Arranging Carmen for piano and guitar

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. What shall I call my arrangement? How about Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar?

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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.

New concert programme for 2010

We are now preparing a completely new programme for 2010. What sets it apart from previous programmes is that it is full of new transcriptions that are equally fun and exciting for piano and guitar. We open with Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo photo credit: Humphrey Daniels, Warmond

We are now preparing a completely new programme for 2010, to debut on 21st January 2010 in Doorn, Netherlands. What sets it apart from previous programmes is that it is full of new transcriptions that are equally fun and exciting for piano and guitar.

We open with Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, whose 4-hand one piano score could easily be read for our piano and guitar combination. While I was visiting Helsinki in mid-November to play the duet with my Finnish friend, Robert Bekkers transcribed it for our duo. It’s a piece that makes me happy every time I play it.

The choice for the second piece is tricky. I’m not sure what to put between the Queen of Sheba and the third piece: Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Perhaps we should choose a lesser known piece, just to break the familiarity of sticky tunes, or as the composer and pianist Daniel Abrams suggested, a solo piano or guitar piece.

Robert arranged Winter for our duo, largely because the Summer concerto worked so well for us. The latter was very exciting and challenging to play in sync. He chose it after spotting a young Korean guitarist playing the fast sections on youtube. Originally written for string orchestra, Winter is much easier to play than Summer. I particularly like the second movement – Largo. How fitting it is to study Winter in the final week of 2009 with snow thawing on the ground. I feel that sweet contentment of being indoors, in the warmth and coziness of a well-insulated Dutch house. Winter has never been like this, where I grew up — in the subtropics.

I first heard Manuel de Falla’s Danse Espagnole from the opera La Vida Breve at a final exam concert at the Utrecht Conservatory in 2008. I was so taken by it that I invited the Spanish violinist Angel Sanchez Marote and the Okinawan pianist Shumpei Tanahara to play it again in our Monument House Concert Series. [A midsummer afternoon tea concert programme PDF] I asked Angel (pronounced An – hul) where to get the music. He said it was one of many popular arrangements by Fritz Kreisler, available at music book stores. Coincidentally, Robert owned an arrangement for two guitars which he rehearsed with his own duo. His guitar part was 80% the same as the violin part in the violin-piano score I found at a second-hand sheet music store in Amsterdam. Needless to say, it was a matter of time before we adjusted the score for our piano guitar duo.

I was delighted to stumble upon a video clip of Angel playing the Spanish Dance, with a different pianist (below).

The only works in our new programme that are original to piano and guitar are the Grand Duo Concertant and Grand Potpourri National which are long enough to fit a concert by themselves. The former was a collaboration between 33 year old Mauro Giuliani and 19 year old Ignaz Moscheles, and the latter between Giuliani and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. The 25-minute Grand Potpourri National is a joy to play. It contains themes of national anthems of the countries in 1815 when it was written. So far we’ve only managed to identify Rule Britannia and Haydn’s Deutschland Uber Alles which became the Austrian national anthem. We’re told there is also Vive Henri IV (French national anthem). What about the others?

When I met the English guitarist and composer David Harvey in London in 2006, he gave me his arrangement of Piazzolla’s Tango Suite no. 2 (from his guitar duos). It’s only now that we have time to include it in our repertoire. We played it recently for my Rotary Club gathering.

We revisit another great Spanish maestro, the blind composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999), whose Fantasia para un Gentilhombre took us through all of 2009. This time, we return to his most famous guitar concerto, if not THE most famous of all guitar concertos: the Aranjuez. Robert had arranged the beautiful slow movement for himself as soloist with an ensemble of flute, bassoon, and guitar in an outdoor summer concert which I organised in London (photo below). Since 2002, we’ve considered studying all three movements of the Concierto de Aranjuez, we’ve never been so convinced until now to include it in our program.

Robert Bekkers arrangement of Aranjez Concerto 2nd movement
Robert Bekkers arrangement of Aranjuez Concerto 2nd movement

Ever since I saw Bizet’s Carmen in Amsterdam, I promised and vowed to make an arrangement of my favourite pieces from this delightful opera. The orchestral score has been sitting on my grand piano for months while I searched for interesting piano solo and duet arrangements. Perhaps my own arrangement for piano and guitar will be the missing second piece in our new programme. That’s my way of getting back into the swing of composing again.