Carmen, Csardas and Clara’s Quintet

January 11, 2018
 

It’s earned the distinction of being a “one and only.”  But there are countless ways to be reminded of it. I should know. I began to count them and was overwhelmed after just a short time.

In all fairness, Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen is based upon the novella with that title by French author Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870).  Mérimée’s name is almost never mentioned in casual references to the opera. But Bizet may have led many to discover the book. 

That includes artists.  It turns out there are nearly 30 films inspired either by the novella or the opera. And it’s interesting that for a work that most associate with the opera, some of those films were made during the silent film era.

Full credit goes to Bizet and his melodies for sparking musical compositions based on tunes from Carmen. Perhaps the most famous of those is the ‘Carmen’ Fantasy by the 19th century violin virtuoso and composer Pablo de Sarasate. A similar work, titled ‘Carmen’ Fantasie was written by Franz Waxman for the 1946 film Humoresque about a violinist & his patroness. John Garfield and Joan Crawford played the lead roles. Although violinist Jascha Heifetz was asked to perform on the soundtrack, the young Isaac Stern actually was featured.  But it was Heifetz who asked Waxman to expand the piece into the concert showpiece, for which the composer is best known.

In recent years we’ve been introduced to a ‘Carmen’ Suite for 4 guitars arranged by Pepe Romero, Danses espagnoles on themes from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ for guitar and orchestra by Alexandre Lagoya and A ‘Carmen’ Fantasy for cello and piano by the Scottish-born composer Buxton Orr, just to name a few.

Recently, I saw a list of dozens of works based on themes from Carmen that I’ve never heard of, either because we have no recording or because there is none. And those I mentioned above aren’t even on that list.

Another famous work based upon Carmen came to mind last month. December 16th marked the 85th birthday of Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. He shares a birthday with Beethoven, who just celebrated his 247th.  And Shchedrin’s 85th came in the 50th anniversary year of his ‘Carmen’ Suite.

Making use of music from Carmen – and a tune from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne music – Shchedrin’s work, written for a ballet, is scored for strings and percussion. I remember a good number of listeners over the years who were intrigued by the orchestration, particularly the percussion.

In an essay included in the notes to the 1994 recording of the work with I Musici de Montreal and Ensemble Répercussion (Chandos 9288), Shchedrin talks about the controversy he created in the Soviet Union with his ballet score. Attacked by some for his “mockery of the masterpiece of Bizet” and for the way Carmen herself is portrayed, the ballet was cancelled after its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. It was to be replaced by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. With the assistance of Dmitri Shostakovich who visited the Ministry of Culture and assured top Communist Party officials of Shchedrin’s respect for Bizet’s work, the ballet was allowed to continue – though not permitted to be taken on tour.

Csardas by Vittorio Monti has undoubtedly been on the tour programs of violinists since it was written back in 1904. Monti, who was born in Naples, was a composer, violinist and mandolinist. Many consider him a “one hit wonder” with Csardas. It’s been played in all sorts of arrangements and certainly by ensembles that specialize in Hungarian folk music and Romani music (or gypsy music as it’s also known). The piece is based on a csardas, which is a type of dance that takes its name from Hungarian country inns. January 6th marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Monti, who died in 1922.

And January 8th marked the 175th anniversary of the first public performance of Robert Schumann’s one and only Piano Quintet in E flat, op. 44, which was written for his wife, the acclaimed pianist and composer Clara Schumann.  Actually there are 2 “first performance” celebrations. The private premiere took place on December 6, 1842 in the Schumann home. Clara was ill at the time.  Felix Mendelssohn, not having even seen the score in advance, sight-read the piano part.  The public premiere did feature Clara at the keyboard in 1843. From that point on, the work had her name on it.

I’m sure there are plenty of works on Classic Mornings each day that have your name on them. That is to say, you might find them especially enjoyable.  You won’t know unless you tune in Monday through Friday from 9-noon on FM 90.9 or online at will.illinois.edu.


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