May 08, 2010
I have a file cabinet that holds a bunch of papers from when I was a student. I have term papers and bibliographies. I have analyses of music, syllabi, theory assignments, and handouts. I keep everything in case I need to use the information in my capacity as a teacher. I certainly don’t expect these papers to be important to anyone else, and I’m not keeping them for posterity. But imagine that in the course of my life, I become a famous writer/musicologist, and after my death my family bequeaths this file cabinet worth of stuff to the archives of my alma mater. Imagine that in this stack of papers some historian unearths an early term paper and declares it a lost masterpiece, and publishes it.
Now, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to care about my term papers after my death, but it’s not unheard of for schoolwork to later become important, especially if the student turns out to be Georges Bizet. Bizet’s Symphony in C, on LACO’s upcoming program almost disappeared from history because the composer never sought a publisher for it. It was likely written as an assignment for the Paris Conservatory. Perhaps Bizet felt it wasn’t ready for publication, or perhaps, like me, he figured it was a school assignment that nobody would really care about, and put it in his files.
Bizet died at the age of 36. It is tragic for anyone to die in the prime of his life, but Bizet had shown such promise, and was just coming into his own mature style as a composer. His most famous work, the opera Carmen, hadn’t yet become the sensation it still is today. The work we now know as the Symphony in C could have died with Bizet. It might have been lost to history, but it was unknowingly saved by Bizet’s widow, Geneviève Halévy, whom Bizet had been married to for only six years at the time of his death. She donated his papers to the archives at the Paris Conservatory.
The papers sat there for decades. It was nearly sixty years later that someone realized that in this stack of assignments, letters, and sketches, there was a symphony. The piece was debuted in 1935 to great acclaim. This is yet anther story of the twists and turns that shape the canon of Great Music. There are dozens of them. I’ve mentioned a couple in this very blog. The symphony could have disappeared, and we’d never know what we were missing. But it wasn’t. It was saved almost by accident and certainly not on purpose. These are the kinds of stories that musicologists might trade around a campfire instead of ghost stories (if, you know, musicologists were big campers). It’s chilling to think how close we came to losing a masterpiece to the vicissitudes of life and history. It’s almost as chilling to think that our old term papers might someday see the light of day again.