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 as well as sketches for another opera based on Poe’s satirical short story The Devil in the Belfry, 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, multi-movement 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) and was played in London as early as 1918 by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra under the direction of Sir Henry Wood, the piece would not receive its first recording until many decades later.
There is no question that early audiences found the piece to be challenging listening; the reviewer of the London premiere performance wrote these words in the March 1918 issue of The Musical Times:
“An ‘Etude symphonique’ by Florent Schmitt as given for the first time in this country. Its poetical basis is Poe’s Haunted Palace. A work of such importance cannot be comprehended in one hearing. It is certain that there are many fine moments in the music. The orchestral effects are often dazzling, and the harmonic combinations sometimes induce startled attention. But we have in these times to get used to the unusual.”
The first commercial recording was a 1983 EMI release featuring Georges Prêtre conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. By that point, the piece was no longer avant-garde in any sense of the term. To wit, in his June 9, 1985 New York Times review of the recording, classical music critic and radio opera host George Jellinek characterized the piece as “clothed in a Franck-d’Indy manner of lush chromaticism.”
The Prêtre 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 terrifically thrilling fashion. When 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.”
At the time of the EMI recording’s release, Mihaï de Brancovan, music critic for the French publication Les Disques, characterized Le Palais hanté as “magnificent music,” adding that Florent Schmitt was “a composer who is high-time to be rediscovered.”
The EMI recording is available to hear on YouTube.
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, another live concert performance is available to hear, and it’s 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 on the NAXOS label later in the year.
Update (2/26/19): The Falletta/Buffalo Philharmonic recording has now been uploaded to YouTube — and synchronized with Florent Schmitt’s score — so music-lovers can now follow along and see exactly how the music unfolds. Hearty thanks to Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst for preparing this invaluable upload, which can be viewed here.
Update (9/23/21): Le Palais hanté has entered the repertoire of the Orchestre National de France, having been presented in concert under the direction of the orchestra’s recently-appointed music director, Cristian Măcelaru. It is one of three works by Florent Schmitt being featured by the ONF in the 2021-22 season — the others being Rêves and Psaume XLVII, to be presented in a May 2022 all-French program led by Fabien Gabel.
Update (5/8/22): Thomas Loewenheim, music director of the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, presented Le Palais hanté with his ensemble on May 7, 2022. This is the second piece by Florent Schmitt that Maestro Loewenheim has directed with his orchestra — the other one being La Tragédie de Salomé.
Explaining to me his reasons for programming The Haunted Palace, Loewenheim reported:
“It’s a gorgeous piece that has so many amazing colors and characteristics to explore. I love the melodic lines, and how Schmitt brings them all together and ties them to each other.
Le Palais hanté is actually an incredible teaching tool for students — showing them how to approach French music and the French sound — but with a warm Romantic twist as well. It is a marvelous work that I’ve enjoyed introducing to the students, and it’s been a really excellent experience for all.”
Update (4/29/23): A public performance of Le Palais hanté dating from November 26, 1972 has just been uploaded to YouTube. It features the ORTF musical forces under the direction of André Girard.
While not quite as compelling as several of the commercial recordings that are available of the piece, it is nonetheless a welcome choice to have among the expanding list of interpretations. What’s more, the Girard broadcast performance was captured in stereo. You can access it here.