Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Too Late to Matter for Georges Bizet, though Better Late Than Never for the Rest of Us

George Bizet (1838-1875) in 1875
George Bizet (1838-1875) in 1875

We mark the premiere on February 26, 1935 – 89 years ago today – of Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C.  The premiere took place in Basel, Switzerland, in a performance conducted by Felix Weingartner (1863-1942).  Bizet (1838-1875) never heard the symphony performed; he had died in the Paris suburbs in 1875 at the age of 36, a full 60 years before Weingartner’s premiere of his symphony.  Bizet’s Symphony in C, considered today to be a masterwork, was only “discovered” in the archives of the Paris Conservatoire in 1933, 78 years after its composition in 1855! 

What If

We contemplate a short list of those great (or potentially great) composers who died before their fortieth birthday. Henry Purcell (dead at 36), Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (26), Wolfgang Mozart (35), Vincenzo Bellini (33), Frédéric Chopin (39), Felix Mendelssohn (38), Lili Boulanger (24), Juan Arriaga (19), and George Gershwin (who died at the age of 38).  We should all deeply regret their early passing, not just because of the inherent tragedy of dying so young but because it is impossible not to think about what these composers might have accomplished had they at least lived Beethoven’s life span (56 years), or Sebastian Bach’s (65 years), or Richard Strauss’ (85 years), or Elliott Carter’s (103 years), or Leo Ornstein’s (106 years; though some say 109!).

Leo Ornstein (1892/1895-2002) in 1981, looking darned good for his age; Ornstein's exact date of birth is unknown, with various sources claiming 1892, 1893 or 1895
Leo Ornstein (1892/1895-2002) in 1981, looking darned good for his age; Ornstein’s exact date of birth is unknown, with various sources claiming 1892, 1893 or 1895

Admittedly, not everyone wonders about what those short-lived composers might have accomplished had they lived longer lives.   For example, apropos of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann (who himself didn’t live a particularly long life; 1810-1856) wrote:

“It is pointless to guess at what more Schubert might have achieved. He did enough; and let them be honored who have striven and accomplished as he did.”  

Rather more recently, the pianist András Schiff (born 1953) said that:

“Schubert lived a very short life, but it was a very concentrated life. In 31 years, he [composed] more than other people would in 100 years, and it is needless to speculate what he could have written had he lived another 50 years. It’s irrelevant, just like with Mozart.” 

Schubert (1797-1828) in 1825, three years before his death at the age of 31
Schubert (1797-1828) in 1825, three years before his death at the age of 31

At very least, I would accuse Messrs. Schumann and Schiff of being intellectual party-poopers, by denying themselves the joys of speculation.  But I also believe their assertions that speculation is “pointless,” “needless,” and “irrelevant” to be downright wrong.

Why “wrong”?  Because speculating on “what if” allows us to formulate alternative outcomes, alternative outcomes that in the end help us to recognize and process more deeply what actually did happen.   

(Of course, if the American theoretical physicist and string theorist Brian Greene is correct, and we live in a “quilted multiverse,” then any possible event will occur an infinite number of times in an infinite number of parallel universes.  If this is true, there is no such thing as “speculation,” as anything we might “speculate upon” will already have occurred or will occur in some universe or another!)

Back to our cozy, home universe. To my mind, far from being merely sport, speculating on possible outcomes allows us to sharpen our understanding of what actually did happen, and to appreciate as well the incredible web of interactive cause-and-effect that characterizes the progress of time.

For example.  What if Georges Bizet had lived another thirty years, until 1905, and had died at the age of 67?  He might very well have decided to compose another symphony, or another two symphonies, or another three symphonies, or whatever.  Based on what we now know to be his Symphony in C, those subsequent symphonies would almost certainly have been terrific works.  Had Bizet lived even a few more months, the fame and fortune that just eluded him in his lifetime (more on this in a bit) would have been his for the taking, and a work like the Symphony in C would likely not have languished in an archive for all those years.

Idle speculation? Yes.  But it helps us to understand just how special Bizet’s Symphony in C really is and just how unfair was its fate.…

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