Music of Sarasate (1844-1908) and Self-Exoticism


Parts of this essay were presented during the pre-concert talk at Noree Chamber Soloists’ NYC Concert Series II program on February 15, 2018.

Noree Chamber Soloists’ February concert program was centered around the theme of Romantic exoticism. One of the defining characteristics of Romantic-era music is its focus on expressive and emotional qualities. In order to achieve such qualities, composers engaged with external sources, such as themes from other literary works, artworks, or philosophical thoughts. Composers were also often inspired by sources from less familiar places and evoked milieu of remote places or times using rhythms, harmonies, melodies, or instruments associated with those unfamiliar settings. While this practice, musical exoticism, can be traced as far back as the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, when trades between and Europe and Middle Eastern or Asian worlds were frequent, the height of musical exoticism can be seen as the second half of the nineteenth century. As composers faced the new era of musical modernism, using foreign sources also served as opportunities for them to explore unusual sounds and techniques.

Although the definition of musical exoticism is seemingly straightforward, if we try to look at it just a little bit deeper than the surface questions such as which composer drew from which culture, or which melody or rhythm borrows from which musical tradition, we run into a myriad of questions that complicate our interpretation. For instance: How much did composers know about the culture they drew from? How much did the audiences know about that culture or what were the stereotypes associated with that culture in the society? Or, what were composers’ motivations when they quoted sounds of specific areas or cultures? As you can see, there are many different ways to think about musical exoticism. (If you are interested in investigating these intricate questions regarding music exoticism, here are some suggested books written by experts on the topic: Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh, Western Music and Its Others (2000); Annegret Fauser, Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair (2009); Ralph Locke, Musical Exoticism (2011); and Locke, Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015)).

Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasie (1883) is a work that presents interesting questions as to how we should understand the composer’s use of “exotic” Spanish dances. Carmen Fantasie draws from a well-loved opera Carmen by the French composer Georges Bizet. Toward the end of the 1800s, opera fantasies were in vogue in the French music scene: violinist-composers often borrowed materials from popular operas and created virtuosic fantasies for themselves to perform. Sarasate, as one of the most prominent violinists in Europe at the time (along with Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) and Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)), and as the epitome of the French salon virtuoso, was interested in expanding the violin repertoire by creating such opera fantasies based on Don Giovanni, Faust, Der Freischütz, La forza del destino, Romeo et Juliet, and Carmen. Among them, Carmen Fantasie is the only work that remains in the violin repertoire today.

Each of the five sections of Carmen Fantasie takes material from different, memorable moments in the opera, which is based on Gypsy and Spanish dances. The dances include Aragonaise (in the first section, Allegro moderato, based on the entr’acte to act 4), Habanera (in the second segment, Moderato, which comes from act 1 “L’mour est un oiseau rebelle”), Zuniga (in the third section, Lento assai, which draws from act 1, and in the fifth, Moderato, from the beginning of act 2), and Seguidilla (in the fourth part, Allegro moderato, based on act 1, “Près des remparts de Séville”). Sarasate basically keeps the original music of the opera and only changes the register or adds various techniques such as glissando, harmonics, pizzicato and various ornaments to make the melodies more flamboyant and idiomatic for the violin.

As you can see, Carmen Fantasie is infused with Spanish dances, but there is an interesting twist to Sarasate’s use of those dance tunes. We must first note that Spanish dance music celebrated in fin-de-siècle French musical circles: in addition to Bizet’s Carmen, we see examples in Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, both dedicated to Sarasate. Now, Sarasate was Spanish himself, but, the opera Carmen was an opera comique written by a French composer (Bizet) who was exoticizing Spanish and gypsy elements. Then, can we call Sarasate’s employment of Spanish dances musical exoticism? And here are more layers to it.

On one hand, although Sarasate was born in Spain, he was remarkably cosmopolitan. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire since the age of twelve, traveled extensively around Europe for his performance career, and was well-connected with and respected by musicians outside of Spain. Naturally, Sarasate was highly aware of musical trends of Western Europe, including using stylized Spanish dances in for the theater. When he used Spanish folk dances in his compositions, he borrowed ideas—techniques and compositional frameworks—from the Parisian musical culture, with which he was deeply involved. We could say that Sarasate composed with Spanish dance elements from the position of a cosmopolitan, almost non-local composer.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that a significant number of Sarasate’s works comprised character pieces based on Spanish dances. In those works, Sarasate drew on dance music from a wide variety of Spanish regions, beyond what was regarded fashionable in Paris. In addition, unlike other European composers or music critics who were exclusively focused on exotic Spanishness, he paid close attention to the specific regional characters of the dances. Finally, unlike other European composers who used Spanish elements mainly for stage works to create certain exotic effects, Sarasate used Spanish music for the solo violin works, which then allowed folk dances to take center stage.  

Now, on the receiving end, Sarasate’s music was hardly considered “serious” music. The dominance of the Austro-German musical thoughts and traditions in the European musical world was undeniable at the time, and people thought more highly of sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets than the less substantial, trendy genres such as character pieces and opera fantasies. Because Sarasate presented Spanish dances in the “lesser” genres, few paid attention to the sincerity with which Sarasate engaged with his own culture. In other words, his use of Spanish idioms was regarded as another case of exoticizing Spanishness. Regardless, Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasie remains an important work in the violin repertoire today, not to mention that it is a sure audience pleaser.

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Jung-Min Mina Lee
Resident Musicologist


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