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.

***As always, please be aware that all original content of this blog post is the sole property of the author. The content of this post may not be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the expression written consent of the author. ©2022

Keepin’ It Classy: Compositon 3/50: O Fortuna by Carl Orff

The story of today’s musical composition begins, for me, in the early 1990s with the rental of a video cassette of the movie Moonstruck from my local Blockbuster Video store. You may recall that Moonstruck was the Academy Award winning movie starring Cher, Nicolas Cage, Danny Aiello and Olympia Dukakis. In the movie, Cher was supposed to marry Danny Aiello’s character, but as it turned out, she actually fell in love with her fiancé’s brother, as played by Nicolas Cage. At one point in the movie, Cage’s courtship of Cher involved him taking her to see an opera. Cage showed up for the date all handsome and cleaned up in a tuxedo. The music of the opera soars. Cher swoons. If there was ever any doubt as to whether Cher would pick the rough n’ ready Cage over the loyal but dull Aiello, it all ended as La Bohème was sung and a single tear fell upon Cher’s cheek. Cage’s character proclaims, “I love opera and I love you!” Cher slaps him across the face and demands that he “snap out of it!” But the romantic die has been cast, and the rest of the movie is an exercise in everyone coming to understand that true love must follow its own course.

Because of this movie, I went through a phase in my life where I very much enjoyed listening to opera. Moonstruck removed some of the mystery for me when it came to appreciating and understanding opera. The scenes from the movie in which operatic arias played in the background of everyday family life made it seem as though opera could be every bit the soundtrack of the real lives of real people, as could Rock n’ Roll. What this movie did most of all was to make opera cool, and dare I say, even sexy. So, in order to immerse myself in a musical genre that I had absolutely zero experience in, I did what I always did back in those days, and that was, I ordered a compilation CD from the Columbia House Music Club. That CD was called Opera Goes To The Movies. My “opera phase” coincided with my bachelor boy days, and specifically, it happened during a time when I was in-between relationships. It was during those stretches of time when I wasn’t actively dating anyone that time could seem long, and so I would occasionally go for drives at night. There was just something about driving in the darkness, arias blaring, that was relaxing and invigorating at the same time. One time, I drove all the way into Toronto from Oshawa along back roads and ended up downtown, stopped at an intersection as Margo Timmins (lead singer of the band, Cowboy Junkies, and a group of her friends all crossed the road in front of me). In the end, the allure of driving alone while listening to opera as others dreamed in their beds or danced in their clubs gave way to the practical reality that, perhaps, this was kind of a weird thing to be doing. So, I stopped, of my own accord. But to this day, I still listen to opera from time to time, and, when I do, O Fortuna is still one of my favourite tunes of them all.

The funny thing about writing these posts is that most of the time I know the story I am going to tell before I even start, and the only thing I really gain from doing my research is some data to fill in the blanks of the tale I am telling. So, in the case of this post, I entered into it knowing that I was going to talk about Moonstruck and opera becoming accessible for me, as I did in the paragraphs above. So, when I went to conduct my research, I did so thinking that I would find out a little about Carl Orff and some statistical details about O Fortuna and then, that would be that. However, a funny thing happened on the way to that conclusion. The opening sentence in the Wikipedia piece dedicated to O Fortuna reads, “O Fortuna is a medieval Latin Goliardic poem which is part of a collection known as Carmina Burana, written early in the 13th century.” It’s what!? Pardon me. This soaring, anthemic battle cry of a song is actually a poem?! Colour me confused. So, obviously, more research was needed. In the course of that research, I discovered some interesting history which has changed how I view this composition.

Carmina Burana: O Fortuna

For example, until I came to write this post, I never knew that there ever existed a group of medieval clergymen known as the Goliards. The Goliards were monks who lived and trained in many western European countries during the thirteenth century. They were different from the monastic monks who took vows of silence and dedicated themselves to living their lives as purely and with as much self-discipline and deprivation as possible. The Goliards wrote satirical commentary in the form of epic poetry. They traveled the countryside performing these poems and, as such, are considered to be one of the first true minstrels in modern history. The term, Goliard, is derived from the story of David and Goliath, and was meant to indicate that those possessing the power of spoken word and music were very powerful people. Part of how the Goliards came to be is because of how family fortunes were distributed almost one thousand years ago. In those days, the first born son usually inherited any wealth that had been accrued by the father. This left any other brothers without a means of financial support, should the first born son decide to keep the entire family fortune for himself. Thus, a traveling class of men, whose opinion was respected, emerged and became known as Goliards. Goliards wrote of scholarly matters, but they also wrote about social themes, and some even wrote bawdy tales about sexual encounters and alcohol. Because of the politics of speaking out, the Goliards always trod a fine line with the Church. A collection of complaints about the rigid rules of the Church was compiled and became known as the Carmina Burana.

In the 1930s, German composer Carl Orff decided to create a cantata based upon the Carmina Burana poems written by the Goliards. A cantata is a musical piece that is meant to be sung. By contrast, a sonata is a musical piece meant to be played with instruments. As it turned out, the first Goliardic poem he set to music was O Fortuna. If you have never heard this piece of music before then get ready, for it is a very rousing piece of music. Without knowing any of its origin story, whenever I listened to O Fortuna as I drove under starry skies or amid a city of lights, I always envisioned this composition as being “Battle Music”. It is a composition that starts off loudly and in a shrill-like fashion and then drops down to a mere whisper. In time, that whisper becomes louder and more confident, eventually turning into a full-throated battle cry! In my imagination, I always saw visions of Braveheart-like battlefields filled with legions of soldiers on horseback riding off into battle, banners waving, hearts pounding, voices raised in an intimidating cacophony. Well, as I have discovered, I am not the only person to have had these visions. As it turned out, Carl Orff became a famed composer during WWII and was much beloved and respected by those in power in Germany at the time. The Nazis felt that Orff had managed to encapsulate the essence of Ayran power and purity in this one piece of music, and as such, he was highly favoured in German Arts circles at the time. Orff’s unwillingness to stand up for other German composers and artists who suffered under Nazi rule left a stain on his reputation that no future post-war composition was able to erase.

If you ever wonder about how so many seemingly ordinary white men end up being radicalized into violence, then let this post be a warning to you all. There I was back in the 1990s, feeling at odds with life, driving alone in my car through sleeping communities, songs like O Fortuna blasting away on my car stereo, visions of battlefields mingling with the twinkling of the stars over my head. In the end, the thing that kept me from falling completely under the spell of a song I never knew had Nazi roots was the fact that in the daytime I was surrounded by children in my classroom. Their innocence and kindness and compassion always seemed to keep my heart and soul where they needed to be until such time as I met my future wife and discovered the power of what Love can do to one’s mindset and future ambitions. But for every story like mine, there are countless other stories of young men drifting through life as I was, with nothing to temper the emotional draw of a rousing song like O Fortuna. For those men, with nothing to counterbalance the imaginary call-to-arms that is interwoven within the musical structure of one of Hitler’s favourite pieces of music, it is easier to see how they can come to see the world through different eyes.

I really like O Fortuna. I do! I also really wish that my love for this piece of music wasn’t something I shared with Adolf Hilter and his comrades, too. I guess that I am lucky, as things turned out. I guess we all are.

The link to the video for the song O Fortuna by Carl Orff can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie Moonstruck can be found here.

The link to the official website for classical music station, 103.1, located in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.