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Carmen Opera | Exotic Musical Elements

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Published: Wed, 17 May 2017

Carmen, as one of the most famous operas in the world, has been performed many times in lots of different troupes. This 4-act opera represents the highest achievement of the 19th century French opera. Before this, there was no composer could put so many elements into one performance: the strong and martial torero, amorous and sly Carmen and ardently spoony Don José…the busy atmosphere and the blatantly passionate mob scene. Bizet, he exhausted all the talent in the opera to pump the numerous smooth, grand and graceful strain. He used his sharp realistic style with the enthusiastic exoticism to compose it. After Bizet died, Carmen finally became the classical performance canonized by the professionals and music fans.

George Bizet (1838 – 1875) was a French composer and Pianist in the Romantic era of music, whose best work is the opera Carmen. He had a talent in music. When he was nine, he went to the Paris Conservatory of Music to learn. His most famous composition was written in 1875, Carmen, which was adapted from the same title novella by the French writer Prosper Mérimée. The initial shows of the opera did not gain a huge success as Bizet expected, and because of the subject and other issues, the first performance was failed. Bizet, known as a wonder kid from his earlier age, could not accept the strike and fell ill for a long time, eventually died 3 months later. However, the luckiest thing is, Carmen was performed again after Bizet died, and achieved one of the best operas and the mostly performed opera in the opera history.

In this essay, I will go to look at the opera Carmen through its exotic musical style, from the diversity and identity of the music, the Gypsy and Spanish musical styles in Carmen to the European style of music in the opera. I will identify and analyze these different musical elements in the opera, more importantly, I will compare those styles to the French and orthodox European music. These musical styles will be looked at from the perspective of history and characteristics in order to illustrate their functions in the opera.

The word ‘mentalité’ is a fabulous expression in French. It is created to express a national or folk conception and perception towards something potentially and acknowledged to some extent. According to Nettl, Turino and Capwell (2008, p.235) that ‘Music may be a part of and serve as a voice for a people’s mentalité’. Here in this context of musical elements, mentalité is used to show the accepted perception that music has been a part of our everyday life, more likely, music is a discourse that is well known by most of the people from all over the world. Since music is being part of the mentalité, we may find that the music has the identity. However, due to the different cultural and national background, music varies from country to country, which can be considered as the diversity of the music. For example, eastern music and western music are totally different in the styles and characteristics, especially when it comes to the opera.

Music sometimes without lyrics can only make people internalize their emotional feeling into the strain. However, opera, with the story and music in one performance, did it better in making people to internalize the show into their feelings. An opera is performing a story about one’s life, whether it is a tragedy or a comedy. Through flowing in the storyline, the songs and dances in the opera, the audience can live the characters’ lives in the theatre.

Bizet’s opera, Carmen, based on the novella of Mérimée, has become the best example of Hegel’s tragic beauty. Tragedy is the all-time theme of the drama, ‘Drama as an essential dialectical genre is at the same time the exquisite place of the tragic. Theatre after drama, we might thus suspect, would be a theatre without the tragic. This conjecture is fed by Hegel’s placing of tragedy in pre-modernity’ (Lehmann, 2006, p.42). Carmen, as our leading lady, is a beautiful, passionate but dissipated Gypsy girl, who loves freedom and has the open mind without any sanction on herself.

Carmen, the cigarette girl falls in love with corporal Don Jose, but after she meets the strong torero Escamillo, she abandons Don Jose and falls for the torero. Don Jose is demoted to a normal soldier because he sets Carmen for free, but he loses Carmen at the end. In the final act, Don Jose kills Carmen after he fails for begging her love in front of the people coming out from the abattoir.

In the original novella, because of Carmen’s Gypsy identity and Escamillo’s profession of being a torero (Spanish torero), there is an exotic atmosphere in the story. Bizet moved the exoticism onto the stage. He added the Gypsy and Spanish styles of music in the opera, as well as the orchestral composition using the graceful European musical elements. ‘Musical exoticism in Carmen is a matter of dramatic structure, not simply of local color. Its function is not to characterize Carmen and her fellow Gypsies so much as to map a change in the relationship between Carmen and Don Jose’ (Parakilas, 1993, p.33). According to Parakilas, the exoticism in Carmen is to tell the difference of the real life and the dream: fact is something that men cannot test, and escaping from fact to dream will always fall down and prove itself false. However, in the following part of the paper, we will go over the exotic musical styles in the opera and analyze them as the musical elements in the whole composition.

By according to Parakilas (p.33), that Carmen has the most Gypsy style pieces of music in the western musical tradition, which is famous in the musical history. There are the Habanera and Seguidilla in act 1, and in act 2, there are the song of 3 Gypsies and Carmen’s dance for Don Jose. Gypsy style of music is filled in Carmen’s dance and songs for her identity as a Gypsy girl. In the opera, her dressing style, her ways of singing and dancing are the representation of her characteristics of being passionate, romantic and blatant. Therefore, with her own style of personality, Gypsy music in her songs and dances seemed to be stereotyped into the impression of a passionate, romantic and irresponsible young girl who wants everything in her life but refuses to pay out.

‘To give the numbers a Spanish flavor, Bizet based the melodies on what he took for traditional Gypsy music or folk songs, which lend an obsessive, pulsing beat (Fanelli, 2004, p.182). Gypsy music in Carmen presents to the scenes where Carmen shows her Gypsy character to Don Jose, more precisely, where she shows her love to him. To Don Jose, Carmen’s Gypsy dancing and rhythms are the temptation which is the representative lifestyle of generosity, enthusiasm and kicking over the traces. This is what he wants. He tries to run away from his rigid soldier life. In order to get the life he aspires after with Carmen, he betrayed his fiancée and fails his mother’s expectation for him. He gives up his original life for the Gypsy girl.

The Gypsy musical style is the vivid rhythms, without hesitation from the beginning to the end; the lively composition, without any laggard notes in the transition to the next point; the beginning is the climax and the climax is the ending. ‘the songs are diatonic, that is, they do not veer far from traditional harmony, displaying only a spattering of chromatic chords to highlight the tense moments, or as a run-up to some theme’ (Fanelli, 2004, p.182).

‘The Spanish joined the condemnation of Carmen by denouncing Bizet’s pseudo-Spanish style as blatant plagiarizing of Spanish music; their argument was based on the score’s punctuated rhythms that saturate the “Habanera”, the “Seguidilla”, and the “Gypsy Dance”. Nevertheless, Bizet had no intention of writing Spanish music perse, but rather, his intent was to capture the spirit and exoticism of Spanish song and dance in essentially his own music and style’ (Fisher, 2005, p.16). According to Fisher, that the ‘pseudo-Spanish style’ of music in Carmen was not accepted by the Spanish because of the false rhythms in the opera and Bizet was not going to compose the formal Spanish music into the opera due to the music is just the representation of the spirit in Spanish music – complex chords and Flamenco. However, Spanish music has been influenced by the Gypsy music deeply, which has the same features with Gypsy music – vivid rhythms and lively composition.

By referring to Trend (1934, pp.86), the Spanish music in Carmen is derived from the street music in 19th century, which is the most curious thing. Also, for the people who are not from the Spanish world, the Spanish music in Carmen reflects them a Spanish style of life. In the very beginning of the opera, even before opening the curtains, the orchestra is playing the music of Toreador’s song from act 4. The music is full of Spanish soul of music, which depicts a scene of bullfighting on the abattoir. It is repeated in act 4 when the toreros enter to show the sense of excitement of the crowds seeing Escamillo. With the brisk Flamenco music, Carmen puts up its features as the Opera Comique – the compare of the comedy elements and the tragedy ending in the opera.

Over 1,000 years ago, because of some unknown reasons, the Gypsy starts to migrate, they almost left their home silently, and begins the journey of travelling around the world. They travelled all over the Eurasia, to the farthest northern Africa. They do not have their alphabetic characters. Instead, they left many psalms and legends word by word, keeping the memories in the nation as music. They have different characters in different part of the world, they do not have a stable place to stay, always live on the edge of the life, and under the circumstance of being killed, banished, snubbed and sympathized. In the time-space of thousands of year, there are no other nations like the Gypsy, living on the strings, singing the wind and snow. On the way of gipsydom, they communicated, compromised and even fought with them native people in the world, they accumulated rich cultural ideology, including the costumes, narratives, poems, music and dancing, etc. These primitive cultural elements are becoming more and more important, while the Gypsy living status cannot be developed per se.

Because of the historical and geography reasons, the Gypsy music keeps their own features and also combines the residential folk’s music, as well as being influenced by the artistic music, popular music and jazz music to become a complex integrity. The Gypsy music, as same as the Gypsy, is distributing in many countries in the world, including Hungary, Rumania, Spain and Russia. In the earliest time, the Gypsy only use bagpipes, and then they start to add fiddles in the playing. Using one or two violins, a cello and a clarinet can play a performance. It is often to see a performance played by only two or three Gypsies. The instrumental music of Gypsy adopts the Hungarian folk music, as well as the melody. Nevertheless, the Gypsy always extemporizes the music and introduces the cadenza, on the speed as slow – fast-very fast- suddenly stop. If these features are applied into other types of music, it becomes the Gypsy musical performance.

According to that Dibbell ‘It remained gypsy music: a seductively exotic mix of whatever was at hand and whatever had been picked up along the way’ (1990, p.12). Afterwards, the Gypsy music borrows from the European traditional music and the urban popular music styles. The Hungarian Gypsy songs usually adopt the monophonic cappella style in the slow-beat and dance-tune. The slow-beat has stronger lyricism and narrative, while the dance-tune is more bright and passionate with a shorter length and can be repeated many times. When the Gypsy performing a dance-tune, they normally will clap, snap the fingers or use a stranger mouth-bassing together to accompany the cantus. When they singing repeatedly, they will also add some yawp into the performance to heat the atmosphere, which usually sang by men.

The Spanish music can never be discussed without Gypsy music, because of the historical reasons we talked before that the Gypsy is a nation that has a broad distribution and Spain is one of its residence. The Spanish Gypsy music is as much similar as the Gypsy music in other areas, but has been influenced by the local music.

Referring to Smith (2007, p.82) that ‘Far-fetched though it would be to suggest any direct influence of Grellmann’s stereotyping of gypsy mores, it is notable that Bizet’s search for a style with which to represent gypsy music uses many effects that suggest improvisation: the amours of the passersby during Carmen’s Habanera, and the ornaments of the Chanson boheme and the Seguidille, to name a few’. At the same time, Andalusian music has never left the Gypsy. The Spanish music put up a strong multi-cultural character. The familiar Phrygian mode in Spanish music is coming from the Byzantine music; the descending tendency of Phrygian cantus, rich grace notes and the main national instruments – guitar, are influenced by the Aerobic music; and the southern Andalusian Flamenco shows the Gypsy elements of music. Flamenco is an integrated art that combined dancing, singing and guitar playing. The passion, heat, cafard of the Flamenco reveal a sense of mourn and sadness.

‘Bizet’s style during this scene resembles Spanish music perhaps more closely than any of his other exotic numbers. In its sultry introduction, it adopts the descending tetrachord progression often associated with flamenco music’ (McClay, 1992, p.90). The most typical Spanish music style in Carmen is the intermezzo between act 3 and act 4. The music has the obvious features of Flamenco music. In the beginning of the music, the orchestra plays a series chords imitating the guitar strum, the rhythms of the dance may come from the Fandango or Seguidilla in Flamenco. With that, under the dancing rhythms of Spanish national instrument tambourine, with the accompaniment of imitating the guitar strum by harp and string instruments, then it come the Spanish-Aerobic cantus by oboes and the tune of clarinet and piccolo. This cantus shows a lot in the flamenco music. And in the first act, Habanera sang by Carmen is also a piece of rich Spanish features and dramatic music.

Seguidilla as another Spanish music in Carmen is a dance in southern Spain, which is always danced in pairs – a girl and a boy, with the complex footstep, and accompanied by guitar and percussion instrument. This song is sang by Carmen when she is seducing Don Jose. And the actress who performs Carmen always sings it with dancing. The strong dancing rhythms and passionate cantus show the ebullience and unconstraint of Carmen following Habanera. The Gypsy style of music in the opera functions significantly. The first piece of music in the act 2 is the Gypsy style. In these Gypsy compositions, Bizet grasped some important features of the Gypsy music. In the Gypsy dance music, the rich cantus and bright passion of the music is played thoroughly by Bizet. Just these characters in the music represent the Gypsy people as Carmen.

The opera Carmen tells the story in Spain and uses mass Spanish musical elements, which is still a typical French Opera Comique. The Spanish and Gypsy musical styles just account for part of all the music in the opera. In truth, Bizet used a lot French styles of music. And the representation of the ‘Spanish soul’ in the opera – the Toreador’s song performed by torero Escamillo was recomposed from the French folk song. Although that the opera Carmen did not seem to be a nondescript because of combing the 2 different musical styles together. Instead, these styles worked well together in this opera. ‘Bizet’s Carmen, a work of pure genius, is the climax of achievement in this direction, and much of its fame is due to the fact that everything in it is of a familiar cast. The Toreador’s song, the Habanera, and the music of the opening scene in the last act were recognized as Spanish the moment their introductory phrases were heard. (Grew, 1977, pp.235).

By comparing the French music and the Spanish or Gypsy music in Carmen, it is clear that the features of the characters in the opera are performed with the exotic music in order to depict their differences with the crowds. Because of the unique historical background of European at that time (19th century during World War I), the soldier’s (Don Jose, the killer in the end) emotional feeling towards his country and his duty was completely twisted and false, that is the reason why the exotic theme of the opera is grasped, not only because of the different musical style, moreover, because of the unrealistic expectations towards a different world by way of changing one’s own life (Parakilas, 1993, p.43-67).

In conclusion, the musical styles in Carmen are diverse, with both national (French) and exotic (Spanish and Gypsy). It keeps the Spanish passion and simple, also combines the French grace and elegance. Even though the opera Carmen was created by Frenchmen and sang in French language, it gave us the Spanish lifestyle in its every second. This will thanks to the original writer Mérimée’s deep observation to Spain, and Bizet, our brilliant composers research to the Spanish music. The diversity and exoticism of the music in Carmen depicted us the real life at that time in a hopeful and bright way.


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