One of the most intriguing pieces of music composed by Florent Schmitt during his “orientalist” period was the incidental music to André Gide’s new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Antony & Cleopatra.
The Gide production was no ordinary affair. In addition to Shakespeare’s massive six-act drama, Schmitt’s music was set to dancers. The famed dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein was cast in the role of Cleopatra, partnered with the venerable Édouard de Max as Antony.
Mounted at the Paris Opéra in April, 1920, critics praised the music but noted the excessive length of the production, which lasted until the wee hours of the morning. For his part, Gide also praised the music effusively, writing to Schmitt:
“All that I had hoped for and waited for, I found in those pages … simple strength, depth and accuracy in the outlines, and that kind of expressive musicality which is so uniquely yours …”
Shortly thereafter, Schmitt took the music to create two suites of three movements each, which were premiered by Camille Chevillard and the Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra in October 1920. The two suites were published by Durand in 1922, under the same opus number (#69).
The musicologist Michel Fleury contends that these two suites are highly important French musical works of the period, writing that they “deserve to figure, along with Daphnis et Chloe and Bacchus et Ariane, among the top French symphonic music of its time.”
And yet … Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre remains virtually unknown.
Two recordings exist – one long out of print (with Leif Segerstam conducting the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic), and a newer, more successfully realized version with Jacques Mercier conducting the National Orchestra of Lorraine.
But having the chance to hear them in the concert hall? Virtually impossible … until recently.
In 2010, conductor JoAnn Falletta introduced the first suite to U.S. audiences by performing them with her two American orchestras, the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony. (Not a completely premiere outing, because the New York Philharmonic brass players had performed the Fanfare movement from the suite at an earlier time.)
As is customary prior to her symphony concerts, Maestra Falletta spoke with the audience in her own inimitable way about the music on the evening’s program. Here are excerpts from her remarks about the composer and his music:
“Florent Schmitt is the most important French composer that you’ve never heard of. He was a wonderful composer – he studied with Massenet and Fauré, and he won the Prix de Rome. He was very important in the first half of the 20th Century. But we don’t know about him …
Schmitt happened to be going in a different direction than the prevalent French style at the beginning of the 20th Century. The French at that time … were trying to create a cultural identity that was as different from the Germans as possible. If you listen to Debussy or Ravel, you hear them focusing much more on color and atmosphere, like their counterparts in the art world.”
And speaking about what attracted her to the Antoine et Cléopâtre Suite #1, Falletta remarked:
“[In this music, Schmitt gives us] panoramic shifts between the austere, pragmatic Rome that was becoming the center of the universe, and the sensual, beautiful Alexandria, the home of Cleopatra and her court. [It’s the great contrast between] sensuous and dangerous themes.”
The Suite No. 1 is in three parts: Antony & Cleopatra; The Camp of Pompey; and The Battle of Actium. I was able to attend one of the Buffalo Philharmonic performances of this music, and found that the conductor had changed the sequence of the music so that the second movement, a fanfare, was played first instead.
It was a master-stroke. Not only did it work extremely well musically – the quiet and reflective Antony & Cleopatra movement now sandwiched between the sinister Pompey fanfare and the savage Battle of Actium – it was also impressive visually as the full phalanx of Buffalo brass performers rose up to perform the fanfare at the start of the program, creating instant audience buzz.
I agree with the Swiss/French pianist and conductor Alfred Cortot in his declaration that Schmitt’s score to Antoine et Cléopâtre is highly effective and very rewarding musically. It’s well-worth getting to know.
For those who wish to sample the rich musical rewards, there are several YouTube clips of the Jacques Mercier recording available for auditioning, including these:
Content warning: You may be seduced!
Update (3/10/15): JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performed both of the Antony & Cleopatra suites in concert in the first week of March, and also recorded the music. The new recording will be released by NAXOS Records in November. The BPO concert performances were the first ones in North America of the Suite #2 — nearly a century after it was composed.