Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite (after Bizet’s opera)

Notes by TŌN percussionist Luis Herrera Albertazzi

The Composer
Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin is a Russian composer and pianist. Born into a musical family, he was introduced to music from a very early age by his father, who was a composer and music theory teacher. Shchedrin attended the Moscow Choral School and the Moscow Conservatory as a composition and piano major. His early compositions are mostly tonal. Often, little excerpts of Russian folk music can be heard in his writings, a common musical choice of composers of his time, with Shostakovich being the best example of it. His later compositions explore the world of serialism and some aleatoric techniques. As a pianist, Shchedrin premiered the first three of his six piano concertos, including a recording with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. After the fall of the Soviet regime, Shchedrin took advantage of the new opportunities for international travel and musical collaboration, and now divides his time between Munich and Moscow.

The Ballet
Arranged for strings, timpani, and four percussionists, Shchedrin’s Carmen Ballet for strings & percussion (after Bizet’s opera) is his best-known work. He was approached by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso and was asked to write the music for a Carmen ballet. Shchedrin was hesitant about the idea, especially because according to him, Alonso was ignoring the fact that the story of Carmen had become inseparable from Bizet’s opera. In addition to this, Dimitri Shostakovich had already turned down the opportunity to write this ballet before the project was accepted by Shchedrin. Like the other four ballets composed by Shchedrin, Carmen was designed with his wife, Bolshoi prima ballerina Maya Pilsetskaya, in mind.

The Music
Shchedrin’s Carmen combines musical excerpts from three of Bizet’s works (Carmen, Incidental music for L’Arlésienne, and the opera La Jolie Fille de Perth) to form his suite of 13 separate numbers. Shchedrin described the work as “not simply a slavish obeisance to the genius of Bizet, but rather an attempt at a creative meeting of two minds.” The ballet was banned right after its first performance and called an insult to Bizet’s masterpiece, and for the sexualization of Carmen’s character. Percussionists, like myself, are quite familiar with Bizet’s Carmen, because there are a couple of excerpts for auxiliary instruments (tambourine, triangle) that we are regularly asked to perform in orchestral auditions.