Georges Bizet: Symphony in C

performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink

(cover image by Gaetano Cessati)

Georges Bizet was born on 25 October, 1838 in Paris as Alexandre César Léopold Bizet, but baptized as Georges. His father was a hairdresser and wig maker as well as an amateur singing teacher who never had any formal training.

Georges’ mother Aimée (née Delsarte) was “an accomplished pianist.” The Delsartes were said were “though impoverished, were a cultured and highly musical family.” They had some serious connections and musical instruction. Her parents, and thus Georges’ grandparents, were Jewish, thus making Bizet Jewish by Jewish law, but he was raised as a Christian.

He was an only child, and had an aptitude for music. His earliest lessons were with his mother, and he showed a sharp memory and ear for music. As a result, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire weeks before his tenth birthday. He made connections with Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmerman, a former piano professor, and through him to Gounod, and through him to Saint-Saëns, who became Bizet’s lifelong friend. We will be seeing him in this series for sure.

Bizet would win lots of prizes, and through his work on arranging Gounod’s work for piano four hands, came to a keen knowledge of that man’s style, ultimately writing his first symphony at the tender age of 17, largely influenced by Gounod’s style. This is one reason, the primary one, in fact, that we discussed Gounod’s second symphony rather than his first. I think Bizet’s effort is far more exciting. Winton Dean says that the work has “few rivals and perhaps no superior in the work of any composer of such youth.”

One of the reasons I chose to discuss Gounod’s second symphony earlier in the week rather than his first was because this piece shares some similarities with Gounod’s first. I quote a passage from the Wikipedia article on the Bizet symphony:

The numerous stylistic, orchestral, melodic and harmonic similarities between the Gounod and Bizet symphonies make it clear that Bizet was emulating and, in certain cases, directly quoting his teacher. As Howard Shanet, who revived Gounod’s symphony with the Columbia University Orchestra in 1955, observed, “the first glance at [Gounod’s] score … made it clear that the young Bizet had copied all its most conspicuous features in his Symphony in C.”[14] There are, in fact, so many references, parodies and quotations from Gounod in Bizet’s work that it is likely the young composer was consciously paying homage to his celebrated teacher.

The ultimate point is that I find Bizet’s effort to be… well, better. Perhaps that’s because I heard it before the Gounod, came to appreciate the work’s energy and excitement, grew to love it before Gounod’s effort, but the work strikes me as vividly, breathtakingly, even at times almost shockingly, vibrant, colorful, vividly exciting. It’s youthful. Parallels are drawn between it and maybe an early Beethoven symphony, and I think it’s easily heard.

The work was lost, or else intentionally hidden, and not rediscovered until 1933, first performed in 1935 under the baton of Felix Weingartner, some 95 years after the composer’s birth, and almost 80 years after the work was completed. Thank goodness it was found.

The first movement has punch and character, and gives the kind of exhilarating feeling you might have when you meet someone and begin to have a wonderful conversation with them. It’s magnificently engaging. There’s a clear operatic element to the work, and this confidence and vivid color marks the entire piece, really. There’s such high contrast, for example, among the big, almost boisterous full-orchestra statements, and the softer replies, colored predominantly by woodwinds.

This music isn’t complex, but has so much character and depth to enjoy. It’s unmistakably youthful, but also somehow so polished. The second theme, following the exuberance of the first subject, is like a limpid stream, refreshing, but broader, quieter, and it’s this material that features primarily in the development for this first movement, before returning to close in a big way.

The cover of the above-referenced album is over a blue background, a vivid, bright, but rich blue background, and I feel, probably largely due to the power of suggestion, that it fits this work so perfectly. That particular shade is bold and powerful, but also crisp, and it reminds me of the youthfulness this work embodies. You can almost hear the 17-year-old composer, under Gounod’s tutelage, just ready to burst forth with ideas and talent as a composer who clearly already knows what he’s doing. I digress.

The second movement, at nearly ten minutes in Haitink’s reading, is by far the longest of the four in this work. If you thought you heard something operatic in nature about Bizet’s writing, wait until you hear the showstopper of what amounts to an aria in this, the slow movement. The oboe appears after an almost ominous introduction. We can practically see the spotlight come down on the instrument as it plays a slithery, showy solo. The breadth and stateliness of this movement reminds me much of Schubert’s ninth (the long one in C), and this aria-passage is contrasted with a central section with smooth contrapuntal character. There is a bit more bounce, but we’re still a long-distance phone call from the exuberance we hear in any of the other movements. It does build to a climax, but we return to the A section to close the movement.

The scherzo is the shortest movement of the work, but even here we have irresistibly delightful melodies, two in the scherzo (with the first acting as a backdrop for the second), and a trio that sounds like the drone and jig of bagpipes and Celtic music. It is as if Mendelssohn has dropped in for a visit, and at least in this case, that’s not at all a bad thing.

The finale is just… pure, unadulterated, even relentless excitement of the sort that only an outrageously talented young seventeen-year old could write. We have three themes, and each of them is just… an absolute dazzling gem. Strings don’t so much burst as much as buzz to the fore, taking a rest for the second theme, and then…

Does anything else really need to be said? Bizet is clearly possessive of an exquisite sense of melody, orchestral color and texture, and a true dramatist. This symphony is just stunning, perhaps truly without parallel as a symphony from a seventeen-year old composer, darn near perfection.

We’ve got a busy month for June, with a total of twenty-five more French pieces to discuss. I’ve been planning this for months, and that number still surprises me! That’s almost one a day!

Anyway, stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading!

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