Pere Lachaise - 2

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy npr.org

Walking over to section 68 of Pere Lachaise, a subtle change in ambience is noticeable, that is, if one has not sacrificed that receptivity assigned to the more vulgar senses.  An association or atmosphere clings to the section:  unseen ghosts, dissipated sounds, a suffused glory which doesn’t fade.  Probably due to two of the sections’ permanent residents, both of who are composers.  Their music pervades the area, because this is where their souls were laid to rest.  And music, of course, being God’s mathematics, is a soulish exhalation. 

And I suspect that angels, who are drawn to cemeteries, especially those like Pere Lachaise, Gothic with soot and stupendous statues, come and sing to the dead.  Whole choirs of angelic beings, like twinkling lights, singing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.  They come because angels do not die.  Fascinated by the novelty of death, they study it, croon over it, regale it.

This fascination with death explains why, in particular, the angels visit section 68, specifically.  Because of the fiery death scenes in Carmen, and the man who wrote it.

Georges Alexandre Cesar Leopold Bizet, child prodigy, and one-hit wonder.  He would not allow himself to write from the heart, preferring instead the dull discipline of composing from the head, which, as any musician will concede, never works because the heart is where the body and the soul join together.  So it is there that music is born.

Bizet died at age 36.  The medical reasons for his death are variously listed as  throat abcesses, rheumatic fever, a tumor inside his ear, and heart attack.  On top of all that, his wife, Genevieve Halevy, was mentally ill and drained Bizet of his emotional and nervous energy.  And their son, Jacques, committed suicide.

Mostly, though, Bizet suffered severe depression because he considered himself a failure.  All the medical reasons aside, I would say he died of failure.  For who can confuse disappointment with success?

When Bizet was 22 years old his mother died.  He consoled himself in the arms of the family maid.  She got pregnant, and gave birth to a son, Jean Reiter. 

On the train to Le Vesinet, where he lived, Bizet met a remarkable woman.  She was or had been at various times a prostitute, dance hall escort, equestrian, writer and stage director.  Her name was Celeste Venard and she inspired Bizet, became his muse.  She was to become the beau ideal (beautiful idea) for Bizet’s Carmen.

Bizet borrowed the storyline from Prosper Merimee’s novel, Carmen.  Carmen is a brutal woman, a prostitute, without any of the warmth that draws man to woman.  And that’s what Bizet wrote:  a stark, realistic opera, which depicts the impulsivity and recklessness of humanity.  At the time, Carmen was astonishing and ignored every operatic precedent.

Lukewarm describes Carmen’s reception by the general public.  Another failure, or so thought Bizet.  He died shortly thereafter, on the day of his wedding anniversary.  Just after his sad death, Carmen’s vicarious elegance was recognized.  Carmen had heart because Bizet in this one instance wrote from his heart.  It enjoyed worldwide success, and Bizet, hailed as a master, rested in Section 68 of Pere Lachaise.  Where the ravens were making nests in his eyes. 

He never knew.

Very interesting, his widow, now wealthy beyond her dreams because of the royalties from Carmen, dated Guy de Maupassant, among others, and later married Emile Straus.  Emile was related to the Rothschilds.

The newly married former widow went into haute couture, establishing her own salon, which flourished.  She was immortalized as the duchess in Proust’s The Guermantes Way.

Not bad; from incipient insanity to immense wealth to immortality.

Poor old Georges Bizet.  Like the tree in The Giving Tree, he denuded himself of everything for his love of music, his opera.  In the end, there was just a stump left and no one to come and sit and rest upon it.