One of the most fascinating and forward-looking works in the concert band repertoire was penned by Florent Schmitt back in 1913/14. Dionysiaques, Op. 62 was composed for France’s elite Garde Républicaine Band, which premiered the work in 1925.
Dionysiaques is a brilliant, 11-minute tour de force that takes the listener on an incredible sound journey. Although the work is not really programmatic, its title suggests a Dionysian orgy, which is fully realized in the intensity of the music with its interesting contrasts: brooding chromaticism alternating with thrilling tutti climaxes.
The composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, one of Schmitt’s pupils, sensed in the work “the overflowing of sap in springtime.”
Moreover, the score has an intriguing orchestration, calling for several unusual instruments such as the sarrusophone, bass saxophone, pedal clarinets and even double basses!
Like many of Schmitt’s compositions, the music is a challenge for performers, which may partially explain why it took many decades for Dionysiaques to become a staple of the concert band repertoire. Its first presentation outside France happened in September 1930 in Liège, Belgium, at the eighth festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM).
The French music critic and magazine publisher Henry Prunières was present at the performance and filed this report with the New York Times:
“… On the periphery of the festival was the admirable concert of military music given by Les Guides under the direction of Capt. Preust. Heard in this way [was] the Dionysiques of Florent Schmitt, the orchestral splendor and stirring rhythm of which made a penetrating impression.”
In what may well be a “first” in recording history for a piece of classical music, the first two recordings of Dionysiaques were made by the exact same musical forces — the Garde Republicaine — within three months of one another! The earlier of the two was recorded in November 1927 under the direction of the composer-conductor Guillaume Balay, while the second recording was made in February 1928 under the direction of Pierre Dupont.
These early recordings of Dionysiaques are of particular historical interest because they used Schmitt’s original scoring, including a number of instruments that are no longer part of the typical wind ensemble roster (petit bugles, saxhorns, sarrusophones and the like).
The 1927/Balay recording was released on the Gramophone label, with the music spread over four sides of 78-rpm disks, whereas the 1928/Dupont interpretation — presumably a faster one — fits on three sides.
Happily, both of these rare recordings have been digitized and are now available to hear. Courtesy of YouTube, we can listen to the 1927/Balay recording here, while the 1928 Dupont recording can be heard here.
The first “modern” recording of Dionysiaques appeared in the mid-1950s, but it wasn’t until about a decade later that a second one was released — and a decade later still for yet another.
All three of these recordings were on French record labels with limited international distribution. But one in particular — the 1974 Calliope recording featuring Désiré Dondeyne leading the Musique des Gardiens de la Paix — was particularly noteworthy. Writing about the recording in the pages of the October 1975 issue of Gramophone magazine, French music specialist Felix Aprahamian stated:
“Here is a stunning record. It will delight the few — very few — who already know this music and should, at first hearing, captivate those that do not.
Long ago, in the summer of 1937, the London contingent attending that year’s ISCM Festival in Paris were bowled over by a concert given by the Musique de la Garde Républicaine … Among the original wind-band works was Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques, which I long despaired of ever hearing again and which I can now enjoy as often as I like on this gorgeously sonorous and ideally reverberant recording.
The real reason for the extreme rarity of this fine piece — quite apart from the fact that, so far as England is concerned, Florent Schmitt may never have existed — is that French wind-bands are quite differently constituted from our own military bands. It may be gathered from [the score’s instrumentation] that these Dionysiaques are not for everywhere or everyday.”
But something very interesting has happened with this music over time, — beginning in a different corner of the world. In Japan, a country with a strong school wind ensemble tradition, Dionysiaques began appearing as band competition fare. Over the past 30 years, there have been countless performances of Schmitt’s score featuring middle school, high school and college-level wind ensembles. You can sample many of them at this website, which features CDs of many of the award-winning Japanese bands. The precision-playing by these young musicians is nothing short of amazing.
More recently, Schmitt’s score has been granted the recognition it so justly deserves here in America, helped along by the publication of revised scoring featuring updated instrumentation prepared by American band music director and arranger Guy Duker in 1975. (For an in-depth analysis of the Duker adaptation, this PhD dissertation by Chris Sharp, published in 2011, is an invaluable resource.)
In 1992, Dionysiaques was named one of the “Top 10” greatest concert band compositions as part of an omnibus evaluation of wind scores of “serious artistic merit” conducted by a panel of 20 judges including such luminaries as Eugene Corporon of the Cincinnati Conservatory and Donald Hunsberger of the Eastman School of Music.
For the record, Dionysiaques shares honors with these other important (and for the most part more famous) works in the “Top 10” listing:
- Dahl: Sinfonietta for Band
- Dvorak: Serenade in D Minor
- Grainger: Lincolnshire Posy
- Hindemith: Symphony in B-Flat
- Holst: Hammersmith – Prelude & Scherzo
- Husa: Music for Prague
- Mozart: Serenade #10 for Winds
- Schmitt: Dionyasiaques
- Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano & Wind Instruments
- Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
The judging in the competition was quite rigorous, too, with nearly 200 finalists out of an original list of ~1,250 compositions being rated by the judges on ten key attributes:
- The composition has form and reflects a proper balance between repetition and contrast.
- It reflects shape and design, and creates the impression of conscious choice and judicious arrangements on the part of the composer.
- It reflects craftsmanship in orchestration, including a proper balance between transparent and tutti scoring, and between solo and group colors.
- It is sufficiently unpredictable to preclude an immediate grasp of its musical meaning.
- The route through which the composition travels in initiating its musical tendencies is not completely direct and obvious.
- It is consistent in its quality throughout its length and in its various sections.
- It is consistent in its style, clearly conceived ideas, and avoids lapses into trivial or unsuitable passages.
- It reflects ingenuity in its development.
- It is genuine in idiom – and not pretentious.
- It reflects a musical validity that transcends factors of historical importance or factors of pedagogical usefulness.
Today, Dionysiaques has become a common item on wind ensemble concert programs here in the United States. For example, it has been programmed by Harlan Parker and the Peabody Wind Ensemble (Baltimore, USA) in three separate seasons over the past decade.
What gives Dionysiaques its staying power as a concert band piece? It is highly inventive … always fresh and interesting … and in the end, completely thrilling. Rarely does one hear a piece of music that takes the listener through so many moods and contrasts inside of a dozen minutes.
In short, Dionysiaques has been around for a century, but it never grows old.
Update (3/11/23): There are now more than 100 public performances of Dionysiaques that have been uploaded to YouTube, and this live presentation from Valencia, Spain of the Hauswirth edition, published just today, is one of the most viscerally thrilling of them all.
What it may lack in 100% technical precision is more than made up for in the über-exciting interpretation led by conductor Victor Balaguer Doménech. Simply put, it’s a performance that carries the viewer along on the crest of its own excitement.