Georges Bizet: Carmen Suite No. 1

Context

Premiered in Paris 1875, Georges Bizet’s now popular opera Carmen received quite a neutral response from French critics. The opera ran for an impressive 45 performances, however these were poorly attended and received by French audiences. It was only when the production started premiering in other European cities such as Vienna that it started to gain some traction. Within a year, Carmen had reached international acclaim, reaching as far as Mexico City, New York, Melbourne and Buenos Aires. 

It became common practice in the nineteenth century for composers to produce orchestral suites from their operas. This was for a few reasons. One being that it helped with the promotion of the opera, as well as reaching out to audiences who may not have the money to be able to see the opera in full. Opera was a very expensive outing and it was only the rich who were able to afford to see full productions. These orchestral suites made it more accessible for composers to get their music further afield, meaning concert halls were now also being filled with orchestral suites, overtures and arias. 

Often these orchestral suites did not attempt to follow the story of the opera at all, but instead just present the music as honestly as possible. This can certainly be said for Bizet’s Carmen Suites, which convey some of the atmospheres created in the opera, as well as musically being introduced to some of the main characters, without the plot being spoilt. 

Bizet sadly died during the 31st performance of Carmen in France, so he tragically never saw the international success it gained around the world. Bizet’s close friend Ernest Guirard produced the first suite in 1882, around 7 years after Bizet’s death. Carmen Suite No. 1 consists of five purely instrumental works taken directly from the original opera, with some tweaks made by Guirard. In 1905, Fritz Hoffmann published a new edition of the suite, adding the Séguedille to the collection. This became the only movement of the suite that required changes to the original score, where Hoffmann wrote in oboes and trumpets to imitate the vocal parts. 

 

The Music

Carmen Suite No. 1 is much shorter than the second suite, only racking up to around 12 minutes in duration. The suite is top and tailed by the opera’s overture, with most of the other movements representing the opera’s three Entractes, albeit in reverse order. 

 

I. Prélude (Act I)

 

The foreboding opening of the Prélude shows the fatalistic drama that cements the story together in Carmen. The deep tones from the cellos and basses adds to the sheer drama of this opening. The thuds from the timpani and bass drum also add to this mysterious atmosphere, adding tension and a sense of foreboding. 

II. Aragonaise (Entracte, Act IV)

 

The highly Spanish-inspired Entracte to Act IV takes over as the rigid fanfares are played out by the whole orchestra. An oboe solo emerges after a flourish of the tambourine. The winds play a playful collection melodies that are quietly accompanied by pizzicato strings. The main themes it then passed around the whole orchestra before the strings use it to build the big climax of the movement. With syncopated triplets the effect of the music here is high in tension and is soon relieved by a welcome recapitulation section. 

 

III. Intermezzo (Entracte, Act III)

 

The peaceful Entracte to Act III is started by a lilting harp that sets the delicate atmosphere. A solo flute plays a lullaby theme that a solo clarinet responds with an equally loving theme. This is a big change in atmosphere from the previous movement, and really highlights Bizet’s beautiful melodic writing. 

 

IV. Séguedille (Act I)

 

A waltz accompaniment is established at the start of this movement to lay the foundations for a cor anglais soloist to sing through. The next singing line is taken up by the trumpet, which establishes a duet between these two orchestral soloists. The movement bobs along at a comfortable waltz tempo right until the end. 

 

V. Les dragons d’Alcala (Entracte, Act II)

 

Featuring the two bassoons, the main melodic theme stems from the opening duet between the two. The winds and strings create a call and response motif that trickles down the sub-sections of the orchestra. A solo clarinet interrupts this conversation to play the solo, which is then passed around the whole woodwind section. 

 

VI. Les toréadors (Prélude, Act I)

 

Ending the movement with the opening of the overture, the bombastic explosion of orchestral colour makes this perhaps the most well-known of the whole suite. A steady fanfare takes us into a string melody that builds tension with the help of the percussion and brass. The never-ending off-beats in the brass leads the music into a luscious string melody. The Spanish-inspired melody is played once by the strings before the whole orchestra joins in, adding sparkle to the popular melody. The finale of the suite ends with a brass fanfare before a triumphant close. 

 

Final Thoughts

Although short in duration, the melodic content of Carmen Suite No.1 makes it perhaps the more popular of the two suites. Each movement has a memorable melody, which does make you wonder why it was so unpopular when it was first premiered!

 

Happy Reading!

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