Suite No. 1 from Carmen

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            Georges Bizet was a genuine musical prodigy, whose talent was early and widely recognized, who studied with the best teachers and composers in France, who perhaps was the close equal of Liszt as a pianist, who won the Prix de Rome, and who composed perhaps the most popular opera of all time.  And yet--his career was a checkered one, full of missteps, works that were never finished, works that were finished and not performed, betrayals and failures with the French operatic establishment, and an early death.  He planned, started, or substantially worked on some thirty operas, but finished only about five, of which only two achieved success.  His musical legacy was a story of lost manuscripts, poor or no scholarly attention, bad editions, and general neglect.  Today, the American musical public knows his work almost entirely through his immortal opera Carmen, and to a lesser degree, the opera The Pearl Fishers, as well as his orchestral suites of incidental music from the play, L’Arlésienne.  The situation is only somewhat better in Europe--even in his native France.   While he did compose a substantial body of work, it was admittedly irregular in quality--certainly in reception.  Moreover, to survive financially, he was reduced to spending much of his musical life arranging the music of other composers.

            But there is Carmen.  It clearly is one of the greatest operas of the nineteenth century, and takes a place of honor among all in the genre.  After all the failures, disappointments, and false starts, Bizet hit pay dirt with this one.  He worked on it during 1873-4, and its première took place at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in March of 1875.  It was not an easy birth.  The orchestra complained about the difficulty of the score (“unplayable”); the singers said the orchestra was too loud; the women in the chorus resented having to smoke and fight on stage.  And more.  But, the opera was a success, owing perhaps as much to its perceived scandalous nature as anything.   And poor Bizet died shortly after two heart attacks in May at the age of thirty-six.

            Now, of course, everyone appreciates Bizet’s colorful, but relatively light, orchestration, and his real ear for tonal color that well suits the opera’s Spanish setting.  Even the master of orchestration himself, Richard Strauss, recommended students of the subject to Carmen, not to  Wagner.  Its evocation of Spain is matchless, and its realism on the stage made operatic history. The two suites extracted from the score by his friend, Ernest Guiraud, quickly entered into the standard repertoire for orchestra, and have remained so.

            Suite No. 1 is comprised of six excerpts.  The first, the “Prélude” from Act I, ominously sets the stage with its fate motive, featuring the color of the sinister, extremely low cornet. The “Aragonaise,” the entr’acte to Act IV, features exotic percussion, woodwind solos, and gentle arabesques. The “Intermezzo,” the entr’acte to Act III, is a delicate solo for flute and harp, whose tranquility is belied by the tragedy to come.  Following is the “Séguedille” from Act I, where Carmen, jailed for slashing a co-worker’s face, tries to seduce her captor, Don José, and effect her escape.  Seductive, it is.  “Les Dragons d’Acala” is the en’tracte before Act II, a pompous little military march for dragoons—not dragons--led by the bassoons.  And finally the evergreen “Les Toréadors,” from the prelude and the procession of the toreadors from Act IV ends the suite.

            Bizet lived only one year longer than Mozart.  But, Mozart left behind more masterpieces than any dozen geniuses should be allowed.  Bizet finally found the voice of his genius just before he died.  The mind reels with the possibilities if he, as did Verdi, had lived another half century.


--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan