Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The sad side of Symphony in C

New York City Ballet performing Symphony in C in 1973

How sad is it that composer Georges Bizet never witnessed his Symphony in C being performed? He wrote it in 1855 in about a month when he was 17 as a student exercise while studying under Charles Gounod at the Paris Conservatoire. It was shelved, and would ultimately be unearthed by Bizet’s biographer and given its first performance in 1935 in Switzerland. (Sections of it would survive in other works.)

And in 1947 at Paris Opera Ballet, George Balanchine choreographed the pseudonymous ballet to it, and New York City Ballet performed it the next year at City Center. The dance would become one of his hallmarks of classical ballet, and remains a standard in large ballet company repertory, noted for its vivacity, dynamic shifts, dancey musicality, devilish technique, and as a show of a large company’s depth. When ABT performed it at City Center a few years back, the stage was so full in the finale, with 50 some odd dancers, that it seemed some might fall into the orchestra pit.

There’s a theory that Bizet didn’t perform Symphony in C as it shares some traits with his teacher Charles Gounod’s Symphony in D (also from 1855). Indeed, there are similarities, in fact some direct references, but Gounod’s is more atmospheric, pensive, and far less rhythmic and jaunty. Perhaps it is a reflex reaction developed by watching the ballet so many times, but I can’t help bounce along with Bizet’s irresistible melodies. And, written at 17!

It’s also a testament to the power of dance to underscore and delineate the music’s essence. Each of the four ballet movements is distinctive, offering each of its four lead couples an occasion to show off their finest characteristics, from allegro to andante. Is there a more heartrending passage than the end of the adagio section when the man lowers the woman through a spiral to rest on his knee? Even in a time-marking vamp in the allegro section, Balanchine enlivens it by having the dancers bounce between small pliés and relevés. The men pay homage to Balanchine's idea of "woman as ballet" by brushing the backs of their hands along the womens’ tutus. And the full-cast finale never fails to impress, a gigantic swiss timepiece clicking and whirring, each dancer/jewel in their place. The corps is just as important as the featured pairs. It’s also one ballet that both ABT and NYCB have both performed, with ABT’s feeling somehow more authentic.

Bizet may have borrowed enough melodic notions from his teacher to prevent a performance of it in his lifetime. But he might be pleased to learn that his composition has become ensconced in 21st century culture, and that even Gounod, if a little envious, might have been proud of its success.