Symphony Saturday

After last week’s big dose of heavy Austrian Romanticism, a lighter work seems called for this week: the Symphony in C by Georges Bizet.

Bizet’s life was, in many ways, the archetype of the 19th century artist: he struggled to achieve success, and his moments of triumph were fleeting; he worked himself very hard, which, coupled with awful health habits, led him to an early death; the work for which he would likely be best known forever was unsuccessful at first. The Gods of Art can be a heartless bunch, but at least they let Bizet stick around long enough to give the world Carmen, which after its initial failure went on to become one of the most beloved operas ever written.

The Symphony in C dates from early in Bizet’s life, when he was just 17. He wrote it as a student piece while at the Paris Conservatoire, and though he would reuse tunes from the work later on, Bizet apparently never regarded the symphony as anything other than a thing he did for school, and it was likely never even performed in his lifetime. After Bizet died in 1875, his papers — including the manuscript for the symphony — went to the Conservatoire, where it sat in storage until someone dusted it off in 1933. The symphony’s first performance took place on February 26, 1935, almost sixty years after Bizet’s death and almost eighty years after he wrote it.

The work itself displays none of the heavy-handed German-Austrian density so common to the more familiar symphonic music of the day. Bizet’s touch is light, and the symphony sounds like a youthful work, not in the sense that it lacks sophistication, but in the sense that it abounds with gentle optimism. Here is Bizet’s Symphony in C.

Next week: We’ll start looking at what the Russians have been up to….

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