“Carmen Through the Looking Glass” & Reimagining Music of the Past- blog by composer Christopher Goddard

Check out Esprit’s brand new podcast interview series- this first episode features Christopher Goddard & Alison Yun Fei Jiang!


One of my favourite pieces in the piano repertoire is Johannes Brahms’s
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24, better known as the Handel
Variations. In his writings, Brahms describes the importance of strictly following
Handel’s bass line to his compositional process: “On the given bass, I invent something
actually new, I discover new melodies in it, I create.” Whereas a work such as
Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations looks squarely into the future, Brahms fashions
something new out of music from the past, even reviving antiquated dance forms to give
the piece an air of Baroque authenticity. The result is a rich synthesis of styles that is
every bit as innovative. From our vantage point in 2022, it’s almost hard to believe that
128 years separates Brahms’s 1861 score from the 1733 keyboard suite that inspired it.

Much as I admire the bracing modernism of Beethoven’s variations, I admit that I
am temperamentally more inclined towards Brahms’s approach. It’s probably my
performing roots, but I’ve always viewed the concert repertoire as a living and breathing
body of work rather than as a rigid set of conventions. For composers like me, it can
also represent a vast reservoir of ideas to be mined. By rediscovering older works, we
can engage in historical thinking while showcasing their value to the present, “bright as
on the earliest day”, as Mahler would say. I’ve found that over time my attitude towards
music has become less existential and more playful; and the canon offers up many
wonderful playgrounds indeed.

When I received my first Esprit commission back in 2017 I was at something of a
creative crossroads. At the time I was codifying the compositional method I’d been
cultivating in recent years for my doctoral dissertation, which had a somewhat stultifying
effect on my art. With some doubts about whether that method had enough “juice” in it
to produce an orchestral work worthy of the orchestra commissioning it, I started to
ponder a sharp turn; not necessarily a start from scratch, but something that could
jumpstart the path I was currently on. For years I had been enthralled with the
spellbinding aria Les tringles des sistres tintaient from Bizet’s Carmen, in particular the
interpretation by Julia Migenes in Francisco Rosi’s 1984 film adaption of the opera

Les tringles des sistres tintaient, Julia Migenes, 1984.

The song drew me in not just by its expressive power but also by a tantalizing sense that
things were happening beneath the surface that I couldn’t quite grasp. I nursed a
strange intuition that, at the right moment, probing those mysteries might catalyze
something of my own that took me to exciting and unexpected places.
They were heady days, then, when I decided to leap into the project with both
feet and began to figure out what shape it would take. With no initial vision for the piece,
I went looking for answers in Bizet’s score. I sat in it, contemplated it, examined each of
its tiniest contours…what a joy it was to live inside that sound world! I knew from the
start that I didn’t want to do a postmodern pastiche that crudely rehashed Carmen
through a contemporary lens. Like Brahms, I sought a degree of continuity – I wanted to
meet the music where it was. It quickly became clear to me that tempo and timbre
would be the cornerstones my reimaginative effort. Tempo, because so much of the
original aria is wound up in its escalating character, and timbre, because that special
sound world (alluded to in the title itself) seemed to naturally invite a deeper exploration.

Variations technique is predicated on one musical domain being held constant so
that others can be made more salient through development. In the Handel Variations,
that fixed role is played by the bass line (and by extension the phrase structure). I
wanted to write something more through-composed, that eschewed the genre’s
traditional episodic form. For my Les tringles des sistres tintaient, this required some
bold choices. Despite a few harmonic detours and embellishments, the pitch material is
basically carried over from Bizet. The piece also sustains a 3/4 meter throughout its
entire duration(!) Where the invention comes in is at the level of perception. A sort of
timbral alchemy is achieved through unusual instrumental combinations, and there is
relentless flux in the rate at which musical events unfold.

This is Carmen “through the
looking glass”, where things are subjected to all manner of topsy-turvy distortions,
through which their essence is not obscured, but amplified.

The Carmen premiere that shocked its first Parisian audience took place 147
years ago in 1875. We tend to view the intervening years as a period of unprecedented
change in music, but it could plausibly be argued that the 128 years between 1733 and
1861 were equally if not more revolutionary. Brahms bridges that gap by profoundly
cogitating his model and projecting his own musical personality onto it. I took on a
similar task in Les tringles des sistres tintaient, to “discover new melodies” in my own
object of study. I recall feeling a lot of anxiety (more than usual, that is!) leading up to
the premiere in January 2019, uncertain about how Alex and the orchestra would react
to this bizarre project I’d undertaken. Of course, their total commitment and
professionalism shone through, and the performance was among the most memorable
of my life. Heading into their 40th season, Esprit is sounding better than ever, so I hope
you’ll join us for a mind-blowing evening of music on October 27!