Georges Bizet, L’Arlésienne

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Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) began his music career with great potential, culminating in winning the Prix de Rome in 1857. Stacking up awards while he was a student at the Paris Conservatorie, however, did not immediately translate into a career as a composer. By the 1860s, Bizet was a struggling composer who had difficulty getting his large scale operas and symphonic works performed. His preferred method of earning a paycheck was creating piano reductions of successful operas. When Ambroise Thomas needed a four handed piano score to his 1868 opera Hamlet, he hired Georges Bizet to create the reduction.  That encounter with Thomas introduced Bizet to the saxophone, a detail he remembered when he wrote the four movement suite, L’Arlésienne Suite no. 1.

The music in the suite is derived from the musical score to Alphonse Daudet’s play, L’Arlésienne. For that performance, Bizet was only allowed 25 musicians for the incidental music.[1] The play premiered in October, 1872, receiving negative reviews in the theater and musical press.  Bizet decided to take the music from the play and create an orchestral suite. For the suite, Bizet added the alto saxophone to the orchestra. Despite the negative reviews of the play, Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite no. 1 became an immediate success.[2] The saxophone plays sweet melodies, especially the theme of “L’Innocent” heard in the “Prélude”(minute 3:33 in the video below). The “L’Innocent” theme is about a peasant who regains her ability to think after the sudden shock of her brother’s suicide.[3] In the other movements in the suite, the saxophone is more of an ensemble instrument, often playing in unison with the clarinets, like in the movement “Minuetto,” and as a counter melody to the flutes in “Carillon.” 

Bizet’s sudden death in 1875 shocked the musical world of Paris. An artist who dies so young and with so much potential leaves critics and fans wanting more of his music. Since L’Arlésienne Suite no. 1 was already popular with the public, Bizet’s arranger, Ernest Guirard, decided to create another suite using the same source, L’Arlésienne. In 1879, L’Arlésienne Suite no. 2 premiered. Guirard stays true to Bizet’s source material used in L’Arlésienne Suite no. 1, including the alto saxophone in the score. In the second movement of L’Arlésienne Suite no. 2, “Intermezzo,” (minute 24:50 in the video above) the alto saxophone has an extended solo. This solo, a sweet and simple melody, is in keeping with saxophone solo in Bizet’s Suite no. 1 “Prélude.”

The popularity of L’Arlésienne Suite no. 1 and no. 2 led to revivals of the original play by Daudet, L’Arlésienne. But rather than being limited by a small orchestra like in the original, Ernest Guirard arranged the play’s music for the full orchestra, including the alto saxophone. This new orchestration of the music in the play premiered in 1885. To date, there are several different arrangements of the incidental music to the play. The original by Bizet, this full orchestration by Guirard, and even a chamber ensemble.

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[1] Cottrell, Stephen. The Saxophone. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) pg. 230

[2] Macdonald, Hugh. “Bizet, Georges,” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music online. retrieved 9/1/2020

[3] Cottrell, Stephen. The Saxophone. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) pg. 230

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