Sarasate’s ‘Carmen Fantasy’: A Brilliant Display of Virtuosity

BY Ariane Triebswetter TIMEFebruary 18, 2023 PRINT

Everything in the “Carmen Fantasy” (1882) shouts virtuosity. From its fascinating origins to its entrancing score, all elements combine to form the ultimate violin showpiece.

Sarasate, the Virtuoso

Virtuosity was the key factor in the 19th-century world of Western music. Ease of travel, abundance of new repertoire, technologically advanced instruments, and Romantic ideals created the ideal climate for the rise of the virtuoso soloist, a compelling musician endowed with exceptional technique.

One such musician was Pablo de Sarasate (18441908), a Spanish violinist and composer, and a former child prodigy. Like many of his peers, he composed numerous showpieces for the violin. He often performed them during his tours, demonstrating technical prowess.

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Violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate composed “Carmen Fantasy,” Op. 25, considered a violin showpiece. (Public Domain)

The “Carmen Fantasy,” Op. 25 for violin and orchestra, is one of Sarasate’s most well-known works. Composed in 1882, the fantasy takes inspiration from themes of Bizet’s 1875 opera “Carmen.” At the time, it was common for musicians to compose pieces based on themes of popular operas.

Technical Brilliance

The “Carmen Fantasy” is a series of variations on the five best-known arias of Bizet’s opera, such as the compelling “Habanera.”

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Carmen sings the “Habanera” from Act I, Samuel Holland Rous, 1919. (Public Domain)

The fantasy is divided into five distinct sections and takes approximately 12 minutes to perform. After a vivacious introduction, the piece contains a variation of the “Aragonaise” of Act IV, the “Habanera” of Act I, a brief interlude followed by the beloved “Seguidilla” of Act I, and finally the “Gypsy Dance” of Act II.

The solo violin is accompanied by two clarinets, two bassoons, two flutes, two oboes, two trumpets, timpani, four horns, and strings (there is also a version for the violin and piano).

In the “Habanera” variation, the composer uses extensive ornamentation along with other compositional techniques. When the solo violin enters, the register expands to a two-octave range, creating a tone color different from Carmen’s original mezzo-soprano voice. Sarasate’s variation skills are further demonstrated through the ricochet  (a violin bow technique), a left-hand pizzicato (plucking strings), double stops, and rhythmic changes.

The “Seguidilla” functions as a transition and builds tension while continuing to show off the violinist’s talent. Virtuosic techniques are at their best here with continuous trills, fingered harmonics, change of registers, consecutive octaves, pizzicato, and chromatic glissandos.

The final movement is the most challenging of the five. It has fast arpeggios, rapid thirds, a four-octave range, and a final virtuosic tempo acceleration toward the end. Another challenge is that the main tunes hide within the elaborate melodies, which makes it difficult for a performer to play the melodic lines.

Sarasate rearranged the original tunes of “Carmen” into a new inventive form and used virtuosic techniques to create a unique sound with layers of texture, while keeping the emotional intensity of the opera well intact. The composer deliberately modifies the tempi of the original arias (allegro moderato, moderato, lento assai, allegro moderato, moderato) to show off his skills as a composer and violinist, while managing to keep the opera’s fiery passion.

Lithograph of Act I in the premiere performance of “Carmen” by Pierre-Auguste Lamy, 1875. (Public Domain)

A clear example is the “lento assai,” where the composer magnifies Carmen’s audacious character in Act I (when Carmen mocks Zuniga) by using a slower tempo and sudden dynamic changes to show her capricious temperament. The virtuosity of the violin is still very much present with the wide range of registers used, from the low G string to the high E string, creating a more dramatic atmosphere.

The performer must embrace the intensity of the opera while balancing fluid technique and precision to deliver a brilliant performance.

Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” is a brilliant display of virtuosity in its composition and artistry. But only a highly accomplished musician can perform this piece, which requires both outstanding technical and interpretational skills.

Ariane Triebswetter is an international freelance journalist, with a background in modern literature and classical music.
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