Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #4/50: The Overture to Carmen by Georges Bizet

Carmen by Georges Bizet is considered to be one of the most important and well-constructed operas ever produced. The piece of music from Carmen that we are looking at today is known as the Prelude or Overture. Generally speaking, any time you hear that a piece of music is an Overture, it tends to mean that it is music that precedes the actual opera or musical or symphony. The purpose of an Overture is to set a tone for what is to come. In the specific case of the Overture to Carmen, you will note that in the upper left-hand corner of the sheet music is the term Allegro Giocoso. The term Allegro means to play at a fast or upbeat tempo. When combined with the term Giocoso, it means to play at a fast and cheerful or joyous tempo. As with many of the classical compositions I am profiling for you in these posts, I have great confidence that you have heard this Overture before. It is one of those compositions that has become interwoven into our cultural and artistic experiences in life. Even if you know nothing about the opera, Carmen, I am sure you will listen to the opening notes of this Overture and nod knowingly. However, familiarity with this tune is just the beginning of your journey today. Carmen is such a famous opera because it was pioneering in scope. It also made a hero out of its composer, Georges Bizet, who, in turn, became one of Classical Music’s most tragic figures. So, let’s polish our eyeglasses and get ready, because the curtain is about to rise on one of Opera’s most famous tales, which begins, as almost all operas do, with an Overture.

Georges Bizet.

Georges Bizet was born in France in 1838. He was viewed as a child prodigy in much the same way that Mozart was when he first came to the attention of the Royal Court in Vienna. Bizet was enrolled in the very best private music academies and won many awards for his virtuosity on the piano, including the prestigious Prix de Rome, as a teenager. However, there were several aspects of his life that conspired against his future success. For starters, Bizet did not like to perform in public. So, even though his music professors and mentors were all aware of his talent, Bizet rarely displayed those skills for the public and/or for influential people in the French aristocracy. As a result, Bizet’s public popularity was never great. Furthermore, Bizet did not always believe in himself, and therefore, even when he was given commissions to work on, he often failed to complete them because he was never confident that his compositions were good enough, or more to the point, that they never quite measured up to the high standards he set for himself behind closed doors. But the biggest obstacle that Bizet faced when it came to becoming a famous composer during his lifetime had to do with the nature of opera and of classical composition at that time in history.

Up until the mid to late 1800s, it was felt that for an opera or a symphony to be considered proper, it had to be made in a way that promoted or upheld proper virtues of the time. Proper virtues were considered to be music that praised God, as well as music that praised royalty and the policies of governance that monarchs espoused. Well, Georges Bizet did not believe in organized religion, and so he felt that creating works that praised God made him a fraud, and that because he didn’t believe in God, any work he created in God’s name would, by the very nature of his feelings toward the subject matter, be flawed. Since Bizet had high standards for himself, he refused to create work that would be flawed before it was ever premiered in public, so as a result, he simply refused to play the role of a traditional composer. Bizet’s refusal to toe the line, as it were, cast him as an outsider in the political sense in the competitive world of classical music in France.

But sometimes being viewed as an outsider is where one needs to be in order to have the freedom to create original work. This was the case for Bizet and for his opera, Carmen. All throughout Europe in the 1800s the music establishment continued to operate as it always had, which was to create works praising God and/or royalty. However, there was an undercurrent of discontent that was percolating in quiet salons and small playhouses. It was in these locations that some composers began creating operas and symphonies for the common citizen. The stories being told in these smaller venues concerned more realistic themes such as sexuality, crime, the politics of daily living, poverty and so on. This type of storytelling became known as Verismo, or realistic, theatre. It was toward the Verismo school of storytelling that Bizet was always drawn and it was Carmen…his opera…that was Verismo’s first great work.

The story of Carmen revolves around a young man who falls in love with a Gypsy woman named Carmen. However, Carmen understands the power of her beauty, and so she uses her feminine wiles to seduce a man of influence so as to advance her own station in life. In a fit of jealous rage, Carmen’s lover is killed, and Carmen, herself, ends up losing her life. The opera Carmen was a morality tale bordering on the bawdy, in which the central character dies. All of this was unheard of in the established opera scene in Paris at the time. As such, Bizet’s work was savaged by the critics, and his opera was closed after only a few weeks of performances. At the time, Carmen was considered yet another failure by Bizet, in a long line of failures in a career that many considered to be an utter disappointment. Bizet lapsed into a state of depression which, coupled with a throat condition (which may have been cancer), caused Bizet to pass away at the very young age of 37 years. In death, his many compositions were destroyed or given away by his wife because they were valued so poorly as to be considered worthless. Several other composers adapted Bizet’s score for Carmen so much that, for a while, it was difficult to accurately know where Bizet’s influence left off and the work of newer composers began.

During his life, Bizet was judged harshly by his critics. However, history painted a much more complimentary picture of the man and his work. It all began when composers such as Rossini and Puccini gained fame using the Verismo style of storytelling. As the telling of stories steeped in realism became more commonplace in theatre and opera, many people began wondering how it all came to be. What were the trailblazing productions that served as the foundation for modern theatre and opera? As experts traced the evolutionary path backwards, they kept coming back to Bizet’s so-called notorious work, Carmen. Viewed with more modern eyes, the plotline of Carmen hardly seemed profane anymore. In fact, when critics had a closer look at Carmen, they came to realize how revolutionary it was in terms of its construction, how Bizet’s musical score complemented the emotions of the characters and the emotional reaction of audiences, and so on. Carmen was restaged toward the turn of the century and was very well received. In the century since those new performances, the opera Carmen has been performed thousands of times, and fittingly enough, it has become the most performed opera of all time in Paris. Around the world, Carmen is regarded as one of the finest operas ever produced. It is certainly Georges Bizet’s magnum opus.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am highly confident that you will all recognize the Overture to Carmen as soon as the opening notes are played. Furthermore, I am equally confident that you would recognize a second piece…an aria called the Habanera which appears early on in the opera when Carmen first appears on stage and sings, as a way of introducing herself. So, I am going to provide links below for both pieces of music.

It is tragic how we allow our biases to cloud our judgements at times. How different Georges Bizet’s life may have been if the social mores had been different while he was alive. If they had been then, perhaps the ingenious nature of his opera would have been more greatly appreciated, and his status as a composer of note and worth would have been elevated. Positive recognition of Bizet’s talent coming when it did is fine as far as his legacy goes, but it is cold comfort to a man (and his family) whose life’s work was deemed worthless and thrown in the trash after his death. I wonder if, as you read these words, there are geniuses alive today whose work is mocked and reviled by those with judgey states of mind. I guess that only time will tell.

The link to the video for the composition Overture to Carmen by Georges Bizet can be found here.

The link to the video for the instrumental version of the composition Habanera by Georges Bizet can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Georges Bizet Museum in Paris can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Classical Music station found in my very own hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada….Classical 103.1….can be found here.

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