Bizet: L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2

GEORGES BIZET

BORN: October 25, 1838. Paris, France

DIED: June 3, 1875. Bougival

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERE: 1872, at Paris’s Théâtre du Vaudeville as incidental music for Alphonse Daudet’s play The Woman from Arles. Bizet himself extracted a suite of music from the play and arranged it for full orchestra; shortly after the composer’s death, Ernest Guiraud extracted a Second Suite of music from L’Arlésienne

US PREMIERE: October 6, 1876. Theodore Thomas conducted his orchestra in New York 

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, tambourine, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 17 mins

THE BACKSTORY L’Arlésienne, or The Woman from Arles, is a play about two Provençal brothers of peasant stock, Fréderi and Janet, the latter being known as L’Innocent on account of his arrested mental development. Fréderi is desperately in love with a woman from Arles (whom we never see), who is, however, allied to a sinister horse trader called Mitifio. Nearly out of his mind with jealous rage, Fréderi is persuaded by his tough-minded mother to become engaged with her sweet god-daughter, Vivette. A chance meeting with Mitifio just before the wedding destroys his artificially induced sense of settlement and he commits suicide. Just then, Janet, who in his clouded way has shown the most empathy for Fréderi, emerges into full competence so that Mother Rose gains a son in the very moment of losing one. It makes a rotten synopsis but a beautiful play, one that gets occasional performances in Paris and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Alphonse Daudet (1840-97), who always carried a notebook and who said that fiction’s proper subject was “the history of those who would never have any history,” drew the tragic story from life. A nephew of the great Frédéric Mistral, the poet and scholar who led the revival of the Provençal language in the nineteenth century, committed suicide over a woman from a neighboring town, and Daudet was haunted by the memory of “two women, their hands shading their eyes in the sunset at the entrance to the Camargue, calling, one in a high voice, the other low, ‘Frédéri.’” The secret of L’Arlésienne lies in Daudet’s skill at evoking a sense of place, still more in the unsentimental simplicity of his writing. 

It was Léon Carvalho, director of the Vaudeville, who brought Daudet and Bizet together. Their collaboration and their friendship were exceedingly happy. Bizet, with his passion for theater, thoroughly enjoyed providing music that ranged from large set pieces to brief background for dialogue. He did his work, moreover, with inspiration and fantasy; alas, some of the most remarkable musical moments in L’Arlésienne are completely tied to the play and in effect inaccessible to those who have not the chance to see it in full production. But the Paris audience, sparse because it was too early in the season and because Carvalho had completely blown the publicity, did not care in the least. It was a hostile lot, noisy and rude. Musicians in the audience, like Massenet, admired Bizet’s work insofar as they were allowed to hear it; the literary crowd was engaged in turning L’Arlésienne into an intellectual minefield. It was a heartbreaking experience for poet and musician. Bizet had the consolation of seeing some of his score vindicated in its concert version. Daudet lived to see L’Arlésienne revived to rapturous applause at the Odéon in May 1885; Bizet was by then the famous composer of Carmen and dead for ten years.

Ernest Guiraud (1837-92), who compiled the Second Suite, was a competent composer and a successful teacher whose most famous pupils were Claude Debussy and Charles Martin Loeffler. He is best remembered for having completed the orchestration of Les Contes d’Hoffmann after Offenbach’s death and for having written the recitatives in the now pretty much discredited grand-opera edition of Carmen.

THE MUSIC

The Pastorale was written to accompany the dialogue of the aged lovers, the wise shepherd Balthazar and Vivette’s grandmother, who meet after fifty years’ separation. 

In the original scheme the Intermezzo is the entr’acte that joins—or separates—the two large divisions of Daudet’s Act II. Guiraud has slightly expanded the reprise of the declamatory opening section. 

The Menuet comes from Bizet’s own Suite No. 1. It is said to denote the tender affection of the shepherd Balthazar and Viviette’s grandmother. 

The Farandole was put together by Guiraud from music from Bizet’s Overture and the dance music from the pre-wedding party at which Mitifio makes his fatal appearance. A farandole is a Provençal line dance. The melodies in this brilliant piece are two of the three that Bizet took from a collection published in 1864 by a Provençal tabor player, Vidal of Aix. First comes the Marcho dei Rei (“March of the Kings”), probably a seventeenth-century military march that made its way south; the quick woodwind tune with the tambourine is the Danso dei Chivau-Frus.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.