Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bizet's "Farandole"

The embedded youtube videos don't show up in Buzz, so those of you who normally read there, just click over to the actual blog for the rest of the content.

The opening of this piece is, for lack of a better word, epic. The counterpoint is superb, the melody compelling, the harmony flawless. But beyond that, it simply yells "listen to me!" It's loud, it's aggressive, it's passionate, and it combines the dark undertones of minor tonality with an unabashed excitement that is anything but languid.

Georges Bizet is probably best known for his opera Carmen. You know it, whether you think you do or not, thanks to its two most famous bits.

Farandole, on the other hand, comes originally from the incidental music to the play L'Arlésienne, about which I know next to nothing, and about which Wikipedia says little except that it's a classic Romantic Era silly love-suicide story. Wikipedia doesn't use those exact words, mind you, but it's close enough. One wonders, given the fairly tepid plot description on The Great Free Encyclopedia, where exactly this particular piece fits in the action.

Not surprisingly, given the quality of the music, Bizet took the incidental music he wrote for the play and reworked it into a suite of the same title (another composer did the same with Bizet's work, which is why there are two suites if you go looking). The Farandole you have just heard is, then, one of the movements of that suite.

Like so many Romantic composers - and artists more generally - Bizet died young. A heart attack at 36, precipitated by ill health, claimed his life before Carmen took off. The tragedy of his death fits neatly into the era, to be sure, but nevertheless robbed the world of years of excellent music. In his last four years, from the ages of 32 to 36, Bizet wrote both L'Arlésienne and Carmen. Who knows what he could have written in another ten, twenty, or thirty.

To my mind, while Carmen is the better known of Bizet's late works, I find L'Arlésienne, and Farandole in particular, much more compelling. It leaves that itch, like much Romantic music, for just a little bit more refinement, but it delivers so much on the side of raw emotion that its rawness is forgivable.

I'm not satisfied, however, with high-level talk about what is compelling and what isn't, so let's dig into the actual music a bit, too. Hey, I never promised this blog would be all vague similes and philosophical ramblings.

In this piano reduction (click to enlarge; I think it redirects, so right-click and open in a new tab), we can see the opening of the piece all on one manageable line. We're missing out on some of the awesome counterpoint at, say, the end of the first phrase (where the horns ascend against the descending string melody), but the overall chord structure is accurate.

What is striking here is the lack of a dominant. Where many romantic composers loved to overemphasize the dominant - Wagner, I'm looking at you - to the exclusion of the tonic, Bizet here is mostly playing with subdominants and substitutions. We don't get a big A7 until the very end of the phrase, at which point we're just turning around and starting down the subdominant path all over again. The second time through the opening melody is essentially the same as the first, with a Bb and A7 (a VI-V-i) replacing the strange Fsus thing that's going on the first time through.

Diving into the opening melodic and harmonic phrase, it's worth remembering that this all happens so fast that we barely register the particular movements of the chords. The whole things feels like one big, fat, subdominant - that is, moving away from the rest of the key, but hardly establishing a new home or particularly dragging us back to the tonic - as well it should given the chords involved.

Bizet emphasizes, at the outset, the Bb Major triad, a substitution for the tonic of D-. I think this is why, despite the minor tonality of the piece, it doesn't feel minor. We're emphasizing the Major tonalities within the D minor scale. Moreover, replacing A Major - the usual dominant, with A minor lets that Bb Major feel more intentional. Rather than being a substitution for the dominant in the purest sense - that is rather than acting as a resolution of a dominant chord - the Bb is simply part of a progression exploring and defining the key of the piece.

The next couple of measures, which include much quicker rhythms, end up in a F Major triad. Bizet emphasizes the D minor triads leading up to this. Even these Ds are hurried, and the F is the focal point here, which is unusual. It seems to me that Bizet is using the F as a half-way point between the dominant A and the tonic D, as a kind of odd subdominant that, rather than serving as a departure from the tonic and a move towards the dominant, heightens the tension of the piece without moving particularly away from the tonic. That F is the dominant of the Bb which has already been emphasized is not insignificant either. We're being pulled back towards the Major tonality, here.

The resounding C Major that starts the next bit of the phrase reinforces this, serving as it does as a II of Bb, and as nothing relative to D minor. Indeed, we could almost claim to have modulated here, especially because of the A diminished (A*) in the next measure. That A* unambiguously points towards Bb, and not at all towards D minor. That it resolves to a G minor instead of the Bb Major only goes to show, since G minor is Bb Major's vi (six), and therefore a tonic substitution.

The rest of the phrase is a subdominant holding pattern, which, in the end, leads us back to D- and restarts the phrase. Of course the counterpoint is more engaging here than the harmony, but they are inextricably linked: the counterpoint is responsible for the harmonic work. Nevertheless, the kind of harmonic analysis that would be easy with Beethoven or Mozart is somewhat confounded here, not because it is ignored, but because it is intentionally being manipulated towards a whole different set of musical goals.

I would be satisfied with this fascinating opening to the piece, but the real fireworks come in the next few measures, starting on the third line down. I've provided no analysis here, because this is pure counterpoint. Bizet shows that, despite the harmonic complexity implied by his melody, he can also set it against itself - only half a measure offset - and produce music nonetheless. He doesn't pursue this, turning it into a fugue as Beethoven often did when using similar devices. Rather, Bizet simply lets the counterpoint resolve itself before launching into yet another and even more frantic new melody which - not surprisingly - ultimately ends up being a counterpoint to the original melody.

To me, however, there is something unsatisfying about the second half and the ending of this piece. It is certainly exciting, but it feels much like the Overture to Carmen: fast, frantic, brilliant, and without development. The rich melody that begins the piece should yield itself to so much more than simply being played against itself and against other melodies. Instead it is repeated and repeated, and while context is changed rhythmically and harmonically, the melody is never transformed within those bounds in the way that, say, Brahms does in his Variations on a Theme by Haydn.* Granted, Brahms is doing variations, which deal by definition with transforming melodies within a harmonic structure, but that doesn't change the fundamental model: hold the one bit of the music constant while you transform the other.

* Yes, I just linked to myself. I've also become aware that the Brahms videos I link to in that article have been taken down. With a modicum of digging, you can find an alternative, though I haven't found a recording online of the same quality as that to which I originally linked. If I do find something, I'll set up new links - or embed those - in the old post.

Regardless, I find Farandole a truly joyful piece. It almost doesn't matter that it feels unfulfilled. What is there is so perfect, so epic, so hilarious, so fun that it doesn't matter. Look closely at some of the musicians and, when you can see them, the audience in the video at the top of this post. People love this music, and not in some kind of reserved, elitist way. No, this is just the raw, naked joy of Romantic expressiveness at its best.

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