Rich Coburn

piano and organ

Bizet, and that sexy tresillio

Carmen’s Habanera is easily one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world. You have heard it countless times performed by everyone from the greatest mezzos of history to the Muppets.  Maybe you’ve even performed it yourself. It forms a part of the massive history of opera. However, this aria is actually at the intersection of two hugely influential ideas in music history. The second one, arguably as important to global music history as the first, is called


You may not know that word, but you know what tresillio is. Count to 8 at a steady, medium speed, and keep repeating. Now, as you count, clap as you say 1, 4, and 7. 1--4--7-1--4--7-. Congratulations, you’ve just clapped a tresillio pattern. This is the rhythmic basis of the Habanera, as well as a substantial number of other songs in classical and popular genres in the 18th century. Today, it is found in the music of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and in no small number of genres based on the European and even more so the Latin American traditions. 

The origins of tresillio are in sub-Sarahan Africa, where it is used extensively. It was brought to the Caribbean with the slaves. It has a fascinating history of interaction with many, many cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, which could easily fill an entire other post. For now though, let’s fast forward to the part of this story most relevant to Carmen.

The incorporation of tresillio into the previously existing contradanza genre in Cuba was a very important moment in western music. This is the first written music to be rhythmically based on African rhythms (one of the few universally accepted components of a definition of jazz), and thus constitutes a kind of proto-jazz. The resulting rhythmic pattern was called habanera and it’s a polyrhythmic variant of tresillio. Wait, don't let the word polyrhythmic scare you; this is actually really simple!

One overreaching feature of the sub-Saharan musics that tresillio came from is polyrhythm. This basically means having two or more rhythms going on at the same time. This video quickly demonstrates that concept with a salsa rhythm, which, surprise surprise, also has a strong tresillio element (the second half of the clave, the first rhythm you hear, is a tresillio)! The timbales begin and repeat one rhythmic pattern.. Then the bass comes in with a different rhythm. Then the congas, with a third rhythmic pattern, and so on. Polyrhythm. Simple.

So, go back to counting to 8. Then add your claps on counts 1, 4, and 7. Now, add a foot stomp on beats 1 and 5. That’s a habanera rhythm, but the polyrhythmic nature is now really obvious because two “instruments” are playing the two different parts. When Bizet (and everybody else at the time) wrote that down, the celli or left hand did the entire thing, and the polyrhythmic element disappeared.

"Now wait a second" I can hear you saying.

"That's great, but why do I care?" Good question.

A lot of people spend a considerable amount of time trying to make classical music more sexy in every sense of the word. And a lot of other people, particularly in opera, are not thrilled when this turns into an emphasis on visual sexiness. (Here’s one group's version of adding sex appeal to opera. That's one way to do it, I guess...)

The thing is, in this specific case, we have music that is aurally really sexy. That’s right; tresillio is a sexy, sexy rhythm. And I want to explore a little how that rhythm was performed historically, and how it's performed today by people outside classical music. To do that, we're going to take a brief look at a totally different genre which is not only based on the same tresillio rhythm, it often uses the exact same habanera rhythm: 


If you think that you don’t know any reggaeton music, you’re probably wrong. At the very least, you’ve probably heard Danza Kuduro. If that's as far as your knowledge of reggaeton goes, check out tracks  like this one, this one, and this one (you'll have to get a little bit into the song before the habanera rhythm starts) to get a quick feel for the genre. 

Of course everyone has their own preferences, but to me, this is sexy music. If you’ve ever been at a Latin club when the DJ decides it’s time to switch over from salsa and meringue to reggaeton, you’ve seen how this music makes people dance. If you haven’t, maybe you should be doing a lot more Latin dancing. But that’s beside the point.

What do you notice about all these tracks? Within the context of the habanera polyrhythm (which generally maintains its polyrhythmic character) the tresillio rhythm is clearly emphasized. In other words, we hear 1 - - 4 5 - 7 - instead of 1 - 4 5 - 7 -. Sometimes the 4 and the 5 are roughly equally emphasized, but never the 5 more than the 4. Try beating out the pattern with the two emphases. It’s clear to me which one is sexier.

"These are different genres. Couldn't the same rhythm be performed differently?"

Well remember when I said that habanera was the first music notated in the European tradition and influenced by African rhythms? Well we know a few things about Western music notation. It’s amazingly good at doing certain things like recording counterpoint and very complicated harmonies. It is not so good--you could even say it’s actually really, really bad--at notating the subtleties of rhythm. (If you don’t agree with me, read the last chapter of Roberto Poli’s book The Secret Life of Musical Notation.) And forget about polyrhythms; those were not even a part of the musical landscape back in 1803 when the earliest surviving written instance of the habanera rhythm was jotted down. As a point of reference, remember that Haydn was still wandering around in a powdered wig at that point. So, in my mind, there is a reasonable chance that the way we now think the habanera rhythm is structured is not what those early 19th century transcribers heard. They just didn't have tools to notate it.

Now, I’m not trying to give a lecture on performance practice here. I've listened to the earliest recordings of Bizet’s Habanera I could find. (There are at least eight recorded within 30 years of the premier on YouTube.) The pianists or orchestras kind of do exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about here. They often deemphasize the 4th 16th by making it so short that it ends us sounding pretty much indistinguishable from the 32nd notes in the Seguidilla that Carmen sings a little bit later in the show. To me, that’s not sexy. Today's performances don't go so far in that direction, but even when the 4 is given it's full value, which is not always, it is still always subordinate to the 5. Still not super sexy. 

"So just spit it out, how should you perform the habanera?" 

Well, I’ve got a whole separate series of blog posts coming that talk about how I think about old music when some of the cultural values that define if have changed. This question really belongs with that post, but I will say one thing about it here. 

The text setting in Carmen is famously "wrong." Strong or textually important words are very often off the beat, and this causes no small number of headaches for singers not fluent in French. I absolutely love this aspect of Carmen and the rhythmic subtlety that it makes possible. But the style is pretty heavily reliant on having a good grasp of the language. 

The habanera is one of the most extreme examples of off the beat text setting in the whole show. That is, if you assume that the beat happens every quarter note. But try saying the words in rhythm over the tresillio pattern, and you will find that you are already closer to the cadence of spoken French, and that a natural movement is established by the asymmetrical pattern. You still have to deal with off the "beat" emphasized syllables, but don't forget that that's an essential component of this style. And some of your headache has probably disappeared without any of that pesky business of learning French or doing actual work. 

So in the end, should you assign greater importance to the 4th or the 5th 16th note? I still haven't told you what I think you should do with this information, and I'm going to leave it that way. If you ask your conductor to emphasize the tresillio pattern over the duple, you'd probably better be ready with a lot of well researched arguments. But I will suggest the the text setting wouldn't necessarily suffer form considering a less standard rhythmic organization of the bar. 

I hope I've given you some new possibilities for how to hear the piece, and that maybe you've gained at the least some curiosity about the cross-cultural nature of habaneras. 

Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your comments below, particularly if you experimented with this aria yourself! 

Photography / Photographie:
Brent Calis