He was trained by his parents, who were musical, and admitted to the Paris Conservatoire just before his tenth birthday. There he studied counterpoint with Zimmerman and Gounod and composition with Halévy, and under Marmontel's tuition he became a brilliant pianist. Bizet's exceptional powers as a composer are already apparent in the products of his Conservatoire years, notably the Symphony in C, a work of precocious genius dating from 1855 (but not performed until 1935). In 1857 Bizet shared with Lecocq a prize offered by Offenbach for a setting of the one-act operetta Le Docteur Miracle; later that year he set out for Italy as holder of the coveted Prix de Rome.
During his three years in Rome Bizet began or projected many compositions; only four survive, including the opera buffa, Don Procopio (not performed until 1906). Shortly after his return to Paris, in September 1861, his mother died; the composer consoled himself with his parents' maid, by whom he had a son in June 1862. He rejected teaching at the Conservatoire and the temptation to become a concert pianist, and completed his obligations under the terms of the Prix de Rome. The last of these, a one-act opéra comique, La guzla de l'emir, was rehearsed at the Opéra-Comique in 1863 but withdrawn when the Theatre-Lyrique director, who had been offered 100 000 francs to produce annually an opera by a Prix de Rome winner who had not had a work staged, invited Bizet to compose Les pècheurs de perles.
Bizet completed it in four months. It was produced in September 1863, but met with a generally cool reception: an uneven work, with stiff characterization, it is notable for the skilful scoring of its exotic numbers. In the ensuing years Bizet earned a living arranging other composers' music and giving piano lessons. Not until December 1867 was another opera staged - La jolie fille de Perth, which shows a surer dramatic mastery than Les pècheurs despite an inept libretto. It received a good press but had only 18 performances.
1868 was a year of crisis for Bizet, with more abortive works, attacks of quinsy and a reexamination of his religious stance; and his attitude to music grew deeper. In June 1869 he married Geneviève, daughter of his former teacher, Halévy, and the next year they suffered the privations caused by the Franco-Prussian war (Bizet enlisted in the National Guard). Bizet found little time for sustained composition, but in 1871 he produced the delightful suite for piano duet, Jeux d'enfants (some of it scored for orchestra as the Petite Suite), and he worked on a one-act opera, Djamileh. Both the opera and Daudet's play L'arlésienne, for which Bizet wrote incidental music, failed when produced in 1872, but in neither case did this have anything to do with the music.
Bizet was convinced that in Djamileh he had found his true path, one which he followed in composing his operatic masterpiece, Carmen. Here Bizet reaches new levels in the depiction of atmosphere and character. The characterization of José, his gradual decline from a simple soldier's peasant honesty through insurbordination, desertion and smuggling to murder is masterly; the colour and vitality of Carmen herself are remarkable, involving the use of the harmonic, rhythmic instrumental procedures of Spanish dance music, to which also the fate-laden augmented 2nds of the Carmen motif may owe their origin. The music of Micaela and Escamillo may be less original, but the charm of the former and the coarseness of the latter are intentional attributes of the characters. The opera is the supreme achievement of Bizet and of opéra comique, a genre it has transformed in that Bizet extended it to embrace passionate emotion and a tragic end, purging it of artificial elements and embuing it with a vivid expression of the torments inflicted by sexual passion and jealousy. The work. however, was condemned for its 'obscene' libretto, and the music was criticized as erudite, obscure, colourless, undistinguished and unromantic. Only after Bizet's death was its true stature appreciated, and then at first only in the revised version by Guiraud in which recitatives replace the original spoken dialogue (it is only recently that the original version has been revived). The reception of Carmen left Bizet acutely depressed; he fell victim to another attack of quinsy and, in June 1875, to the two heart attacks from which he died.