Sunday, May 02, 2010

Carmen, The Greatest Dead End of All Time

If you don't mind my doing another music-related post, I wanted to follow up something I wrote in an earlier post, which is that Carmen, The Magic Flute and Porgy and Bess are the three great dead ends in the history of music theatre (because they pointed the way toward a fusion of popular and serious musical theatre, but their composers all died young without writing another opera).

(Yes, the most recent televised Carmen is on period instruments. There's actually a better period performance of the Carmen preludes on a disc of Bizet instrumental music by Marc Minkowski -- but unfortunately he hasn't recorded the whole piece.)

A commenter rightly noted that the influence of Carmen was felt in the brief wave of so-called verismo operas, dealing with lower-class passions and subject matter. But the influence there was mainly in terms of the non-musical material: once Carmen became popular, there were a bunch of other operas about characters who were not "noble" either in rank or in the emotions they expressed. And even that didn't last long. (The actual verismo movement burned out sometime in the '90s, replaced by operas about aristocratic characters, like Tosca, or exotic locales, like Madame Butterfly.) The verismo operas didn't show much musical influence from Carmen; instead, composers continued to do what they had been doing since the '60s: try to come to terms with the influence of Wagner.

Puccini became the most successful composer of the post-Wagner era because, apart from his talent, he hit on a way to write operas that were both "Wagnerian" and traditionally Italian: La Boheme and Tosca make room for more or less traditional arias and ensembles, but they also use the Wagnerian style: there are motifs that are repeated and developed throughout the evening, the music is continuous with no "recitatives." But Puccini's success reinforced the idea that the Wagnerian style was the way to go; he proved that the style didn't have to be Teutonic and could be made specifically Italian-sounding, but he also demonstrated that you were nowhere unless you had fully absorbed the lessons of Wagner. (Verdi, in his last years, went for something a little different from both Puccini and Wagner; he built his last opera, Falstaff, out of a collection of little bits of sung melody that are rarely repeated -- the opposite of the lush Wagner style, but something that was not easy to imitate.)

But Carmen, coming at a time when Wagner was being recognized as the model for all musical theatre (Verdi was in semi-retirement at the time, so there was literally no active composer who could compete with Wagner's influence), was something else again. Carmen was an "advanced," modern work at the time, but one that was built out of all the formulas that Wagner had rejected. Carmen, being an opera-comique with spoken dialogue, is a pure "numbers opera," which was the form that Wagner had rebelled against: Wagner had eliminated all separate numbers, and even applause breaks within acts, and turned every act into a continuous piece of music. Carmen is divided into solos, duets, ensembles, choruses, most of them strictly separated and coming to applause-baiting endings before the dialogue begins.

Whereas Wagner advocated putting more of the musical interest in the orchestra, often letting the orchestra carry the melody while the singer filled in something else on top of it, Carmen is full of old-fashioned song, with the singer's part dominating over the orchestra. And Bizet, like Verdi, prefers to come up with fresh melodic material for each new development in the piece, rather than using the Wagnerian method of developing themes we heard before. Bizet will quote an earlier theme only as a sort of mnemonic, a reminder of an idea; so he has a "fate" theme that he quotes a few times, just as Verdi had a "fate" theme in La Forza Del Destino (which may have been where he got the idea), but like Verdi and his hero Mozart, he considers each section a new test of his power to characterize it with a specific, appropriate tune.

By applying all these old-fashioned techniques to a sensationalistic subject, Bizet did something new with Carmen, but what was really new was that he made all these techniques seem fresh again. Just because Carmen's music is so good, so powerful and immediate, and such a brilliant mishmash of serious and popular, Bizet suggested that the pre-Wagner techniques weren't obsolete at all, as long as they were used with his kind of imagination (since almost none of the numbers are just simple songs; Bizet plays around with the forms he's using). And the immediacy of the characters and the plot seemed inseparable from the deceptively accessible tunes and forms that Bizet employed. It was as if the use of closed forms and songs was perfect for characters who were to emerge as people, rather than the symbolic figures that Wagner specialized in. That's one of the key benefits of the populist style of Carmen; because the characters express themselves in music that sounds less high-flown than the usual opera, they have an immediacy and relatability that wasn't usually associated with the operatic form. That helped lead to the modern musical that uses popular musical forms for ambitious purposes; that in turn was what Oscar Hammerstein paid tribute to when he turned Carmen into Carmen Jones.

So that's what Carmen seemed to suggest: that there was an alternative, musical and theatrical, to Wagnerism. And the whole thing fell apart because Bizet died, and no one knew how to follow it up. Some people, like Tchaikovsky, learned from Bizet's manipulation of the traditional numbers form; Tchaikovsky didn't like Wagner very much, and probably drew on the lessons of Carmen (which he loved) when he was working on Eugene Onegin. And others learned from the idea that you could incorporate folk and popular elements into opera (not that Bizet was the first to do this, but along with The Bartered Bride from a few years earlier, it helped to re-acquaint international audiences with this approach). Still others liked the idea of slumming it with the subject matter. But putting it all together -- sort of a Mozart approach to music combined with a populist approach to subject and characters -- was not something anyone tried to do until, well, Porgy and Bess. And, as I said, the composer of Porgy met the same fate as Mozart and Bizet: he died before he could write a follow-up.

And I think, though I don't have time to look for examples, that it may be the follow-up that really matters in terms of influence. That is, one truly unique work is very difficult for others to imitate. Once the same artist produces something else in a similar style, he creates a sort of template -- or at least he demonstrates that you can learn from the original without producing a pale copy.


Graham said...

"And I think, though I don't have time to look for examples, that it may be the follow-up that really matters in terms of influence."

Or maybe it's the follow up to the follow up that really matters. (Considering that The Magic Flute was a follow up, to an extent, to The Abduction from the Seraglio.)

an said...


Nice post and very informative. thanks for the great sharing.

stevef said...

Wish you had been around when I was taking classes in this stuff at college. We always talked about who influenced who and how this led to that. We never talked about how sometimes an art form can go up a blind alley. At that time "Porgy and Bess" and even "Rhapsody in Blue" were still treated as anomalies. "Yes, I am aware of Gershwin."