Recorded in March 2015 by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the pieces are slated for release on the NAXOS label later this year.
Under its music director JoAnn Falletta, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has established something of a reputation for programming neglected scores from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including performances in recent years of works by composers like Franz Schreker, Mieczysław Karłowicz, Josef Suk, Philippe Gaubert, Nikolai Tcherepnin, Miklós Rózsa, Marcel Tyberg and Ignatz Paderewski.
One of the composers who has particularly fascinated Maestra Falletta is Florent Schmitt — and especially the two Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites, Op. 69, which were written by Schmitt in 1920 for the Paris production of André Gide’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.
JoAnn Falletta programmed the first suite with her two American orchestras, the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, in 2010. And on March 7th and 8th of this year, she presented both suites together in concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic.
The 2015 performances were first time the complete Antony & Cleopatra music had ever been performed in North America — nearly a century after its composition.
Even better, the two suites, along with Schmitt’s Le Palais hanté, Op. 49 (The Haunted Palace), a symphonic poem dating from earlier in the composer’s career (1900-04), have been recorded by the same forces and are planned for release on the NAXOS label later this year.
I was privileged to attend the two Buffalo Philharmonic concerts featuring the Antony & Cleopatra music, as well as to observe the recording sessions of both suites plus The Haunted Palace.
At the same time, I was able to visit with Maestra Falletta to hear her thoughts and observations about Florent Schmitt, his music, and his importance as a composer. Highlights from our conversation are presented below:
PLN: What attracted you to the Haunted Palace score? Was it the literary inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, or something else?
JAF: The Poe connection is quite interesting. I read somewhere that Edgar Allan Poe has inspired more music than any other literary figure except William Shakespeare. He was extremely popular in Europe and in France in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries.
The Haunted Palace is particularly interesting, because it’s symbolic. It can be perceived as an actual palace that was ruled over by a benevolent king – and then is besieged and becomes filled with evil spirits. But it can also be viewed in a more metaphysical way, where it’s someone’s mind that starts out healthy and strong but then descends into madness. Considering Poe’s own struggles, that seems to be what he’s telling us.
That was very intriguing to me, and it must have been to Schmitt as well. When I explored the piece, I found it to be gorgeous – just beautifully written. Especially with this wonderful scene at the end when the spirits are rushing out of the dwelling. Schmitt portrays it with such wildness — the music is so brilliant. It is a unique melding of the best of Impressionism with Romanticism.
PLN: The Haunted Palace is a relatively early orchestral score of Schmitt’s, being composed between 1900 and 1904. Compared to his later scores, do you feel that Schmitt had mastered the art of orchestration at that time, or are there aspects that come across as less refined or otherwise less effective?
JAF: I would never criticize Schmitt’s orchestration in The Haunted Palace, but I have to say that the level of complexity and subtlety that he arrived at 15 years later in Antony & Cleopatra is really astonishing.
This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with The Haunted Palace; it’s just less involved and less complex.
PLN: In The Haunted Palace, Schmitt continued a tradition of French symphonic poems composed in the Lisztian mould — works that included pieces like Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre (1874), Duparc’s Lénore (1875), Chausson’s Viviane (1882), Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit (1883) and Dukas’ L’Apprenti sorcier (1897). Could you comment on how Schmitt’s composition fits into this continuum?
JAF: Schmitt is clearly following the tradition of the symphonic poem as originated by Liszt and carried on by these French composers. But Schmitt pushes the envelope further. Consider the Dukas Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s a solidly Romantic piece. Even though it was composed just a few years before The Haunted Palace, it exists in another world; it feels more like an earlier time.
While Schmitt is operating in the form, he opens the door further, writing a piece that doesn’t quite answer all the questions and leaves something to the imagination.
What we find with Schmitt is that he was able to weave together very dense tapestries at times, but always with this amazing clarity. My teacher, Sixten Ehrling, always admired Richard Strauss for that, too, because he could write different parts and different lines all at fortissimo, and yet you can hear everything.
Schmitt does this equally well. In the Antony & Cleopatra suites, the music is rhythmically dense – harmonically dense as well. There’s such a lot going on; the entire orchestra is playing. And yet Schmitt is able to do it in a way that things are clear and everything is heard.
PLN: You became familiar with Antony & Cleopatra some time ago, and you programmed the first suite with two orchestras about five years ago. Apparently, it’s music that speaks to you strongly. Can you tell us what makes it so special for you, for the orchestra, and for audiences?
JAF: Florent Schmitt is actually a bit of a mystery to conductors and musicians. He almost shares a name with another composer who was a contemporary of his: Franz Schmidt, and people get the two of them confused sometimes.
Also, Schmitt sounds like a German composer because of his German surname — yet he’s certainly not a German composer. So that’s a bit of a mystery as well.
The first time I performed this music in 2010 (the first suite only), it was an experiment. I wanted to see how both orchestras — the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony — would handle this music because it was in a style that the musicians had not encountered before, with this kind of rhythmic complexity.
And it’s very complex music: It’s rhythm that’s going against the grain often – where some of the orchestra is playing something that’s ‘straight ahead’ and others are working with rhythms that seemingly don’t fit, but that are knitted into the fabric of the music.
The musicians found that very difficult. It wasn’t predictable to them – perhaps that’s the best way to describe it. Some of the musicians would say to me, ‘This is strange. It doesn’t fit!’ Yet, the more they played it, the more it settled in.
Back in 2010, I knew we had a ways to go on the music when we played the performances. But many times, the first performances are not the ‘end.’ And so when I was able to convince Klaus Heymann of NAXOS to open the door for this project — which took awhile — it was a great opportunity for us to delve into the music a second time.
PLN: From a musician’s standpoint, Schmitt’s music can be deceptively challenging. Was this a surprise when you first came to know the Anthony & Cleopatra score? What aspects of the music are particularly tricky?
JAF: The music is surprisingly difficult — mostly rhythmically. It’s not like Stravinsky, where every bar is sort of bopping into another meter. It’s actually more difficult because the rhythmic challenges are actually woven into the fabric of the music. It’s closer to Brahms in the sense that Brahms scores look ‘normal’ on the outside … but then you realize that everything is shifted off by an eighth-note.
Schmitt’s rhythm is very difficult. Even the idea of the portrait of Cleopatra — it’s stunning in how he orchestrates it with a kind of snake-charmer quality undergirding the music with the pizzicato strings and the tambourine. You can clearly imagine some sort of Egyptian dance going on. That is so locked in — but then he has these melodies that are sort of flowing and should sound absolutely free. But they can’t be free because they have this web underneath that’s holding them. That’s very, very difficult for an orchestra to play.
There are even some slow bars in six-eight time where the rhythm actually feels more comfortable for the orchestra in three-four. We re-barred them for ourselves so that we could toss it from second violins to violas to first violins and back to seconds, and have it really fit.
Schmitt had a strategy in doing this, of course, because when you have rhythms that are competing with each other — rubbing against each other at the same time — the resulting conflict or tension that we hear is amazing.
When you have people playing three against two, it releases a kind of energy. It’s very purposeful on the part of the composer, and it gives the piece a kind of uneasiness underneath. And of course, it’s perfect for this dark story of Antony and Cleopatra.
There’s a tremendous amount of nobility in these characters, but there are also a lot of evil things that are going on. It’s this important duality about the two of them — complex characters that they are. There’s a sense of Schmitt keeping us off-balance, which reflects the portrait of these two personalities: their passion for one another tempered by ulterior motives, political considerations and the clash of cultures between Egypt and Rome.
Schmitt could have written a very languorous, beautiful, seductive portrait of the two characters, but instead it’s always a bit uncomfortable. In Antony & Cleopatra, you’re never relaxed. You always feel a certain wariness – an uneasiness. That’s very profound.
PLN: Your performance of the second suite was the North American premiere, even though the music is nearly a century old. Is there a difference between preparing an older work for a premiere performance compared to a contemporary one? More broadly, what are your strategies for rehearsing an orchestra when the personnel don’t know the music at all?
JAF: Preparing an older work like this for a premiere performance is certainly different from preparing a premiere of a contemporary work. When it’s a new piece, we have access to the composer (or sometimes the composer is with us in person). The music is closer to our sphere and to our times.
But when we go back and do a work where there’s no one alive who heard the music in its time and there’s no one alive who knew the composer intimately — all you have to go on is the score.
Now, I did listen to the Jacques Mercier recording of the suites [on the Timpani label], in part because he is a person who comes from the same culture as Schmitt and who might have some musical connections available to him that I did not have.
Even so, there are numerous questions about things in the score that may or may not have been addressed in that earlier recording. The score does not provide easy answers, so we had to look at other parts of the score to try to determine what the composer actually intended.
We found numerous issues: things like wrong notes in the score, improper clef notations, and conflicting directions on the use of mutes. One needs to be something of a detective, but you also have to worry about how much license you should take.
Generally, my view is if you’re not sure, it’s best to leave things as written. But in other cases, it’s pretty obviously a copyist’s error which we needed to correct.
In the case of Antony & Cleopatra, other adjustments were ones of necessity. Our percussionists needed to rewrite the part Schmitt had prepared for a keyboard glockenspiel [jeu de timbre], an instrument that was unavailable to us, so that we could perform it using standard concert bells.
Also for Antony & Cleopatra, when we ordered the second suite, the publisher didn’t even have the orchestra parts available and had to print them especially for us. Very likely the original parts were so old and fragile, they were unusable.
The publisher did have the parts for the first suite, which turned out to be the same ones we had used in 2010. Some of our musicians found their old marks still written in their parts!
As for preparing unfamiliar music for performance, we had five rehearsals for this music, which is more time than we usually devote for preparation. And we had to be prepared for a little slower journey in the rehearsals, too. It entailed things like the musicians looking very carefully at their parts, and more suggestions from the concertmaster about bow changes during rehearsals (even after the parts had been bowed in advance).
So there’s more active working on the music in addition to playing it. There’s none of the ‘auto-pilot’ that can sometimes happen with pieces that the musicians know really well.
The other important part of a successful strategy when preparing and performing unfamiliar music is filling out the rest of the program with music that the orchestra already knows very well. In this case it was Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, a piece the orchestra had recorded not long ago.
PLN: In Antony & Cleopatra, Schmitt’s music ranges from very soft and spare moments to passages of overwhelming power. This is a hallmark of numerous late-romantic and early modern composers, but are there aspects of Schmitt’s approach that you find singular or unique in some ways?
JAF: In terms of his orchestration, when Schmitt has the orchestra going at full tilt, it’s astonishing. It’s simply great orchestration. He really knows how to use an orchestra with everyone playing to create a mountain of sound.
But Schmitt can also be very Impressionistic, and things just float. To have both of those at his disposal is quite amazing. Schmitt, along with Ravel, seems to have a real love for the “instrument” of the orchestra – in writing for it lavishly.
Schmitt’s scores look very dense. But he makes the ideas reveal themselves instead of being buried. That’s a talent many composers don’t possess.
We know that there are great composers who weren’t great orchestrators — the canvas of the orchestra wasn’t what was appealing to them. Robert Schumann is one example. And then there are others who may write beautifully for the orchestra but who don’t have the kind of profound heart that Schumann had.
But with Schmitt, it’s both. He has substance, and he’s also able to utilize the orchestra in a very glittery way.
PLN: Schmitt was known as the foremost “orientalist” composer of his day – certainly during the period when Antony & Cleopatra was composed and premiered. In your view, how successful was Schmitt in conjuring up an authentic Eastern style? Does the music successfully avoid sounding clichéd?
JAF: Regarding his ‘orientalist’ style, Schmitt’s music doesn’t sound clichéd at all. But it does bring us into that world. It’s not obvious, but before we know it we’re in that world. Schmitt does this masterfully.
There’s nothing that seems contrived about the music. He is painting a tonal picture — an ancient world that’s just fantastic. It’s cinematic for sure. But it’s not contrived; it’s not a ‘cheap thrill’ or anything like that.
Plus, all of the movements in the two suites are strong. That’s certainly not something you can say about all suites or symphonies!
PLN: Of the six movements in the suites, are there one or two that you find particularly special?
JAF: The movement that is the most difficult – but also the most rewarding – is the ‘Battle of Actium’ from the first suite. It’s an incredibly difficult movement to play, but it really paints the agitation, fear and clash in a battle that was so disastrous for Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
The fanfare [‘The Camp of Pompey’] from the first suite is also brilliant — an amazing four minutes of perfect music; you couldn’t take a note out or put another one in.
And in the opening movement of the first suite, could one ever hear a more compelling or more beautiful portrait of these two people?
PLN: While you have conducted and recorded music from all eras, from pre-Baroque to contemporary works by living composers, you seem to have a special love for composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along those lines, with the Buffalo Philharmonic you have recorded music of Bartók, Frederick Shepherd Converse, Dohnányi, Glière, Respighi, Richard Strauss, Suk and Marcel Tyberg for NAXOS records. Is the new Schmitt recording the continuation of a certain strategy along those lines?
JAF: It is true that I am drawn to the music of that era. The orchestra was a canvas in that period as in no other time. The orchestra was so expanded, and the possibilities for color were just so extreme.
For a conductor, working in that kind of sound-world is thrilling. Mozart is perfection, but it’s not the kind of canvas where you have these wild colors. I love that aspect of it.
Also, it was a very tumultuous world in those times – filled with ugliness and fear, but also with hope. The changes in the world were reflected in musical styles that suddenly delivered a much wider range of emotional content.
The BPO musicians enjoy this kind of music, too — late Romantic and post-Romantic scores.
PLN: Another keen interest of yours is French repertoire. In your view, do concert audiences in the United States get short shrift when it comes to orchestras performing French repertoire beyond just the warhorses?
JAF: Unfortunately, I think that French repertoire is disappearing from our concert halls in America. It makes me very sad to say that, but I think conductors and musicians don’t program French music because they feel that audiences don’t understand it.
Not to over-generalize, but French music tends to be less architecture-driven, and often it’s not propulsive. Often it’s about sheer beauty and color, and the architecture isn’t obvious to the audience.
But if conductors did it well and performed it more often, I think audiences would come back to French music. It’s something we should try to do — and certainly not be limited to French conductors exclusively.
PLN: For many musicians, Florent Schmitt may be only a name in a textbook – just one of a number of French composers active during the time of Debussy and Ravel but eclipsed by both. Do you view Schmitt in this fashion, or as someone more important than that?
JAF: For musicians, it’s been so easy ‘not to know’ Schmitt. But to know Schmitt is to realize that he is far greater than so many of the French composers who were active during the time of Debussy and Ravel.
Unfortunately, even other conductors don’t know this composer; no teacher told them about him, and it certainly was not suggested to perform his music. That’s a pity, because they — and audiences — are missing out on so much.
PLN: Looking to the future, are there any other scores by Florent Schmitt that you would like to tackle – either in concert or on recordings?
JAF: I would love to program La Tragédie de Salome. Psalm 47 is marvelous, too — a dazzling work. But for that, you need a fine quality chorus as well.
We are indebted to JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic musicians for taking on the challenge of performing and recording Florent Schmitt’s music.
Having observed the recording sessions in early March, I can predict with confidence that the new NAXOS recording will prove to be a very welcome (and important) addition to the catalogue. We’ll definitely share details on the release schedule as soon as they become available.
Update (11/7/15): The NAXOS recording of Florent Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre and Le Palais hanté with JoAnn Falletta directing the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was released in November 2015 to widespread critical acclaim. The recording is available from Amazon, ArkivMusic, HB Direct, Presto Classical and numerous other online music sources.