Throughout classical music history, “omnibus” compositions have been rather rare – and for the most part, they’ve been forgotten shortly after their celebrated premieres.
Perhaps the earliest one of these interesting concoctions that has at least remained on the fringes of the repertoire is Hexameron — a morceau de concert put together in the late 1830s under the aegis of Franz Liszt — to which some of the leading composers of the day contributed.
Hexameron consists of a theme, variations and finale – with the theme coming from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera The Puritans. The musicians who contributed variations to Hexameron included Frédéric Chopin, Karl Czerny, Henri Herz, Johann Pixis and Sigismund Thalberg, in addition to Liszt.
Originally written for piano, Liszt also created a version of Hexameron for piano and orchestra. Having listened to that rendition, my conclusion is that the music is … interesting enough to hear once or twice.
Happily enough, a later collaboration – this time in Paris of the 1920s – resulted in a work that is much meatier musically. It’s titled L’Eventail de Jeanne (Jeanne’s Fan), and it was first mounted as a ballet in 1927.
The roster of composers who contributed music to this ballet reads like a “Who’s Who” of the Parisian classical music scene of the time: Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, Jacques Ibert, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Alexis Roland-Manuel, Francis Poulenc, Marcel Delannoy … and Florent Schmitt.
What brought these ten composers together to create this work? The answer lies in the “Jeanne” of the ballet’s title. This is one Jeanne Dubost, a popular Parisian hostess and patroness of the arts.
In the chronicles of the Paris salon, Mme. Dubost ranks right up there with the other famed ladies who opened their homes to the arts community – women like Pauline Viardot and Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac (and heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune).
In some respects, Jeanne Dubost was perhaps more interesting than many of the other celebrated Parisian hostesses in that her political views were an eyebrow-raising mix of socialism and libertarianism. In addition to the various artistes whom she invited to her salon on the Avenue d’lena, she was famous for opening her home to left-leaning politicians like Paul Boncour, Aristide Briant and Paul Painlevé.
An amusing story recounts how during one of Mme. Dubost’s soirées featuring a Native American chieftain as the guest of honor, the chief proceeded to regale the other guests with a series of (presumably authentic) blood-curdling war-cries. This was followed by a stately and dramatic presentation of an enormous eagle’s feather to the hostess.
In addition to her highly active social activities and entertaining, Mme. Dubost also ran a children’s ballet company and was active in several important music societies. And here’s where our ten Parisian composers come into the picture.
Popular legend has it that Mme. Dubost presented leaves from her fan to these composers, asking each of them to compose a short dance number for her pupils.
The reality is a tad less flamboyant: In order to thank their hostess for her pleasant gatherings of artists and politicians, Ravel, Roussel and Schmitt decided – along with their junior compatriots Auric, Delannoy, Ferroud, Ibert, Milhaud, Poulenc and Roland-Manuel – to surprise Mme. Dubost with a suite of dances performed at her home by the young dancers of her school.
The “fan” title was chosen for its symbolism – with each movement of the ballet “unfolding” before the audience like the leaves of Jeanne’s fan.
So on June 16, 1927, the Dubost salon was the venue for a new “cooperative” ballet – L’Eventail de Jeanne – mounted in a production that featured scenery and costumes by the celebrated designer Marie Laurencin, famous for her charming costumes and highly effective mirror effects. The chamber-sized orchestra accompanying the dancers was conducted by Roger Desormière.
Thoroughly enchanted by this “juvenile entertainment,” theatre director Jacques Rouché decided to bring the ballet to the stage of the Paris Opéra. That production, which was mounted in March 1929, again featured Mme. Laurencin’s costumes along with new choreography by Yvonne Frank and Alice Bourgat.
Budding ballerina Tamara Toumanova – then all of 10 years old – was featured in the ballet’s starring role. This was Mlle. Toumanova’s Parisian début before she went on to become an international ballet star.
What gives L’Eventail de Jeanne its staying power? More than the story, it’s the quality of the music – a series of ten tableaux that unfolds as follows:
1. Fanfare (Maurice Ravel)
2. Marche (Pierre-Octave Ferroud)
3. Valse (Jacques Ibert)
4. Canarie (Alexis Roland-Manuel)
5. Bourrée (Marcel Delannoy)
6. Sarabande (Albert Roussel)
7. Polka (Darius Milhaud)
8. Pastourelle (Francis Poulenc)
9. Rondeau (Georges Auric)
10. Kermesse-Valse (Florent Schmitt)
The set of pieces is very effective when performed as a group, as it was done most recently by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France conducted by Kazushi Ono (in February 2007).
Several of the numbers have gone on to enjoy a certain measure of fame wholly apart from the ballet, too – most noticeably Poulenc’s Pastourelle and Milhaud’s Polka.
And with several of the composers’ contributions, one can hear distinct echoes of other compositions they wrote – for instance, Ibert’s Valse (shades of Divertissement) and Roussel’s Sarabande (similar in style and flavor to the same-named movement from his Suite in F Major).
And what about Florent Schmitt’s musical contribution? The Kermesse-Valse is the longest and most substantial number in the entire ballet, coming as it does at the conclusion of the work in a carefree danse-générale.
In creating this music, Schmitt turned to a “carnival waltz” he had sketched out for piano back in 1903 (in London of all places). The work is very much on the same plane as the waltz-like numbers that comprise Schmitt’s four-hand piano scores Reflets d’Allemagne and Trois Rapsodies.
In a move that also seems wholly fitting to the composer, the Kermesse-Valse calls for much larger orchestral forces than any of the preceding numbers in the ballet – and it likely stretched the capabilities of the musicians performing at Mme. Dubost’s salon in the 1927 premiere.
In fact, we know from a report in the July 10, 1927 issue of the Parisian magazine Le Correspondant that, despite being intended as the final number in the ballet, the Kermesse-Valse was actually performed first, as an overture:
“The assembly of famous Parisians — musicians, artists and scholars — easily took on the appearance of college students on vacation, but it was because everyone was in such a jolly mood. We started with the final by Florent Schmitt. It is a very beautiful piece with a full-bodied, delicious orchestration … and nervous rhythms that enchanted with their supple vigor. Indeed, this finale became a remarkable opening.”
There’s no denying that Schmitt’s highly colorful music makes a grand curtain-opener, orbrings L’Eventail de Jeanne to a rousing and highly satisfying conclusion — take your pick.
The complete ballet has been recorded twice: first by Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1984 (on the Chandos label) and shortly thereafter by Pierre Stoll and the Rhineland-Palatinate Philharmonic Orchestra (on the Cybelia label). The Simon/Philharmonia recording has been uploaded to YouTube in its entirety. It’s a captivating, polished performance that sounds as good today as when it was first released some 30 years ago.
What have been the fortunes of Florent Schmitt’s Kermesse-Valse since making its first appearance in the “omnibus” ballet? Certainly, it has not achieved the same degree of fame independent of the ballet as has been the case of Poulenc’s Pastourelle.
But the work was published as Schmitt’s Opus 80, and it had its first concert hall performance in April 1936 by the Colonne Concerts Orchestra directed by Paul Paray – the conductor who premiered more of Schmitt’s compositions than anyone else.
Listening to the charms and excitement of the Kermesse-Valse gives us a tempting foretaste of what Reflets d’Allemagne and Trois Rapsodies must surely sound like in Schmitt’s own orchestrations of these scores, which he prepared at roughly the same time.
Those works still await their first recordings – at least in the post 78-rpm era. Here’s hoping some of today’s most ardent Schmitt advocates – perhaps Leon Botstein, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, Jacques Mercier or Jean-Luc Tingaud – will choose to take them up soon.
Update (10/14/16): NAXOS Classics has just released the third commercial recording of L’Eventail de Jeanne — and the first one made with a French orchestra. It features the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire conducted by John Axelrod. The generously filled recording also includes the complete Ma Mère l’oye ballet of Maurice Ravel — a fitting diskmate. Generous audio samples can be heard here, courtesy of the Presto Classical online classical music retailer.