“[It] is like a half-hour visit to the pleasure dome in Xanadu, and if it doesn’t give you a few spiritual orgasms, then perhaps you need to insert Viagra in each of your ears.”
— Raymond Tuttle, Music Critic, Fanfare Magazine
The ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50 is Florent Schmitt’s most famous and oft-recorded composition — and it isn’t hard to figure out why.
Salomé represents the very best in the French tradition of evocative music on exotic subjects … but in this case, we have a hefty dose of the “epic” and “barbaric” to go along with the Impressionistic and “orientalist” touches.
Composed in 1907 for chamber-size orchestra, the ballet started out nearly one hour long. Its first performance was at the Théâtre des Arts (now the Théâtre Hébertot) in a production that featured Loïe Fuller.
Several years later, Schmitt revisited the score, condensing it to about one-half its original length while substantially augmenting the orchestration and adding female voices.
The resulting score, premiered in 1911 as an orchestral suite (with female voices) and featuring composer-conductor Gabriel Pierné directing the Colonne Concerts Orchestra, was a sonic spectacular.
Schmitt dedicated his composition to Igor Stravinsky, who is said to have been influenced by the jagged rhythms and barbarism in certain parts of the score.
The French conductor Stéphane Denève, speaking to the audience before a 2011 concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra where he performed the Schmitt piece, declared, “Without La Tragédie de Salomé, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would not have been the same!”
Of Schmitt’s score — and the fevered story line as dramatized by the French writer and stage director Robert d’Humières — author and composer Edward Burlingame Hill wrote this in his classic 1924 book Modern French Music:
“Florent Schmitt has depicted this lurid scenario in music of unexampled vividness — of exotic imagination.
“His gifts for construction, contrapuntal mastery and appropriate harmonic luxuriance have fired his inventive powers to produce one of the most graphically dramatic works in the range of French music … [indeed] the French prototype of a new species of ballet in which all the resources of scenic production, orchestral splendor, and detailed and plastic accompaniment of action combine.”
The plot line at which Edward Burlingame Hill is intimating is the dramatic action conceived by Robert d’Humières and set down in the following narrative that prefaces Schmitt’s published score, as translated from the original French by the music industry producer and administrator Harold Lawrence:
Prelude — A terrace of Herod’s palace overlooking the Dead Sea. The pink and reddish Moab Mountains shut in the horizon. Dominating the scene is massive Mount Nebo, from which Moses, on the threshold of the Promised Land, greeted Canaan before his death. The sun is setting. John the Baptist crosses the terrace and disappears.
Danse des perles (Pearl Dance) — Torches illuminate the scene. Their light draws sparking reflections from the clothing and jewels that spill out of a precious coffer. Herodias [Salome’s mother], in a thoughtful mood, dips her hands into the coffer and removes necklaces and silken veils of gold. Salome appears and leans over the chest in fascination. She puts on the necklaces and veils, and begins to dance with childish glee.
Les Enchantements sur la mer (The Magic of the Sea) — Salome has gone. Herod is lost in gloomy thoughts of lust and fear. Herodias spies on her husband. Mysterious lights gleam in the water’s depths. Beneath the waves, the outlines of the engulfed Pentapolis are dimly perceived. Distant sounds of an orgy emerge faintly through the shower of ash and bitumen over Sodom and Gomorrah: fragments of dance rhythms … signs … demented laughter …
A voice is heard from the abyss; Herod listens fearfully. Vapors float upwards from the sea. As if created out of troubled dreams and the guilt of old sin, a living cloud takes shape. Out of this cloud, Salome suddenly leaps into view. As the sound of thunder is heard in the distance, Salome begins to dance. Herod stands …
Danse des éclairs (Dance of Lighting) — Darkness envelops the scene, and flashes of lightning provide the only source of illumination. In the wanton dance that follows, Herod pursues Salome, seizes her and tears off her veils. Salome is naked — but only for an instant. John the Baptist quickly appears and covers her body with his anchorite’s robe. Herod is furious and orders John to be delivered to the executioner, who takes the prophet offstage and returns later with his severed head on a brass charger.
Salome triumphantly grasps the trophy and begins to dance. Then, imagining that the voice of the prophet is whispering in her ear, she runs to the terrace’s edge and hurls the charger over the battlements into the sea. The water immediately turns blood-red, terror grips everyone, and Salome collapses. Salome recovers, but the head appears, stares at Salome, and vanishes. From another position, the head reappears. Salome tries to escape, but the heads multiply, springing up from all sides. Salome covers her face in an attempt to blot out the grisly apparition.
Danse de l’effroi (Dance of Fright) — A storm breaks out. Raging winds envelop Salome as sulfurous clouds float out of the abyss. A tempest rocks the sea and agitates the lonely deserts, while lofty cypresses twist convulsively in the wind and crash to earth. Lightning bolts shake loose the stones of the citadel, Mount Nebo shoots forth flames, the entire Moab Mountain range takes fire — and Salome, swept away an infernal excitement, is crushed in the onslaught of the elements.
Today, while Salomé is performed mainly in the concert hall as a symphonic suite in the tradition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, one of the most memorable events in the annals of dance occurred in Paris in 1912 when a quartet of ballets was staged in a single evening: Paul Dukas’ La Péri … Vincent d’Indy’s Istar … Maurice Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales … and Florent Schmitt’s Salomé. Each composer conducted his own stage work, leading the Lamoureux Orchestra.
In recent years the Mariinsky Ballet has revived La Tragédie de Salomé as a theatre piece — to my knowledge the first time the ballet has been presented on stage in over half a century.
Schmitt’s score has never lost its popularity in France. Moreover, it has been brought to the far corners of the world by a surprisingly diverse group of conductors, as the partial listing of public performances presented below illustrates.
Fortunate audiences on five continents have had the opportunity to see and hear this “perilously seductive” score — as one music critic from BBC Music Magazine described it recently.
(N.B. Special thanks to Chandler Cudlipp, former artistic advisor at the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, for his assistance in compiling the performance listing below. Additions and corrections to the information are welcomed.)
FLORENT SCHMITT: LA TRAGÉDIE DE SALOMÉ
Public Performances Since 1945 – Partial Listing
1945 – October 18, 19 – Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Désiré Defauw, conductor
1949 – (Besançon Festival) – Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; André Cluytens, conductor
1950 – (Besançon Festival) – Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; André Cluytens, conductor
1952 – January 25, 27 – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Paul Paray, conductor
1955 – Sydney Symphony Orchestra; Joseph Post/Eugene Goossens, conductors
1955 – February 21 – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Pedro de Freitas Branco, conductor
1956 – March 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 – Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; André Cluytens, conductor
1958 – May 20 – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Pierre Dervaux, conductor
1958 – October 16 – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht, conductor
1960 – October 25 – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Manuel Rosenthal, conductor
1961 – July 14 – National Symphony Orchestra of Portugal; Pedro de Freitas Branco, conductor
1961 – October 20 – Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; Jean Fournet, conductor
1966 – February 14 – Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo; Paul Paray, conductor (also performed on American tour, March/April 1966)
1972 – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Paul Paray, conductor
1973 – January 7 – Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo; Pierre Dervaux, conductor
1973 – January 7 – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Jean Martinon, conductor
1973 – June 19, 21, 22, 23 – Orchestra of the Florence Maggio Musicale; Edoardo Müller, conductor [Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Stage Production]
1974 – March 13, 15, 16 – San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; Kazuyoshi Akiyama, conductor
1979 – November 4, 6 – San Antonio Symphony Orchestra; François Huybrechts, conductor
1981 – October 19, 20; November 3, 4, 8, 13 – L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Charles Dutoit, conductor
1982 – October 20, 21 [Wilmington, DE, USA] – Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France; Marc Soustrot, conductor
1983 – October 2 – Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo; Lawrence Foster, conductor
1983 – October 25, 26 – Fort Lauderdale Symphony Orchestra; Emerson Buckley, conductor
1987 – August 2 – Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France; Marek Janowski, conductor [BBC Proms performance]
1995 – June 10, 1995 – Texas Festival Orchestra; Pascal Verrot, conductor
1996 – November 27 – Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra; Jean Fournet, conductor
1997 – April 23 – RTVE Symphony Orchestra (Madrid); Richard Fletcher, conductor
1997 – October 30 – Berlin Symphony Orchestra; Diego Masson, conductor
1998 – January 18, 28, 29, 30 – Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra (Antwerp); Muhai Tang, conductor
1998 – June 16 – Orquesta Sinfonica Portuguesa (Lisbon); Giuliano Carella, conductor
2000 – January 9 – Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Heinz Rögner, conductor
2000 – February 17, 18, 21 – NDR Hannover Radio-Philharmonic Orchestra; Manfred Trojahn, conductor
2000 – April 12, 13 – Thuringia Philharmonic Orchestra; Heinz Rögner, conductor
2000 – May 9 – Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra; Jean Fournet, conductor
2000 – September 1 – Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra; Heinz Rögner, conductor
2000 – December 7 – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Yevgeny Svetlanov, conductor
2000 – December 8 – Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège; Serge Baudo, conductor
2002 – July 14 – Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo; Marek Janowski, conductor
2002 – December 15, 16 – Kiel Philharmonic Orchestra; Golo Berg, conductor
2003 – April 17 – Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse; Michel Plasson, conductor
2004 – May 11 – Orchestra del Teatro Massimo; Stéphane Denève, conductor
2004 – September 17 – Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; James Conlon, conductor
2005 – November 4 – Irish National Radio & Television Orchestra (RTE); Jacques Mercier, conductor
2006 – January 22 – Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; Patrick Davin, conductor
2006 – March 21 – Ensemble Orchestral de Paris; Juraj Valcuha, conductor
2006 – November 12 – Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Stéphane Denève, conductor
2006 – November 17 – Estonian National Symphony Orchestra; Ronald Zollman, conductor
2007 – March 4 – Edmonton Youth Orchestra; Michael Massey, conductor
2007 – March 11, July 4 – L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège; Pascal Rophé, conductor
2007 – May 11 – Spokane Symphony Orchestra; Eckart Preu, conductor
2007 – July 29 – National Orchestra of Italy; Massimiliano Caldi, conductor
2007 – December 15 – Southwest German Radio Symphony (Baden-Baden u. Freiburg); Sylvain Cambreling, conductor
2008 – March 12 – National Philharmonic of Russia (Moscow); Ion Marin, conductor
2008 – June 30 – Zurich Chamber Orchestra; Muhai Tang, conductor (original 1907 version)
2008 – December 4 – Orchestre National de France; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
2009 – February 5 – Limburg Symphony Orchestra (Maastricht); Lionel Bringuier, conductor
2009 – February 20 – Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Lionel Bringuier, conductor
2009 – February 27 – BBC Symphony Orchestra; Lionel Bringuier, conductor
2009 – March 4 – Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Lionel Bringuier, conductor
2009 – April 14, 24, November 24 – Orchestre Sinfonica do Teatro Nacional Claudio Santoro (Brasilia); Ira Levin, conductor
2009 – April 24, 26, 27 – Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; Lionel Bringuier, conductor
2009 – May 15 – Orchestre National Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon; Alain Altinoglu, conductor
2009 – November 22 – Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
2010 – March 20-28 – Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra; Pascal Verrot, conductor
2010 – May 20, 21, 22 – Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, Yan-Pascal Tortelier, conductor
2011 – March 30, 31 – Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Stéphane Denève, conductor
2011 — May 12, 13 – Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra; Alain Paris, conductor
2012 – February 23, 24 – Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Alain Altinoglu, conductor
2012 – May 16 – Orchestre de Paris; Alain Altinoglu, conductor
2012 – June 1 – Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse; Alain Altinoglu, conductor
2013 – May 28, 29, 30, 31, June 1 – Teatro Verdi Orchestra (Trieste); Alexei Repnikov, conductor [Mariinsky Ballet stage production]
2013 – November 13 – Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Lan Shui, conductor
2014 – July 2 – Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Stuttgart); Stéphane Denève, conductor
2014 – October 30 – Sibiu Symphony Orchestra (Romania); Gottfried Rabl, conductor
2015 – April 16, 18 – The Cleveland Orchestra; Lionel Bringuier, conductor
2015 – May 14, 15, 16 – Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Lionel Bringuier, conductor
2015 – July 31, August 1 – National Youth Orchestra of Wales; Paul Daniel, conductor
2015 – October 1 – Real Filharmonica de Galicia; Paul Daniel, conductor
2015 – October 8, 9 – Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux; Paul Daniel, conductor
2015 – October 17 – Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Miha Rogina, conductor
2016 – April 22 – Moldova Philharmonic Orchestra of Iasi; Gottfried Rabl, conductor
2016 – March 7 – Paris Conservatoire Student/Graduate Orchestra; Alain Altinoglu, conductor
2016 – May 22, 23 – Stuttgart State Orchestra; Sylvain Cambreling, conductor
2016 – September 15 – Orchestre National de France; Stéphane Denève, conductor
2016 – October 22 – Asheville Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Meyer, conductor
2016 – November 12 – Fresno State Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Loewenheim, conductor
2017 – January 12, 13, 14 – Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
2007 – February 25, 26 – Spokane Symphony Orchestra; Eckart Preu, conductor
2017 – April 20, 21 – Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège; John Neschling, conductor
2017 – May 10, 11 – Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra; Stéphane Denève, conductor [planned]
Recordings of La Tragédie de Salomé
As Florent Schmitt’s most famous composition, it should come as no surprise that more than 15 recordings have been released of this music — either studio recordings or taken from live concert performances. This article provides details on each of those recordings.