His first symphony, the Symphony in C Major, was written in November 1855, when he was still only sixteen, evidently as a student assignment. It seems that Bizet completely forgot about it himself, and it was not discovered again until 1933, in the archives of the Paris Conservatory library where it had been deposited by Reynaldo Hahn, to whom it had been given by Bizet's widow. Upon its first performance on 26 February 1935, under the baton of Felix Weingartner, it was immediately hailed as a junior masterwork and a welcome addition to the early Romantic period repertoire. The symphony is a delightful work (and a prodigious one, from a sixteen-year-old boy), and is noteworthy for bearing an amazing stylistic resemblance to the first symphony of Charles Gounod first played earlier in the same year, and which Bizet had arranged for two pianos although present-day listeners may discern a similarity to music of Franz Schubert, whose work was little known in France at the time the symphony was written.
At the Conservatoire Bizet studied under Fromental Halévy, whose daughter Geneviève he married in 1869. Halévy died in 1862, leaving his last opera Noé unfinished. Bizet completed it, but it was not performed until 1885, ten years after Bizet's own death.
In 1857, a setting of the one-act operetta Le docteur Miracle won him a share in a prize offered by Jacques Offenbach. He also won the music composition scholarship of the Prix de Rome, the conditions of which required him to study in Rome for three years. There, his talent developed as he wrote such works as the opera buffa Don Procopio (1858-59). There he also composed his only major sacred work, Te Deum (1858), which he submitted to the Prix Rodrigues competition, a contest for Prix de Rome winners only. Bizet failed to win the Prix, and the Te Deum score remained unpublished until 1971. He made two attempts to write another symphony in 1859, but destroyed the manuscripts in December of that year. Apart from this period in Rome, Bizet lived in the Paris area all his life.
His mother died shortly after his return to Paris. He composed the opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) for the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, which was initially a failure. He followed it with La jolie fille de Perth (premiered also in the Théâtre Lyrique, in 1867), a symphony titled Roma (1868), and Jeux d'enfants (Children's games) for piano duet (1871).
The popular L'Arlésienne was originally produced as incidental music for a play by Alphonse Daudet, first performed on 1 October 1872. Bizet himself derived a suite from the music (first performed 10 November 1872), and Ernest Guiraud later arranged a second suite; both these suites contain considerable rewriting of the original score. Most performances or broadcasts of the second suite omit any mention of Guiraud's contribution.
That year (22 May 1872) also saw the production of the one-act opéra comique Djamileh, which is often seen as a precursor to Carmen. His overture Patrie was written in 1873 (it had no connection with Victorien Sardou's play Patrie!).
Carmen (1875) is Bizet's best-known work and is based on a novella of the same title written in 1846 by Prosper Mérimée. Bizet composed the title role for a mezzo-soprano. Carmen was not initially well-received but praise for it eventually came from well-known contemporaries including Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky. Brahms attended over twenty performances of it, and considered it the greatest opera produced in Europe since the Franco-Prussian War. The views of these composers proved to be prophetic, as Carmen has since become one of the most popular works in the entire operatic repertoire. However, Bizet did not live to see its success. He died from a heart attack at the age of 36 in Bougival (Yvelines), about 10 miles west of Paris. His death occurred on his sixth wedding anniversary, only a few months after Carmen's first performances. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
His widow Geneviève later had an alliance with Élie-Miriam Delaborde, generally believed to have been the illegitimate son of Charles-Valentin Alkan. However, she married Émile Straus, a banker with Rothschild family connections, and became a noted society hostess. Marcel Proust used her as a model for the Duchesse de Guermantes in his roman fleuve À la recherche du temps perdu. The Bizets' son Jacques (1872-1922), a writer, had been a school-friend of Proust.
Bizet's music has been used in the twentieth century as the basis for several important ballets. The Soviet-era Carmen Suite (1967), set to music drawn from Carmen arranged by Rodion Shchedrin, gave the Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya one of her signature roles; it was choreographed by Alberto Alonso. In the West the L'Arlesienne of Roland Petit is well-regarded, and the Symphony in C by George Balanchine is considered to be one of the great ballets of the twentieth century. It was first presented as Le Palais de Crystal by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, and has been in the repertory there ever since. The ballet has no story; it simply fits the music: each movement of the symphony has its own ballerina, cavalier, and corps de ballet, all of whom dance together in the finale.
Bizet's work as a composer has overshadowed how fine a pianist he was. On 26 May 1861, at a dinner party at the Halévys at which Franz Liszt was present, Bizet gave a faultless performance of an elaborate work of Liszt's, reading at sight from the unpublished manuscript. Liszt proclaimed that Bizet was one of the three finest pianists in Europe.