Edited by Jascha Heifetz
Georges Bizet (1838–1875) died only three months after the premiere of Carmen convinced that it was a failure. Not so many years later it was the most-often performed opera in the international repertoire, and for the better part of a century this music has been popular far beyond the lyric theatre.
In our own time the Bizet masterpiece has been transmogrified as a musical (Carmen Jones) as a ballet (by the Soviet avante-garde composer Rodion Shchedrin) not to mention Tin Pan Alley songwriters, jazz instrumentalists, bathroom baritones, and even rock groups.
Pablo Martin Meliton Sarasate y Navascuez (1844–1908) seems to have been the first to discern a specifically violinistic character in Carmen. He wove a virtuosic if somewhat patchy fantasy for violin and piano (Op. 25) out of themes from the opera, and later expanded his potpourri into a concert piece for violin and orchestra – though more than one reference book quite incorrectly ascribes this orchestral version to the Silesian-born American composer and conductor Franz Waxman (1906–1967).
Waxman did, in fact, compose the very different Carmen Fantasie. This work is not at all related to the Sarasate hodgepodge. Waxman hardly could have brought himself to rearranging what was already a hybrid composition at least once removed from the original. Instead, properly he bypassed Sarasate and went back to Bizet.
Franz Waxman “created” his Carmen and Tristan & Isolde Fantasies for the film Humoresque (Warner Brothers, 1947) for John Garfield to “play” on screen to Isaac Stern’s recording on the soundtrack. Jascha Heifetz saw the Joan Crawford–Oscar Levant melodrama with a screenplay by Clifford Odets based on the famous Fannie Hurst story about the budding career of a young New York violinist (Garfield) and his patron (Crawford). The Jerry Wald production was directed by Jean Negulesco.
Heifetz asked Waxman to expand the work for him to play on the popular radio program, The Bell Telephone Hour. The composer revised the score between August 13 and October 18, 1946. The premiere performance of September 9, 1946 was a great success and Heifetz toured the world playing Carmen Fantasie. He recorded it with Donald Voorhees on November 11, 1946 and the recording has never been out-of-print.
The Russian violinist David Oistrakh gave the Heifetz recording to his student Leonid Kogan. Unable to obtain a score for the work in the Soviet Union, Kogan made up his own score by listening to the Heifetz recording and copying the notes down one-by-one! Waxman was the first American to conduct the major orchestras of the USSR (in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev) and during his April 1962 visit he promised to send the orchestral parts to Kogan for a recording with Kirill Kondrashin. Shortly after its release Kondrashin defected to the West and most of his Russian recordings were destroyed. Kogan taught Viktoria Mullova the work before she fled (with the music on microfilm) from the USSR in 1982. Another Kogan pupil Andrei Korsakov (1946–1991) recorded Carmen in 1990.
Carmen Fantasie is Waxman’s most-requested concert work and the post-Heifetz generation of violinists has championed the music on every continent.
Maxim Vengerov and Sayaka Shoji have recorded the composition with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, as did Igor Oistrakh, Andrei Korsakov, Louis Francini, Rachel Barton, Chloe Hanslip, Lara St. John, Mayuko Kamio, Alexander Gilman, Rachel Kolly D’Alba, and Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg. Performed several times by John Williams/Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops, with Tamara Smirnova, Zubin Mehta, and Glenn Dicterow with the New York Philharmonic featured the work on the PBS telecast “Live From Lincoln Center.” The Gorky-born (1977) trumpet virtuoso Sergei Nakariakov Carmen Fantasie CD was a sensation. Rodney Mack recorded the Trumpet Carmen with Lawrence Foster conducting the Orquestra Sinfonica de Barcelona I National de Catalunya. On February 4, 1998 Paul Merkelo gave the first concert performance with the New World Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tillson Thomas at Lincoln Center. Carmen Fantasie for viola, strings, and percussion is arranged by Michael Kugel. Marina Piccinini premiered the flute edition, DaXun Zhang the edition for double bass and Matt Haimovitz recently performed the work for cello. There are also editions for concert band, marimba, tuba, violin/piano.