Symphony in C major

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            Georges Bizet was a genuine musical prodigy, whose talent was early and widely recognized, who studied with the best teachers and composers in France, who perhaps was the close equal of Liszt as a pianist, who won the Prix de Rome, and who composed perhaps the most popular opera of all time.  And yet.  His career was a checkered one, full of missteps, works that were never finished, works that were finished and not performed, betrayals and failures with the French operatic establishment, and an early death at the age of thirty-six.  He planned, started, or substantially worked on some thirty operas, but finished only about five, of which only two achieved success.  His musical legacy was a story of lost manuscripts, poor or no scholarly attention, bad editions, and general neglect.  Today, the American musical public knows his work almost entirely through his immortal opera Carmen, and to a lesser degree, the opera The Pearl Fishers, as well as his orchestral suites of incidental music from the play, L’Arlésienne.  The situation is only somewhat better in Europe--even in his native France.   While he did compose a substantial body of work, it was admittedly irregular in quality, and certainly in reception.  Moreover, to survive financially, he was reduced to spending much of his musical life arranging the music of other composers.

            His first substantial work was the Symphony in C major, and there are few examples in all of musical history of such a complete, polished, and mature work from the pen of a seventeen year-old.   At the time he had already been a student at the Paris Conservatoire for seven years, and was the star pupil of his mentor, Gounod.   It is clear that Bizet considered it a student work, and it was never published, performed, or even mentioned by Bizet in all of his correspondence, for the rest of his life.   It lay undisturbed and unknown in the library of the Paris Conservatoire until 1933, when it was “discovered” by a French musicologist.  It received its world première shortly thereafter in Basel, Switzerland in 1935.  Immediately garnering accolades, it swiftly entered the standard repertoire for orchestra.

            In the ensuing years close studies of the symphony clearly show that it derived much of its material, form, and procedures from the Symphony No. 1 in D major that his teacher, Gounod, was almost simultaneously completing.   And yet, the marvel is equally clear:  Bizet’s work is without doubt, the distinct superior to that of his model as in every way.   He simply took Gounod’s work as a point of departure, borrowed what he needed, and—as Bach once observed on such musical purloining—“paid him back with substantial interest.”

            Written just a few days after his seventeenth birthday in 1855, the Symphony in C was finished in only a few weeks.  Cast in the familiar four movements of a classic-early romantic symphony, Bizet’s work employs a modest standard instrumentation, without trombones, tuba, or percussion--except for timpani.  It’s clearly Mozartian, with all of the virtues of the earlier composer.   The first movement is effervescent in every way; the main theme is a spritely little three-note motive that enters right away, after the single opening chord.  And, soon, in the best Mozart manner, the second theme, heard first in the oboe, is typically more lyrical and restrained.  You’ll know that the development has started when a few notes in the solo horn are heard.  After a suitable, but not elaborate, working through of both themes, an arpeggio in the horn tells us the recap is at hand.  Bizet doesn't pull any surprises, here, but does a complete recapitulation and this little romp is over.

            After a soft, mysterious introduction with horn chords and octave leaps in the woodwinds, the winsome, melancholy main idea is heard in the oboe over staccato “walking” strings.  It is admittedly tempting—and not without reason—to hear presentiments of the “Spanish” style of the composer, from eighteen years later in Carmen.   Bizet’s vaunted mastery of harmonic color is heard from time to time in the beguiling modulations that carry the sensuous lyricism that pervades.  Contrast is necessary from this delicious sound, so the young composer gives us an “ichy” little fugue, beginning in the strings.  Soon, the opening lyric oboe returns to wrap up this remarkable essay that belied the composer’s youth.

            A cheerful, dancing scherzo is next, of course.   But, the interesting feature is the usual diversion of the middle section.  Another feature of Bizet’s maturity that some may recognize are the rustic “open” fifths in the low strings that accompany the woodwind activity above.   It’s decidedly an allusion to peasant, or other “exotic” musical traditions that Bizet would employ with great facility, later on in his career.

            The last movement opens with a kind of perpetual motion activity in the strings.  Wind fanfares announce the obligatory lyric second idea, and we’re off to the races.  The movement is a simple sonata form like the first, and after sizzling development, there’s a gallop to the end that features all of the familiar material.  Youthful works are usually, and appropriately, heard as just that--apprentice pieces that hint of greater things to come.  Not so, here.  Bizet hit the ground running at the callow age of seventeen, and, with a total absence of youthful pretentiousness, nevertheless gave us work of mastery, charm, and grace. 

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan