This Week in Music History: The premiere of Carmen (1875)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? The debut of Bizet’s incendiary femme fatale who, for all her fatal attraction, couldn’t win over her first audience…

What’s your favorite thing about Carmen? Don’t ask Friedrich Nietzsche, or you’ll be there all night. “The music seems to me to be perfect,” the German philosopher wrote. “This music is wicked, subtle and fatalistic; it remains popular at the same time… It is rich. It is precise…”

Don’t ask Tchaikovsky either. “It’s music without pretensions to profundity, but so delightful in its simplicity, so lively (not contrived but sincere) that I got to know it all almost by heart from beginning to end.” And so on.

It’s no surprise that Carmen struck a particular chord with Tchaikovsky, whose own music for The Nutcracker is perhaps the only score in the repertoire that has yielded as many popular hits. To listen to either work is to be astonished at just how many familiar tunes it contains. But only Carmen has a dangerous, seductive gypsy, a charismatic bullfighter, the thrill of a doomed romance…

Georges Bizet was not an especially successful composer when he received the commission for Camren from the Opéra-Comique of Paris in 1872. His one-act opera Djamileh had just gone down quite badly at the same venue, so he was lucky to get the commission. He was lucky, too, to secure the renowned Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy as his librettists, who treated it almost as a favor. “[Bizet’s] interests alone matter in this instance,” said Halévy just before the premiere on March 3, 1875. “The thing has little importance for Meilhac and me.”

Bizet was also lucky that the opera ended up being staged at all. He had quite deliberately chosen a controversial subject: a story by Prosper Mérimée about an amoral Spanish gypsy, that concluded with a gruesome murder. One of the theater’s directors, Adolphe de Leuven, ended up resigning over this shocking project. Yet still the opera found its way to the stage.

Poster for the original production of Carmen 1875, black and white.
Poster for the original production, 1875

That was where Bizet’s luck ran out. The first performance started well, but the audience “cooled” in the second act, according to Halévy, and it got worse from there. “No enthusiasm at all for the third act except for Micaela’s aria. The audience was frigid during the fourth act… Carmen was not a success.”

Yet it wasn’t a total failure. Many of the composers who saw the early performances recognized its brilliance, and the first run went on for several months. It was on the night of performance number 33 that the unluckiest thing of all happened: Bizet suffered a heart attack and died, at the age of just 36.

“Carmen” Salvador Dali, original lithographe 1970

It was only after its composer’s death that Carmen really took off. Posthumously, the opera has brought its composer the success he deserved. We’re the lucky ones today, in that we can enjoy such dazzlingly brilliant music as the Habanera…

And the Urchin’s Chorus…

And the Act III “Intermezzo”…

And the prelude to Act IV…

And so on.

Watch now, Bizet's Carmen.

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