Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > The Music of Carmen (Bizet)
The Music of "Carmen"
The Opera by Georges Bizet
Musically, "Carmen" is prefaced by a short orchestral introduction, very free in form and not elaborate enough to be dignified by the title of overture. It is almost a literal transcription of the festive music announcing the bull-fight in the last Act, including the short phrase in F sharp minor assigned to the children's chorus and the refrain of the Toreador's Song in the second Act. This "festive noise" is succeeded by a short movement, andante moderato, introducing a striking theme of two bars only, which is throughout the opera constantly associated with Carmen herself. The theme derives its striking effect, as the theoretical musician would tell us, from Bizet's use of an unusual musical interval -- the "superfluous second. " This interval is peculiar to the popular tunes of the gipsy tribe, hence its significance here. In addition, moreover, to its national import, the theme in question, to quote the late Francis Hueffer (to whose analysis I am much indebted) also "conveys a graphic idea of the waywardness of Bizet's frail heroine, while, at the same time, its weird harmonic colouring seems to forebode some strange doom. " The theme is turned to account in the opera itself in a truly masterly way, and, if the listener identifies it in the prelude, he cannot well miss it when it recurs later.
1967 Hungarian postage stamp depicting a scene from Bizet's opera, Carmen
When the curtain rises we are in the noise and bustle of a Spanish street. This is indicated by a lively theme of strongly marked rhythm, while the dragoons come in with a chorus of very original form. On the entrance of Micaela, the fair Navarraise, in quest of her José, we hear a simple expressive phrase meant specially for herself, after which the live scene is resumed. The soldiers proffer gallantry, and, although Micaela refuses, she nevertheless joins in a charming march-like melody which the soldiers intone. Now the guard is about to be relieved, and we hear the military march in the distance. Behind the bandsmen march a crowd of boys, making big strides to keep step with the dragoons, and singing at the pitch of their voices. They are represented in the score by a Coro di monelli -- a "chorus of ragamuffins." Thus they sing:
When the soldiers mount on guard,
We march with them, man for man;
Trumpets! ring out our reward,
Plan, rataplan, plan, rataplan.
This air, given first in the minor and then in the major, is an exquisite tone-picture, realising the scene depicted with wonderful vividness. The purist might indeed object to the hackneyed tune and the coarse staccato of the rhythm, but the shouts of schoolboys at the sight of a company of soldiers are not usually of a highly artistic order.
The new soldiers, Don José among them, now mount guard, and the boys vanish. We are just reaching the culminating point of the Act -- the entrance of Carmen. The cigarette girls make their appearance at the sound of the factory-bell, and, holding lighted cigarettes, immediately burst into a gay chorus of piquant rhythm ("See, white cloudlets rising") in praise of the fragrant weed in their fingers. The coquettish phrase of the sopranos, with its caressing undulations, will be specially noted. But here is Carmen herself, her coming duly announced by the "leading theme" before mentioned, her arrival greeted with acclamations by a remarkably tender phrase of the tenors. Musically, Carmen is characterised in her first phrase, as she sings a song to captivate the unfortunate José: "When shall I love you? I do not know". Bizet's biographer emphasises this detail. Here, he says, in effect, is the language of the daughter of Bohemia, full of indifference; who lets go her heart, or rather her senses, at the will of her fancy and her caprice. "Perhaps never, perhaps tomorrow", she replies to herself, and the phrase takes a caressing inflection -- something like a vague promise, the semblance of a desire which allows of hope. Suddenly the woman reappears: "But not today, that is certain." With that quick change of feeling which peculiarly characterises her, Carmen passes from one sentiment to another, abruptly, without transition, from exciting and sensual love to blind hate which nothing can account for or justify. And with what art does the music portray it all!
This song is the famous "Habanera," which plays so important a part in the opera. It was written during the rehearsals to meet the wishes of Mme. Galli-Marié, who did not care for what Bizet had written originally. She wanted "a characteristic air, something like a folk-song, slightly exciting, in which she could display the whole arsenal of her artistic perverseness; caresses of voice and smile, voluptuous modulations, bewitching glances, disturbing gestures." So Bizet seized on the theme of a real Spanish folk-song which had attracted his attention, making it his own by that characteristic accompaniment which is a triumph of harmonic and rhythmical devices. The song is one of the haunting numbers of the opera: the embodiment of coquetry and abandonment; simple in construction, often heard, always welcome. It fairly captivates Don José. Note here that it is at this first meeting between Carmen and José, while they are conversing together, that the "death theme" is heard in its entirety in the orchestra. Carmen now goes off with the girls, who laughingly repeat the refrain of the Habanera. José is left alone. When he puts Carmen's flowers in his tunic, the "death theme" is heard again, followed by snatches of the Habanera.
Then Micaela appears with the message from José's mother, and for the first time the whole atmosphere, the whole character of the music is changed. It is as if Bizet, especially in the lovely duet which follows between José and Micaela, had conceived the idea that virtue and musical correctness were inseparable; for now he approaches the orthodox form of opera more closely than has hitherto been the case. The discourse of the lovers is interrupted by an effectively dramatic chorus, "Help us, pray!" announcing the quarrel in the cigarette factory, and the assault by Carmen, who presently enters airily humming a graceful tune when she is being asked to explain her conduct. Bizet, as his biographer rightly insists, has translated with great truth this strange scene, in which the untamable character of the gipsy appears for the first time in its savage nakedness. Left in the charge of José, Carmen, seated on a stool, her hands tied behind her back, begins that entrancing scene of allurement by singing another song. This time it is in the form of the Seguidilla, a Spanish dance of quick movement and in triple time. The charm works, and the Act ends abruptly with the flight of Carmen.
Of the remaining Acts not so much need by said. The second Act, being chiefly concerned with smugglers and other lawless persons, contains a large amount of what may be aptly described as gipsy music. The prevalence of the national or local over the more purely human element in the music was early described as an essential defect in the opera. But that defect -- if it is a defect -- must be charged, not against the composer, but against the librettists. Bizet had to interpret the text provided for him, and, in this second Act, how could he better realise the situation than by giving a gipsy cast to the music? The opening number of the Act is a "Canzona Boema" sung by Carmen, with two of her companions joining in the refrain. Here also should be noted the significance of the march-tune in the prelude, which is alternately taken up by Escamillo, the toreador, and his admiring friends. The Toreador's Song, with its commanding breadth of melody, its highly coloured orchestration, and the march-like movement of its refrain, is too well known to require comment. Among the concerted music which follows there is a graceful theme, to the tones of which Carmen and her companions boast of their wiles and seductions in imposing upon innocent manhood. The duet between José and Carmen is a remarkably able piece of workmanship, bringing out with astonishing clearness the contrast between the wayward girl and her vacillating but impassioned lover. It is markedly different from the rest of the music associated with the pair -- a smooth-flowing melody, with an almost sad finish. The Act closes with an elaborate finale based on the theme of the preceding duet, and working up to a brilliant climax, with a high C for the sopranos. "Away to the mountains, away!" they sing, and Don José goes off with Carmen and the rest to take up his abode with the smugglers.
The third Act opens with a brief chorus sung by the tenors and basses, followed by a sextet, in which the chorus subsequently join. A recitative follows between Carmen and José -- he, thinking sadly and remorsefully of his mother away among the hills of Navarre; she, betokening her waning affection by biding him haste away to his parent, for he is not suited to play the part of a smuggler. Then comes a terzetto -- or rather a solo alternating with a duet -- assigned to Carmen and her two companions, Frasquita and Mercedes respectively. The latter consult the cards to discover their fortunes, and express delight at the prospect of new lovers in a flowing air. When Carmen turns to the same oracle, she finds that a sudden and violent death is foretold her; and here again we must remark how the music brings out the contrast between the sombre tone of her reflections and the thoughtless merriment of the two girls. The smugglers, with Carmen and her two companions, are now about to depart. Before they set out, a pleasing trio is sung by the latter, the chorus and the smugglers subsequently joining in. Micaela enters in search of José, after some slowly moving strains from the orchestra. She sees José on guard on a rock near by. But Escamillo is approaching, and Micaela thinks it prudent to conceal herself. A duet follows between José and the toreador: calm and expressive at first; later (when Escamillo has avowed his love for Carmen), charged with fury and passion. Presently Micaela is discovered in her hiding-place, and in a beautiful air she urges Don José to go with her to attend his mother's dying bed. At last he consents, and as he goes, Escamillo is heard rolling out the refrain of the Toreador's Song.
A page from Georges Bizet's original 1874 manuscript of the song known as the habanera ("L'amour est un oiseau rebelle..." [Eng., "Love is a rebellious bird"]) in his opera, Carmen
In the fourth Act we hear once more the "boisterously festive" music which we heard in the prelude before the curtain rose. Escamillo again appears, and his song is not wanting. The crowd assembled in the circus are applauding vigorously. We hear them in the distance. Meanwhile tragic issues are rapidly developing in the front of the stage. José, in a scene of great pathos, implores Carmen not to withdraw her love from him, who has become an outcast and a criminal for her sake; and at last, maddened by jealousy and the gipsy's saucy indifference, he plunges a dagger into her heart. Here, as before, the characters of the pair are admirably indicated by the music. When at length the spectators emerge from the circus to find Carmen dead, killed by her lover, the surprise in store for them is realised with marvellous ingenuity by the sudden introduction of a D natural into the key of F sharp major, in which the chorus is written. Thus did Bizet mingle terror with joy. The final exclamation of Don José: "Carmen, my adored Carmen!" marks a noble dramatic climax. It is preceded by the Carmen "leading theme," twice repeated fortissimo, thus revealing the full meaning of the phrase.
Tschaikowsky thus wrote of this Act: "I cannot play the last scene without tears in my eyes: the gross rejoicings of the crowd who look on at the bull-fight, and, side by side with this, the poignant tragedy and death of the principal character, possessed by an evil fate." Tschaikowsky's brother tells that he never saw the composer so excited as when he witnessed Bizet's opera for the first time.
Glancing at the work as a whole, one cannot fail to be struck by its dramatic force, by the variety of its melody, by its orchestral colouring, by the strength and skill of its characterisation. Pigot remarks on the infinite nuances of the same picturesque scale, making for one end -- for "a striking whole of truth and life." But what impresses one most is the musical presentation of the characters. Each person lives, acts, moves; preserving his distinct physiognomy, his very clear and very decided personality, without any falling away; without the truth of the type being, for a single instant, sacrificed to the exigencies of the whole, of a musically appropriate phrase, or even a repeat. Hence the exuberance of life and of movement which no attentive listener ever misses as one of the great features of the opera.
Three persons standout with surprising vigour: (1) Carmen, the woman without heart or conscience; (2) José, the unfortunate José, devoid of strength and force of character, incapable of striving against the fatal passion which carries him blindly to his ruin; (3) Escamillo, the handsome, the victorious bull-fighter, accustomed to tender glances, whom nothing can resist, woman nor bull. By the side of these three types, so clearly and vigorously drawn, the gentle, winning figure of Micaela "throws a sweet, pathetic radiance, a tender feeling which hovers over the entire work." She appears only at the beginning of the opera -- at the moment when the gipsy has first thrown her spell on the weak heart of the brigadier; and then, in the third Act, in the mountains, to try and snatch her fiancé, now become a bandit, from the iron claws of Carmen, who tears and lacerates his soul, and to lead him to the bedside of his dying mother.
Such, then, is "Carmen" -- a work containing a world of beauties; marked by brilliant orchestration, by a unique use of Spanish rhythms, by finished musicianship displayed on every page of the score. The plot gave the composer strong situations, effective contrasts, excellent chances for local colouring, and he took full advantage of his opportunities. "I consider 'Carmen' a chef-d'oeuvre in the fullest sense of the word," wrote Tschaikowsky -- "one of those rare compositions which seems to reflect most strongly in itself the musical tendencies of a whole generation... I am convinced that ten years hence (he was writing in 1880) it will be the most popular opera in the world." The prophecy has come quite nearly, if not actually true.