Program Notes, ©2013 Lori Newman
Georges Bizet Symphony in C (1855)
(Born 1838, Paris, France; died 1875, Bougival, France)
Most everyone is familiar with the story of child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and his early death at the age of thirty-five. Many are familiar with a similar tale when discussing the child prodigy, albeit far less prolific composer, Felix Mendelssohn, who died at the age of thirty-eight. Few are aware that the French composer Georges Bizet, most famous for his opera Carmen, was also a child prodigy who died far too young, at the age of thirty-six.
Bizet was born to musician parents and showed musical prowess at an early age. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the tender age of nine, and wrote his first symphony, the Symphony in C, at the age of seventeen. The Symphony in C was most likely a student assignment while the young composer was studying at the Paris Conservatoire. It was never published nor performed in Bizet’s lifetime; in fact, no one knew it existed until nearly eighty years later, in 1933, when it was discovered in the Conservatoire’s archives by musicologist Jean Chantavoine. Bizet’s biographer, Douglas Charles Parker, took the work to the conductor Felix Weingartner who recognized it as a remarkably mature and well-written symphony, and conducted its premiere in Basel, Switzerland in 1933. It has remained a mainstay in the repertoire ever since.
Why Bizet never mentioned this work in any of his letters, nor tried to have it published and performed, is a matter of speculation. The most widely believed theory is that as a student of the French composer Charles Gounod at the Paris Conservatoire, Bizet was influenced by Gounod’s Symphony No. 1, which premiered earlier in 1855. So influenced, that he perhaps copied several of the elements of Gounod’s work. Not literal note-for-note copying, but stylistic and architectural elements of Gounod’s Symphony are also found in Bizet’s Symphony in C. During Bizet’s lifetime Gounod was the far more successful and famous of the two; therefore, for Bizet to publish his first symphony which was written soon after Gounod’s, while he was his pupil, and containing several of the same structural elements of Gounod’s work, could perhaps damage Bizet’s reputation as a composer.
The Symphony in C is written in the traditional four-movement symphonic paradigm and is most beloved for its beautiful melodies, rich orchestration, and elegant charm.