Sunday 23 October 2016

Classical: Bizet's sweet folk music from the south of France

George Hamilton

Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30

Tunesmith: Georges Bizet
Tunesmith: Georges Bizet

The movie's over, but the melody lingers on. How true. There's no need to delve too deep to find masterpieces of melodic invention that have long outlived the complex cinematic yarns they were created to enhance. Richard Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto is one (anyone remember Dangerous Moonlight?). Another is The Dream of Olwen, also from a 1940s film, one which started life as While I Live, but ended up referenced solely by the title of the piano piece that helped it to a brief moment of fame.

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It's been happening ever since music was employed to embellish the action, initially in the theatre, then in more modern times also on screen.

Handel's Largo survived, though the opera Serse, in which it was the opening song, was a flop when first performed in 1738. The score gathered dust for almost 200 years before it appeared in public again.

The overtures of Franz von Suppé are regularly performed in the concert hall, but you'll hardly ever get to see one of his operas.

So it is with a pair of orchestral suites by Georges Bizet that might never have seen the light of day if it hadn't been for a play that was in need of some instrumental backing.

The play in question grew out of a short story by a French author long forgotten, by the name of Alphonse Daudet. He'd published a collection called Letters from my Windmill, which might have been the first clue as to why it mightn't succeed.

Anyway, one of the stories caught the eye of a budding impresario. Léon Carvalho, who had commissioned The Pearl Fishers from Bizet (initially a failure), and would subsequently promote Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman, Lakmé by Delibes, and Massenet's Manon, did develop a pedigree. But the staging of Daudet's unusual tale wasn't one of his better ideas.

L'Arlésienne is about a girl from the city of Arles in the south of France with whom a young man is smitten. She never appears. He ends it all. Is it any wonder it bombed?

Bizet's contribution deserved better. It was light, varied, and eminently listenable. Daudet acknowledged as much, declaring his play "a glittering flop with the loveliest music in the world".

The play lasted only 21 performances. The music - some of it based on authentic folk melodies from the south of France, the rest in that kind of vein - lives on.

Bizet salvaged and reworked parts of it into four movements, which proved an instant winner in the concert hall. This is the Arlésienne Suite No. 1.

When he died young - just 36 - his friend Ernest Guiraud went back to the score of L'Arlésienne, and mined some more nuggets. His collection became the Arlésienne Suite No. 2 - which actually includes a piece from another source altogether, an earlier opera of Bizet's.

This second suite features probably the most popular segment of the whole set, the concluding Farandole, which is part march, part dance, all of it in perfect harmony, originally delivered by the consummate tunesmith that was Georges Bizet.

When you think of him and his music, it's probably Carmen - that sparkling story of the factory girl, the soldier, and the bullfighter - or maybe the aforementioned Pearl Fishers, the dud that became a romantic classic, that spring immediately to mind.

But spare a listen for L'Arlésienne as well. Her story may be long forgotten, but like those film scores of the 40s, the music has become part of the furniture.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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