Monday, September 18, 2006

Eureka! A Musical Mystery Solved

A little over three years ago in early March 2003, we were driving into the Huntington Library and Gardens, and KUSC was playing the most beautiful piece of music I had heard in a long time. We didn't catch the introduction to the piece--I think because it was wedged in as incidental music during an intermission of a Metropolitan Opera broadcast--so I didn't know what it was. But I was enthralled with a pensive, lyrical oboe cadenza right in the middle of what sounded like a symphony's slow movement.

I thought it might be an orchestral work by Debussy or Ravel, since it had that dreamy, impressionistic sound--so sad, so filled with romance and longing, so evocative of an unfulfilled desire. It surprised me with its simple beauty. A three-note theme from the woodwinds, the flutes calling above the bassoons, and then... the oboe rises up above pizzicato strings, fulfilling the promise of that theme with a melody so lovely, it is like the flow of water through a mountain brook. After this oboe aria runs its course, the orchestra surrounds the theme, fills it out with a swell of sound, only to simplify it again and bring it back to the woodwind's three-note call. But always the oboe returns, as sweetly as it first arrived, repeats its flowing melody, and creates a striking contrast to the previous orchestration. This music had captured my imagination.

By the time we parked our car and were ready to see the gardens, the movement was over, but the piece still hadn't ended. So, I never learned who composed it. And after gazing at the Ellesmere manuscript, smelling the roses near the Tea Room, admiring the springtime blooms in the Shakespeare garden, contemplating the Zen rock garden, and showing Ethan all those golden carp in the koi ponds, I just plain forgot to look it up in the KUSC playlists.

Over the last three and a half years, this simple oboe melody has haunted me. What piece of music was it? Who composed it? I purchased all of Debussy and Ravel's orchestral works, but it didn't belong to them. I did advanced searches on the internet looking for other impressionist composers, but to no avail. In July, I even emailed the KUSC staff, asking if anyone there could help me discover this mystery composer based on the date and time I had heard the tune. No one could help me. Email is just not conducive to humming a theme. And besides, by that time, the melody was beginning to drift into forgetfulness.

Well, today, serendipity returned to me during my 10-minute power nap after lunch. I awoke to the sounds of that very theme, coaxing me out of bed and sending me to the internet to discover the name of this composer and his elusive musical phantom.

"So, who is it?" you ask. "And what's the name of the work?"

Turns out that my guess was close. He's a romantic French composer who came a short time before Debussy (1862-1918) and Ravel (1875-1937). I'll give you one last chance to guess before I reveal.

It's Georges Bizet (1838-1875). And the theme I so adore is from the Andante-Adagio movement of his Symphony in C. You can have a listen to a short sample of the theme on Amazon if you like.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one who lost track of this work. Bizet evidently wrote it as a student assignment at the Paris Conservatory when he was only seventeen years old. But he forgot about it completely, and so did history for a time. Musical scholars didn't discover it again until 1935; and on its first performance, it was deemed a romantic period masterpiece.

These musical prodigies never cease to amaze me. Now, I can't wait to hear the whole thing. And I thought I only liked Carmen.


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