Whereas the first suite drawn from Bizet's opera Carmen focused on preludes and entr'actes, the second is mostly a string of hit arias and ensemble pieces, with individual instruments filling in for the missing voices. The suite was assembled after Bizet's death by Ernest Guiraud, who also provided the opera's sung recitatives.
The opening "Marche des contrebandiers," or "Smugglers' March," depicts the nocturnal progress of smugglers through the mountains. It was originally a chorus with a long orchestral introduction. Befitting the secretive nature of the business at hand, this is a predominantly quiet but still cocky march, full of pert woodwind solos.
Next comes one of the opera's two most famous numbers, Carmen's teasing-seductive "Habanera," concerning the fickle nature of gypsy love. Bizet based it on a popular song by the Spanish composer Yradier. In this non-vocal form, the line is divided into long phrases and allotted to various instruments-usually solo woodwinds, but also trumpet, and at some points the violin sections.
The long Nocturne is actually Micaëla's aria from Act 3. Here the long, flowing, yearning melody is taken mainly by the solo viola (solo horn in some versions), although it becomes violin property when it begins to soar halfway through the piece.
The "Chanson du toréador" is the opera's greatest hit, although Bizet was ashamed of it and denigrated it as "trash." Here, the torero ("toréador" is a French fabrication) enters in the form of a solo trumpet to tell his bullfight story through dramatic verses as well as the famous marching chorus.
"La Garde montante" is the Act 1 children's chorus, in which kids tag along at the changing of the guard. Thus, the piece begins with militaristic fanfares in the brass, but quickly is taken over by a whimsical piccolo march. Clarinets and violins also fill in for the children's voices as the piece progresses. Oddly, although the "Habanera" and "Toreador Song" are slightly truncated, every last scrap of the children's march is included in this suite.
The final movement is Act 2's "Danse bohème," an energetic gypsy dance that begins softly and builds a terraced crescendo verse by verse, ending in a crash of cymbals and tangle of triangles. In the opera, this piece often begins slowly to accommodate ungainly sopranos, but in orchestral form it usually starts fast and accelerates as it gets louder. As usual, the vocal part is distributed among various instruments; generally Carmen's solos are given to individual woodwinds or trumpet, and the choral portions are filled in by the string section.