Symphony in C
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
The music of Georges Bizet's Carmen is so popular that it begs the question of familiarity. Virtually every Spanish-hued note is so firmly etched in the general musical consciousness that the listener unfamiliar with the French composer's Symphony in C must wonder, whence cometh its unmistakably Mozartean first movement? The answer, if there is one at all, can only come through a short profile of the composer's tragically short life.
Bizet spent all but three years of that life in his native Paris; those three absent years found him in Italy, as the winner of the Paris Conservatory's Prix de Rome. He was only 19 when he went to Rome, and one would expect the prestige of the prize to have opened many doors for the gifted composer and brilliant pianist. However, back in Paris, he settled into a composing career that succeeded hardly at all, unless one counts a bit of praise from Hector Berlioz, who as chief music critic of the Journal des Débats, wrote that the young man's opera, Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), did Bizet the "greatest honor." The public, not heeding the composer/critic, remained unimpressed.
In 1872, two years before he wrote the very Spanish Carmen (without ever setting foot in that country), he composed the incidental music for L'Arlésienne (The Woman of Arles), a play by Alphonse Daudet. Remaining within his own national boundaries, stylistically as well as physically, Bizet turned for inspiration to the folk music of the melodrama's French locale, Provence, and created a score filled with the color and imagery of that region. Unfortunately for his career, the play was a failure and the music was dismissed; had he not extracted portions of the score for purposes of making a suite, the rich, delightful music might have been lost to us forever.
As for Carmen, it came about as the result of a commission from the Opéra Comique. Selecting as his subject the vivid story of that name by Prosper Merimée, Bizet induced Henri Meilhac and Ludvic Halévy to write the libretto. The opera was premiered March 3, 1875, and while its naturalism and luridness ruffled the sensibilities of a Parisian audience nurtured on elegant and grandiose stage pieces, it attained a fairly decent success. In the following weeks, it enjoyed nearly two dozen performances, but tragically, three months to the day after its premiere and on the night of its 23rd performance, Bizet died at the age of 36, never to witness any of Carmen's phenomenal popularity all over the world.
All of which brings us back two decades to Bizet's only completed symphony, a work that did not even have the opportunity to please or displease the public. Composed in 1855, it remained unperformed until the manuscript was discovered in the library of the Paris Conservatory in 1933. Bizet was barely 17 when he turned out the delightful and expertly crafted Symphony in C, a dazzling bit of juvenilia that places him in the exalted company of such earlier precocious teenagers as Mozart and Mendelssohn. Those are, to be sure, geniuses of a different ilk, but still, there is little question that the qualities of spontaneity, freshness, charm, melodiousness, elegance, and technical skill, to name just a few that distinguished the early works of Mozart and Mendelssohn, are the very ones found in abundance in Bizet's Symphony.
Living in a period when emotional indulgence was the norm, Bizet managed to maintain a coolly objective detachment that was at the heart of Classicism, while still stamping his music with unmistakable individuality. Take, for example, the secondary theme of the first movement, presented by oboe. Particularly coming after the vigorous, forthright, Mozartean main theme, this suave little melody has an airiness that is somehow distinctly French. Even more idiomatic is the second movement's main theme, also on oboe. Here is the exotic and picturesque Bizet of the L'Arlésienne music and of Carmen. The third movement, a fast Minuet, is all dance energy, at some moments more lilting than active; the Trio, which uses the Minuet theme, is strongly peasant-like.
Out of the bubbling, perpetual-motion vigor that constitutes much of the last movement, two distinctive themes emerge: the first, a tune that Bizet remembered well when writing the march music for the street-urchins in the first act of Carmen; the second, a lyric theme that floats on a billowy French cloud. The Symphony, ending as it started - with the brightest good spirits - was strange music indeed to have been created in the era of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner. Perhaps it was best that the piece did not get performed in 1855, for it probably would have been considered sheer folly for a 17-year-old Frenchman to have produced a symphony which speaks, in part, the language of Mozart. From our vantage point, the work can be appreciated for its great charm and obvious skill, its composer lauded for his precocity, and his backward look taken as a respectful, loving, utterly natural gesture.
- Orrin Howard