Arranging Carmen for piano and guitar


Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Amsterdam

I borrowed the Dover edition of the orchestral version for Bizet’s Carmen opera months ago. The full score looked intimidating, a reminder of the arduous score reading exercises I had to do during my years at conservatory. And so the hard-back book laid on my piano unopened until I found free sheet music of piano solo and duet transcriptions on the Internet.

Eureka! I found a short cut.

It is possible to reduce orchestral music to piano and fewer instruments. It requires a lot more imagination the other way around.

At first, I split up a quatre-main (4-hands, one piano) duet into separate parts for a single guitar and piano. Then I noticed that the piano duet left out many wonderful melodies. To do Carmen justice, I opened the orchestra score, found those beloved themes and allocated them as I saw fit.

Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers stopped me when he saw that I was giving the exciting parts to the piano. It reminded me of my own protests when he had given himself the interesting, virtuoso passages in his arrangements of Bach’s Badinerie, Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and the Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba for our duo.

“I can do that!” he pointed to a chromatic run. “I love scales. Better, let us do it together!”

Now that’s a challenge — to play the fast notes completely in sync with each other! We do that quite a bit in Vivaldi’s Summer from his Four Seasons. I can have the guitar play exactly what I play in the same register or an octave apart. Or we can play a third apart.

“Give me big powerful chords,” he said. He wants to show off, but so do I. We’ll just have to take turns, I decided.

Robert also gave me advice. “To be safe, don’t give the guitar more than two voices at a time.”

Bizet’s opera was set in Seville, Spain where we had visited in April 2009 for a gypsy flamenco project. I remember the flamenco rhythms and the percussive nature of such exotic music. Arranging Carmen brought back memories of that week as well as my visit to the Netherlands Opera production of Carmen at the end of the Holland Festival in Amsterdam.

Technically speaking, the piano and the guitar can replace 16 single-note instruments: 10 fingers on the piano plus 6 strings of the guitar. If we add our feet and elbows, then we can do even more. I love sound of the guitar being used as a percussive instrument. Can I do the same on the piano? Or would I need drumsticks?

What shall I call my arrangement? There are numerous Carmen Suites and Carmen Fantasies on Naxos CD Online and youtube. Mine is not a suite or a fantasy. A suite is structured — mine is a medley of various sticky tunes, and yet it’s more than a medley. A fantasy would require a lot more imagination, dedication, and virtuosity. I want it to be fun and interesting, not like some of the 19th century arrangements of popular opera themes for guitar and piano.

How about Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar? Coincidentally when I google “Carmen Potpourri” I find our piano guitar duo website and this blog. Maybe that’s what it should be called: Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar.

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1 Comment

Filed under arrangement, composition, guitar, piano, planning, research, sheet music

One response to “Arranging Carmen for piano and guitar

  1. Rachel

    I loved this post; the details really made me feel like I was there while you were brainstorming. 🙂

    (why not this photo for the album cover?)

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