Carmen Suite No. 1
2 flutes (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, strings
V. Les Dragons d'Alcala
VI. Les Toréadors
Composed 1875 (opera). Arranged and published 1882 by Ernest Guiraud (suite).
note by Katherine Baber
Spain has always been something of a mystery to its neighbors—so close but a world away. To the north, the Pyrenees made travel to and from France and the rest of central Europe difficult. (Hannibal and his war elephants were an historical fluke and travel by train is still a tricky proposition.) In the south, a succession of Islamic caliphates from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries, during which people circulated through the Iberian Peninsula from around the Mediterranean, made for an exciting multicultural mix. As a result of this religious, linguistic, and cultural hybridity, people farther north (particularly the French) saw Spain as not quite European. Scholars of the nineteenth century thought that climate affected the language and music of a people, so it makes sense that composers and writers imagined Spain in terms of heat—simmering, languid, or lighting hot.
In novels like Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen (the source of the opera) the warmth of the Spanish countryside is often captured in the form of the gypsy. The bohemian lifestyle of Carmen and others like her—transformed in Bizet’s opera into a chorus of smoking, fighting, drinking women that scandalized Parisian audiences—symbolize all that is “exotic” about the country. Similar to their literary counterparts, composers use orchestral colors, rhythms, and harmonies to suggest the music of other places. In the case of the _Carmen _suites (arranged by Bizet’s friend Ernest Giraud after his death) the distinctive patterns of Spanish dances help set the scene. After a prelude, based on the ominous “fate” motive that recurs throughout the opera, we hear the driving triple time of the “Aragonaise” (named for the region in northeastern Spain), throughout which members of the string section mimic the pluck and strum of the guitar and castanets crackle. The following intermezzo is based on the prelude to the third act and sets a nighttime scene high in the mountains. The serenity of the harp and woodwind solos belies the conflict simmering below the surface as Carmen and Don José’s love affair sours. The last three movements of the suite are essentially portraits of the opera’s love triangle, with “Les dragons de Alcala” parodying the regimented military background of Don José and the hot-blooded “Les Toréadors” matching the bravura of the bullfighter Escamillo. At the center of it all, though, is Carmen herself and the “Séguedilla” she sings to seduce José. This is another iconic Spanish dance, tinged with its typical Phrygian cadences and also with chromatic twists that are all Bizet—the harmonic loopholes that let Carmen slip out of our grasp at every turn. Critics and audiences at the opera’s premiere were shocked by the onstage death of its heroine at the hands of her lover José (the Opéra-Comique was a “family” institution) but the resulting reputation made for a long run in Paris and then international fame. The beauty of its melodies, the warmth of its timbres, and its fascinating rhythms (all preserved in Giraud’s orchestration) have ensured that Carmen and the sonic Spanish landscape Bizet conjured remain a favorite of today’s opera companies and orchestras.