Carmen Suite No. 1 for orchestra
Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
There are several reasons why Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen endures as a modern favorite. It is, after all, the fourth most-produced work in the Metropolitan Opera’s history, following only La bohème, Aida, and La traviata. There is the controversial main character, Carmen, a free-spirited, independent woman who drinks, fights and seeks to control her own destiny. There is the setting of Seville, a city viewed by many 19th century composers as “exotic,” complete with a bullring and a cigarette factory. Most of all, there is Bizet’s gorgeous music, full of glittering melodies that sound “Spanish” (even if Bizet, a Frenchman, never visited Andalusia).
Created by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud, the Carmen Suite No. 1 is mostly a collection of the instrumental numbers that precede each of the opera’s four acts. The suite opens with the Act I Prelude, full of ominous premonitions of murder. Next up is the “Aragonaise,” a traditional, percussion-splashed Spanish dance. Then comes a sumptuous Intermezzo and a swirling “Seguidilla,” the latter based on Carmen’s aria in which she attempts to seduce the soldier Don José. After the march-like “Les dragons d’Alcala,” the suite concludes with “Les Toréadors,” containing the theme from the opera’s overture and the fourth-act Procession of the Toreadors.
Goodnight Moon (2011)
Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)
Goodnight Moon, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2022, is a bedtime story like no other. The book by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd has sold nearly 40 million copies and has been translated into more than 25 languages. In 2011 American composer Eric Whitacre set the text to music after realizing that — like many — he had probably read it to his son “a thousand times, maybe more.” He writes, “Somewhere around reading number 500 I began hearing little musical fragments as I read, and over time those fragments began to blossom into a simple, sweet lullaby.”
Whitacre is a charismatic superstar in choral music circles, known for his lush, sweetly ethereal vocal works including Lux Aurumque and The Sacred Veil. He drew wider attention in 2009, when he launched the first of several “Virtual Choir” projects. Inviting singers to upload videos of themselves singing individual parts to a piece, these were then digitally combined to create an international ensemble. The productions anticipated the “mosaic” videos that exploded early in the pandemic.
Goodnight Moon represents a natural fit for Whitacre’s whimsical sensibility. The story takes readers through the bedtime routine of its protagonist, a bunny, as he says goodnight to objects and animals in his room. An older rabbit, described only as a “quiet old lady,” knits in a rocking chair and remains in the background, except to whisper, “Hush.” Whitacre writes, “I composed the piece relatively quickly, setting the text for harp, string orchestra and my son’s mother, soprano Hila Plitmann.” Other arrangements soon followed.
“Danse Nègre” from African Suite, Op. 35, No. 4
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was once a guest at the White House, where he met with President Theodore Roosevelt, and his most popular cantata rivaled Handel’s Messiah in its number of performances. Yet Coleridge-Taylor’s music faced a long period of mainstream neglect, a fate all too common among Black composers during the 20th century.
Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875 to a white English woman and a medical student from Sierra Leone. Though he experienced racist bullying at school, he overcame many barriers and at age 15, he won a scholarship to study violin and composition at London’s Royal College of Music. There, he caught the attention of Edward Elgar and the prestigious Three Choirs Festival, which commissioned two orchestral works: the Ballade in A minor and the Solemn Prelude.
Coleridge-Taylor’s international breakthrough came with The Song of Hiawatha (1898-1900), a cantata trilogy inspired by Longfellow’s epic poem of the same name. The cantatas offered a statement about racial oppression as they chronicled the adventures of a Native American hero named Hiawatha and his love Minnehaha. By 1904, the first cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, received more than 200 performances in England alone. The full trilogy sold out London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1912.
Coleridge-Taylor undertook three tours to the United States, where choral societies bearing his name sprung up in several cities. He forged relationships with African-American writers and thinkers, including the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who encouraged him to explore his African heritage. One result of his meeting with Dunbar was the African Suite for piano, whose fourth and final movement is the “Danse Nègre.” A salute to the cultures and countries in Africa, it features perky melodies and a tuneful middle section (the composer later orchestrated it). The overworked Coleridge-Taylor shined brightly but died of pneumonia in 1912; his music, however, would serve as a model for future generations of Black composers.
Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
When the Moscow Children’s Theatre commissioned Sergei Prokofiev to write a piece in 1936, the company supplied him with a tale of Soviet virtue that the composer promptly re-wrote to make more appealing for children.
Peter and the Wolf became a staple of programming for children’s audiences almost since its premiere. Loosely based on a Russian folk tale, the story involves a young Peter, who ignores his grandfather’s stern warnings and wanders to a nearby meadow, where he is entertained by mischievous animals. Each character is assigned an instrument or group of instruments: The bird is identified with the chirps of a flute, the cat with a velvety clarinet, the duck with an oboe, Peter’s grandfather with a bassoon, the wolf with ominous French horns, and the hunters with percussion. Peter himself is given a jaunty melody played by the entire string section. Though things don’t end well for the unfortunate duck, Prokofiev’s fantasy world is so imaginatively drawn that the overall tone remains bright and carefree.
In his 2019 biography of Prokofiev, Harlow Robinson considers the enduring popularity of Peter and the Wolf, writing, “Perhaps it is because Peter appeals to the child in all of us, and provides, in Peter, a spunky and clever hero who, like Mickey Mouse, resists the ravages of time and the boring caution of maturity. When we listen, we escape them, too.”