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Visionary splendour on the edge of darkness

March 12, 2015

by JoAnn Falletta

In March of 2015, the Buffalo Philharmonic embarked on a performance and recording project of the music of extraordinary French composer Florent Schmitt. Rarely played in the United States, the composer’s music is a complex and glowing landscape that moves beyond impressionism into a lush world of dark poetry and sumptuous storytelling. Quintessentially French in spirit, Schmitt’s music is by nature passionate yet controlled, strongly sketched, sophisticated and deeply personal. Although a traditionalist in some ways, the composer was a non-conformist at heart, and the fabric of his music shines with surprisingly modern harmonic and rhythmic complexity. The BPO musicians and I found his music rhapsodic, mysterious, brooding and startlingly beautiful. We recorded two important works of Schmitt, beginning our journey with a piece that he wrote during his time in Italy as the recipient of the coveted Prix de Rome. The Haunted Palace betrays the composer’s fascination with the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, and he sets this beautiful but troubling poem with fascinating imagination. Many French people at the time found the underlying doom and pessimism of Poe’s work compelling and understandable—most believed that all happiness was transitory, and that evil lurked even on the sunniest of days. The tale of a gorgeous palace inhabited by a benevolent king that sadly comes under the siege of demonic creatures is powerfully represented in this highly coloured tone poem. Schmitt was also deeply aware that the beautiful and beleaguered palace was a metaphor for the fragile mind that descends into madness—something that Poe himself understood first hand. The Buffalo audiences seemed captivated by the poetry of the music, and the orchestra played the glowing score with passion and conviction.

The BPO then tackled a longer and larger-scaled work—Schmitt’s Antony and Cleopatra. A work of sweeping lyricism and rough strength, the piece is a tour-de-force of colour both subtle and glistening. Its extravagant passion seems to be underscored by a feverish darkness, and evocative far eastern rhythms create a soundscape of the ancient world that brings the story of the doomed lovers to sensuous life. This orchestral fresco is made up of six individual tone poems, each a portrait of an event in the lives of Antony and Cleopatra. The composer takes us through the meeting of the two lovers, to Cleopatra’s seduction of the dazzled Roman warrior, to the military camp and the disastrous battle of Actium, to disturbing omens and visions, to wild orgiastic bacchanalia, to Cleopatra’s suicide. In music of great originality, Schmitt paints a glittering, dusky, disturbing landscape that is a deeply moving poem of love and death, and preserves a final nobility and grandeur for the complex couple.

We believe that ours were the première performances of these works in North America. The orchestra and I were honoured by the presence of Phillip Nones, who was with us for rehearsals, concerts and recording sessions. Mr. Nones is the leading expert in the United States on the music and life of Florent Schmitt, and his advice and scholarship were extremely helpful to us. (For a wealth of other information about the composer, please see Mr. Nones’s superb blog

Harps section
Orchestral parts for the score of Schmitt’s The Haunted Palace (Le palais hanté – Étude symphonique)
Recording Hall
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Tim Handley (Producer)
Tim Handley & conductor JoAnn Falletta
Tim Handley & Florent Schmitt scholar Phillip Nones confer at the recording session

JoAnn Falletta Biography & Discography

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Background & Discography

Florent Schmitt Biography & Discography


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