Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Exoticism in Bizet's Carmen

Nationalism in music is a topic we once looked at here on Clef Notes. But what about the opposite of nationalism, or the evocation of a distant land, by use of borrowed melodies, native instruments, etc.? This idea is known as exoticism and, though used throughout history, it gained popularity during the late nineteenth century.

Exoticism is an interesting concept because, while composers were successful in creating sounds different from what their Western audiences were used to hearing, they were not always accurate in creating authentic music from these distant regions. Many of the exotic melodies that became popular during this time period depicted more of the composer’s own idea of what these foreign melodies should sound like rather than the actual music of different cultures.

This month, I’d like to look at various examples of exoticism in music, starting off with a few operatic examples this week. Today, let’s look at Bizet’s Carmen (1874), an opera set in Spain and based on a novel by Prosper Mérimée.  While to us, Spain sits in close proximity to where the opera was composed in France, audiences of Bizet’s time looked at Spanish elements as exotic and exciting.

Carmen takes place in Seville during the mid-nineteenth century and is a tale about how the soldier Don José leaves behind his morals and innocent love for the provocative gypsy-girl Carmen.

Courtesy of wikimedia.org
Bizet conveys his own ideas about Spain in multiple ways. Above you can see an image of Carmen in bright, alluring colors. He also casts Spain in a dark sense, ending his opera with a gruesome murder. Bizet uses musical elements to give audiences a dose of Spanish flare. Several of Carmen’s arias use titles from Spanish dances such as “Habanera” and “Seguidilla.” Bizet incorporates augmented seconds associated with gypsy music and the Phrygian mode, adding to the Spanish flavor.

Just for fun, enjoy one more “Carmen” video, courtesy of The Muppets: