Friday, October 25, 2013

Shchedrin's 'Carmen' for strings and percussion

Another of my program notes:

Rodion Shchedrin (born 1932),
after Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Carmen Suite – Ballet for string orchestra and percussion

Russians have carved out quite a significant role in the history of ballet since the days of Tchaikovsky and Petipa and they continue to do so to this day. The ballet of Carmen by choreographer Alberto Alonso and composer Rodion Shchedrin is possibly one of the best-known Russian ballets of the past 50 years.

In 1964, the Russian prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya wanted to produce a ballet on the theme of Carmen, the seductress who plays lustful men off each other. She asked the famous Russian composer Shostakovich if he wouldn’t compose the music for her. But Shostakovich refused, saying, ‘Everyone is so used to [Bizet’s] opera that whatever you write, you’ll disappoint them.’ Plisetskaya then asked Aram Khachaturian, composer of the ballets Spartacus and Gayane, but he refused: ‘You have a composer at home,’ he said, clinching his argument. Only then did she ask her husband, Rodion Shchedrin.

Shchedrin originally intended to write an original score. But he too said he couldn’t think of Carmen without Bizet’s music, and so he decided ultimately to rethink Bizet.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference you’ll notice between Bizet’s and Shchedrin’s versions is in the orchestration – Shchedrin uses strings and a large battery of percussion. You will hear all your favourite themes of course, but sounding not quite like they did before. Witness the opening, the familiar Habañera, on bells with long string notes providing a note of expectation. But Shchedrin’s version is more than just orchestration; there are rhythmic differences and restructurings as well. At one stage Shchedrin uses the Bolero from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne in his score.

The ballet’s scenario was provided by the Cuban choreographer, Alberto Alonso, who had been commissioned during a visit to Moscow, and is similar to that of the opera. It tells of Carmen’s seduction of the straight-laced soldier Don José, whom she throws over for the more dashing toreador, Escamillo; and of Carmen’s subsequent murder at the hands of the jealous Don José. Along the way other characters have included Fate, a ballerina dressed in black who tells Carmen’s fortune, and Captain Zúñiga, José’s superior and perhaps also a competitor for Carmen’s affections.

The Naxos recording of this suite talks about the ‘white heat’ of Shchedrin’s arrangement. Poor uptight Don José can’t handle the heat of passions the sultry Carmen unexpectedly unleashes in him; the Carmen story adds another dimension to the meaning of ‘getting too close to the flame’.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2012 

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:
Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013
Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013
Liszt's Hamlet, published 15 August 2013
Scriabin's Piano Concerto, published 18 August 2013
Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich, published 27 August 2013
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier selections, published
Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, published 30 August 2013
'Traditional terms' - an interview with John Adams, published 5 Sep 2013
Berlioz' Waverley Overture, published 9 Sep 2013
Tchaikovsky's Fatum, published 17 Sep 2013
Wagner, arr. Henk de Vlieger A Ring Adventure, published 29 Sep 2013
Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique', published on 29 Sep 2013

Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony, published 13 October 2013 
Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture, published 21 October 2013

Articles on mine on composers include:

Sousa and the Sioux, 19 August 2011

"...above the canopy of stars..." - Beethoven's Ninth, 28 May 2012
Percy Grainger, the chap who "wanted to find the sagas everywhere", 17 June 2012
A Star and his Stripes - Bernstein, the populist, 29 June 2012
Igor in Oz: Stravinsky Downunder, 17 July 2012
Wagner - is it music, or is it drama? 27 July 2012
"Beautiful...sad": Puccini's La boheme, 29 July 2012
Philippa - an opera [blog 1], ideas for an opera on Philippa Duke Schuyler, 16 Sep 2012 
'Traditional terms?' - an interview with John Adams, published 5 Sep 2013

On my website, click on "USA blog" to scroll down the full range.

No comments:

Post a Comment