What is it in the French psyche that makes so many of its people attracted to the “dark side” in literature?
Whether it’s the symbolists like Maurice Maeterlinck and Paul Verlaine, the noir novels of David Goodis or the dissolute stories and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe (as translated masterfully by Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé), there has always been an audience in France that is hungry to devour these works.
And in the case of Verlaine and Poe, this interest seeped into the musical world as well. Regarding Poe in particular, the American orchestra conductor JoAnn Falletta has stated, “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.”
No fewer than three important French composers wrote music inspired by Poe’s literary works. Claude Debussy wrote an unfinished opera based on The Fall of the House of Usher, while André Caplet composed a “Conte Fantastique” on the subject of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.
And Florent Schmitt created Le Palais hanté, Op. 49, a symphonic poem based on yet another work by Poe, The Haunted Palace.
Schmitt’s tone poem, which he worked on from 1900 to 1904, is constructed in a Lisztian tradition, which isn’t surprising. The German-Hungarian master was the inventor of the symphonic poem, completing 13 explicitly named works in his composing career along with two large-scale symphonies (Dante and Faust) that could easily be considered extended symphonic poems.
The Lisztian tradition was taken up in France in the late 1800s by such composers as César Franck (Le Chasseur maudit and Les Djinns), Henri Duparc (Lénore), Ernest Chausson (Viviane and Soir de Fête), Ernest Guiraud (Chasse fantastique), and Camille Saint-Saëns (who penned four of them).
Indeed, Schmitt’s essay is one of the very last in the French line of Lisztian-inspired tone poems — although several other less-known French composers like Paul Ladmirault and Philippe Gaubert would produce a few others in the years following.
I find Le Palais Hanté to be a finely crafted piece that is highly effective in portraying Poe’s “haunted palace of the mind” as a symbol of mental illness, with the increasingly manic music representing the breakdown of rational thought and order.
Here are the words to Poe’s poem that inspired Schmitt to write this music:
In the greenest of our valleys By good angels tenanted, Once a fair and stately palace — Radiant palace — reared its head. In the monarch Thought's dominion — It stood there! Never seraph spread a pinion Over fabric half so fair! Banners yellow, glorious, golden, On its roof did float and flow, (This — all this — was in the olden Time long ago,) And every gentle air that dallied, In that sweet day, Along the ramparts plumed and pallid, A winged odor went away. Wanderers in that happy valley, Through two luminous windows, saw Spirits moving musically, To a lute's well-tuned law, Round about a throne where, sitting (Porphyrogene!) In state his glory well-befitting, The ruler of the realm was seen. And all with pearl and ruby glowing Was the fair palace door, Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing, And sparkling evermore, A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty Was but to sing, In voices of surpassing beauty, The wit and wisdom of their king. But evil things, in robes of sorrow, Assailed the monarch's high estate. (Ah, let us mourn! — for never morrow Shall dawn upon him desolate!) And round about his home the glory That blushed and bloomed, Is but a dim-remembered story Of the old time entombed. And travelers, now, within that valley, Through the red-litten windows see Vast forms, that move fantastically To a discordant melody, While, like a ghastly rapid river, Through the pale door A hideous throng rush out forever And laugh — but smile no more.
Even though The Haunted Palace had its first public performance as far back as 1905 (with Camille Chevillard conducting the Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra), it would not receive its first recording until nearly 80 years later, in a 1983 EMI release featuring Georges Prêtre conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo.
That interpretation remains my personal favorite of the commercial recordings made of this piece, in part because I find that the conductor brings out the “manic” aspects of the music in a terrifyingly thrilling fashion. If you listen to it, I think you’ll agree that the conductor is highly effective in bringing forth what the French musicologist Harry Halbreich has written about this score: “The musical flow, whipped on by its relentless dactyles, hurls itself like a rushing torrent to a brutal, dramatic conclusion.”
The EMI recording is available on YouTube here.
There have been two later recordings of this music made: Yan-Pascal Tortelier with the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and Leon Botstein with the American Symphony Orchestra.
The Botstein/ASO recording is taken from a live concert performance at New York City’s Lincoln Center in 1999, while the Tortelier/OSESP recording was made in 2011. Both Tortelier and Botstein are well-crafted interpretations, if not quite as exciting (and harrowing) as the EMI recording. The Botstein rendition can be found here on YouTube.
In addition to Botstein, two other live concert performances are available to hear, including an incredibly thrilling rendition by the legendary musician Manuel Rosenthal from a 1970 concert with the ORTF Orchestra. That performance is available on YouTube as well — and it is a “must-hear” interpretation.
And there’s even a two-piano recording made of this music, played using the composer’s own piano-reduction score. While that version certainly qualifies as an interesting curiosity, there’s no question that Schmitt’s highly inventive orchestration is a big part of what gives this composition its special appeal.
Update (3/10/15): A fourth orchestral recording of The Haunted Palace is in the works. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performed the piece in concert in early 2015 and also recorded the music. The new recording will be released by NAXOS Records later in the year.