“To appreciate this music fully, ready the hot tub, invite a few friends over, burn incense and uncork the wine you were saving for a special occasion.”
— International Record Review
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.
Giving us a flavor of what the evening was like, the Paris correspondent for the American periodical The Living Age filed this eyewitness account of the Rubinstein production for the magazine:
“A series of special performances of M. André Gide’s translation of William Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra, with music by Florent Schmitt, has opened at the Paris Opéra.
M. Harry Pilcer scored a great success with his acrobatic dancing in the banquet scene; Mme. Ida Rubinstein was a Cleopatra whose charm lay rather in her statuesque beauty and grace than in any more profoundly personal reading of the character, but she conveyed admirably an impression of languid, Oriental capriciousness and contrasted well with the somber portrait of Antony depicted by M. De Max.
The scenes and mountings were lurid — a note of realism being struck by the presence in Cleopatra’s palace of three pure white peacocks and a young brown bear.
The music played an important part in the presentation of the tragedy, and contained some beautiful and striking passages of a symphonic nature. In fact, the score is quite independent in certain passages and is not merely designed as ‘incidental music’ — its real purpose being, in the words of the composer, ‘to create a state of mind, a mood and an atmosphere, and also to summarize the action.’
Hence [each] act is preceded by a prelude, and in this way a musical commentary is provided which gives a continuity of character to the action of the drama. The sea-fight, for example, is depicted musically during the change of scenes … the opening prelude and one of the interludes in Act II are of especial interest. M. Schmitt’s orchestration is generally highly colored, with a decided (though not exaggerated) Oriental flavor.”
For his part, Gide praised the music most 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, the composer 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? In France, occasionally — with Paris performances in the 1950s and 1960s led by conductors Manuel Rosenthal, Tony Aubin, Robert Blot, Jacques Michon and Rémus Tzincoca plus presentations by Jean Giardino and Reynald Giovaninetti leading the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg in 1961 and 1965, respectively.
Since the 1960s, even performances in France have become rare, although Jacques Michon led a Paris performance in 1974, Michel Plasson conducted the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse in the Suite No. 1 in 1991, and Theodore Guschlbauer presented the fanfare movement from that suite with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg during the same year.
But performances outside of France? 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 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:
You can also listen to the entire composition while following along with the conductor’s score, thanks to a new upload on the Bartje Bartmans YouTube channel.
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.
Update (4/1/18): In further proof that Antony & Cleopatra is re-emerging as a significant repertoire item, the fourth commercial recording of both suites has now been released — this one featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.
In the previous year these same performers had also presented a dramatic adaptation of the music along with major portions of Shakespeare’s play to London audiences at the Barbican, joined by actors from Shakespeare’s Globe.
Update (6/9/18): The Orchestre de Paris presented its first-ever performances of this music this weekend at the Philharmonie.
The program, which also featured “orientalist” compositions by d’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and Roussel, was conducted by Fabien Gabel, who has become one of Florent Schmitt’s most ardent champions. In the past several years Maestro Gabel has programmed Schmitt’s music in the United States, Canada and Germany as well as in France.
Writing about the performance in the ConcertClassic music e-zine, critic Alain Cochard observed:
“Involving very large orchestral forces, the music is well-served by a conductor who knows how to approach an opulent score such as this – in the mysterious as well as the orgiastic – without ever giving in to any element of aural narcissism.
This was sumptuous, colorful and intoxicating music that Fabien Gabel wanted to include on the program. We are grateful to him! It is time that … one of the very great French masters of the twentieth century is finally recognized for his value. It’s also high-time that French music discovery programs of this kind become more typical and spontaneous – in short, having a little less masochistic disdain for the treasures of our symphonic repertoire.”