The Reluctant Teacher


In 1874 Georges Bizet was caught up in writing what would become his masterpiece, his opera Carmen. So it’s understandable that he was preoccupied and temperamental when he had to take time out to give piano lessons. An American girl living in Paris at the time had vivid memories of the reluctant teacher.

He was supposed to come at three o’clock….We would wait, wait, wait; and I was always glad if I thought he was not coming, for I was afraid of him…Not that he ever scolded, but the way he would look at you through those eye-glasses! Our apartment had several rooms strung along one after the other. When Monsieur Bizet arrived he would often have to knock at all the doors and hunt us up…One day he became impatient at finding no one, and we heard him stop in the adjoining room…and rap on the floor with his cane, exclaiming, “Can anyone hear me? What am I supposed to be doing here? Do you think I have time to waste like this?”

During the lessons Bizet would pace about the room, looking everywhere except at the piano, but at the slightest slip in fingering he would turn and declare: “I am not sleeping! I am not sleeping!” He never touched the piano, choosing instead to hum the way the music should go. His young student recalled:

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

When I would come to the crowning passage in Chopin’s Second Scherzo he would become half mad. He would rush up and down the room, crying out to me: “This is the climax! Throw your whole soul into it! Don’t miss a note! Play as if you were saying something.”

Although Bizet was tense at the student’s apartment, when the lessons moved to his home, Bizet was at ease. He would talk, show pictures, bring in his wife and baby, play the piano, and occasionally leave the lesson and retreat to his studio to work out his latest inspiration for Carmen.