One of the world’s leading journalists and authors on film music gives Schmitt’s score pride of place in the first quarter century of motion pictures.
Among the most intriguing entries in the catalogue of Florent Schmitt’s compositions are the three suites he extracted from his score to the silent film Salammbô, which was premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1925.
The three suites, scored for full orchestra with additional choral parts featured in some of the numbers, were published by Durand as a group under the title Salammbô, Illustration de quelques pages de Gustave Flaubert, Op. 76.
To my ears, this is music that makes a tremendous impression on first hearing — and continues to deliver fresh rewards upon successive listening. I’ve known and loved this score for more than 20 years, and it never grows old.
Recently, the noted film music specialist, journalist and author Doug Adams remarked on Twitter about the quality and inventiveness of Schmitt’s Salammbô score, which led me to ask Mr. Adams to share further insights on the score and the reasons why he considers it such an important exemplar of the film music genre.
Mr. Adams, whose deep involvement in the study of film music includes publishing a comprehensive volume on Howard Shore’s scores to The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2010), was very generous in sharing his perspectives.
His insightful observations, presented below, provide both detail and context in understanding the importance of Schmitt’s singular contribution to the world of film music:
PLN: How did you become acquainted with the score to the Salammbô film?
DA: The answer to that question really starts with silent films in general. In the late summer of 2011, I produced a very short recording of an ‘orchestrion’ (an automated musical instrument) for Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo. It wasn’t much — you can hear it coming from a carousel during a scene with the Georges Méliès character.
I already knew Howard Shore, the composer of Hugo’s score. Before this, he and I had worked on a book covering the music of the Lord of the Rings films, and we’d become good friends and collaborators in the process.
While working on Hugo, we found ourselves becoming increasingly interested in the music of the silent film period, so we decided to put together a series of articles for his website.
I dedicated a lot of time to assembling a timeline of film music that ran from approximately 1908 to 1933. In the process, I began uncovering an intriguing list of names, projects, and events that hinted at a large, undiscovered musical world.
PLN: So, coming to the Schmitt score was actually part of a larger evolution?
DA: Yes. Before I knew it, those articles for Howard’s website led to another project with the Seattle Opera. They had a number of Puccini operas scheduled that season, so they asked me to write a piece for their souvenir booklet that examined his relationship with silent film music.
Puccini never composed for film, but his music was co-opted by theater musicians on a regular basis; he even filed a lawsuit or two to stop them. However, Puccini also had a long-lasting correspondence with Thomas Edison and a love of modern technology. It was likely that Puccini was fond of cinemas, too — as long as they didn’t steal his music!
Once again, in researching the article, I added to my timeline. I learned that Joseph Carl Breil, the composer who worked on The Birth of a Nation, premiered a film-score-like opera at the Met Opera alongside Puccini’s Il trittico — and also that Puccini’s old college roommate, Pietro Mascagni, scored an early Italian film.
My concept of this period began to shift in profound ways. I’d always felt that film music was an extension of Romantic period music — with a few modern dashes — but I figured that it primarily migrated from Europe to Hollywood just prior to World War II.
However, I began to see that the early days of film music didn’t just extend the Romantic period, they actually overlapped it. As it turns out, film music didn’t burst to life with Max Steiner’s King Kong — it was thriving for a good decade or two before that.
And those early days constituted an incredibly diverse period, because you had composers in America, France and Germany (and, to a lesser degree, Italy and Russia) basically kicking film’s tires and figuring out what it could do. Anything was game.
While a number of early film composers considered themselves specialists, the backbone of the developing field was made up of familiar names.
Saint-Saëns famously scored l’Assassinat du Duc de Guise in November 1908. (Many considered him the first big-name composer to work in film, though technically, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov wrote for a Russian film that debuted a few weeks before l’Assassinat.)
There were others, too. Victor Herbert tried film by scoring the unofficial follow-up to The Birth of a Nation — a picture called The Fall of a Nation.
Mascagni scored an amazing Italian film named Rapsodia Satanica by treating it as a voiceless verismo opera.
Hindemith scored a German mountain-climbing picture before moving on to more avant-garde pictures, some of which he appeared in as an actor.
Richard Strauss adapted his Rosenkavalier for film and added some new music in the process.
Satie’s last complete composition was for a film. And, of course, the great Florent Schmitt tried film as well.
PLN: How did that opportunity come along for Schmitt?
DA: It’s quite interesting. During the 1920s, the French had a strong desire to pair an illustrious film with a fine score, and to open the project at the Paris Opéra. It was a way of bridging the Old and New Worlds.
Unsurprisingly, they had their eyes set on established concert hall composers. Film specialists such as Paul Fosse were fine, but they didn’t have the cachet.
And while Les Six and their circle had already been dabbling in film, they were seen as too rowdy and experimental.
So, in 1924 the composer Henri Rabaud was hired to score Raymond Bernard’s film Le Miracle des loups.
Rabaud was the former director of the Paris Opéra, and had recently led the Boston Symphony in the United States. He was worldly and articulate, but at the same time, rather conservative.
Reviews for his score to Le Miracle were good, but many in the artistic community felt that it was simply too old-fashioned, too dowdy; they felt that he hadn’t taken advantage of the new aesthetics of film.
Florent Schmitt was known as a much more forward-looking composer than Rabaud. He wasn’t avant-garde, but he was certainly not a traditionalist. Therefore, when French filmmakers made their second attempt at bringing a top-notch film and score to the Opéra, they hired Schmitt for an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô.
Flaubert’s story was ripe for film — the plot included fierce battles, forbidden romance, striking landscapes, and a thrilling human sacrifice scene.
In short, it was a perfect fit for Schmitt’s “orientalist” tendencies.
The film was directed by Pierre Marodon and produced by Louis Felix Hippolyte Aubert. (Aubert shared his name with composer Louis Aubert, one of Schmitt’s contemporaries, but they were not related.)
Salammbô debuted at the Paris Opéra in October 1925. Predictably, Schmitt delivered a knockout work.
Written for chorus and orchestra, the score was packed with delicate French harmonies, colorful orchestrations, and a handful of recurring motifs that developed throughout the story.
It was modern; it was powerful; and, with its angular transitions and unusual harmonies, it was everything that Rabaud’s Le Miracle des loups was not.
However, there was still a problem: Marodon’s film was a bit of a wreck.
Schmitt did the best he could to salvage the project, but the result was a tremendously fine piece of music that felt like it was trying to goose a dreary film. Even Schmitt found the picture to be “rather incoherent.”
Critics wrote, “Cette partition marque une date.” (“This score represents a milestone.”) They called Schmitt’s work a “considerable victory.” But, by no fault of Schmitt’s, the score’s reputation was tarnished by the film’s failures.
The French desire to open a truly great film and score at l’Opéra wasn’t yet satisfied, so additional works were lined up — each of which had its own set of problems. La Croisière noire came next with music by André Petiot and Germaine Tailleferre (of Les Six), but it was mostly ignored.
Then there was Honegger’s Napoléon, which was the biggest disaster yet; he walked off the project before it was even completed.
Léon Moreau’s Madame Récamier; André Petiot’s Verdun, Visions d’histoire; and Henri Février and Marc Delmas’ La Merveilleusevie de Jeanne d’Arc all followed in short order. But by that point, sound film was becoming more and more popular and silent films — and their attendant scores — were being swept offstage.
PLN: It sounds as if the whole Paris Opéra film initiative was a bit of a star-crossed adventure, and that Schmitt’s score became collateral damage …
DA: Schmitt’s Salammbô was essentially forgotten with the rest of the Paris Opéra scores. It was, in my opinion, the finest score to come out of this unofficial initiative, but the lousy film, the subsequent glut of works, and the profound changes in cinematic technologies had relegated it to semi-obscurity.
PLN: What appeals to you about the score? What do you find particularly memorable about it?
DA: Salammbô is a sublimely balanced work. It uses recurring themes, but it’s not overly leitmotivic.
It’s exotic, but it almost never depends on stock devices such as faux-Middle Eastern scales or chains of augmented seconds.
It’s also aggressive and modern, but it takes the delicious, familiar French harmonies of the 1920s and uses them in unique and colorful ways. (The end of the sacrifice scene includes a searing pan-pentatonic cluster.)
In sum, there’s an incredible power to the writing, but it never sacrifices detail to scope.
PLN: Considering its date of composition, do you consider this score to be forward-looking or perhaps even revolutionary?
DA: Part of the reason that Rabaud’s Le Miracle des loups was dismissed by aesthetes was because it rarely moved beyond the tropes of the day: Sunny, diatonic triads represented peace and plenty; chains of diminished chords represented turmoil.
Schmitt’s Salammbô was so much meatier. There had been very few film scores in France that used such chromatic harmonic language (and those that did, like Milhaud’s L’Inhumaine or Satie’s Entr’acte, tended to be more like chamber works). By contrast, this was a full-blooded score on the level of Maurice Ravel.
PLN: How do you regard the music’s qualities compared to other silent film scores of the era?
DA: There were, of course, other international works that approached the quality of Schmitt’s work. Germany, in particular, saw some amazing scores by Gottfried Huppertz and Edmund Meisel in the same time period. But these works were much more ‘Teutonic’ in tone.
And in the United States, Mortimer Wilson composed a trio of scores for Douglas Fairbanks that established a new template for swashbuckling adventure scores. But his work was distinctly ‘American.’
In my opinion, the only other French score of the silent period that ever approached the quality of Schmitt’s Salammbô (in terms of big symphonic efforts) was Rabaud’s 1927 Le joueur d’échecs.
It’s true: After Le Miracle des loups, Rabaud came back and gave film one more try. This time, he was much more successful. Frankly, were it not for Schmitt leading the way, I don’t think Rabaud would ever have written something so synchronized and colorful.
Unfortunately, Le joueur d’échecs was not composed for the Paris Opéra; had it been, they might finally have had the great project they’d long sought.
PLN: Which film scores that came along later do you see as an outgrowth or a continuation of this style of music — even if this specific piece didn’t influence those later scores?
DA: The 1920s laid the groundwork for many of the great symphonic film scores that came in the following decades. That’s why this period is so important, despite the fact that it’s often just a footnote in history books.
Early film pulled many of its ideas from opera, ballet, songwriting, vaudeville, and Opéra comique traditions. By the 1920s, these ideas were becoming synthetized and re-focused as they’d never been before.
Max Steiner is often thought of as the father of the modern film score. He was brilliant — a genius — no doubt about it. But, he was largely following the established trends of the ’20s. That’s when film music as we know it was conceived, and Schmitt’s work was an important part of that.
The trends of the ’20s continue to this day. I spent years studying Howard Shore’s scores to The Lord of the Rings films. Like Salammbô, they’re packed with leitmotifs, unusual orchestrations, choral texts, etc. The Lord of the Rings’ choral texts were written in English as well as J.R.R. Tolkien’s created languages for Elves, Dwarves, and ancient Men.
Salammbô’s choral texts were written in both French and a reheated version of Punic, the extinct Carthaginian language — though a quasi-Latin phonetic translation of the latter rendered its original meaning largely unintelligible.
Shore sounds nothing like Schmitt, but on a conceptual level, their work in film can be incredibly similar.
PLN: Considering scores for “epic” films such as this one, which three or four do you consider the most important from a musical standpoint? And does the score to Salammbô approach these others in terms of its worth?
DA: Part of the reason I find the scores of the silent period so fascinating is that this era represents one of the few ‘closed loops’ in film music’s history. That day is over, so we can, with some confidence, step back and assess what’s there.
I would definitely point to Salammbô as one of the greatest scores to come out of this period, despite the fact that the film itself was unsuccessful. But, in terms of music, it’s right up there with Mascagni’s Rapsodia Satanica, Mortimer Wilson’s The Thief of Bagdad, Edmund Meisel’s Battleship Potemkin, Gottfried Huppertz’ Metropolis, Shostakovich’s Novyy Vavilon, or any such essential works.
It’s a little more difficult to assess the lasting contribution of modern works. Despite its debt to its ancestors, Steiner’s King Kong really did kick off a new age in film music — and in many ways, that’s the age we’re still in.
Symphonic film music has gone in and out of style many times over, but it’s always part of the landscape. When we turn the page again (and, frankly, I hope we don’t do it within my lifetime), it’ll be easier to cherry-pick the finest scores of the sound film period.
In the meantime, it’s a living art: It’s fresh and compelling, but difficult to judge wholesale.
PLN: Are there any other observations you’d like to share about the Salammbô score or any other music of Florent Schmitt that you might know?
DA: I think much of Florent Schmitt’s music is on the level of Ravel, but he wasn’t a tunesmith, per se. And that’s fine; there was no reason he should have been.
He was wise to capitalize on his strengths — color; exoticism; long, seamlessly flowing lines; unusual orchestral combinations; invisible meters that occasionally stiffened into devices of asymmetrical propulsion.
Unfortunately, his music was often unjustly ignored by those just looking for a catchy tune. There is no Boléro in his catalogue.
Today, orchestras are often too afraid to schedule works that aren’t guaranteed to pack concert halls — especially large, expensive works, such as Schmitt’s often were. But, there’s a treasure trove just waiting to be discovered.
I would love to see the score from his ballet La Tragédie de Salomé — which is, in many ways, a sister score to Salammbô — become a concert hall staple.
PLN: You are known for your analytical work with the Lord of the Rings film scores. Please tell us about new projects you may be working on regarding writing about film music or related activities.
DA: I still pop up here and there talking about the Rings scores. I was at the KKL [Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern] in Switzerland in April, and will be in Salt Lake City and at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival later this summer.
At the same time, I’m beginning to work on analyzing some of the material in Howard Shore’s scores to the Hobbit films. I’ve been contributing liner notes to the album releases and helping with the DVD documentaries during the past few months — the latter of which is odd, since I’m not yet used to being an on-camera guy. (I’m doing my best to perfect my Dwarvish pronunciation!)
The majority of my work during the past few years, however, has been dedicated to the study of film music’s first quarter-century. The timeline that I began assembling for Hugo has grown and is now a full book that we’re finishing up this summer.
It’s been an enormously rewarding project. I can honestly say it’s entirely changed my view of this unique art. I’m hoping we can share the fruits of this labor soon.
For a leading film score specialist such as Doug Adams to hold Salammbô in such high esteem, is ample proof that Schmitt’s music is well-worth seeking out.
The three suites that the composer extracted from the full film score have been recorded just once, back in the early 1990s. Fortunately for us, it’s an excellent interpretation, masterfully performed by l’Orchestre National d’Ile de France under the direction of Jacques Mercier.
Listeners can also get a taste of the music via hearing portions of the score that have been uploaded to YouTube, courtesy of Jean-Christian Bonnet’s excellent music channel:
- Suite #3: The War Pact … At the Council of the Elders … The Massacre at the Pass … Hamilcar’s Procession
- Suite #3: Mathô’s Death
See if you don’t agree that this is one of the most distinctive — and gripping — film scores ever penned.