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James Tait

End of course assessment ('Words and Music'- level 3 open uni


Taking as your example a novel, short story or poem which

has been set to music, consider how a person's character
can be depicted (a) through words alone and (b) through
words and music together.

Behind the crux of the Carmen tragedy, i.e. the meeting of


mindsets that are mutually destructive, lies essentially an identity


Whether this battle exemplifies "French writers" criticizing "their own


"reasserting domination" (McClary, Susan, in Clayton, 2008, Music,

Words and

Voice: A Reader, pp.127-8) in the light of Eastern threat or

otherwise, the

opera's music presents rather a celebration of identity, or the

mental strength

of the individual, regardless of cultural context or morality. Music, of


is not entirely necessary for a positive depiction of identity, but has


entirely different functionality, or "mode", as Charles Myers would

put it (ibid,

p.22). Put another way, music may be said to act as a

manifestation of less

"referential", more abstract (Philip, 2008, Musical Narratives, p.175)


like, for instance, 'celebration'. It is, perhaps more accurate to

argue this

rather than say, for instance, that music provides something of a


context' to the way we view a character's personality as words


correctly can also do that. What we 'can' say is that music enables

character's 'affective' context to manifest in such a way as to

change our

"process of understanding" (reference to Wagner in A Reader, p.42).


'digest' what we are presented with in a different way to when we


words, no matter how emotive the words are. The level to which
words can

effectively imitate the 'affectiveness' of music, lies, I think, at the

same level

that Jean-Jacques Rousseau believes that the harmonic interval can


"the passions" (Rousseau, in ibid, p.19). With reference back to my

previous essay, TMA 06, let us take an example of something of a
linguistic imitation

of the affectiveness of music: in 'The Vinteuil Sonata', Proust speaks

of the

sound of a piano emerging "in a sort of liquid rippling sound" (ibid,


As Myers would probably rightly put it, despite the nature of the
words, i.e.

what they talk about, their realm remains "cognitive", not

"affective". Proust

does further justice to this latter idea by claiming that the listener
could not

"give a name to what was pleasing him" (ibid, p.293). An avoidance


linguistic reference to the aesthetics of music by no means lessons


perceptions of the affective contexts, (i.e, feelings, how their


seem to have been shaped, etc) of the characters in Mérimée's

novella, but

from the music in the opera, we tend to get certain 'feelings'

associated with

certain characters, for instance, with Carmen and the gypsies, we

get, not

only mystery, but the idea that the music celebrates what they are

such is also the case, of course, with Escamillo.

Despite Mérimée's style being, as Arthur Pougin says, "as cold as a

pair of

scissors" (AA317, 2008, Words and Music : Texts, p.50), in his


novella, it is the cognitive perceptions of the narrator and Don José

that give

us some insights into the affective sides of their characters, or 'how


feel'. We see, for instance, how the narrator feels about the identity
of Don

José: "I was very glad to know what a brigand was really like"
(ibid, p.20).

We also may draw conclusions about the contrasting natures of


characters, in their differing perceptions of Carmen: rather

objectively, the

narrator says "Her eyes were set obliquely in her head, but they

magnificent and large" (ibid, p.26). Jose's language, on the other

hand, is heavily sexual and rather reminiscent of an adolescent
relating a tale (this is
somewhat emphasized by the hyphen): "her silk white stockings-with

than one hole in them…were clearly seen" (ibid, p.29). An insight

into José's

naivety (or complexity, depending upon interpretation) is presented:

he is

evidently aroused, but believes "he didn't like her looks" (ibid,
p.29). There is

contradiction in him- in Carmen, there is not (perhaps Bizet's music


celebrates this idea!) Carmen's character aside, Myers would argue,


is now the prerogative of the more affective form of expression-

music (I say

now, of course, because he does believe that both words and

music evolved

from a "common mode of expression"- A Reader, p.22). However,

my point is

that, in using language in quite a minimal way to convey

characters' bare

cognitive perceptions, Mérimée does also convey something of their


sides, or how they feel. I therefore disagree with Myers in his

statement that

words "are but an imperfect means of formulating and conveying"


(ibid, p.21), unless, by 'meaning', he refers to the "process of


(as Wagner would say, ibid, p.42) that goes with listening to music.
Rather, it

depends on what the words are seeking to express, or convey.

Words are
cognitive in nature, yet they can communicate affective experiences
(what we

feel) (ibid, p.22). Myers speaks of a "common emotion" (ibid, p.21)

experienced when people listen to music, but perhaps this is also

the case

when several people read the same book. There are effectively,
then, two

different ways that a person's character can come across: we can

'get inside

their mind' through words and music, the latter, albeit, via a
different process

of understanding. Through music, we can penetrate the more

abstract ideas

associated with a character, like danger, innocence or mystery.

A point also worth mentioning on the issue of perception, is that

the opera

has Carmen communicating directly to us, the audience, yet in the

novella we

have but comparative 'second person' accounts of her- namely

those of the

narrator and Don José. Her determination to die rather than

relinquish her

freedom attributes her some rather archetypal qualities with divine

connotations, but her power is put in perspective by the presence

of the

narrator, who is not in battle with her, but sees her simply as a

witch" (Texts, p.26). Daniel Albright, writing in 'Georges Bizet:

Carmen. Notes,

Dec, 1993 by Daniel Albright' [online]

ent;col1, (first accessed Friday, 3rd September 2010) seems to

advocate the

'celebration of identity' argument or, at least, he advocates a

celebration of

Carmen's identity in particular. In the opera, we see an extension

of identity

celebration, to general mindsets and not only individual characters.


seems to speak a little pejoratively of Susan McClary's arguments at


arguing that McClary would view the character Carmen's "parade of


songs" as an attempt by Bizet to "evoke a tawdry cabaret, an

image of the

degraded existence which the male imagination seeks to impose

upon women

who trespass upon convention" (same URL, pg_ 2). If this were the
case, we

may also wonder what McClary would say about Escamillo's 'Votre

somewhat akin to Carmen's 'cabaret' songs, both Carmen's and


music demonstrating a certain 'blatancy'. The strong downbeats,


fortissimos and thick, homophonic textures of Votre Toast are


evocative of all things male, and, as Albright may put it, perhaps
Escamillo is

the male version of "Eros embodied in sound" (Eros, again, being of

the non-

referential realm). To interpret Carmen's and Escamillo's music as


representative of Eros seems to invite less ambiguity than the


orientated arguments of McClary. For instance, Escamillo, it would

seem, is

closer to being of Don José's blood than of Carmen's, yet the


nature of his 'Toreador' refrain, is reminiscent of the declamatory

nature of

the Habanera. Indeed there is an elegance about the 'major' section

of the

Habanera and the Toreador refrain which renders them almost


The notion that the issue at hand is one of cultural commentary,

therefore, is

not entirely straightforward. In the opera, Carmen and Escamillo are

embodiments of this stronger mindset. Musically, the polarisation of


machismo and Don José's pathos is also made very apparent,

especially in

the contrasts between the 'flower song' and 'Votre toast'. The
fluidity of the

former, with its soft dynamics, high woodwind and sustained string

which disguise the pulse somewhat, contrasts strongly to the heavy

downbeats, 'sharper' timbres and fortissimo dynamics of the latter.

Appropriately, José sings of his literal time in prison and of his


mental prison caused by his infatuation with Carmen. His voice


sounds as if he is trying to get out of something, quite a contrast

to the
commanding presence of Escamillo, whose attitude to life seems (as

by Smith, 2008, in Clayton, 2007, ch.4, 'Bizet's Carmen in context:


section 2') to be perfectly summarised in the 'C' section of his


theme. Indeed the semiquaver triplets followed by the quaver leap

which ends

the phrase, seem nonchalantly to say "oh well, that's life".

Christopher Smith, in "Mérimée, Prosper", in Grove Music Online.

Oxford Music


sic/18449 (first accessed Monday, 30th August, 2010 cites an "ironic


of Mérimée's to "distance himself" from the "violence" of "strange


exotic settings and blazing emotions…even as he presented it". The


states that Mérimée was very "fond" of such situations, yet his
writing is

"laconic to the point of indifference", thus impelling the reader to


The narrator recognises Carmen's devilish nature, yet shows us that

it is

possible to 'handle her'- she is, after all, human and no real deity-
a truth

that is somewhat 'dulled down' by the music (music is, of course,

better at
conveying this abstract concept). This is particularly the case with

'Habanera' in Act 1, Scene 5, and the seguidilla in Act 1, Scene

10, where

music's "affective" powers (A Reader, p.22) are used most

effectively, with the

mysterious downward chromaticism and "unchanging D in the bass"

(Smith, in

'Bizet's Carmen in context: alternative section 2' p.14) of the

former, and the

staccato and pizzicato strings, dreamy flute interjections and


chord progressions of the latter- unquestionably, Bizet's music

suggests that

Carmen is powerful, yet the fact remains that the music by itself
would not

do this. In the habanera, it is indeed the 'words' which tell us that


love is concerned at least) she never will "obey any law" (AA317,

Words and Music: Libretti, p.18). In the seguidilla, it is the words

that tell us

her heart is "really as free as the air!" (ibid, p.34). Undoubtedly,

the rhythmic

repetitions, 'dreamy' orchestrations, progressions and dynamics

(particularly the

quiet dynamics of the seguidilla) of Carmen's music give it an


quality, a line of thinking that seems rather contradictory of the


propounded by Richard Wagner and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Wagner

is, of

course, frustrated with music having "become stylised to the point


becoming incapable of expressing the meaning of the words it


(Musical Narratives, p.88); Rousseau accuses the "harmonic interval"


"shackling the melody", depriving it of "energy and "expression" and

eliminating "passionate accent" (Reader, p.20). These ideas certainly


consideration of, for instance, the sophisticated chord progressions

and use of

minor sevenths and diminished chords in the seguidilla. For me, it

is the

chord progressions and harmonies within these chord progressions

which give

meaning to Carmen's expression in the seguidilla. The chords are

not, of

course, necessary in putting across the message that Carmen

intends to

drink and dance at Lillas Pastia's tavern. The point is, rather, that
the music

'goes behind' the "cognitive" (reference to Myers, A Reader, p.22)

nature of

what Carmen expresses verbally, to an appropriate 'affective

context' which

'lies behind' her words. We hear what she is singing about, yet we

sense her mood, which is hinted at from the music alone- the

communicates a certain mysterious 'affect' to us (and to Don José)

in a way

that the words can't. This mysterious affect is part of Carmen's

character. To
follow this line of thinking takes us eventually the realm of

The essence of a person's character, I think, lies in the same realm

as "the

innermost kernel preceding all form, or the heart of things" (Philip,


Musical Narratives, p.175). The binary opposition of Carmen's


qualities and José's fallible human qualities is indeed a truth that

the music

serves to emphasize, doing so very well, but it is not only the

absence of

the music that complements Mérimée's more sober portrayal of

Carmen as

merely a devilish human being. For instance, as aforesaid,

Mérimée's Carmen

character speaks to us only through the eyes of Don José and the

a technique creating an automatic sense of distance. It is the

French narrator

and the "pure-blooded" (A Reader, p.130) Spaniard who are 'most


such a technique provides great fuel for McClary's argument.

Carmen is ever

the evil outsider, or "the dark, seductive interloper" (ibid, p.130).

Don José,

of "old Christian and Basque stock", is, ironically depicted as "the

most noted

bandit in Andalusia" (Texts, pages 29 and 22). This would also back

McClary's thinking. It is as if José's particular stock have become


and are unprepared for the true threats that face them, as if they
have "let it

slip" (Reader, p.128). In a nutshell, Carmen and the gypsies are not

'celebrated' in the novella. The narrator's description of Carmen as

"a servant

of the devil" (Texts, p.25) alongside the fact that she would rather
die than

relinquish her freedom sets her up, rather, as the 'opposite' of


Mérimée's character Garcia is also, interestingly, depicted as rather


animal than human: "he was the ugliest brute that was ever nursed

gipsydom (Texts, p.40). Mérimée, could very well have allowed

Carmen to

'strut her stuff', though, I accept, perhaps never allowing such


communication as the Habanera or Seguidilla. However, he chooses

not to.

Instead, Mérimée depicts a certain aggressiveness in Carmen's

character that

we do not really see in the opera.

In building her 'preoccupation with the East' argument, McClary

claims that

"Carmen's world" has some kind of irresistible power that 'lures us

in'. In

particular, she refers to "Don José, Mérimée's narrator and we, the

(A Reader, p.128). The consciousness of Mérimée's narrator,

however, is

worthy of some more detailed consideration. As aforesaid, the

narrator aware of Spanish stereotypes" (Clayton, 2007, Words and

p.247), portrays Carmen from the outset as an embodiment of

immorality and

is himself fortunate enough to have been "cured" of a previous

interest in the

"powers of darkness" (Texts, p.25). The subtlety of Mérimée's style

is that,

ironically, he is blatantly direct and unambiguous in terms of


of perception, yet somehow succeeds in stripping away our

inclination to

apportion blame for the tragedy (i.e. whether we call José 'weak',

morally irresponsible, or both). The narrator's lack of prejudice

against José

and immunity to Carmen's allure, instead, leaves the pathway open


contemplation of the individual consciousnesses of Carmen and José

and aids

the steering away from their non-referential worlds created by the


perhaps the narrator is a José that 'could have been'- hence the

empathy of the narrator towards José. José and the narrator's


perceptions of Carmen certainly provoke response. The 'drama' of

the music,

e.g. the Habanera, of course exaggerates Carmen's sexual power. At

the end

of the day, she does battle with one person- Don José, and he
Carmen does not really set out to destroy him; rather, she is
simply a force

of nature, a trait of which she is fully aware and does not wish to
change, if

she could! Though physically imposing, i.e. with his blunderbuss in


novella, José is not a naturally powerful force- a fact to which his


testifies. Interestingly, though, with the exception of Zuniga, José is


more human than the other men with whom Carmen is involved, in

opera and novella. Garcia, as aforesaid, is portrayed more like an


Lucas and Escamillo live to do battle with bulls.

Celebratory in nature as it is, Carmen's music does not always

'blend in' with

the music of the other gypsies (nor is she really intended to 'blend
in' with

anything!) Albright, commenting on McClary's writings on Carmen,

refers to an

essay in McClary's handbook by Carl Dahlhaus, who states, "I will


Carmen…[and] music inside me will be like night in the middle of

the day: a

perpetual eclipse of the male sun" (reference as above). He also


For McClary, Carmen has long been distorted, victimised, by critics

who see
the title character as an embodiment of all that is frightening
and ungovernable in female sexuality; it might be better to
revel in the extraordinary possibilities for self-expression that she

The music surrounding the Gypsy mindset rather testifies to


observation. Interestingly, Bizet rejected a Tarantella in favour of a


yet proceeded to use a Tarantella (reference to Smith, in Words

and Song,

Bizet's Carmen in context: alternative section 2, p.23) as 'Gypsy'

music in Act

2, Scene 4. In this Quintet, as at other points in the opera,

Carmen's music

is more commanding: note how she moves the music to a minor

key at her

lines beginning "Ah! permettez!" (Libretti, p.48) and slows the music
down at

her following interjections. Carmen's individuality is also emphasised


in her first entrance in the opera in Act 1, Scene 5: the turbulent


of the soldiers, youths and chorus as they move frantically towards

F minor,

provide a stark contrast to the 'La Fumée' music sung by the

gypsy girls,

which precedes it. 'La Fumee' is an uncomplicated, collective

celebration of

sensation which should be understood as an 'introduction' to (and


celebration of) Carmen's imminent arrival. The music of 'La Fumee'


indeed be "intoxicating" ('Bizet's Carmen in context: alternative

section 2', p.8),

however, the euphoric associations of E major, are, at the end of

the day,
abstract ideas which lie in the realm of symbolism- of "imitation",

Rousseau would put it: "what do these chords have in common

with our

passions" (Reader, p.19). In conveying this dreamy euphoria, the


certainly succeeds, however, we should not ignore the subtleties of

the 'word'

here. The very title, 'La Fumee', for instance, aptly precedes

sentiments; indeed smoke 'drifts' and does not 'obey any law'. The
smoke of

course (lightheartedly) symbolizes the gypsy girls' regard for the


affections (Libretti, p.16). It is also interesting to note the sudden


from the C major of the youths, to the B major (dominant of the

'La Fumee'

E major key) of the soldiers, as if intended to emphasize contrast.


the melodically limited, chromatically descending music of the

soldiers (Libretti,

p.16), as if it is a deliberate technique of Bizet's to quell their


somewhat, just as "José's youth and weakness is also portrayed

musically by

the lack of a memorable theme" ('Bizet's Carmen in context:


section 2, p.17). When Carmen eventually enters, the youths are


linguistically and musically at her mercy. Their entreaties embody a

mood entirely to their anticipation of the gypsy cigar-girls, as they

accompanied by frantic, repetitive compound time strings and

(seemingly) the

fastest of Carmen motives in the flutes. Their turbulent insecurities


silenced by Carmen's calm, controlled delivery. Indeed, she rather

seems to

control the music, slowing everything down, with the accompaniment


seeming to 'follow' her as she decides to modulate between her


musings, i.e. Peut-etrê jamais!…peut-etrê demain! (Libretti, p.17).

The music of

the 'Habanera' does rather seem to inhabit the opposite end of the

spectrum from that of the gypsy girls, however, it embodies the

same 'stream

of consciousness'. Carmen, of course, shares the gypsy girls'

attitude to love,

and the ultimate lesson we learn from both opera and novella is
that this

attitude is rather like a religion, and is absolutely impenetrable. Like


deity, the gypsy mindset is also dangerous. In the 'Habanera', she

warns us

to "beware" her love, as it is as unpredictable and uncontrollable as


smoke of the previous scene. Like the smoke, it is there for quick

then it drifts away. The aesthetically opposing styles of these two


serves rather to succinctly demonstrate the sheer contrary character


gypsies: one is euphoric by virtue of its E major key and high-


soprano melody; the other is in D minor, with "downwardly

chromatic" phrases

and "an exceptionally low register" ('Bizet's Carmen in context:


section 2, p.14). Moving into Act 3, Scene 1, there is a certain


elegance about the portrayal of the gypsies. Again, it is interesting

to note

the suspense-filled, melodically limited music of the semi-chorus


precedes the gypsies' entrance, as if it is designed not to attract


The gypsy music, contrastingly, is staccatoed, with close harmonies

and in a

dance-like duple time. Their conviction to "go forward" (Libretti,

p.63) is

emphasized by ascending arpeggios. Similarly, their is a certain


heartedness about the card game which follows, as Bizet uses a


and answer' technique between voice and flute. The themes of love

betrayal are indeed rather made light of by the staccatoed, high-


music where strings and woodwind are in conversation. The gypsies'

desire to

know about their destiny is clearly a less serious affair than José's
desire to

know about his mother (ibid, p.21).

Words and music are, essentially two different forms of expression,

necessitating two different forms of perception on our part. Through


verbal articulation, we can gain a direct insight into exactly what is

in a

character's mind, or heart. Attempts of words to imitate the

aesthetics of

music, naturally fall short, yet music can use its own aesthetics to

imitate certain meanings expressed in words, e.g. the soprano lines

in La

Fumeé. In, for instance, the Habanera, music uses its aesthetics not

imitate, but to create, the general affect. Harmony, I think, plays a

vital role

in this. To answer Rousseau's question, these chords can

communicate very

well with our passions in that they reveal the very 'essence' of a

character. This essence lies beyond the realm of referentiality and

shows us

an insight into the "heart" (Schopenhauer, in Musical Narratives,

p.175) not of

inanimate 'things', but of living characters. Music helps convey more



Word count: 3,705.


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