Georges Bizet was born to a musical, middle-class family in Paris. His father was by training (largely) a wig-maker, but also taught voice, and his mother taught piano. His aunt was a solfège professor at the Paris Conservatoire, where Georges (baptized Alexandre-Cèsar-Léopold) enrolled, age 9. There, he was a brilliant student, and his professors were a Who’s-Who of the Conservatoire. Additionally, he took lessons from Charles Gounod when Gounod’s father-in-law, the otherwise retired Zimmerman, was unwell. Bizet benefited greatly from his colleague and later friend, writing to Gounod “You were the beginning of my life as an artist. I spring from you.” The Symphony in C was probably an assignment composed under Gounod’s instruction, in 1855 when Bizet was 17 and nearing graduation from the Conservatoire.
The Symphony closely follows the structure of a “classical” symphony in the mold of early Beethoven, with movements in a fast-slow-scherzo-fast order. The first movement, an energetic Allegro vivo in sonata form, has an athletic first theme in C major. A more flowing second theme is introduced in G major - a standard choice. This exposition section is repeated, there’s a short development of the themes via several different keys, ending with the recapitulation: the two themes return, in order, but with the second theme having “capitulated” to C major.
A melancholic second movement, Adagio, features a beautiful oboe solo, and the sumptuous melodic writing heard in Bizet’s later works (including The Pearl Fishers, or Carmen). For a development section, Bizet writes a short but ingenious fugue section.
The third movement is a vigorous scherzo, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony in its rustic nature. In the middle trio section, the woodwinds evoke a country bagpiper, or a musette (an instrument played by shepherds).
The Finale is a moto perpetuo, once again in sonata form. Its second theme is “espressivo, legato,” and in the exposition, in G major. Moments of great humor punctuate this tour-de-force of a finale.
The Symphony in C had to wait eighty years for its first performance, under the Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner, in Basle, Switzerland in 1935, and was published in Vienna. Since then, has rightfully become a staple of concert programs across the world.