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CARMEN AND CHROMATICISM

A Closer Look into Carmen’s Seductive Nature in the Seguidilla

By: Matt Joyner

Introduction

The nineteenth century was perhaps the most interesting and

invested century for the operatic genre. Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini,

Bellini, et. al are just some valued pillars for Italian opera, but

the ópera cómique in France thrived under composers like

Bizet. Bizet’s most famous work, Carmen, is a work characteristic of

the nineteenth century operatic genre where melodic lines and harmonic

structures are using more chromaticism than ever before. One of

Carmen’s duets with Don José, Près des remparts de Séville, from Act I

is a characteristic piece of this time period where chromaticism is

directly linked to Carmen’s characterization. This paper will provide

musical examples from the Seguidilla aria, along with Carmen’s other

arias, to support the claim that Carmen’s seductive nature is composed

out in the music.

Analysis

When one thinks about seduction from Carmen’s character, I

believe the general public would automatically think of Carmen’s

Habenera in Act I. It is true that this is a highly seductive aria,

but the Seguidilla and Duet from later in the act, is more supportive

of this thematic idea of seduction. The melodic line chromatically

meanders as if to tease Don José for arresting her. This “gypsy”

music, as it is referred, in this scene entrances Don José into


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falling in love with her. Susan McClary states that in the

Seguidilla, Carmen “converse[s] fluently in José’s musical tongue and

seduces him…by dictating to him in his own histrionic style the terms

of his passion.”1 Without verbally promising fidelity, Carmen strips

Don José of his honor by neglecting his duty to his post, forcing him

to allow her escape, compelling him to become a deserter, and obliging

him to forgo the faithful women in his life: his mother and Michaëla.2

Similar to the Habenera in Carmen’s entrance, the Seguidilla is

designed to suggest Spanish flamenco dance.3 One of the many ways that

Bizet conveys her seductive nature musically is through specific

ornamentations. For example, in the opening line of the Seguidilla, a

quick triplet figure appears over the words “chez” and “mi” and later

does it on the word “mon” (see Figure 1). This figure is composed as

a neighboring figure, almost resembling a trill. To exacerbate the

entrancing nature, the dynamic over these neighboring ornaments are

either pp or p meno. Bizet also dictates to Carmen to use several

portamentos throughout the Seguidilla (as well as the Habenera that

was sung before this: “prends guarde a toi”). These portamentos in

the Seguidilla are placed over highly chromatic areas where the tonal

areas are ambiguous (see Figure 2). This tonal ambiguity is ubiquitous

throughout the entire opera.


1
Susan McClary, Georges Bizet: Carmen (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1992), 57.
2
Jessica Grimmer, “From Femme Idéale to Femme Fatale: Contexts for the Exotic
Archetype in Nineteenth-Century French Opera” (master’s thesis, University of
Cincinnati, 2013), 79.
3
McClary, GB: Carmen, 87.

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As McClary states, the Seguidilla features modal ambiguities that

make the song slippery and difficult to define tonally.4 The key

signature given suggests b minor, but the opening lines suggest F♯

Major. From F♯ Major, we quickly move to D Major, the relative major

of the stated key signature easing the transition to b minor.

However, Bizet uses chromaticism instead of borrowed harmonies to

transition to D Major again as shown in Figure 3. Chromaticism occurs

several measures later in a descending bass line, (“Mon pauvre cœur

très consolable”).

Figure 1: Circled above are the neighboring triplet, ornamental

figures that enhance Carmen’s seductive nature.


4
McClary, GB: Carmen, 87.

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Figure 2

Figure 3

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These seductive elements build up until Don José can no longer

bear it. In recitative fashion, José reminds Carmen that he has

forbidden her to speak to him. Up until this point, José has remained

silent or spoken without sung pitch in her presence. This eruption

marks defeat for Don José and only feeds the trance that Carmen has

put upon him. When Carmen responds, she does so very quietly saying

that she is not speaking, only singing. The chromaticism continues to

build, until she reaches D ♭ major – a whole step higher than b minor

and a half step lower than D Major, symbolically singing “certain

officier” referring to Don José. The seductive chromaticism continues

to build until Don José is completely enraptured with love and bursts

out a high A ♯ begging Carmen to promise to love him (Figure 4).

Figure 4

The Seguidilla concludes with one last statement of the opening

refrain, this time marked ‘f e ben ritmato’. This statement almost is

presented in a rejoicing manner. Carmen has won over Don José’s love

and starts to “Tra-la-la” ending the duet on a staccato high B.

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Conclusion

Georges Bizet’s Carmen is truly a pillar of the opera repertory

as one of the greatest operas of all time, if not the greatest. The

chromaticism combined with Spanish flamenco dances, Carmen’s arias are

perhaps the greatest example of how the music and libretto reflect

each other and help each other to effectively portray a theme. While

the Habenera offers clearer examples of chromaticism, the Seguidilla

truly offers more of a seductive example in the plot. At the

beginning of the song, Don José is dismissive of Carmen and her

tricks, but by the end, has completely fallen in love with her. The

musical ornamentations along with the ambiguous tonal centers

musically achieve this task with ease. The moral of this paper is to

be aware of Spanish-dancing, French-singing, gypsy women as they will

definitely entrance you to be their lovers!

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CARMEN’S LIBRETTO FOR THE SEGUIDILLA

Près des remparts de Séville, Near the ramparts of Seville

Chez mon ami, Lillas Pastia At the place of my friend, Lillas


Pastia

J'irai danser la Séguedille I will go to dance the Seguedilla

Et boire du Manzanilla. And to drink Manzanilla.

J'irai chez mon ami Lillas Pastia. I will go to the place of my


friend, Lillas Pastia.

Oui, mais toute seule on s'ennuie, Yes, but all alone, one gets
bored,

Et les vrais plaisirs sont à deux; And the real pleasures are for
two;

Donc, pour me tenir compagnie, So, to keep me company,

J'emmènerai mon amoureux! I will take away my lover.

Mon amoureux, il est au diable, My lover, he has gone to the


devil,

Je l'ai mis à la porte hier! I put him out yesterday!

Mon pauvre coeur très consolable, My poor heart, very consolable,

Mon coeur est libre comme l'air! My heart is free, like the air!

J'ai les galants à la douzaine, I have suiters by the dozen,

Mais ils ne sont pas à mon gré. But, they are not to my taste.

Voici la fin de la semaine; Here it is the weekend;

Qui veut m'aimer? Je l'aimerai! Who wants to love me? I will love
him!

Qui veut mon âme? Elle est à prendre. Who wants my soul? It¹s for the
taking.

Vous arrivez au bon moment! You're arriving at the right time!

J'ai guère le temps d'attendre, I have hardly the time to wait,

Car avec mon nouvel amant, For with my new lover,

Près des remparts de Séville, Near the ramparts of Seville

Chez mon ami, Lillas Pastia! At the place of my friend, Lillas


Pastia!

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WORKS CITED

Bizet, Georges. Carmen; opera in four acts. New York: Boosey &
Hawkes, 1954.

Grimmer, Jessica. “From Femme Idéale to Femme Fatale: Contexts for


the Exotic Archetype in Nineteenth-Century French Opera.”
Master’s thesis, University of Cincinnati, 2013.

McClary, Susan. Georges Bizet: Carmen. Cambridge: Cambridge


University Press, 1992.

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