(Self-expression turned to such pure id that it had to self-destruct)
1876. The year which 'Classical Music' is forever trying to recapture and from which it has never recovered. The world is drinking coffee after it's first Ring of the Nibelung hangover. It was music so powerful that as many turned away from it in horror as embraced it with unprecedented passion. From the beginning of the century until that precise date, everybody seemed to agree: music was the door which opened a path to self-expression. The musician was at the center, and every great musician from Schubert to Berlioz to Verdi to Tchaikovsky used that open door to express confessional emotions that people long thought music unable to express. But then came 1876, and Beethoven's self-expression turned into Wagner's expression of the id. Wagner was uninterested in who people are, only interested in whom they could be. It was an expression of people's most unconscious emotions so powerful that world could no longer contain it. The loose confederation of Austro-German lands that housed Beethoven, Heine and Metternich turned into the blood-and-iron Germany of Wagner, Nietzsche and Bismark. Without so much as a moment of self-realization, the majority of the German middle class had changed overnight from the great bastion of Kultur and civilization to an inexorable path towards self-immolation. An immolation that we listened to again and again in the music of Bruckner, Mahler, the young Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Stockhausen.
New ways forward had to be shown. 1876 was the exact same year that Brahms's First Symphony premiered - in its way as significant a statement as The Ring ever was. It was a comparatively conservative work which proclaimed that musical value could only be found by reclaiming the values of the past: traditional forms, counterpoint, variation and development. It was listened to by many a statement of reaction from an older Germany to everything Deutschland was becoming, and perhaps that was what Brahms intended. And from it we got a more genial but no less potent vision of Germany (ok...maybe a little less), grounded in the 'old values' - the Germany of Hugo Wolf, the old Richard Strauss, Pfitzner, Schrecker, Hindemith, Weill and Henze.
Three months after the end of 1876, Tchaikovsky had met Antonina Milyukova and shortly thereafter embarked on his disastrous 10-day marriage. Considering that the period of Antonina was also the period of the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin, his marriage could have meant everything or nothing to his creative output. But what matters is that this was the year Tchaikovsky forged a different path past Wagner. A path that seemed hell-bent on self-expression, with almost blithe disregard for traditional notions of form and development. From this viscral self-expression Tchaikovsky forged the Russian way forward, from which the world gave us Glazunov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Schnittke.
(Carmen: music breathes a different air)
And yet within two years, all three of these 'founders' would bow down before the opera of a recently deceased unknown from France. Georges Bizet died in penury, better known as a pianist and with rumors of murder surrounding his death. Had he lived a year longer, he'd have lived to see himself the toast of Europe and we may have had many more works in the mature style he discovered in Carmen. It is one of the most tragic losses in the history of music: because beginning with Carmen, music breathes a different air, dances to a different time, and sings to a different tune. By 1878, the world had found a new god that would gradually replace expression as the goal of music.
Pleasure was our new god, and Carmen was its prophetess. Don Jose is not simply seduced by Carmen, he is seduced by the entire world she conjures for him. A lurid, underground imagining of gypsy animalness which seems to promise the fulfillment of every desire, and when that fulfillment proves impossible, Carmen chooses death rather than compromise on her ideals. At the beginning of the opera, we view everything through Don Jose's eyes. But the brilliance of the second half is that we've been so completely seduced by the first that we see the unfolding tragedy through the eyes of Carmen. Like Don Jose, we listeners begin by being seduced by everything we see and hear, so much so that like Carmen we would rather choose death than give up what we've discovered.
Carmen is not about sex, it's about longing. To be sure, sex is a hugely important part of that equation, but this opera is far larger than that. What Bizet's music taps into is our desire to free ourselves of expectations and pursue whatever we damn well please. In 2011, Carmen is still pleasure personified in music because most of us still feel trapped by our humdrum everyday lives. How much moreso did people feel trapped in the 1870's? What else can you say about an age of repression so profound that even the chair-legs had dresses?
Ever since, Carmen has been awakening people to the same shock as it ever did - the disturbing and liberating realization that there may not need to be a self to express. We may not be more than electro-chemical-neuro-physiological bundles of nerves only capable of feeling pleasure and pain as any other animal does. As with all other notions, it may or may not be true. But if it is true, then perhaps we needn't aspire to be any more than that.