1855: Bizet: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, age 17

Mr. Peabody Says:

Bizet wrote this right after his 17th birthday. It was a student work, but it does not sound like it. The moment you hear this you will think it must have been an instant success, and once it was finally presented to the world, it has been. The world loves it. Start anywhere. It’s all great. But it was not discovered until 1933.

Gordan Nikolić/Netherlands Chamber Orchestra

  1. Allegro vivo 7:28
  2. Andante. Adagio 10:56
  3.  Allegro vivace 4:42
  4. Finale. Allegro vivace 8:39 (About 31 minutes without breaks)


  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani
  • strings

Teenage genius, again:

Bizet started work on the symphony on 29 October 1855, four days after turning 17, and finished it roughly a month later. It was written while he was studying at the Paris Conservatoire under the composer Charles Gounod, and was evidently a student assignment. Bizet showed no apparent interest in having it performed or published, and the piece was never played in his lifetime. He used certain material from the symphony in later works. There is no mention of the work in Bizet’s letters, and it was unknown to his earlier biographers. His widow, Geneviève Halévy (1849–1926), gave the manuscript to Reynaldo Hahn, who passed it along with other papers to the archives of the conservatory library, where it was found in 1933 by Jean Chantavoine.

First performance:

Soon thereafter, Bizet’s first British biographer Douglas Charles Parker (1885–1970) showed the manuscript to the conductor Felix Weingartner, who led the first performance in Basel, Switzerland, on 26 February 1935.

Youthful masterpiece:

The symphony was immediately hailed as a youthful masterpiece on a par with Felix Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written at about the same age, and quickly became part of the standard Romantic repertoire.

First recording:

It received its first recording in 1937, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Walter Goehr.

Student assignment:

The symphony is widely assumed to have been a student assignment, written toward the end of Bizet’s nine years of study at the Conservatoire de Paris. This would mean that he started studying in Paris around age eight, so there is more to find out later. He was another man whole life was cut short early at age 36. Not only did he have throat problems, supposedly from smoking like a chimney, apparently he died from a heart attack. How that happened at such a young age God only knows, but if the “good die young”, he was very good!

Gounod was Bizet’s teacher:

A year before Bizet started to compose his symphony, Gounod had written his own 1st  symphony, composed at the end of 1854. Gounod lived to age 75 and was born only nine years after Mendelssohn. He was 20 years older than Bizet but outlived him by 19 years.

Bizet the transcriber:

Gounod’s Symphony in D was a popular work, receiving at least eight performances in Paris alone within the space of a year. Bizet subsequently wrote a transcription of the work for two pianos, one of a number of commissions to transcribe Gounod’s work Bizet accepted to earn extra income.

This proximity to his mentor’s work emerges in the close stylistic resemblance of Bizet’s symphony with Gounod’s; it may also explain why Bizet chose not to publish his symphony.

Bizet channed Gounod:

The numerous stylistic, orchestral, melodic and harmonic similarities between the Gounod and Bizet symphonies make it clear that Bizet was emulating and, in certain cases, directly quoting his teacher. There are, in fact, so many references, parodies and quotations from Gounod in Bizet’s work that it is likely the young composer was consciously paying homage to his celebrated teacher. His close involvement with Gounod’s orchestral score in realizing the two-piano transcription would have given Bizet the opportunity to explore many of its orchestral nuances and incorporate them into his own work and may explain why Bizet’s first full-fledged symphonic work was such an unusually well-polished and well-orchestrated composition.

Bizet’s tribute:

Bizet later wrote to his former teacher:

“You were the beginning of my life as an artist. I spring from you. You are the cause, I am the consequence.”

A better symphony:

Although Bizet’s symphony was closely drawing on Gounod’s work, critics view it as a much superior composition, showing a precocious and sophisticated grasp of harmonic language and design, as well as originality and melodic inspiration. Since it has resurfaced, Bizet’s Symphony in C has far outshone Gounod’s work in the repertoire, both in terms of performance and numbers of recordings.


That the Symphony was never even mentioned in Bizet’s extensive correspondence, let alone published in his lifetime, has given rise to speculation as to the composer’s motives in suppressing the work.The probable reason for Bizet’s unwillingness to publish the Symphony in C was his sensitivity about his imitation of certain features of Gounod’s Symphony in D. The very success of Gounod’s piece, which must have stimulated the young man to copy some of its methods, would later have deterred him from having his own symphony performed or published. The Gounod symphony was then one of the most popular French works of its kind, and that Bizet had borrowed from it precisely those features that everyone else had noticed and admired.

Symphonies were not popular in France:

The symphonic genre was not a popular one for French composers in the second half of the nineteenth century, who instead concentrated most of their large-scale efforts on theatrical and operatic music. Gounod himself observed:

“There is only one way for a composer who desires to make a real name – the operatic stage.”

The toxic Paris Conservatory:

This bias against formal symphonic writing was also entrenched within the culture of the Paris Conservatory, which considered the symphony to be a mere student exercise on the path toward submissions for the Prix de Rome, the highest prize a young French composer could attain.

A scholastic exercise:

In 19th-century France the symphony was considered a scholastic exercise, so much so that for a long time it appeared only with those competing to be “sent to Rome.” It seems that a well-written symphony was the supreme test of the talent of young composers crowned by the Academy. But it clearly had no greater importance nor a higher artistic meaning in the eyes of the judges.

More lost student works:

Gounod, Félicien David and Henri Reber wrote symphonies symphonies as students that have simply disappeared.

More popular the his 2nd symphony, the “Roma Symphony”:

The Roma Symphony occupied Bizet for years, and he remained at his death unsatisfied with the work. Unlike the Symphony in C, Bizet tried to infuse his Roma Symphony with more gravitas and thematic weight. Of the two works, it is Bizet’s student composition which has garnered much more critical praise.

Planning to recycle:

It may also have been that Bizet intended to mine his student effort for material in what he saw as more serious compositions The melodic theme of the slow movement reappears in Les pêcheurs de perles “, and Bizet recycled the same melody in the trio of the Minuet from L’Arlésienne. In both cases, Bizet retained his original scoring for oboe. Bizet also used the second theme of the finale in Act I of Don Procopio. Finally, since he was only 36 when he died, it is entirely possible that had he lived, Bizet might have decided later to publish the work. Whatever the case, the work remained unpublished, unplayed, and unknown at Bizet’s death, passing into the possession of his widow, Geneviève Halévy.
Rediscovery and posthumous popularity

French musicologist Jean Chantavoine:

Although Bizet’s first biographer, Douglas Charles Parker, is widely credited with bringing the symphony to public attention, it was the French musicologist Jean Chantavoine who first revealed the existence of the work, in an article published in the periodical Le Ménestrel in 1933. Parker, alerted to its existence, informed the Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner, who gave the highly successful premiere in Basel in 1935. The work was published the same year by Universal-Edition.

Instant popularity:

Within a short time of its publication, the work had been widely performed. Although a student assignment, many musicologists find the symphony shows a precocious grasp of harmonic language and design, a sophistication which has invited comparisons with Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Rossini, and Beethoven.

First recording:

It received its first recording on 26 November 1937, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Walter Goehr.

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