(b. Paris, 25 October 1833; d. Bougival, 3 June 1875)
Incidental music to L'Arlésienne (1872),
a rural tragedy by Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897)
Bizet's L'Arlésienne is so familiar as an orchestral suite for the concert hall that its original version has been wholly eclipsed. Who of us, listening to the famous Farandole or Carillon, is aware that it was initially composed for a band of twenty-six players, including a piano and an off-stage harmonium zu reinforce the singers? Or that the orchestral suite was boiled down from a total of twenty-seven numbers, some of them no more than twenty bars long?
The story of the work is quickly told. After the collapse of his Théâtre-Lyrique in 1868, the impresario Léon Carvalho moved to a new theater, the Vaudeville (now the Paramount). Here he proceeded to revive a semi-defunct genre known as mélodrame, in which the words of a spoken play were accompanied by live instrumental music somewhat in the manner of a modern-day film score. In early 1872 he invited the distinguished dramatist Alphonse Daudet to contribute a new play, with music to be supplied by the young Georges Bizet. The two creators immediately set to work and got along famously, exchanging compliments and enclosing recent publications in their correspondence. Working in the summer months at his customary speed, Bizet turned out, in a matter of weeks, one of his most polished and effective scores in good time for the première on 1 October.
Daudet's play was a village tragedy set in the rural Provence. Drawing on a true event that occurred in the family of his friend, the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral, it tells the story of two brothers, Frédéri and Janet. The former is hopelessly ensnared in an amour fou for a girl from the neighboring town of Arles (hence the work's title L'Arlésienne) who, although she never actually appears on stage, dominates the action like an early precursor of Du Maurier's Rebecca. Janet, nicknamed "L'Innocent" because of his apparent simple-mindedness and arrested development, has an intuitive understanding for the sufferings of his elder brother. The "Arlésienne" is discovered, however, to be the mistress of a local grandee. Distraught, Frédéri agrees to marry the first eligible young woman appointed by his overbearing mother. On the day of the wedding, however, he chances to meet the grandee; overwhelmed by the onrush of memories, he commits suicide. Janet is jolted by the event to recover his senses: the mother loses one son only to gain another.
Daudet's play is noteworthy less for the machinations of its plot than for its lyric intensity and an overriding sense of fate that keeps its characters entrapped in their narrow world and emotional development. In outline, we can already descry the same conflict of personalities that would emerge a few years later to such stunning effect in Carmen, the difference being that Carmen is clearly placed on stage rather than remaining a disembodied force majeur. Bizet responded to Daudet's work with music of a vividness and emotional intensity that can only be fully appreciated in the context of the play. To enhance the effect of local color, he turned to three traditional Provençal tunes: Marcho dei Rei (Royal March), first published in 1759 but already familiar well before then; Danse dei Chivau-Frus (Dance of the Frisky Horses), which became the well-known Farandole; and the beautiful Er dou Guet. Yet all three tunes are worked seamlessly into the texture and general mood of his score: the Marcho, for example, serves as a theme for variations and is later heard in canon with itself and as a counter-melody to the Farandole.
The orchestra at Bizet's disposal consisted of twenty-six players in the unconventional combination of two flutes, one oboe (doubling english horn), one clarinet, two bassoons, alto saxophone, two horns, timpani (plus tambourine), seven violins, one viola, five cellos, two double basses, and piano with backstage harmonium. Far from being handicapped by these unusual forces, Bizet was inspired to create a score of bejeweled workmanship and almost chamber-music delicacy. Some of the numbers are accompanied by a solo string quartet (at times muted); another features the combination of two flutes, two violins, and viola. Much attention is devoted to the solo viola, and some of the instruments are associated thematically with characters in the play (the famous appearance of the alto saxophone is linked to "L'Innocent"). Bizet's autograph abounds in revisions and corrections reflecting the infinite pains he took to find just the right orchestral texture for the scenes in Daudet's play.
The première of L'Arlésienne on 1 October 1872 (with Bizet playing the backstage harmonium) was plagued by difficulties. Originally scheduled to take place later in the season, it was made to substitute at short notice for a different play that was banned by the censors. The audience was distracted and evidently disappointed by the replacement, and the piece failed after twenty-one performances. With sound intuition for its value, however, Bizet extracted four numbers (Prelude, Intermezzo, Adagietto, and Carillon) and rescored them for full orchestra to create the familiar Suite No. 1. It was instantaneously successful at its première, conducted by Pasdeloup in his concert series on 10 November of that same year. The likewise well-known Suite No. 2 is in fact not by Bizet, but was posthumously assembled by his friend Ernest Guiraud, who reorchestrated the Entr'acte, Pastorale, and Farandole from L'Arlésienne and added a number from Bizet's equally unsuccessful opera La Jolie Fille de Perth (1867). Both Daudet's play and Bizet's original score owe their success to a revival at the Odéon Sarcey in 1885, by which time Daudet had been honored by the Académie Française and Bizet had achieved posthumous world fame with Carmen. The piano reduction, published by Choudens after the 1872 première, was now joined by a full score of the entire piece issued by the same publisher (1886). If Bizet's Suite No. 1 has advanced to become one of the staples of the concert hall, the original incidental music still awaits the popularity that is its due. It is to be hoped hope that the present miniature score will help rectify this imbalance.
Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Choudens, Paris