bizet — Was Jewish
Few operas are performed more than Georges Bizet’s Carmen; none are better loved. It was his magnum opus and a glimpse of the direction that music might have taken had he lived longer. Bizet died of a heart attack at age 36 in 1875, three months after Carmen’s premier.
Since the year 2000, Bizet has had 188 television and movie composer credits — because people can’t stop playing his music. Even the least musically inclined know a few of his most famous tunes. His “Toreador Song” and “Habanera” are perhaps the two most famous arias ever written.
Purely by chance, I stumbled across the following footnote in “Tschaikovsy: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique),” a scholarly work by Professor Timothy L. Jackson, published by the Cambridge University Press:
“Whether Bizet was Jewish has been the subject of considerable debate. Gdal Saleski reports (Famous Musicians of Jewish Origins [New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1949], p. 14)”:
While preparing my Famous Musicians of a Wandering Race (1927), I based my research both on previous documentary publications and on personal contacts. I visited Paris in 1922 and again in 1924, to gather additional material on the lives of French-Jewish composers and musicians. Several persons were interviewed regarding the Jewish ancestry of Bizet. A friend of long standing, Dr. Henri Sliosberg, a renowned lawyer in pre-Soviet Russia, who I visited several times in Paris, introduced me to an eminent French septuagenarian musicologist who, in his youth, had known Bizet personally.
From him I learned that Bizet’s maternal grandparents were Spanish Jews. May I also refer you to a book written by Dr. Adolph Kohut, entitled Berühmte Israelitische Männer und Frauen, pubished originally in 1871, in which Bizet’s biography and photograph were included. … In 1892 this volume was translated into several versions, which did not omit Bizet’s biography. In view of the fact that Dr. Kohut’s book originally appeared during Bizet’s lifetime (he died in 1875), and he was at no time thereafter forced to repudiate or retract the statement of the composer’s origin, it is safe to assume that Bizet had Jewish blood in his veins. … In Das Judenthum in der Musik by Simon Levy, Erfurt, 1930, Bizet is described as “erin halb-spanisher Jude.”
“According to Jewish law, which traces lineage matriarchally, Bizet was Jewish.”
The footnote goes on to point out the curiosity that Bizet’s wife’s family had objected to their union on religious grounds — peculiar given that his wife, Geneviève, née Halévy, was Jewish. However, it appears that their concern did not stem from Bizet being a titular Christian (his father was Christian, and he himself was baptized as an infant): Bizet wrote to a friend that his wife’s family objected to him as “penniless, left-wing, anti-religious and Bohemian.” It’s hard to imagine there was a time when being a leftist, atheist bohemian was considered unsuitable for a Jew.
Like many music-lovers, I regard Bizet as the greatest opera composer who ever lived, behind Mozart, and the greatest French composer who ever lived, behind no one. The fact that I didn’t know he was a Jew strikes me as curious. I knew, for instance, that his primary librettist (like Mozart’s) was a Jew; that’s commonplace opera trivia. How could Bizet’s Semitic origin — evidently well-known in the late 19th century — have been suppressed?
One clue may be the story of Henri Herz — a French-Jewish pianist and composer. When Georges Bizet was just three, Herz specifically requested that his Judaism be excluded from his entry in the Biographie Universelle des Musiciens, for fear that it would damage his career. Herz died in 1888 — six years before the Dreyfus affair.
The French have produced a substantial proportion of history’s best and most important art, philosophy and science. But they’ve always been world-champion antisemites, so I suppose it’s not surprising that they were inclined to bury Bizet’s Jewishness. The Germans did the same thing with the greatest of all waltz writers — the Johann Strausses Sr. and Jr. C’est la vie.
Anyway — the record ought now to be corrected. I look forward to some new street in Jerusalem being named Georges Bizet Boulevard.