Musicological Analysis of "Carmen" by a College Freshman

This was my first major college paper, and while I cringe now at the juvenile rhythm and structure, I'm proud that this turned out as rich and informed as it did.


Bizet would seem to be the perfect composer who wrote the perfect opera at the perfect time.  Accepted into the Conservatoire at the age of ten and given competent and encouraging musical instruction by the best talents in France including Gounod who gave Georges his first composing and arranging jobs.  This positive environment along with oppressive musical encouragement from his parents produced several publishable songs by 1854 (Dean 749) and his first symphony in 1855 (Dean 751).

His first true opera to speak of, Les Pêcheurs de Perles was performed in 1863 to cold reviews (except for the refreshingly receptive Berlioz) (Dean 755).  While the work showed an “uneven quality,” it allowed Bizet to practice his use of local color and background, and this experience came very much into play when assembling Carmen. Les Pêcheurs allowed Bizet to orchestrate in his now familiar sparse woodwind style utilizing exotic themes.  Also, like Carmen, Les Pêcheurs can be seen to have a “crippling” libretto (Dean 755) that Bizet proves very adept at not only overcoming its deficiencies but using his musical skill to suggest aspects of the plot that would never have been discovered otherwise.

Bizet’s next opera was La Jolie Fille de Perts, which shows more musical refinement than his previous, and because of this, was favored by critics.  Bizet continues his training for Carmen by conceiving of La Jolie Fille as a tragi-comedy and including a Gypsy song.  In the intervening years between La Jolie Fille the maturing Bizet can be seen to increase his taste for musical dramatism in his works, and as was the case since his youth, his ability as a musician continued to grow exponentially.

Due to Bizet’s submergence in the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn as a part of his training at the Conservatoire, he developed so strong a strong taste for German music that he claimed he was “German by conviction, heart and soul, but I sometimes get lost in artistic houses of ill-fame” (McClary 48).  In his larger vocal works leading up to Carmen, one can witness the gradual Wagnerian surrender of the voice to the orchestra (Dean 760).  To a historian, Bizet seems to be warming up to the ultimate compilation of his practiced styles; Carmen finally provides Bizet with this outlet.


Act I, Scene 2

The first piece that strongly suggests a Spanish ancestry occurs in the first act and is Carmen’s opening aria.  The Habeñera, as is the case with most opening arias, is meant to capsulate Carmen’s character and philosophy of life.  Carmen sings of the fickleness of love and its transient qualities as they compare to two of natures most inconstant creatures: birds and gypsies.  This piece allows Carmen to show her boisterous yet hypnotic traits as she sinuously dances and sings across the whole of the stage, enticing her audience of chorus members into participating in a call-and-response accenting the song’s most important message: if Carmen decides to love you, “prends garde à toi!” (Bleiler 13).  Her message is directed at the populace in general, but towards the end she can be seen to notice Don José, and indeed throws a flower at him at her conclusion, so the audience must wonder whether her show was for his seemingly disinterested eyes.  In any case, the Habeñera provides Carmen’s entrance with an explosive and melodic sexuality that is captured in Bizet’s ingenious exoticism.

Bizet’s choice to depart from tonality in favor of a chromatic melody line is the most prominent evidence of an exotic aspect in this piece, which represents the composer’s first venture into the alien and the foreign in this opera; Carmen certainly represented an alien presence to the middle-class patrons of the opéra-comique (McClary 45).  Carmen’s melody is seen to trickle slowly downwards, occasionally performing a triplet ornament that always takes the listener by surprise.  Combined with just the right amount of dynamic interpretation by the performer, the melody not only serves to convey Carmen’s message of sensuality and danger, but also her many levels of manipulation, disillusionment, and feminine angst that come into play later in the opera.

All of Carmen’s melodic hypnotism is set quite brilliantly above the trademark of most habeñeras: a syncopated bass ostinato, here, played by the cellos.  This ostinato is suggestive of a slow, sensuous dance involving much hip movement alien to the French ballet-oriented stage.  Part of the fear that Carmen inspires (or was intended to inspire) comes from her easy relationship with her body, a taboo subject in 19th-century France (McClary 55-56).  Also the high woodwind mirroring of the secondary melody reiterates Bizet’s use of a chromatic, as opposed to tonal, melody that includes the forbidden augmented second; it would seem that Bizet intends to flaunt Carmen’s revels in the shocking and the devilish.

The significance of the Habeñera lies in its description of Carmen’s character, which constitutes one of the prime innovations in Carmen.  “In the opéra-comique...women were expected to be gentle, biddable, always sinned against but never sinning...” (Cooper 15).  Carmen personifies the rebellion against these accepted values.  Bizet seems to be carrying out his promise to Ernest Guiraud, to “enlarge and transform the genre” (McClary 45).  The Habeñera would seem to be a catalyst in the change in French attitudes toward women in the 19th century, and Bizet’s composing enhances this quality to incredibly artistic proportions.


Act I, Scene 2

Carmen’s plea to Don José to aid in her escape is the best example in Carmen of Bizet’s incredible ability to write music that suggests an extreme kind of exotic, alien otherness in the way the various elements of the music are constructed and combined.  The Seguidilla is Carmen’s first song of seduction and she ends up quite effectively trapping Don José in her web of sexual corruption.  Her words speak promises of a romantic evening at Lillas Pastia’s where she and Don José will “danser la séguidilla” and “boire du manzanilla” (Bleiler 26).  She launches into an involved extollment of Don José, tempting him with her love as one would tempt a hunted animal.  But her words alone are not capable of seducing a military officer; more that half of the hypnotic power of this song comes from Bizet’s music.

While this piece is most definitely rooted in B minor, the opening flute passage suggest F# major, which can be taken as symbolic for Carmen’s “major key” body and suggestions over top of her “minor key” intentions of sexual control and personal freedom at any cost.  In contrast with some of the more important sections of the opera, Carmen’s melody is accompanied by only light orchestration, which might represent her façade of gentleness and benevolence.  The high woodwinds’ augmentative line is sometimes found soaring high about the low strings with little or no middle to the orchestral chord, and this produces in the mind of the listener images of soaring birds representing incarnate freedom.  In Carmen’s first line, and in many others to follow, we receive an excellent example of a foreign modulation as Carmen slithers across several keys before settling on the seemingly unrelated key of D major.  The way the orchestra presents and creatively alters these keys hints at Carmen’s incredible intelligence and the utter alienness of her mind.  While her dark, elegant melody is based on the Spanish phrygian scale, Carmen will occasionally sing more tonal Western lines when addressing Don José, who is the opera’s most prominent resident of the Western World.  When Carmen sings these more predictable passages, it seems as though she is coming to Don José level, speaking his musical language and the words that she speaks during these times are the most crucial lines of her seduction, such as the line “...je pense à certain officier qui m’aime et qu’à mon tour...” (Bleiler 26).  Techniques like these show Carmen’s ultimate understanding of Don José and his kind.

“In the middle section, as she both offers and withholds herself, her chromatic treachery becomes almost intolerable as the points of tonal reference in both bass and melody wriggle about by contrary-motion half-steps” (McClary 87).  Also, at the end, “...Carmen slides about chromatically, always just out of reach” (McClary 89).  The music that Bizet has written for Carmen never ceases to be some sort of aural representation of “Bizet’s attitude towards the character of Carmen herself” (Cooper 15).  Moreover, the extremely palpable feeling of alienness that coats this aria is a credit to Bizet’s cultural knowledge and his certainty about what he wanted the music alone to communicate, and what he wanted to communicate through the combination of the music and the words.


Act II, Scene 1

“Le Chanson Bohéme” takes place at the establishment of Lillas Pastia where Don José is to meet Carmen upon his release from prison.  This piece is performed by Carmen, Frasquita, and Mercedes, and they sing a long, fierce piece that basically describes the dance that they also perform.  While this song does not directly motivate the plot, it does contain a number of musical anomalies and examples of Bizet’s genius at writing music that brilliantly reflects the culture of the gypsies.

The Gypsy Song begins with a flute duet that swirls hypnotically in thirds, and this creates a very specific image of what Bizet wanted to see choreographically.  The use of harp suggests an ethereal quality to the dance, but its melody sounds hesitant and anticipatory, so maybe heaven isn’t here yet.  While the orchestra seems on the edge of becoming too impressionistic, there remains a strong pulse in the percussion and pizzicato strings dedicated to keeping the music grounded in reality and firmly moving forward.  The choice to give Carmen a tambourine shows Bizet’s interest in emphasizing her role as a performer by integrating her into the orchestra.  This shows her close bond with music, which one may assume is beyond military types like Don José.  The tambourine’s hard insistence upon syncopation could suggest an offbeat personality, when compared to more regular people, as represented by the string arpeggios.  As the piece progresses, the tempo and dynamic level increases until it seems to rocket forward, using the dancing and the gypsy life for fuel.  Towards the end, the piece sounds downright dangerous and the singers execute fierce riffs in minor keys; at this blazing tempo with the full orchestra behind them, the audience definitely knows the fear of women that Bizet wished to express.


While they don’t have very much of an impact on the plot, the entr’actes in Carmen serve to set the scene for the proceeding act, and they sometimes provide interesting insights into the characters of the act.  They also provide a capsulized look at Bizet’s profound compositional skills without the “distraction” of the singers.

This entr’acte precedes the final confrontation and bullfight scene.  The piece starts with a high woodwind feature, showcasing Bizet’s trademark wind scoring.  The oboe has a long solo where it seems to tell a sad story of lost love and mourning that is slowly adopted by the other high woodwinds.  Then, a swirling motion is started that is reminiscent of the Gypsy Song in Act II.  Slowly, an imposing character of Spanish music is laid upon the piece with an accented silent first beat.  The powerful flamenco chords in the trumpets, trombones, and woodwinds on Eb, Db, and C are obviously intended to portray Escamillo’s ultimately victorious bullfight, but they also foreshadow the powerful emotions portrayed by Carmen and Don José during their final confrontation.  The unexpected advent of triplets in 3/8 time give the music an unpredictable lilt, an attitude that permeates the entire opera, and which becomes more prominent in the upcoming act.

Listeners must be careful not to overlook the entr’actes in Carmen as mere “incidental” music; Bizet is incapable of writing anything that could be considered “incidental.”  Instead, the audience must take advantage of these opportunities to hear the orchestra broadcast the moving strains of Bizet inspired music unadulterated by voice or action on the stage.


Act IV, Scene 2

As both the action and music reach their climax, the words of Lesley A. Wright begin to fit this opera more closely than ever: “The music...does not contain the drama, but helps to stage it in its full tragic relief” (19).  The final scene of Carmen brings Don José and Carmen together for the last fatal time against a contrasting backdrop of a festival where Carmen’s current lover, Escamillo is performing in the bullfighting arena.  Carmen knows that tragedy awaits her, but refuses to reinstate her love for the hopelessly lovesick Don José.

At the beginning of their interaction, Carmen’s lines are sung in an irritated monotone; apparently she is still wounded from Don José’s fleeing to his mother after insulting her with jealous words.  She manages a controlled hospitality, not wanting to provoke the man she knows capable of violence, but still making plain her wishes to stay with Escamillo.  Pizzicato strings accent her displeasure with Don José’s pleas; the sound of plucked strings naturally produces a sense of anxiety in the listener.

Don José is a contrast to Carmen in all respects, especially emotionally and psychologically.  His music as he makes his pleas for Carmen to come back to him reflect beautifully this contrast.  His melody is very classical-romantic in style, and he is accompanied by an uncharacteristic bed of sonorous strings, more in the style of Sibelius than Bizet.  Whenever a musical switch is performed between these characters, significant key and instrument changes are made, showing the I-said-you-said character of their conversation and impasse to which they appear to have come.  The piece’s unifying flavor of sadness binds these elements together, but Bizet makes a great deal out of the emotional dichotomy between these two individuals.  At the times when they both sing simultaneously, the composer makes no effort toward either unison or rhythmic counterpoint; he allows them to both chaotically present their literal and musical ideas concurrently, allowing them to clash, all the while supported by distressed strings and winds who wail in mourning of these lovers.

The incessant interruption by the bullfighting crowd cheering the ultimately victorious Escamillo serves two purposes: it reminds Carmen of her newfound love in the toreador and it rejuvenates Don José’s jealously.  The joy of the trumpet and trombone that accompanies the cheering crowd seems to mock the seriousness of the larger and more morose orchestration that accompanies the tragic duet.  The choice to have these dueling mindsets separated by physical and musical space to show the differing depths of emotionality duality is so brilliant that an average listener is swept up completely in the emotional flow of the music.

When Carmen’s anger finally erupts in the form of a string tremolo, the sound of Don José singing “...je t’aime, je t’adore!” sounds especially dwarfed and pathetic, and the audience’s hearts go out to him, for the sound of his musical defeat signals his romantic defeat, as does the brass orchestration.  The music and passions gradually build toward the reemergence of the second theme from the overture, an incredibly bold phrygian passage of five notes stated in unison by the entire orchestra that explodes under the cries of “Victoire!” as Escamillo’s victory over the bull parallels Carmen’s vanquishing of Don José.  In what could be Bizet’s greatest wedding of music to character, Don José sings loudly and mournfully of the death of Carmen, but does not resolve the piece; his last note remains firmly rooted in the dominant, and the orchestra does not achieve release from this until two measures after Don José has stopped singing.  This musical choice shows that even after giving in to his passions in his dealing with his jealousy of Carmen, he still does not feel fulfilled (resolved).  The audience is left feeling as though Don José’s pain and misery will last forever.

No other composer could have even come close to accomplishing emotionally and musically what Bizet has accomplished in Carmen.  The perfect blending of the key operatic elements, the brilliant choice of orchestration, and elegant and simple melody lines all contribute to the incredible impact, and therefore immortality, of this most famous opera of the repertoire.  Each of the twenty-seven pieces in Carmen exudes passion, intelligence, musicality, and a crucial soul that drives the plot, the passion, and the music forward, where previously unimaginable glory is achieved through the capture of the musical unicorn of quintessential composition.


Bizet’s Carmen.  Georges Bizet.  Translated by Ellen H.  Bleiler.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1983.

Carmen.  Georges Bizet.  Musical Score.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1989.

Carmen.  Georges Bizet.  “Opéra-Comique” by Martin Cooper.  “A Musical Commentary” by Lesley A. Wright.  New York: Riverrun Press, 1982.

Georges Bizet: Carmen.  Susan McClary.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Volume 2.  Winton Dean.

My Speech to the 2004 Brandeis Interfaith Baccalaureate

Dissecting “Il Catalogo e Questo”