About this Recording
8.574138 - SCHMITT, F.: Tragédie de Salomé (La) / Musique sur l'eau / Oriane et le Prince d'Amour / Légende (Platts, Nikki Chooi, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta)
English  French 

Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
La Tragédie de Salomé • Musique sur l’eau • Oriane et le Prince d’Amour – Suite • Légende


Florent Schmitt, French composer and pianist was born on 28 September 1870 at Blâmont, and died on 17 August 1958 in Paris. He studied composition under Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, where he won the revered Prix de Rome. He was also a Wagner buff, with Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel among his closest friends. Schmitt’s own style is often described by the familiar term ‘eclectic’ – blending influences and inspiration from wherever the spirit happened to ally. Moreover, for most of his life, Schmitt worked as a music critic with a sharp pen for wit and irony. Occasionally brash but most often with humour, he ‘praised mediocrity’ as a means to highlight masterworks from composers as diverse as Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov and Schoenberg. Schmitt also signed on early to the influence jazz would have on the future of ‘serious’ music. As an educator, in 1922 Schmitt was appointed as the director of the Lyons Conservatoire. His honours include the French Légion d’honneur, awarded in 1931.

With such divergent interests, it is not surprising that Schmitt’s original scores comprise a potpourri of titles, with many salon pieces for piano and voice, a small wealth of chamber music, orchestral settings and scores for theatre, including ballet and stage plays.

La Tragédie de Salomé – Symphonic Poem, Op. 50 (1910)

Although her name is never mentioned in the New Testament, in Christian mythology Salome is identified as the daughter of Queen Herodias and the stepdaughter of King Herod. Salome was known to entertain the King and his court with a seductive dance during which she shed all seven of her veils, and in the well-known New Testament passage, John the Baptist rushes forward to cover her with a monk’s cloak. As compensation for the insult, Salome demands that the head of John the Baptist is delivered to the court on a platter. King Herod grants her wish.

Over the millennia, representations of the biblical saga have blended with the images of Aphrodite and Venus from Greek and Roman mythology. The goddesses are commonly portrayed as veiled beauties, often in dancelike poses. In turn, the Salome motif has inspired many expressions in the arts – sculptures and paintings as well as theatre pieces, ballets and operas.

In particular, Richard Strauss’ sensational opera of 1905, Salome, provided the formative inspiration for Florent Schmitt, who scored a ballet titled La Tragédie de Salomé in 1907. The ballet libretto was crafted by the French writer and stage director Robert d’Humières, who commissioned Schmitt to create the score. Schmitt subsequently dedicated the work to Igor Stravinsky.

Cast originally for a chamber orchestra of less than 30 players, Schmitt revised the score in 1910 for a large orchestra, reducing the performance time to half the original length.

With regard to the music, Schmitt raises the curtain with shadowy timbres from the horns and low lingering strings. Distant and dissonant chords accompany a reverie intoned by the English horn. Morning larks rise with the day, setting the scene with suggestive nuance under the radiant sun over the Dead Sea.

With excitement, Salome prepares for her infamous dance, revealing anxious anticipation in the court. Bassoon and bass clarinet bring sombre reality to the fore, with quasi-love music as Salome weaves her seductive spell and demands the sacrifice of John the Baptist. Strident strings and punchy brass set the scene for his assassination, marked by harsh strokes in the percussion.

In turn follows a regretful lament in the lower brass and strings. A brazen chorale confirms the sinister moment, after which Salome is tormented by visions of John the Baptist from every direction. At the denouement, a violent storm erupts to overcome the scene and carry Salome to the depths in solemn E minor.

Listeners may be intrigued by the continuing subtlety of Schmitt’s score. At once the music belies an Impressionist/Surrealist nature, where not a single phrase is replayed nor recalled. The orchestral timbres are likewise in virtual transition, as the hues of the symphonic palette seem to be ephemeral at every next measure. C’est magnifique!

Musique sur l’eau, Op. 33 (version for voice and orchestra) (1898)

Among Schmitt’s settings for voice, Musique sur l’eau (‘Music Upon the Waters’) is an exquisite example of an Impressionist orchestral palette applied to illuminate a symbolic narrative (quite a leap). Word for word, measure by measure, Schmitt applies his painterly brush in the spirit of word painting, as it was known in the chansons and madrigals from the Middle Ages across Europe. To be sure, the melodies and harmonies are different, but the basic intent is identical: to embellish the meaning of the text with musical colour.

The lyrics for Musique sur l’eau are by the French Symbolist poet Albert Samain, whose verse was set to music by several French composers, including Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré. The text is from a collection of 38 poems Samain titled Au jardin de l’infante (‘In the Infant’s Garden’), all with evocative titles.

Oh – écoute la symphonie;
Rien n’est doux comme une agonie
Dans la musique indéfinie
Qu’exhale un lointain vaporeux;

D’une langueur la nuit s’enivre,
Et notre coeur qu’elle délivre
Du monotone effort de vivre
Se meurt d’un trépas langoureux.

Glissons entre le ciel et l’onde,
Glissons sous la lune profonde;
Toute mon âme, loin du monde,
S’est réfugiée en tes yeux.

Et je regarde tes prunelles
Se pâmer sous les chanterelles,
Comme deux fleurs surnaturelles
Sous un rayon mélodieux.

Oh – écoute la symphonie;
Rien n’est doux comme une agonie
De la lèvre à la lèvre unie
Dans la musique indéfinie.

(Oh – listen to the symphony;
Nothing is so sweet as the agony
In music undefined
Which breathes a distant vapour;

The night is inebriated with languor,
And delivers our heart
From the monotony of living
Only to die from mortal languor.

Gliding among the heavens and waves,
Gliding under the profound moon,
All of my soul, far from this world,
Takes refuge in your eyes.

And I regard your gaze
Swooning under the chanted tones,
Like two mystic flowers
Under a halo of melody.

Oh – listen to the symphony;
Nothing is so sweet as the agony
Of lip upon lip united
In music undefined.)

Albert Samain, 1858–1900

Oriane et le Prince d’Amour – Suite, Op. 83bis (1934)

French composers seem to have a penchant for scoring ballets, operas and tone poems inspired by classic love stories, for example (among others) Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (1877); Franck’s Psyche et Eros (1886–87); Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902); Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1912) and Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane (1930). For his part, Florent Schmitt tied the ribbons on the genre with a commission by the renowned Ida Rubinstein for his two-act ballet, Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, published in 1938. Conceived in 1934, the current suite was completed for publication in 1937.

The historic storyline for Oriane et le Prince d’Amour derives from about 1590 and concerns Oriane, the young and beautiful daughter of England’s King Lisuart and his Queen Brisène of Denmark. The Prince of Love is Oriane’s betrothed, Amadis. In a perilous saga, Amadis rescues Oriane from a dungeon after she was abducted by Arcalaus, an evil sorcerer.

On the title page of the score Schmitt offers a narrative by the ballet librettist Claude Séran, the pen name of Madame Adrien Fauchier-Magnan. Séran also wrote the librettos for Nabokov’s La Vie de Polichinelle and Françaix’s Verreries de Venise. The original text from the front page of the score (written in French) is summarised here in translation:

‘Oriane-Without-Equal is celebrated across the world of the troubadours. Her renowned beauty brings to Avignon all men who seek hope and prestige.

Oriane, who has never loved, welcomes new love rich with the mysterious promises of her own dreams. She responds to the mysterious call of the Orient, of its perfumes, of its treasures, of its legends and exquisite pleasures. In the second act, Oriane meets Amour. Fearful for the first time, Oriane is carried away to the limits of rapture and believes to have found Love’s perfect purity – a cruel illusion. As Oriane’s past indecency and cruelty surges again, the Prince of Love saw his own love die, as Oriane died from loving.’

With regard to the music, the first and last movements are titled Calme (‘Calm, Peaceful’). Beginning with a bucolic call in the horns and fanfare colours in distant trumpets, the opening offers Ravel-like phrases and harmonies to convey a dream-like scenario.

In turn, lush, adventurous timbres emerge from dissonant interplay with a variety of tonal digressions. A march-like sequence midway seems expressly crafted for upbeat choreography, as a prelude to a tender exchange between Oriane and Amadis, titled Danse d’Amour. Marked accents provide dramatic contrast in the third movement, Danse des Mongols, again with march-like bearing in 5/4 time. As the denouement approaches, a final love scene (Calme) is accompanied by an enchanting solo flute, which blends again with urgent, commanding fragments. Near the close the motifs combine in a final, exuberant flare, ending in modal B flat, neither major or minor.

Légende, Op. 66 (version for violin and orchestra) (1918)

Schmitt’s Légende (for violin or viola and orchestra) was originally scored for alto saxophone in the featured role. The work was commissioned by a certain Madame Elise Hall of Boston, MA, who played the saxophone for health reasons under the advice of her doctor. As a wealthy socialite and arts patron, Mme. Hall soon discovered there were no important titles for the saxophone by renowned composers. She decided to remedy the situation by commissioning new works for the instrument from Claude Debussy and Florent Schmitt. Knowing little about the saxophone, Debussy composed his lovely but technically modest Rhapsodie for Saxophone. But Schmitt was fully aware of the saxophone’s potential and composed his Légende as a showcase work. He also provided transposed versions which featured the viola or violin in the solo role. The latter is offered on this BPO programme.

Op. 66 begins demurely with a brief and tender plaint which blends into a rhapsodic narrative throughout the piece. Schmitt never divulged the inspiration for the cryptic title – Légende – leaving the question to the French instinct for the mysterious semblance of ‘je ne sais quoi’ (‘I don’t know what’). In sum, the work presents a fantasy of esoteric inspiration, consistent with the Symbolist movement which became so significant in French art and literature during the late 19th and early 20th century.

From the first to the final bar, Légende offers a variety of spontaneous motifs, all woven into a tapestry of diverse orchestral colours and rhythms. The expressive timbres of the violin afford a lovely rendering of the poetic nuance which evolves throughout the piece. We note the influence of Debussy and a deference to Stravinsky. The continuing narrative is aleatoric and improvisatory in development, with many changes in metre, tempo and style. The flow of impromptu effects closes with a brief reprise of the opening mood.

Edward Yadzinski

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