Bizet: Carmen Suite No. 1

Georges Bizet, 1838-1875. Carmen Suite No. 1. Completed 1875, first performance March 3, 1875, in Paris. The posthumous Suite is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, three trombones, tympani, harp, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, and strings.

The annals of music are filled with legions of ``one-work'' composers who, though they may have generated many pieces in their lifetime, are today remembered for a single item of their output which managed to achieve greatness or at least popularity. Who would recall Paul Dukas, for example, if it were not for The Sorcerer's Apprentice, or Pietro Mascagni except for Cavalleria Rusticana?

The leading example of such historical misfortune must surely be Georges Bizet, who is remembered primarily for Carmen despite having dedicated himself solely to music from an early age until his premature death. Yet when we look a little deeper into the man's history, we discover that things are not so simple as they might seem. To begin with, Carmen is not really the only work that has found its way into the standard repertoire. The L'Arlesienne Suite is a popular minor work, his symphony in C major can occasionally be found on a concert program, and two other operas ( The Pearl Fishers and La jolie fille de Perth) are not unknown in the great houses of the world. But even that might be unfair to the memory of the man, because unlike Mascagni, who spent the rest of his life trying to imitate the success of Cavalleria, Bizet was cut off at the peak of his creativity, dying only 30 days after the premiere of Carmen. (In passing, we should lay to rest the misconception that Bizet died of a broken heart caused by the failure of his masterpiece. The composer had always been frail, and while the opera generated some controversy, it ran for some 37 performances, far more than its typical engagement at the modern-day Met!)

The suite from Carmen, extracted after the composer's death, contains orchestral settings of some of the opera's most famous passages. Listening to the melodic ingenuity and general inventiveness highlighted by the suite, we can only speculate about what Bizet might have produced had he been healthier, or wonder whether he would have indeed turned out to be another star who, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, would only display 15 minutes of talent.

© 1995, Geoff Kuenning

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