Bizet's Symphony in C Major

Continuing our “inside” look at the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra's Bizet recording, we turn to Victor and Marina Ledin's liner notes on the Symphony in C Major.

Bizet's Symphony in C Major

In 1855, at 17, while at the Paris Conservatoire, Bizet composed Symphony in C Major as a school exercise. The work shows traces of Schubert and Rossini, revealing the individuality of a man with a rare gift for melody and an instinctive grasp of form. Polishing off his one symphony with superb orchestration, Bizet forgot all about it. There is no record of his referring to it in correspondence or conversation. Ending up in the Paris Conservatoire archives, it remained unnoticed for 80 years, until musicologist D.C. Parker and Jean Chantavoine, Conservatory General Secretary, came upon it. They notified Felix Weingartner, who conducted its world premiere February
26th, 1935, six decades after Bizet’s death.

Fashioned in one sitting, the symphony is a gem. The opening Allegro vivo’s main subject is a joyous little theme, developed with spontaneity and wit. The happy mood carries on in a lyrical melody for solo oboe. Then two themes proceed until a long crescendo ushers in the repeat. Hearing influences of Beethoven and Mozart, biographer Martin Cooper writes, “Bizet shows a most unusual grasp of design and unfailing sense of style. There is a nervous brilliance and, above all, an astonishing sureness of touch in the crisp, semi-comic cut to some of the phrases.”

The nostalgic, at times sad, mood of the Adagio haunts the oboe, and the expansive song theme for violins, interrupted only by a middle section fugato for strings. The Allegro vivace—actually a scherzo (or fast minuet), though not so marked—has a Schubertian main theme development. Marked Trio, a bucolic episode for clarinet and bassoon resonate, over the drone for lower strings. In the finale, the violins introduce a bustling theme and, after a march tune, trace a singing line. The extensive movement is with a sureness of touch that stamps the entire work—an amazing achievement for a boy of 17.

The work was introduced January 30, 1936 in America at a Rochester Philharmonic concert, in Rochester, New York, Sir Hamilton Harty conducting. Two ballets were produced utilizing Bizet’s symphony: Assembly Hall, a one-act ballet, choreographed by Andrée Howard and first produced at the Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet in London April 8th, 1946; and Le Palais de Cristal, a symphonic ballet in four movements, choreographed by George Balanchine, first produced July 28th, 1947 by the Paris Opéra Ballet. It was
revived as “Symphony in C”, for the Ballet Society New York City Center, March 22nd, 1948, with a cast of 50 including Maria Tallchief and Lew Christensen. The San Francisco Ballet premiered it March 17th, 1961, at the Alcazar Theater in San Francisco. Balanchine stated that although Symphony in C has no story, it describes the music to which it is danced, with the choreography and steps of each movement developing as the melodies, and themes are developed in the music. The costume and scenery are pared down to simple elegance: white tutues for women and black tights and tunics for men. A different pair of principal dancers lead each symphony movement, ending with the virtuoso finale, that includes all the dancers from the previous movements.

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