In February and March 2015, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and its music director, JoAnn Falletta, performed and recorded two of Florent Schmitt’s orchestral works: the 1900-04 symphonic etude Le Palais hanté, Opus 49 (The Haunted Palace), inspired by a poem of Edgar Allan Poe; and the two Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites, Opus 69, composed in 1920 for André Gide’s new Paris production of Shakespeare’s play.
The Buffalo concerts were the North American premiere performances of the complete Antony & Cleopatra music — nearly a century after its composition. I had the privilege of attending those concerts along with observing the recording of both Schmitt works, which are slated for release on the NAXOS label later this year.
While in Buffalo, I also had the opportunity to sit down with five members of the orchestra to discuss Florent Schmitt and his place in music history — and to learn what it’s like to prepare Schmitt’s music for performance and recording.
The group of musicians I interviewed represent the four major sections of the orchestra, as well as the all-important librarian function. The musicians included:
- Matthew Bassett (timpani)
- Janz Castelo de Armas (viola)
- Travis Hendra (music librarian and substitute tuba player)
- Anna Mattix (English horn)
- Tim Smith (trombone)
We covered a variety of topics during the 90-minute interview. Highlights from the discussion are presented below:
PLN: Clearly, The Haunted Palace and Antony & Cleopatra aren’t part of the core orchestral repertoire. What practice, rehearsal and performance strategies do you use when approaching obscure music like this?
Tim Smith: I think pieces like this are kind of a trademark of the BPO. When I first came here in 2009, I was always surprised when I looked at our season schedule. I’d think, “What’s that? And what’s that? That’s not Mahler, it’s not Bruckner. I don’t know that, and I don’t want to play that.” But after playing enough pieces like them, I realize how good they are.
I call them ‘JoAnn specials.’ She finds this obscure music that’s not very well-known that I think should be well-known. It’s very interesting.
As for how I approach this music, I just try to keep an open mind, and not bring a sense of already knowing how it’s going to go, like the articulation I know I need to use for Bruckner or the expansiveness of sound I would use in a Mahler fortissimo. It’s more of a blank page.
For me, it’s all about being open-minded and sensitive as to what’s happening around me in the orchestra — especially in the first rehearsal.
I try to find some recordings of it, too. Sometimes there isn’t a recording — or maybe just one recording — so I don’t have the benefit of comparing different ones.
Anna Mattix: As an English horn player, my instrument would not be on the stage unless I have a solo of some kind. So when I first go through pieces of music that are more obscure and that I don’t know, I’ll practice a little bit of my part.
Then the first listen-through for me is without the part as I’m listening for where my part is prominent. Then I’ll listen with my part and mark the places that are potentially more exposed, or that will require a little more work.
Like Tim, I try to find recordings, but I usually go to the part first before I do a lot of listening, because I want to develop my own sense of how something should go.
What I can’t usually tell in parts like these involving composers of this generation is that they didn’t helpfully write ‘solo’ above the line for us. I actually do have a few places in the Schmitt scores where it is clearly printed ‘solo’ in the part — yet not a single one of them is really a solo. And anything that is legitimately a solo doesn’t have the part marked at all!
Also, when dealing with music I don’t know, I’m not really sure what sorts of reeds I’m going to need on the stage. So a big part of my prep is gauging how many different reeds I’m going to need to get through the rehearsals and performances. Will I need to project more? Will I need a reed that plays better in the low register? And so forth.
For the Schmitt pieces I’m rotating between three different reeds. One is for the allegro movements that I can basically tongue very hard on and not worry about it dying on me. I have another one for the solo passages, and a third reed available for some of the extremely low pianissimo playing.
In the first rehearsal, I actually had five or six reeds soaked up and ready to go until I could figure out the best ones for the music, but then narrowed it down to those three.
Janz Castelo: As a section string player I rarely use recordings for preparation, in that we’re one of many players. I could come up with my ideas of how the part should be played, but if my principal, or the concertmaster, or as a collective the strings do it differently, that early effort’s been wasted. So I usually just grab the part and go from beginning to end.
The faster the notes, the more time I spend on a passage. A reference recording can be useful, but even in the difficult passages, if you push the tempo a little bit one way or the other, something that is easy could end up being something I have to spend a lot of time on. The tempo can really change the difficulty of a passage.
So it’s really a guess on what might be the most difficult passages, which I practice in a range of different speeds prior to the rehearsal. Usually if you practice something a little slower, speeding it up isn’t that difficult. So I try to do slow practicing of what look like the nasty passages.
Matthew Bassett: I do the same thing as Tim. I look over the schedule and if I see a piece I may not know, I do a lot of preparation way ahead of time. I get my music as early as I can. I find out if there are extra drums that I’ll need, like pedal timpani. Perhaps it’s something that’s going to require me to set aside practice time in the hall ahead of time, since I can practice only some things at home because I don’t have a full set of four pedal drums at home.
After I get my part, I go through it and do my initial tuning plan, as well as the sense that I get from the rhythm part of what I’ll need to do. I’ll find recordings and try to get a full score.
Like Anna, I have considerable leeway since I’m a section unto myself. I have a lot of decisions to make — or sometimes questions to ask. Is this an ensemble moment? Is it a solo moment? All of those things — and typically those are not things the conductor is going to tell you.
Travis Hendra: The two Antony & Cleopatra suites are rental sets that we had to have imported from Europe. Our preparation starts long before the musicians’, because the only way they can prepare their parts is for us to have them first in the orchestra library.
Contractually, we have to have the music available to the players two weeks before the first rehearsal. But we understand that the musicians’ preparation time is important, and it ultimately impacts the outcome. So we try to have the parts available far in advance of the two weeks.
Typically, a rental period for parts is six weeks before the first rehearsal. For the Antony & Cleopatra, it was eight weeks. And we purchased the Haunted Palace parts for our own library.
Suite #1 of Antony & Cleopatra had previously been imported for us because we performed it in 2010. So the U.S. distributor already had it here. After we sent it back after the first time we did it in 2010, the parts probably sat on the shelf for four years, and they still had our musicians’ marks on the parts when we received them again this time. The only other orchestra that used them in between was the Virginia Symphony, and that was during the same season. Very possibly, those might be the only set of Suite #1 parts in existence.
Suite #2 was printed newly for us, and you’ll see that the new printed parts contain a new copyright date of 2014, while the original copyright date is 1922. Chances are, the existing parts for Suite #2 were such a mess, they couldn’t be used anymore. Actually, the parts we got for Suite #1 were very fragile — falling apart. Suite #2’s were probably in worse shape, and the U.S. distributor looked at them and determined they couldn’t rent them to us like that. They did that for us — absorbed that cost — and we appreciated it.
PLN: Thinking about these scores, it there anything unusual or noteworthy in the way Schmitt writes for your particular section of the orchestra?
Janz Castelo: Part of the reason why my preparation for these pieces wasn’t any different than for other pieces is that, aside from some difficult passages, there’s really nothing that I see in the parts technically that I don’t also see in a Richard Strauss score. It’s challenging, but not that difficult.
Actually, things in the string parts fit in very well. There’s nothing too crazy with the key signatures. The parts are fairly clean, too, and visually it’s easy to see what’s going on. When I compare these pieces to the Glière Ilya Mouremetz Symphony which we did last year — that one was a beast.
Matthew Bassett: In my section, we were all very struck by how effective and knowledgeable the percussion writing is — for every single instrument: making great use of a particular color and not overusing instruments, and allowing percussion instruments to be a mode of color. Over and over again there are these single triangle notes that are very sporadically placed — just these wonderful moments of splash, instead of a repeated pattern of some kind.
From a technical perspective, Schmitt must have spent the time to understand percussion, or he ran his writing by experienced players.
Now specifically, his timpani writing is incredibly difficult. For instance, in The Haunted Palace, the timpani part we received is actually a simplified one for three drums when we compared it to the full score, which calls for four. So I had to transcribe the timpani part from the full score to make it correct, because that’s what the composer intended.
The reason I noticed the difference in the beginning was because I was listening to the Sao Paulo Symphony recording [Yan-Pascal Tortelier], and that timpanist was playing all of these notes that weren’t showing on the timpani parts.
Travis Hendra: Just as an aside, there wasn’t a harp part, either. So we had to transcribe that from the full score, for which there are two copyright dates, 1905 and 1906. As far as we can tell, they are identical scores, and we knew of the harp part’s existence from looking at those.
Matthew Bassett: So we see that the full score is written for timpani chromatique. As far as we know, this is what Schmitt wrote originally. This was at a time of changes in timpani technology, and it also took time for people to obtain the new pedal instruments to be able to play. Most orchestras were still using hand-crank instead of pedal drums.
It may be that Schmitt himself prepared the simplified part for a particular performance situation, because it’s also a beautifully thought-out part that works very well with the music. He just had to get rid of masses of pitch changes. But we don’t really know for sure what happened.
There are a few places where the timpani plays in the simplified part where it does not play in the original part. But more to the point, there are longer pedal rolls that don’t change whereas in the original full score, there’s all of this chromatic timpani movement happening.
What this shows is that Schmitt was writing for the timpani in a very knowledgeable way that really stretched the limits of players at the time. It’s not dissimilar to Richard Strauss. Schmitt and Strauss were the composers who were really making use of pedal timpani at the time. (Schmitt, incidentally, is not mentioned in any of my percussion or timpani history books at all.)
Anna Mattix: In the woodwind section, there are a few things that have struck me. In general, French writing for woodwinds is incredibly strong. Part of that is the high standard of technique in music schools like the Paris Conservatory, where they had first-class teachers and players — particularly woodwinds. So the woodwind tradition coming out of France has been second to none, basically forever.
Especially for oboe, essentially all of our technique comes out of the French school, and so for the technical aspects of playing these Schmitt pieces, they’re incredibly difficult and we had to put a lot of time into them. But the oboe writing is really great, and it’s a lot of fun to play.
In contrast to what Janz said about the string parts being easy to read, the woodwind parts are not easy to read. I’ve had to do work with the key signatures and other things where it’s just not intuitive. I’m guilty of having to write in note names in a few places, which I don’t normally have to do — and it seems I’m not the only one in the woodwind section doing this.
Another thing that struck me was the registers of the reed instruments. In general, the double reeds are using the full range of their instruments. I go from the lowest note up to what was generally considered at the time the highest playable note on the English horn.
But the flute parts are not as extensive. A lot of the solo flute writing is quite low in the register, and that presents a unique challenge because it’s difficult for the flute players to bring themselves out of the texture. Not that they don’t also play in the upper register, but in general the solo lines for the flute parts are pretty low.
Tim Smith: When it comes to the brass, I think French trumpet writing speaks for itself. The French have had a very strong school of trumpet playing. A lot of virtuoso players have come from that school. Schmitt knows how to write for mutes, which sometimes composers don’t. A composer might think, ‘I want this softer, I’ll use a mute,’ where mutes wouldn’t necessarily mean softer; it’s usually a timbre issue.
Schmitt writes really well for the horn section, and there are some beautiful solos that are spread amongst the section. It’s not like he’s just writing for one solo horn — they all share in the load.
As far as the trombones go, the most interesting thing I’ve noticed is that Schmitt treats the bass trombone almost like a solo instrument. The range of the bass trombone part may even go higher than the first two parts — maybe two and a half octaves — and it’s often playing higher than the tenor trombone part. And the bass trombone has the bulk of the most technical licks, like in the beginning of The Haunted Palace, which is probably the most technical passage we have.
Here’s another thing: Up until the 1950s most French orchestras were using small-bore trombones — what we would consider a jazz trombone today. It was smaller diameter tube instruments, and the French-bass trombone would probably be what I’m playing now, a tenor trombone.
Travis Hendra: Things are a challenge with French music, because there’s a specific French style that calls for a C tuba. That’s way out of the standard German contrabass tuba symphonic register.
Even so, Schmitt’s tuba writing is not that French; it’s much more in the Germanic tradition and wind band/concert band tradition — most probably calling for a B-flat tuba.
In The Haunted Palace, Schmitt writes for the sarrusophone whereas in Antony & Cleopatra, it’s contrabassoon. It’s an interesting distinction. The sarrusophone was used mainly as a replacement for the contrabassoon in outdoor bands. It’s a double-reed instrument made out of a nickel and brass alloy which has a loud, piercing tone that sounds sort of like a bad pipe organ. But sarrusophones can achieve dynamics that other double-reed instruments could not — particularly in the outdoor setting. So you have to wonder how that would affect how The Haunted Palace sounds.
Of course, modern orchestras don’t use the sarrusophone at all. It would sound so out of place — the totally wrong color for what we do. But Schmitt wasn’t the only French composer writing for that instrument. Ravel wrote extensively for the sarrusophone in Daphnis et Chloé and in Shéhérazade. Dukas wrote for it. But it didn’t carry on much beyond about 1920.
PLN: From a technical standpoint, Schmitt’s music can be quite challenging. What specific aspects do you find the most noteworthy in this regard?
Anna Mattix: My right hand hurts a lot this week! In a lot of the very fast grace notes that we have to play, it requires a lot of extremely rapid, repeated motion of the hand.
Tim Smith: With French music and brass playing, Schmitt and others write very intervalically and not necessarily within a key. There are many odd intervals and a lot of tri-tones — something that would be hard to sight-sing for your average music school graduate like me!
There are some licks in the second suite of Antony & Cleopatra that don’t lie comfortably on the instrument — at least on the trombone. Just getting those pitches correct is challenging, because on a brass instrument you have to form the note with your lips and your air speed. You have to hear the note before you can play it, essentially.
Janz Castelo: As I noted before, the viola parts fit really well. It’s instinctive. With Schmitt, everything fits naturally. There’s only one three-measure passage in the Antony & Cleopatra Suite #1 that’s almost unplayable — and I won’t mention where it is so that people won’t listen for it in the recording! In that spot, we’re in ledger lines in the treble clef; it’s almost as if we had been handed violin parts.
As far as changes in rhythm or time signatures, I haven’t found that to be a problem. I use what I refer to as the ‘Zen Approach’: If you think about it too much, you get in the way of the music-making.
Once you get into the ‘Schmitt frame of mind,’ it’s very natural. Once you understand it — the metric modulations and things like that — once you get it, it makes perfect sense: You’re in the ‘Schmitt Zone.’
Matthew Bassett: As for me, my calves are in great shape! Honestly, unless you’re preparing a contemporary timpani solo or if you’re doing a lot of Richard Strauss or current pop stuff, you don’t do this amount of pedaling all the time. And so as a player, I really notice it in a piece like The Haunted Palace.
PLN: Considering the era when this music was composed — the period between 1900 and 1920 — was Schmitt doing anything different (or better) than his contemporaries in how he wrote for the orchestra?
Travis Hendra: I think one of the biggest things we need to remember is the advances in technology in that time. I think that this had a bigger effect on how the modern orchestra sounded than people realize. Mass production of instruments — being able to produce the same quality of brass instruments — really changed how the orchestra sounded. And it carried throughout the continent.
There was experimentation going on, too, as composers like Schmitt were figuring out how best to use these instruments in the orchestra. So we see differences in how The Haunted Palace is scored compared to the later Antony & Cleopatra.
Janz Castelo: Schmitt does brilliant orchestration with beautiful colors, but I don’t see it as more remarkable or better. It was the way numerous composers orchestrated back then, and Schmitt was clearly in tune with what other composers were doing. I don’t see anything that comes across as ‘bad’ orchestration, but also there’s nothing that’s particularly earth-shattering or unique. I wouldn’t call Schmitt a pioneer.
Tim Smith: I may feel a bit differently than Janz. In general, I don’t have much appreciation for French music. Part of it is because French composers tend to use trombonists as an extension of the percussion section: ‘Oh, here’s comes a big orchestra crescendo or a chord or something like that. Let’s add a trombone note.’
I mean, when I see Debussy on our schedule or some other French piece from that period that I’m not familiar with, the first things I ask myself are, ‘What’s the instrumentation of that piece? Is that a week I’m not needed in the orchestra? Can I go south?’
I can’t think of any memorable passages for trombone that Debussy wrote. Maybe my teacher will read this someday and say, ‘Shame on you, Tim!’
Ravel? The first thing that comes to mind is Boléro, and some licks from Daphnis. La Valse is interesting, but there are no melodic moments for trombone.
Contrast that with Schmitt. I was noticing the whole orchestra this week; Schmitt has given everyone melodic fragments. He’s treated every instrument like they can carry a tune at some point in time.
It’s not like thinking, ‘Tunes are good for violin, English horn and oboe — maybe the first French horn now and then. But everybody else shouldn’t play a melody.’ Schmitt gives it to us all the time, and it passes around pretty equally from instrument to instrument.
Janz Castelo: And I think that’s very democratic. But it doesn’t make it remarkable.
Tim Smith: But from my standpoint, it’s much more interesting. If this was a Debussy recording week, I wouldn’t be here!
Janz Castelo: Mentioning French repertoire, I remember driving somewhere as a teenager and hearing Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloé — the second suite — on the car radio. I actually had to pull over to listen to it because I just didn’t think it was safe to keep driving. I had never heard anything like that. And Schmitt doesn’t do that for me. It’s incredible and remarkable music too, but it isn’t earth-shattering.
Matthew Bassett: I’d characterize Schmitt’s music as well-constructed, extremely competent, extremely polished writing for the orchestra. And there are always these comparisons with Richard Strauss because of the time period and because of the bigness of the orchestra and the ‘busyness’ of the orchestra.
I’m curious with myself in this way: If history were different and the Schmitt pieces were standard repertoire, and we all grew up listening to them and playing them — and therefore had a performance tradition like we have with Strauss — would we feel differently about this music and this composer?
Tim Smith: It all goes back to the very first question in our discussion. There is no performance tradition.
But Schmitt is very descriptive in what he writes — how he writes accents, how he writes dynamics, how he shapes the phrases — at least in our parts. There’s really no guesswork involved.
Matthew Bassett: One other thing I’ve noticed is that there’s so much going on in these scores, from an on-the-stage perspective, I actually like the music much less while playing it than when listening to a recording of it. The music is way more appealing than it seems to be on the stage.
Anna Mattix: I generally agree that there’s nothing uniquely different in the music, except that I feel Schmitt was different from his generation of other French composers. Other French scores at that time were more sparse.
So I’m having some of the same difficulty; I’m enjoying hearing the recording more than when I’m playing it on the stage. I’m having some difficulty separating things out, and figuring out what to listen for and what not to listen to. That may mean that there’s a touch too much going on in the score — maybe it’s a bit overwritten. But that doesn’t translate out in the audience — and that’s the mark of a great composer.
Tim Smith: I’d like to mention one other thing. One entire movement of the Antony & Cleopatra is scored just for brass and percussion. When does that ever happen in orchestral music?
My brass colleagues and I were talking about whether the fanfare from the Antony & Cleopatra Suite #1 could work on a brass program. I’m wondering if it has enough substance, aside from those repeated rhythmical notes that start the whole thing.
Also, it doesn’t end with a blaze. Usually when you want to program a fanfare, you’re thinking of the Dukas La Péri or the Copland Common Man or a movement from the Tomasi Fanfares liturgiques that we played recently. Ones that start with a blaze, have a middle section, and then end strong. But perhaps the Schmitt fanfare could have a life of its own because as brass players, we don’t have centuries of original music to draw from.
PLN: One critic has described Schmitt’s musical style like this: “Even though he made use of the harmonic and textural devices of his French contemporaries, delicacy and nuance were only a couple of his intermittent concerns as Schmitt meticulously constructed his enormous orchestral machines, full of tidal surges, anticipatory dread, and continuously unresolved climaxes. Schmitt’s heart … was always drawn to the spectacle and excess of a theatrical ambience.” In what ways do you agree or disagree with this assessment?
Janz Castelo: I totally agree with that statement. And it’s why, while I enjoy the music, I may have some problems with it. There are all these great colors and ambience and wonderful textures, but at the end of the day, I have a hard time humming a melody. There’s no one big tune that catches you. The theatrical ambience is always there, but I need a little more of something to grab me. As a listener, I think I may need to be led by the hand a little more as opposed to just wandering through this sonic realm.
Tim Smith: The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear about ‘continuously unresolved climaxes’ and the ‘spectacle and excess of a theatrical ambience,’ is Wagner. Wagner never cadences; it just keeps going. I definitely hear something programmatic about what Schmitt writes in his music. You can tell this from the titles he uses; he didn’t call these pieces ‘Symphony #1’ or ‘Orchestral Suite #2.’
But the other thing is this: I like listening to Schmitt’s music. He keeps it moving. He doesn’t linger on something for too long.
Maybe I’m just not a very patient listener, but I find that in a lot of pieces, when we get to a certain stretch it just feels like we sit mired in it forever. I don’t feel that way with Schmitt’s music. He brings forth his ideas and then moves along to the next thing. Whether you consider it fully developed or not is a personal observation, I guess.
Anna Mattix: As a double reed player, I’ve played more French music than any other style, probably. So Schmitt is such an interesting mix for me, because the technical demands are so French but the sound is so Germanic. That’s really how it all comes together for me.
The very first time I read through The Haunted Palace, my first thought was that the piece reminds me of the circus. Not like circus music, but the atmosphere where there’s so much going on — so many colors and so many things to look at. The phrase that keeps coming to me this week has been ‘somewhat overwhelming.’ That’s not a negative thing, by the way.
Matthew Bassett: With Schmitt, the instinct is to go with a heavy German sound — to play it big and fat. It actually helped me a lot to resist the temptation to do that. As the timpanist, if I choose not to do that, it’s noticed, and it probably influences how the rest of the orchestra plays, too.
Travis Hendra: In music like this, we listen through our ears of history. We have Debussy, we have Ravel, and we associate those composers with the French style. And then we have Richard Strauss and Wagner and Beethoven — that’s our German style.
Schmitt isn’t French enough to be considered with Debussy and Ravel, and yet he isn’t German enough to be considered with Strauss. And you can tell, because in his music, he straddles this world.
Schmitt was born in the Lorraine region of France, so you have to wonder if there was an internal conflict (despite his French musical training) — consciously or subconsciously throughout his entire life — of straddling these two worlds.
PLN: What sort of special challenges are there in preparing the orchestra parts for lesser known scores like these? Was there anything in particular about preparing this music for performance that was unusual or challenging?
Travis Hendra: For music like this, we have to know as soon as JoAnn wants to program it. Often, we have to import these kinds of scores. We had a missing harp part; we had a timpani part that had to be transcribed.
The bass clarinet in the score is a different style of writing because of the instruments available at the time the music was composed. For the performers, these things can be tricky because it’s not how the musicians are used to playing. So we transposed all of those parts for B-flat clarinet.
The sheet music for Antony & Cleopatra Suite #1 is not in great shape. Because the paper was discolored, brittle and fragile, we had to repair numerous pages where there were tears. Those printed parts might even date back to the 1920s.
PLN: Do you have any other interesting anecdotes to share about preparing the Schmitt pieces for performance and recording?
Matthew Bassett: Common to French music of this time is which keyboard percussion instruments are called for in the score. In the Antony & Cleopatra Suite #2 there is a celesta part, and there’s also a part for jeu de timbres, which is a keyboard glockenspiel that the orchestra doesn’t have.
There is a tradition in French orchestras where a percussion keyboard player is assigned to celesta, keyboard glock, regular glock, xylophone and chimes. That probably explains this particular part in the score. Although it’s written on a grand staff, it’s nearly all playable by one person on a standard glock using an extra stick here and there and leaving out a couple of weird leaps that are not useful at the tempo we’re playing it. So we had to go through the part and figure out how to get it to work for us.
Janz Castelo: Tim and I may have our disagreements as to whether or not Schmitt is better than Debussy. But you know, you can only do so much Debussy and Ravel. So as the person who may have been the least enthusiastic about the composer in our discussion today, let me state that I have thoroughly enjoyed being in the ‘Schmitt Zone’ this week!
Hearty thanks to these five members of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for taking the time to share their observations about Florent Schmitt and his music. It was a highly informative discussion. What we learned is very helpful in understanding the challenges and rewards of preparing and performing Schmitt’s music. Moreover, it’s certainly a different perspective from those of us who are in the audience or listen to recordings.
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.