The incidental music to Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlésienne (usually translated as 'The Girl from Arles') was composed by Georges Bizet for the first performance of the play on 1 October 1872 at the Vaudeville Theatre (now known as the Paramount Theatre). It consists of 27 numbers (some only a few bars) for voice, chorus, and small orchestra, ranging from short solos to longer entr'actes. Bizet himself played the harmonium backstage at the premiere performance.
Bizet wrote several folk-like themes for the music but also incorporated three existing tunes from a folk-music collection published by Vidal of Aix in 1864: the Marcho dei Rei, the Danse dei Chivau-Frus, and Er dou Guet. The score achieves powerful dramatic ends with the most economic of means. Still, it received poor reviews in the wake of the premiere and is not much performed nowadays in its original form. The play itself was not successful, closing after only 21 performances. It had been staged as a last-minute replacement for another play, which had been banned by the censors, and the audience was less than favourably disposed to the new play.
The incidental music has survived and flourished, however, in the form of two suites for orchestra.
(1) Overture – the March of the Kings; L’Innocent’s theme; Frédéri’s theme.
TABLEAU 1: The farm at Le Castelet In the first mélodrame (No 2) Francet Mamaï, Frédéri’s grandfather, tells the shepherd Balthazar and Frédéri’s young brother (called ‘l’Innocent’) of Fredéri’s passion for a girl from Arles, while l’Innocent, whose theme dominates this and the next two numbers, tries to talk to the shepherd about a fable about a wolf attacking a goat.
The next mélodrame (3) links the first and second scenes of the play, as the old shepherd, Balthazar, continues telling the wolf story to l’Innocent. The third mélodrame (4) accompanies an exchange between Vivette, Rose Mamaï’s god-daughter, and Balthazar, where the shepherd says he thinks something is stirring in l’Innocent’s mind.
In scene VIII, after a gay offstage chorus, a mélodrame (5), introduces the theme of Mitifio, a cow-herd; he has come to reveal that the Arlésienne has been another’s mistress for two years. In the mélodrame and final chorus (6), Frédéri is about to go off to Arles, but Francet tells him what Mitifio said. The chorus bursts in with a reprise of (5) as Frédéri’s theme accompanies his collapse by the well.
TABLEAU 2: Alongside the pond of Vaccarès in the Camargue (7) sets the scene, a Pastorale with offstage chorus and accompaniment. In Mélodrame (8) Balthazar and l’Innocent enter in Scene III (using the latter’s theme), and (9) marks the exit of Rose. The next mélodrame (10) accompanies the discovery of Fréderi in the shepherd’s hut, angry because everyone is spying on him. As wordless offstage chorus sing, Balthazar leaves, having failed to make Frédéri destroy the letters from the Arlésienne which he reads night and day. Mélodrame (12) is only six bars; l’Innocent cannot recall the story he wants to tell his brother. In the next mélodrame (13), (Er dou guet) described as a ‘berceuse’, l’Innocent falls asleep while telling his story. A nine-bar mélodrame (14) evokes Rose’s desperation at Fréderi’s frame of mind.
TABLEAU 3: The kitchen at Castelet
The next music depicts Vivette, the local girl who wants to marry Frédéri, preparing her parcels to take on the Rhone ferry (15). After men prepare to go out shooting game Rose and the others fear that Frédéri might kill himself. At the end of the act (16) when Frédéri decides that Vivette can help him forget his obsession, Balthazar and rose express their relief.
This is followed by the Intermezzo (17), used in the Second Suite.
TABLEAU 4: The Castelet farm courtyard
A 6/8 Andantino Mélodrame (19) marks the entrance of Mère Renaud in Scene III, and in the following Adagio (the Adagietto in the first Suite) Balthazar and Renaud reminisce about old times. As all move off to eat, there is a reprise of the Andantino. Another Andantino follows the exit of Frédéri and Vivette as they declare their love (20). The farandole (21) (Danse dei Chivau-Frus) which begins quietly and builds to a climax sees Frédéri respond with fury to Mitifio who has come to tell Balthazar that he will run off with the girl from Arles (22).
TABLEAU 5: The Cocoonery
The farandole is heard then the March of the Kings is sung by the chorus, after which the two are combined (23); there is reprise for chorus of the March of the Kings (24). In (25) l’Innocent ‘awakens’ showing he understands his brother’s problem. In mélodrame (26) Rose is momentarily reassured as the clock strikes three, while the Final is a powerful tutti version of Frédéri’s theme (27) which brings down the curtain.
2 flutes, oboe (also cor anglais), clarinet, 2 bassoons, one E flat alto saxophone, 2 horns, timpani, tambourin (tambourin provencal not tambourine), 7 violins, one viola, 5 cellos, 2 double basses, piano, and an offstage harmonium to accompany the choruses.
Suite No. 1
Despite the poor reviews of the incidental music, Bizet arranged his work into a suite of four movements. Now known as L'Arlésienne Suite No. 1, the suite used a full symphony orchestra but without the chorus. The first performance was at a Pasdeloup concert on 10 November 1872.
- I. Prélude, Allegro deciso (the March of the Kings)
- II. Minuet, Allegro giocoso (The ending of this movement is slightly expanded from the version in the incidental music.)
- III. Adagietto (In the incidental music, this number is preceded and followed by a melodrama that, in the suite, forms the central section of the concluding Carillon. For this purpose it is transposed up a semitone.)
- IV. Carillon, Allegro moderato (Expanded as indicated above.)
The suite opens with a strong, energetic theme, which is based on the Christmas carol "March of the Kings", played by the violins. (This tune had also been used two centuries earlier in Jean-Baptiste Lully's Marche de Turenne.) Afterwards, the theme is repeated by various sections. After reaching a climax, the theme fades away. It is followed by the theme associated with L'Innocent (the brother of Frédéri, the hero). The Prélude concludes with the theme associated with Frédéri himself. The second movement, resembles a minuet, while the third is more emotional and muted. The last movement, Carillon, features a repeating Bell-tone pattern on the Horns, mimicking a peal of church bells.
Suite No. 2
L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2, also written for full orchestra, was arranged and published in 1879, four years after Bizet's death, by Ernest Guiraud, using Bizet's original themes (although not all of them were from the L'Arlésienne incidental music). The second suite is generally credited to Bizet since he wrote the themes and the basic orchestration.
The second suite begins with an introduction by the wind section, followed by the melody in the strings. The melodies are repeated by various sections throughout the first movement. In the suite, the opening section returns and concludes the piece. In the original version, the "central" section, which was a wordless chorus sung by women, ends the piece. The second movement features utilization of low tones and begins with the wind section. Guiraud adds twelve additional bars to the concluding section. The menuet, which is not from L'Arlésienne, but from Bizet's 1866 opera The Fair Maid of Perth, features solos by harp, flute, and, later, saxophone (this replacing the vocal parts of the original); it is the most subdued and emotional movement. The finale, the farandole, incorporates the theme of the March of the Kings once again. This is an expanded combination of numbers 22-24 of the original incidental music, in which the farandole appears first on its own. It is afterwards briefly combined with the march.
The suites have been recorded many times. There are at least two recordings of the complete incidental music for the play, one conducted by Albert Wolff and another by Michel Plasson (who has also recorded both suites). Marc Minkowski has made a more recent nearly-complete recording on the Naive label.
The fourth movement of the L'Arlésienne Suite No. 1 is used on Playhouse Disney's Little Einsteins. It was also used in a very successful media campaign in Puerto Rico, launched in the late 1980s by the local importers of Finlandia Vodka. It featured French-born photographer Guy Paizy playing the role of a sophisticated, womanizing classical orchestra conductor. The campaign is still remembered in the island nation, almost two decades after its inception.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra uses the theme of the Farandole for their song "The March of the Kings/Hark the Herald Angel".
The Japanese group Mihimaru GT uses the theme of the Farandole for their song "Theme of mihimaLIVE 2".
French choreographer Roland Petit created a ballet L'Arlésienne in 1974 which has been performed throughout the world, based on Daudet's short story and set against a landscape by Van Gogh.
A rock version of the piece appears in the Catherine (video game) by Atlus.
- New York City Opera: Georges Bizet
- Classical Notes - L'arlésienne Suite No. 1
- Suite No. 1, L'arlésienne
- Winton Dean, Bizet (J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1948)
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