10 Best: Symphony movements, no. 8


Symphony in C, mvt. 2 by Georges Bizet

Like Richard Strauss, Georges Bizet isn’t regarded as much of a symphonist. In fact, Bizet isn’t regarded as much of an orchestral composer in general. His most popular “orchestral” works are the suites he culled from his most famous opera and his most famous incidental music, and his two major “mature” orchestral works, the Roma Symphony and the Patrie Overture are both pretty meh.

All the more ironic, then, that his most popular orchestral work is the one he a) never heard in his lifetime and b) didn’t give a shit about – dude wrote like a trillion letters and never mentioned the piece once. It didn’t receive its premiere until 1935 when Bizet biographer Douglas Parker ran it by Felix Weingartner. Why this is the case is anybody’s guess: is it because Bizet thought it was too derivative of his teacher Gounod’s Symphony in D? Is it because he figured he could grab some stuff from it and drop it in other works like he did with “De mon amie” from The Pearl Fishers? Is it because he just thought it sucked? It doesn’t really matter at this point.

What does matter is that for whatever derivation he may have taken from Gounod and whatever music he may have tapped for other shit, it’s a great fucking symphony that’s Classically proportioned but full of Romantic ideas. And here’s the icing on the cake: he wrote it in a month WHEN HE WAS 17! I don’t care if he literally copied entire pages from somebody else, that’s straight bananas. I don’t recall exactly what I was doing when I was 17, but I know it didn’t involve chicks or writing a bad ass symphony. Bizet’s early symphony should rest rather comfortably in the pantheon of ridiculous early genius music alongside Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shostakovich 1 and shit. That it never gets mentioned in the same breath is a mild tragedy, especially because it means that we don’t get to hear it as often.

The gem of the work is the second movement, a beautifully flowing Adagio that employs one of, if not the, greatest oboe solos in the repertoire, and seriously, there’s a shitload of great oboe solos in the repertoire. It moves so elegantly and is equal parts wistful and soothing, supported by incredibly fragile pizzicato strings. After this initial theme is presented, the violins bust their bows out for a breathtakingly gorgeous second theme that soars over the same pizzicati, now a bit more robust. And of all the ideas to run with, teenage Bizet goes with the plucking, casting the contrasting central section of the movement as a fugato sprung from the pizzicato and building to a superbly crafted transition in which the oboe theme returns over the last vestiges of this counterpoint. The oboe, this time joined by delightfully chipper descending pizzicato violins, gives the theme a full statement before coming to the emotional climax of the movement, quite possibly the most stunningly gorgeous four bars I can think of (and another bloody fabulous transition). The horns and strings lay the foundation with the chords that opened the movement. The winds supply the interjection of the dotted figure that has served as the main rhythmic motive. But it’s the oboe that elicits the chills with simple long tones, rising an octave from A to A and then crescendoing to the baddest motherfucking high C ever. I mean, that thing fucking sings man, and I defy anyone to not tear up just a tad when it happens. After dipping back down to E, the principal melody is played one last time, ultimately drifting off above the last gasps of the dotted figure.

I don’t know that this symphony as a whole can compare favorably with the greatest works in the form, but for my money this movement most certainly can. It’s wonderful simplicity belies its craft, staggering for a kid that age, and it features one of the truly legendary melodies in all of music. And that high C is the stuff wars are (admittedly stupidly) fought over, immense beauty and culture and inspiration that proves that the Divine Being must be on our side.

And seriously, 17 God damn years old. Enjoy this performance from Turkey. It’s not perfect, but Jesus (or Allah), they really get after it.



8 thoughts on “10 Best: Symphony movements, no. 8

  1. Hmm. Bizet, Strauss, Hovhaness.
    Still waiting for Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams, maybe even Stravinsky or Hindemith. All of whom had multiple movements more deserving than your first three choices.

  2. Oh there’s still time. But you have to mix it up. If I were doing this based solely on some ineffable sense of importance and emotional impact and musical construction, it would nothing but Bruckner first movements and finales. Don’t worry, we’ll be getting to the big boys here in a jif.

  3. Also, if you have time to do so (even briefly), I’d love to hear your suggestions for just such a list. This is an opportunity for all of us to learn some shit about music as well as the vague internet sense of each other as e-people!

  4. Wow, with only seven spots left on the list there’s gonna be some heartbreaking exclusions, I’m sure… following with great interest who of the big guys are gonna be left out in the cold!

    That said, thank you for your bringing these three (relative) symphonic ugly ducklings into the limelight (I’m needing to confess I’m not very familiar with any of the works making the top 10 so far).

  5. Does Sibelius’s 7th count as one movement?

  6. Ah, you spoiled my secret! Stay tuned…!

  7. This was BEAUTIFUL. I’m with Kimmo…I have enjoyed learning about and listening to composers and works that are less familiar.

  8. Hi there! This is kind of off topic but I need some
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    I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick.
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