About this Recording
8.223448 - SCHMITT: Tragedie de Salome (La)
English  French 

Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
La Tragédie de Salomé (Original Version)


The present recording appears as a musicological rediscovery of great interest. It revives in fact, for the first time, the Tragédie de Salomé, Opus 50, as it was originally written by Florent Schmitt in 1907, that is to say music for small orchestra to accompany a danced mime-drama in seven tableaux. Until now we have only known under this title the symphonic suite for large orchestra, which lasts no more that half an hour, while the complete first version, recorded here, provides nearly an hour of listening.

Soon after the resounding performances of the Salomé of Richard Strauss at the Châtelet in May 1907, Robert d’Humières, recently appointed director of the elegant little Théâtre des Arts, decided in his turn to write and stage a choreographical spectacle inspired by the same biblical episode. This Tragedy of Salome, conceived for the dancer Lore Fuller, was created by her on 9th November 1907 with specially commissioned music by Florent Schmitt.

The myth of Salome, so highly prized by writers and artists, notably in the decadent Europe before 1914, admirably suited the temperament of Florent Schmitt. Here one might find the blood, pleasure and death celebrated in the title even of an anthology by Maurice Barrès. This legendary subject also fitted quite naturally into the Orientalist mode, fashionable since the beginning of Romanticism, in which the Orient was used to provide a thrill of pleasure and an escape.

All the same, if the musical Orientalism of Félicien David is rich in local colour, that of Ernest Reyer suave and of Camille Saint-Saëns picturesque, the Orientalism of Florent Schmitt is above all barbarous, a trait to which several of his works of Oriental inspiration, which marked out his career for him, bear witness. Nevertheless in the youth of this composer from the East of France there was nothing to indicate such a taste for the Orient, an Orient voluptuous, sensual, savage and frenetic. In fact this personal and original conception, the result of the circumstances of his life, was formed in direct contact with the Oriental world, and more precisely with the Islamic.

The offspring of a family of cloth-manufacturers, Florent Schmitt was born on 28th September 1870 at Blâmont in Lorraine, a few kilometres from the German border. After studying the piano and harmony for two years at Nancy, he continued his musical education at the Paris Conservatoire from October 1889, studying harmony with Albert Lavignac, fugue with André Gédalge, and composition with Jules Massenet and later with Gabriel Fauré in a class of which his friend Maurice Ravel was also a member. After completing his military service, as a flautist in a military band, he won in 1900 the first Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata Sémiramis, a lyric scene characterised already by a style that combined the symphonic and the dramatic.

Schmitt stayed at the Villa Médici in Rome for four years, taking the opportunity to travel widely throughout Europe and round the Mediterranean, from Morocco to Asian Turkey. From this time the influence of these Islamic countries began to appear in several of his compositions. In many ways Turkish influence was the most profound. In Istanbul in November 1903 Schmitt was able to take part in a Selamlik, an event that clearly impressed him. In the Ottoman period there was a ceremony, both religious and military, every Friday, at which, before reviewing his troops, the Sultan went in ceremonial procession to the mosque, greeted by the enthusiastic applause of faithful Moslems. In his Memoirs Schmitt recalled this roaring of the Tartars at the Sultan’s appearance, which he tried to transpose, at the beginning of his Psalm, into an acclamation of Israel. This sacred enthusiasm of Moslems before their spiritual and temporal leader, Schmitt effectively transferred to the wild Hebrew exaltation of the glory of Yahveh, the God of Israel, in Psalm XLVII. This masterpiece, which brought him recognition in critical and intellectual circles, resounded like a clap of thunder in the ears of those in Paris who first heard it in December 1906 in the concert-hall of the Conservatoire. A few years after Pelléas, at a time when musical impressionism was flourishing in France, this almost barbarous composition astonished the audience, not least by its rhythmic dynamism and war-like sonorities. Yet the composer did no more than restore the text taken from the scriptures to an authentic Oriental atmosphere comparable to that of his own experience. His Psalm is, therefore, not basically Christian but biblical and Jewish. The same aesthetic tendency informed the Tragedy of Salome, but it may be asked why this composer from Lorraine sought inspiration again from the ancient Orient of the Bible.

While on holiday in the Pyrenees, Florent Schmitt received at the end of August 1907 a letter from one of his friends, Jean Forestier, making him a tempting proposal. Forestier invited him to contact Robert d’Humières, who had just engaged Loïe Fuller to dance a Salome; for the musical element of the spectacle d’Humières desired the collaboration of the composer whose Psalm he had heard some months earlier at the Conservatoire.

Florent Schmitt accepted the offer immediately and wrote the score quickly in the two succeeding months. Nevertheless the composer encountered very great difficulties in the matter of instrumentation, since the Théâtre des Arts was very small and could not hold an orchestra of normal size. For this reason Schmitt had to use instrumental forces reduced to the minimum: a mere quintet of strings, a harp, a limited percussion section and some wind instruments (a flute, an oboe, occasionally replaced by the cor anglais, a clarinet, a bassoon, two horns, a trumpet and two trombones). A gifted orchestrator, he was thus obliged to restrict his palette, something particularly hard for a colourist, and to construct a symphonic work intended only for some twenty players. This posed a difficult and delicate, if not insoluble problem, if, in such conditions, he was to rival the richness of the full orchestra employed by Richard Strauss. Schmitt knew very well that, barely six months after the Paris performances of the opera by Strauss, contemporary audiences would inevitably make comparisons between the two Salomes, the German and the French. Yet, in spite of the small number of players, he was able to draw from his orchestra astonishing effects, as we can hear for ourselves from the present recording.

The argument of the Tragedy of Salome, as conceived by Robert d’Humières, no longer rests on one danced episode. It consists of the fascinating character of the heroine, in turn carefree and flirtatious (“Dance of the Pearls”), proud and haughty (“Dance of the Peacock”), sensual and evil (“Dance of the Serpents”), cold and cruel (“Dance of Steel”), lascivious and perverse (“Dance of Silver”), terrified and delirious (“Dance of Fear”). These illustrate, one after another, joy, pride, pleasure, cruelty, luxury and finally terror, developing progressively towards a darker colour and taking on, little by little, a tragic aspect. For this reason these dances offer an interesting dramatic evolution, both choreographic and musical. The librettist Robert d’Humières, known particularly up to that time for his translations of the books of Rudyard Kipling, was not content to write a scenario that would only serve as an excuse for the dances of Loïe Fuller. He wanted to add a symbolic significance and above all confer a moral dimension on his mute drama, probably as a reaction against the prose of Oscar Wilde, considered unhealthy.

This Salome is therefore in no way in love with St. John the Baptist, unlike the other princesses of Judea previously treated in music (whether in the Hérodiade of Jules Massenet or the Salome of Richard Strauss). In accordance with the gospel narrative, Salome is an obedient young woman, who dances in obedience to her mother and to please, but who in no way desires the death of the prophet. The drama is not between her and the Baptist, but only between her and King Herod, who is gradually seduced and fascinated by the destructive charm of his step-daughter.

On this biblical canvas Robert d’Humières embroidered freely his own version of the legend, leaving, in the gradual unwinding of the mime drama, more and more to his poetic fantasy, his creative imagination and his sense of tragedy. The mark of the aesthetic of decadence becomes apparent in the final tableaux through their sensuality, their dream-like character and their climate of morbidity. Hardly has Salome received the head of the martyr than, seized by unutterable fear, she casts it into the sea, which changes then into a great sea of blood. Then, pursued by the head of John, which has suddenly reappeared (that is to say, symbolically haunted by remorse), she turns, overpowered by the gory vision that now arises all around. The death of John the Baptist is not the dénouement of the work, but provokes the breakdown of all this world of perversion and final cataclysm with the collapse of the palace, the breaking of the bonds of nature and the conflagration of the mountains, the moral apocalyptic epilogue of the piece.

This tragic story of Salome found in Florent Schmitt a marvellous illustrator. Throughout the prelude and the seven scenes that follow almost without interruption, the music is at once a kind of symphonic poem danced to and a symphony that can be seen. By following carefully the indications of the poetic text, the composer has designed around the biblical episode a brilliant musical commentary, disturbing and passionate, which, through its breathless rhythms and its powerful development, reinforces the dramatic atmosphere and increases the emotion.

Through its slow tempo, its dark colour, its mysterious character and its ambiguous harmonies, the Prelude, in F minor, establishes musically a climate altogether favourable to the drama that follows. It evokes perhaps less a biblical landscape than releases an impression of sad passion, hovering over the legend of Salome.

In order the better to follow the musical development of this choreographic mime-drama, the action of which we cannot see, we give here, for each scene, the principal elements of the plot, as given in the programme of the first performances.

[1] The first scene. The sun sets. John appears and slowly crosses the terrace. Everything around him shocks him, the atmosphere of suspicion and of luxury, the scent of the harem and of the executioner.

Herod enters in agitation. News from Rome. Someone has spoken ill of him to Caesar. After a short struggle between anxiety and pride, he decides to consult John. He is for him the visionary with threatening words, the holy fool through whom the gods express themselves.

The queen Herodias appears from the palace. She hates John, who has publicly denounced her adultery. The growing influence he exerts over the Tetrarch has filled her with mute fury. Salome follows her.

[2] The second scene corresponds to the traditional episode of Salome dancing before Herod. It takes place in surroundings and instrumental colour completely different from the preceding sequences:

Torches illuminate the scene. Their light draws brilliance from the materials and jewels that cover a precious chest.

Salome, as though fascinated, appears, leans forward, draws back, then, with a childish delight starts her first dance, the Dance of the Pearls. An expression of triumph gradually appears on the face of Herodias.

[3] The following scene is steeped in a nocturnal atmosphere, with an element of ceremony:

Herod is seated on the throne, Herodias at his side. Some women bring cups of wine. Herodias shows marked tenderness to her husband without succeeding in bringing back their loving past in which she had strong influence on his troubled heart.

But she has other wiles in reserve, and Salome, suddenly appearing at the top of the staircase, expresses them in the proud brilliance of the feathers and jewels with which she dances the Dance of the Peacock.

[4] With its allegorical evocation of serpents, creatures that traditionally symbolise sensuality and perverse desire, the fourth scene seems an accomplished model of symphonic and descriptive imagery:

The dancer has disappeared. Herod, at first surprised, gives a hint of curiosity and growing desire. Mute scene showing the rival influences of Herodias and John.

Suddenly, at the corner, by the base of the wall, two serpents twist. The royal couple recoil in fear. Salome, holding the snakes, appears behind them. Dance of the Serpents.

[5] After an impressive silence, the magnificence of the first dances gives way to a more vicious mood, laden with voluptuous memories of the past. A presage of the dramatic conclusion, the fifth scene marks an important and decisive turning-point in the tragedy. Through its feeling of maleficence and perversion, it directs the work towards some kind of biblical nightmare. Heavy with significance, it gives the myth of Salome a new and essentially symbolic dimension. Very developed, it offers three very different but complementary sequences, the Enchantments over the Sea, Dance of Steel and Song of Aisha:

Darkness envelops Herod, lost in his thoughts of luxury and fear, while Herodias, vigilant, watches him. Then, on the Cursed Sea, mysterious lights are seen from the depths, the buildings of submerged Pentapolis appear in confusion under the waves. Ancient scenes seem to come to life again and beckon Salome. This is like a projection on a magic mirror of the drama that is being acted out in the minds of the couple seated there, in the night.

Much more condensed, the two last scenes overflow with sensuality, passion and tragic violence. Here there appears in all its vigour, the composer’s temperament, shown in a depiction of the barbarous Orient, from the time of his fruitful period of travel in the countries of Islam. During his stay in Istanbul, Schmitt had been able to see the howling dervishes of Scutari, on the Asiatic side of the city, with their prayers, flagellation and dancing in a state of extreme excitement. It is probable that this scene of Oriental frenzy, sacred in character, encouraged the musician to establish this climate of violence in the last two dances of the Tragedy of Salome.

Scene of debauchery and blood, the Dance of Silver, later renamed Dance of Lightning, expresses the paroxysm of luxury in an atmosphere of demoniac nervous tension:

[6] The sky grows dark. Distant thunder sounds. Salome starts to dance. Darkness covers the scene and the rest of the drama can only be seen in sudden flashes of lightning.

The lascivious dance and the pursuit of Herod. Salome is seized, her veils torn away by the hand of the Tetrarch. In an instant she is naked. But John comes forward and covers her with his mantle. A movement of anger from Herod, quickly understood by Herodias, a sign from whom delivers John to the executioner, who drags him away.

The executioner reappears. He holds the head on a bronze dish. Salome takes hold of her trophy. Then, as if touched by a sudden feeling of anxiety, she runs to the edge of the terrace and casts the blood-stained charger into the sea, which suddenly appears the colour of blood. Salome falls senseless.

[7] Salome comes to herself. The head of John appears, stares at her and then disappears. She turns away: the head looks at her again from the blood-stained visions that now multiply, and this is the Dance of Fear.

A raging wind surrounds the dancer; a hurricane whips up the sea.
Lofty cypresses twist tragically and break in the storm. Thunder rolls. The whole range of Moab is on fire. Mount Nebo hurls up its flames.
The dancer is transported in infernal frenzy.

Florent Schmitt has succeeded in masterly fashion, throughout this wordless drama, in creating the musical atmosphere of the subject he is treating. Furthermore, he has given it a soul. His orchestral commentary, tense and concentrated, quivers with inner life, vibrant in its passion. With an astonishing firmness of style and an incontestable rhythmic force, the composer has translated both the subtleties and the brutalities inherent in the poetic text. The listener has only to give himself up to the sensations provided by the music; he will be in turn charmed, rapt, overwhelmed, buffeted or thrilled. Seductive on the one hand and tragic on the other, the Orientalism of this score appears in two guises, in the image of the heroine Salome, but, either way, it derives inspiration from authenticity that adds too to the intense and moving expressiveness of this work.

Finally we must underline the astonishing symphonic aspect of the Tragedy of Salome. With an ensemble of only twenty instruments, Florent Schmitt succeeds in almost giving the impression of a full orchestra. It may be asked whether he has achieved this effect by making more use of louder dynamics or by using to the maximum all the instruments at his disposal. This is absolutely not the case. On the contrary, he has cleverly controlled the sounds of the orchestra, making notable use of contrast and by entrusting an important element to the woodwind instruments. The result is an orchestral texture completely remarkable and original, that offers great richness of colour without any clumsiness.

Greeted in 1907 as one of the principal artistic events of the season, the choreographic mime-drama, the Tragedy of Salome, was very favourably received. This is confirmed still further by the fifty performances that followed. Reports in the contemporary press bear witness in fact to a success that increased each day, drawing the attention of several provincial and foreign theatre directors, particularly from Berlin, Vienna and St. Petersburg.

Too fascinated by the visual effects of the mime-drama, the critics, for the most part, could only give half an ear to the music. Some, nevertheless, succeeded in concentrating all their attention on the symphonic commentary and appreciated particularly the intrinsic qualities of this composition, especially the “rhythmic science”, “the charm of timbre” and“the almost miraculous orchestration”. Henri Gauthier-Villars, for example, referred to the“sumptuous symphony that shimmers” around Loïe Fuller; Tancrède de Visan judged that Florent Schmitt had shown himself a far-reaching lyric poet, who had realised the most grandiose and boldest effects. A. Mangeot told his readers in Monde Musical that the composer had succeeded in providing the words, in expressing the sombre colour of the drama, the violence of the characters, the lasciviousness and perversity of the dances, with remarkable artistry. Emile Vuillermoz, whose judgement held considerable authority at the time, wrote at length in praise of Schmitt’s music, which he considered held first place in the Tragedy of Salome; he concluded his article in the Nouvelle Presse by addressing his eulogy to the most passionate of conductors, the composer Inghelbrecht, who every evening, trembling in his seat, expended immense energy in marking the complex and treacherous rhythms with which the score was full. The small orchestra was, in fact, directed by the young conductor Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht, chosen by Schmitt himself. The two knew one another very well, both belonging to the happy band of musicians known as the Apaches.

Two years later Florent Schmitt rescored his symphonic work for full orchestra, but, for concert purposes, cut half the music, suppressing three of the six dances, the Dance of the Peacock, Dance of the Serpents and Dance of Steel, as well as all the purely scenic elements. Since then this music has never been heard in its original form for small orchestra, hence the particular interest of the present recording. We hope that a number of those who hear this recording will share the opinion of Igor Stravinsky, who, in a letter to Florent Schmitt of 23rd February 1912, expressed his admiration for the Tragedy of Salome as follows: “God, how fine it is! It is one of the greatest masterpieces of modern music”.

Catherine Lorent
Paris, March 1992

Translated by Keith Anderson

Close the window