One of the most memorable aspects of French composer Florent Schmitt’s musical output is his artistic work in the “orientalist” realm. In fact, in this aspect it could be claimed with some justification that Schmitt had no peer, notwithstanding the efforts of other fine composers in France (Saint-Saens, Bizet, Lalo, d’Indy, Roussel, Rabaud, Ravel, Delage, Aubert, etc.) and elsewhere – particularly the Russians.
In a string of compositions that began with Psalm 47 in 1904 and continued through many other impressive musical scores like La Tragédie de Salomé, Antoine et Cléopâtre and Salammbô along with numerous smaller tableaux like Danse des Devadasis and Danse d’Abisag, Schmitt was the major orientalist composer of his time.
His last foray in this realm also happens to be one of the least known: Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, Op. 83 (Oriane and the Prince of Love), a full-length ballet that Schmitt composed in 1932/33 for the famed Russian prima ballerina Ida Rubinstein.
She then teamed up with Schmitt the following year in a lavish production of André Gide’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Antony & Cleopatra, for which Schmitt composed the incidental music performed between the acts.
So it was only natural that in seeking another suitably exotic subject for a ballet in which she would be the femme fatale star, Rubinstein would look to Florent Schmitt again.
The manner in which the composer came to learn of the commission is amusingly recounted in Vicki Woolf’s biography of Ida Rubinstein, Dancing in the Vortex. In it, the author quotes Florent Schmitt in his own words.
[When Ida Rubinstein] came to tell him, she found he was far away in his country retreat at Artiguemy in Hautes-Pyrenees. Schmitt remembered:
“It was a beautiful summer afternoon. I was in Artiguemy lying under the apple trees facing an incomparable southern peak untouched by snow – completely at peace, thinking no evil thoughts – when a sound like an earthquake shattered the quiet. A motor car, foolishly tackling the goat path, had smashed itself around a great oak and hurled its two lady passengers to the ground.
The oak tree had only a few scratches. As for Mme. Rubinstein, everyone knows she is above such calamities: Tracing the line of the oak tree, as erect, as high and still smiling, she scarcely realized that she had escaped the most picturesque of deaths. By her side, no less unscathed, was Mme. Fauchier-Magnan, a friend of Ida’s [aka Claude Séran, creator of the ballet’s story line]. They came 873 miles to offer me this ballet.”
And what a ballet it was: A nearly hour-long production in two acts and four scenes originally to be called Oriane la Sans-Égale (Oriane the Incomparable – perhaps an indication of the high regard in which Mme. Rubinstein held herself), the story line went several steps beyond the “passion and blood” of even Salomé, Cléopâtre and Salammbô.
Based on a dramatic poem by Claude Séran, an overview of the ballet’s action suggests a tale similar to Mikhail Lermontov’s poem about Tamara, the bloodthirsty Circassian queen who availed herself of lovers nightly — only to dispatch them into the Daryal’s river gorge by the next morning – and which the Russian composer Mili Balakirev portrayed so effectively in his tone poem of 1882.
But I also see similarities to several of the ballets and operas of Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, two Viennese composers who were famously attracted to plot lines that were laced with psycho-sexual overtones.
In the Rubinstein/Schmitt ballet, the action, which is billed as a “choreographic tragedy” taking place toward the end of the 14th century near Avignon, is as follows:
Oriane is a noblewoman whose desire for carnal liaisons is insatiable: whether musicians, poets or merchants, few can resist her allures. But Oriane, curious, perverse and cruel, plays with their passions and receives their declarations with heartless unconcern. In the first tableaux, first a poet competes for Oriane’s charms, followed by a rich Mongolian merchant. The inevitable struggle between the poet and the Mongolian merchant ends when the poet is murdered and the merchant departs.
The second tableaux opens with Oriane’s jester reading a horoscope heralding the arrival a handsome, mysterious knight-prince from the East and the coming of “true love” in all its profound beauty. This time, the call of love stirs in Oriane’s heart. Then follows the majestic engrance of the Prince and his welcome by Oriane, who finds, after playing with the hearts of others, that her own is at last ensnared. She and the prince dance and Oriane drinks from a goblet. But when the prince is about to do likewise, his goblet falls to the ground and rolls to the spot where the poet had been killed and where bloodstains remain. Now, fully understanding Oriane’s licentious lifestyle and unspeakable excesses, the prince rejects her amorous attentions and departs the palace, leaving Oriane to her despair.
Then comes the final denouement: Seeking to blot out the Prince’s rejection, Oriane throws open the gates of her chateau to a wild and insolent horde of people; it is the Festival of Fools. Oriane is swept up in their dancing and debauchery, wherein a mysterious masked fiddler fascinates her. At the embrace of her masked partner, Oriane suddenly realizes that he is Death himself, and collapses. The faithful jester mourns over the body of his mistress as a vision of the Prince appears to the dying Oriane and the moon mounts silently behind a cypress tree.
Clearly, the Oriane story line gave Florent Schmitt rich material with which to create a musical fresco of powerful drama, musical color and effects … and he does not disappoint!
Schmitt began with a full orchestra to which he added extra woodwinds, expanded percussion and keyboard instruments, along with a mixed chorus and tenor solo — in the process creating a ballet score that lasts nearly an hour.
The premiere stage performance of Oriane et le Prince d’Amour wouldn’t actually happen until five years after its composition – on January 7, 1938 in a Paris Opéra production. (According to the French music critic and author René Dumesnil, the postponement of the 1933 premiere was because the chorus had been unable to master the challenging choral parts in time.) And in the end the ballet wasn’t danced by Rubinstein, who by 1938 was nearly 53 years old and likely no longer able to do full justice to the role of Oriane.
Instead, the prima ballerina Lycette Darsonval was entrusted with the role, dancing opposite the famed Serge Lifar who starred as the Prince of Love. Other key dances included Serge Peretti as the Poet, Paul Goubé as the Mongolian Merchant, Nickolas Efimoff as the Buffoon and Lucien Legrand as the masked fiddler (Death). Lifar also served as choreographer and ballet-master, costumes and sets were created by Pedro Pruna, while the composer-conductor Philippe Gaubert directed the production.
Interestingly, Lycette Darsonval would also star in the 1954 revival of Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé. Arthur Henry Franks wrote these words about her artistry in his 1956 book Ballet: A Decade of Endeavor:
“Darsonval is a sparkling dancer who gives generously of her vitality. Her coquetry is frank, her smile easy and her mannerisms a part of her nature … Her back is strong, which is doubtless partially responsible for a certain lack of suppleness, but although not exactly light, her movements are lively and vivacious. Rather than execute her pas with care, she throws herself into them with abandon.
… She is loved by the French, for to them she represents La Danseuse. Now, after following her career for 25 years she has given an invaluable interpretation at l’Opéra of Salomé by Florent Schmitt, and her supposed nudity is charming and seductive without a vestige of vulgarity. Darsonval was also fascinating in Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, which Lifar created for her in 1938 …”
In his 2006 book The Paris Opéra Ballet, balletomane and author Ivor Guest explains how the Oriane project was important in Serge Lifar’s artistic growth, writing:
“The ballet marked a significant step in Lifar’s development as a choroegrapher, on account of the importance given both to the role of the ballerina and to the corps de ballet. Lifar was to admit that it had required time for him not only to understand the symphonic possibilities of the corps de ballet, but also to gain confidence in its qualities — and in this work he made handsome amends. The experience of seeing Fokine and Massine at work when he was engaged by Col. de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo in 1936 may have been a significant influence.”
In a review of the stage premiere published in the March 10, 1938 issue of Musical America magazine, critic E. C. Foster wrote of the production and the music as follows:
“An unusually successful setting conveys, by its skillful placing of trees and terraces, walls and cypresses, all the genial warmth and atmosphere of Provence. This impression is heightened by an illusion of that clear, luminous sky peculiar to the French Midi, made possible by the use of the Opéra’s new color organ and gigantic cyclorama.
Schmitt’s music, at the performance last year in its original concert form, was received with great enthusiasm; in fact, the work in that form seemed so sufficient unto itself that one was almost reluctant to see a theatrical setting of it. But the performance, except for occasional passages in which the dancing was not fully in keeping with the score, was thoroughly delightful in every respect.
The score is sumptuous in its wealth of orchestral coloring. Surely this is one of Florent Schmitt’s masterpieces. Whether in creating an atmosphere of mystery or of frenzied violence, or in the expression of vehement passion, the composer’s palette is never at a loss for the right color, the necessary contrast, and there is always a fine discipline and balance in the technical means employed.”
As intimated in Foster’s review of the stage premiere, a concert presentation of the ballet had already happened in Paris year before — in a February 1937 performance conducted by Charles Munch.
Present at the concert premiere was music critic Edmund Pendleton, who filed this report that was published in the May 10, 1937 issue of Musical America magazine:
“Rich in ideas of extraordinary persuasion, and colored with the most brilliant hues from Schmitt’s sumptuous orchestral palette, the score has its roots in the composer’s Psalm and Tragedy of Salome. Here one finds forceful rhythms of varying patterns, sincere utterances and evocations of a fervent imagination. The composer seems to achieve his noblest aims when he has images to evoke and action to paint, rather than when he is preoccupied with cerebral intricacies of ‘pure music.'”
Also in the audience were prominent Parisian composers. Arthur Honegger remarked, “It seems that Schmitt, more than ever, is in possession of a perfect orchestral mastery.”
Composer Louis Aubert was also effusive in his praise for the score, noting:
“The action of this music upon our senses, our hearts and our minds is so powerful and so bewitching, that we should sometimes have a mind to crave for mercy.
But then again, why should we? Grasped by an iron hand, it is only at the very end that we feel it yielding.”
Also in the audience that evening was the young composer Olivier Messiaen, who wrote his observations about the music and the performance in the pages of the Parisian Chronicle:
“On 12 February, the first performance of Oriane et le prince d’amour, the unparalleled ballet with choruses by Florent Schmitt, was given in a concert version with the Société Philharmonique Orchestra under the direction of the vigorous and passionate Charles Munch.
This is a sumptuous work: gleamingly, powerfully, at times overwhelmingly orchestrated. Languid melodies with voluptuously oriental contours; a dance of the Mongols in 5/4 where the harsh root-position minor chords slide modally over dissonant basses; a whispering dance of love for four horns, couched in warm pedals; a sniggering, swarming dance of the mad, with devilish rhythms.
All the hallmarks of Schmitt’s style were present. His language is less impressionist than it used to be. It remains, however, tonal and consonant throughout and reminiscent of Dukas’s La Péri, of Un Jardin sur l’Oronte by [Alfred] Bachelet and of Schmitt’s own famous La Tragédie de Salomé.”
As for the 1938 stage premiere, correspondents for several additional periodicals beyond Musical America were in attendance and filed reports with their respective publications. Irving Schwerké, Paris correspondent for the British magazine The Musical Times, was in the audience and described the ballet as “sumptuously staged.” As for the music, he reported:
“The score is a modern masterpiece. Powerful in dynamism, rhythmic variety, lyrical élan, poignant contrasts and brilliant orchestration, it runs over with colorful, expressive music.”
Louis Laloy, the music critic of La Revue musicale, was equally praiseworthy of Florent Schmitt’s music for the ballet, writing:
“His music shows a vigorous character which does not reside in external appearance but comes from a deeper source where thought takes a more dreamy and serious turn, inflected by a melancholy chromaticism reflective of the Orient. The sonority of this color, both dazzling and darkened, is woven with threads of gold and purple.
Florent Schmitt deserves to take his place in the line of great Romantic musicians. Among all his works, this is certainly one of the most significant — worthy of being compared to his Psaume or to La Tragédie de Salomé — and perhaps even more impressive than those due to the power of the ideas which he develops, widely and effortlessly, to reach the fullness of monumental proportions. Admirably conducted by M. Philippe Gaubert, this music leaves us with magnificent memories.”
Since the premiere performance in 1938, I’ve found evidence of just one revival of Oriane et le Prince d’Amour on the stage — once again at the Paris Opéra — where it received some twenty performances during 1961.
As for the music itself, Oriane appears to have been a success in the concert hall in France — at least in its early years — with performances of the complete ballet happening in December 1946 (Jean Martinon/Paris Conservatoire Orchestra), January 1950 (Roger Désormière and the French National Radio Orchestra) and in 1956 (Pierre Dervaux/ORTF), plus performances of the concert suite happening in October 1947 (Eugène Bigot/Lamoureux Orchestra), August 1953 (Martinon/ORTF), March 1955 (Robert Blot/Paris Conservatoire Orchestra), and December 1955 (Jean Fournet/Lamoureux Orchestra).
But only the suite has ever received a commercial recording — and it emanated from outside France — made in 1987 by Southwest German Radio featuring the Rhineland-Palatinate Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Pierre Stoll and released on the Cybelia label.
While the orchestra and its performance is rather mediocre, the Cybelia recording gives ample proof of the power and effect of Schmitt’s score. The distant fanfares that open the suite are as ominous as any I’ve heard in classical music. They proclaim — in no uncertain terms — that this is going to be no ordinary musical experience! What follows is an achingly beautiful “Dance of Love” … and then a ferocious “Dance of the Mongols,” portraying at once the voluptuous color and barbaric savagery of the rich Mongolian merchant’s retinue.
At the time of the Cybelia premiere recording’s release, pianist and music critic Lionel Salter wrote these thoughts about the music and the performance, as published in the October 1988 issue of Gramophone magazine:
“The story, centering on a sixteenth-century [sic] insatiable and cruel beauty and her eventual violent end, offered Schmitt plentiful opportunities to indulge his taste for mysterious atmosphere, voluptuous orchestral color and barbaric splendor … Its texture is somewhat over-ripe and the 20-minute movement does seem on the long side through lack of sufficiently memorable themes, but the workmanship and orchestral mastery are not to be denied. The Rhineland orchestra, if not of the first rank, puts up spirited and colorful performances.”
To my ears, another interpretation — the 1953 live broadcast performance by the great Jean Martinon leading the ORTF Orchestra — is significantly better interpretively but suffers from less-than-ideal sonics and the usual audience noise. Still, it is worth hearing as well — and it comes off best in a 2019 CD release on the Forgotten Records label, with noticeably better audio fidelity than in the downloads I’ve encountered of the broadcast performance.
Disagreeing in general with Lionel Salter’s verdict on the Oriane suite, the French musicologist Michel Fleury has described the score in poetic terms:
“The languorous emanations that traverse the score – the Mongol coloring, the mystery of the night – in fact place Avignon in the Orient of the Arabian Nights. And 25 years later, Oriane reaches out to Salome, that other voluptuous lady equally marked by fate. Oriane is … a witness to the exemplary mastery of one of the greatest magicians in sound.”
And consider this observation from the French pianist Bruno Belthoise: He counts Oriane a personal favorite among all of Florent Schmitt’s works, expressing complete amazement at “the richness of his writing for the orchestra.”
The dearth of commercial recordings of Oriane et le Prince d’Amour represents a huge gap in the discography of Florent Schmitt. The 1987 Cybelia CD documentation of the suite is long out of print — and that performance suffers from less-than-polished ensemble in any case. Thanks to Philippe Louis and his marvelous music channel, the Cybelia recording has finally been uploaded to YouTube, providing at least some reference documentation for those who wish to investigate the music.
To my mind, several of Schmitt’s most ardent advocates in the conducting world today could do great things with the Oriane score: Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, Jacques Mercier, Jean-Luc Tingaud and Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Clearly, a work such as this would be right in their wheelhouse. Here’s hoping one of them will take up the cause of Oriane before long.
Update (6/25/14): As of June 2014, a recording of the complete ballet score has finally been released. It’s the 1956 concert performance featuring the O.R.T.F. Orchestra and René Alix Chorus directed by Pierre Dervaux — a conductor who was an evangelist for Schmitt’s music throughout his career.
The complete recording fills in the blanks left by the suite, to include the poet’s serenade of Oriane (performed by a tenor solo accompanied by the chorus), some dramatic transitions between scenes, and the biting and bizarre Fête des fous “Festival of Fools” that concludes the ballet. The CD is available from Forgotten Records , which can ship orders internationally. If somewhat lower-quality sonics are acceptable, you can also listen to the Dervaux performance here, courtesy of YouTube.
Update (3/8/20): There’s very good news in that the Oriane ballet suite will finally receive a new commercial recording, more than 30 years following the release of the first one.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of its music director, Schmitt evangelist JoAnn Falletta, presented the suite in two concerts on March 7 and 8, 2020, while recording the music for release later in the year on the NAXOS label. Having been present at both concerts, I can personally attest to the fact that they were spectacular performances — making quite a splash with the highly appreciative audience.
The recording is planned for release in November 2020, making it one of the important new recordings to appear during the composer’s 150th birthday anniversary year. You can read an interview with the conductor about this music here.
Update (9/18/20): NAXOS has announced that the new recording will be released in early November of this year. It will be available worldwide in streaming, download and physical form. It can be pre-ordered here on Amazon USA, as well as at other online sellers.