Beyond Salomé: Florent Schmitt’s Other Biblical Ballet (Danse d’Abisag — 1925)

David & Abisag Pedro Americo 1879

David & Abisag, painted by the Brazilian artist Pedro Américo in 1879. Acknowledged as one of the most important Brazilian painters in the Academic style, Américo (1843-1905) died in Florence, Italy.

One of the lesser known of Florent Schmitt’s “orientalist” works is Danse d’Abisag, Opus 75. This work, which was composed in 1925, began life as a choreographic work but soon migrated to the concert hall.

In creating the orientalist works upon which so much of his fame rests, Schmitt derived inspiration from historical, biblical and fictional events. Danse d’Abisag is no exception, being based on a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible.

Abisag (sometimes spelled as “Abishag” or “Avishag”) was a beautiful young virgin woman from Shunam who was selected to be a “helper and servant” to King David in his old age.  Quoting from the New Interpreter’s Bible:

“… The Hebrews … believed that the fertility of the soil and the general prosperity of the people were bound up with the fertility of the king. David, by this time, was old and decrepit and his sexual vigor is called into question. Attempts are made to remedy the situation. 

The first cure is to heap clothes upon his bed in order to secure such physical heat as might render him capable. When this fails, a search is made for the most beautiful woman in the land. Great emphasis is placed upon her charms …”

Among Abisag’s responsibilities was to lie next to King David to keep him warm.  However, there were no sexual relations between the two.  As the Book of Kings recounts:

“The damsel was very fair, and cherished the King, and ministered to him; but the King knew her not.”

[As an interesting aside, some scholars have speculated that Abisag is the same protagonist in the Song of Songs — which is interesting in that the Song of Songs figures prominently in another one of Florent Schmitt’s orientalist works — the far better-known Psalm 47.]

The story of Abisag in the Old Testament provided fertile inspiration for Schmitt to create a work that contains many of the trademark aspects of the composer’s orchestral scores from this period.

The piece begins in the depths of the orchestra (bass clarinet, bassoon and low strings) — in a way that’s quite remindful of several other orientalist scores of the composer — Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920), Salammbô (1925) and Oriane et le Prince d’Amour (1933).

Carina Ari dancer

Carina Ari (1897-1970), the Swedish ballet artist (born Maria Karina Viktoria Jansson) who, while married to the French conductor Désiré Inghelbrecht, danced a number of orientalist roles in Paris in the years following World War I, including Florent Schmitt’s Danse d’Abisag. Mme. Ari’s career took her eventually to Buenos Aires.

The music then segues into a stylized oriental dance, with sinuous themes and movements taken up by the woodwinds — and punctuated by occasional brass note clusters suggesting the King’s attempted but ultimately unsuccessful sexual response.

As the story line would suggest, the music proceeds in fits and starts, ultimately ending quietly, with a sense of resignation.

Throughout the work, the prevailing tone and mood is dark.

Carina Ari Desire Inghelbrecht 1922 photo

Carina Ari and Désiré Inghelbrecht, photographed in 1922, three years prior to presenting the premiere performance of Florent Schmitt’s Danse d’Abisag.

The first public performance of Danse d’Abisag was a choreographic production at the Opéra-Comique.  Presented in June 1925, it featured Carina Ari dancing the starring role, with the theatre orchestra conducted by Désiré-Emilie Inghelbrecht, part of a program of eight colorful staged works penned by seven composers.

Carina Ari Opera-comique program 1925 Inghelbrecht Schmitt

The premiere stage presentation of Florent Schmitt’s ballet Danse d’Abisag shared billing with seven other “orientalist” fare including pieces by Arthur Honegger, Reynaldo Hahn, Tor Aulin and several other composers.

Henrietta Malkiel, a correspondent for Musical America magazine, attended Carina Ari’s performance, and her report about the evening appeared in the July 25, 1925 edition of the periodical. Her article was titled “Paris Modernists Rebel Against Outmoded Ballets,” and in it she noted:

Henrietta Malkiel Poynter 1940

Henrietta Malkiel Poynter (1901-1968) was an American journalist and businesswoman. Born in New York City into a family of political and labor union activists, she graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 1922. Malkiel worked as a features and foreign desk editor for several publications including Vanity Fair and Vogue. She also served as assistant to film director John Houseman. Malkiel married Nelson Poynter in 1942 and subsequently served as an assistant program chief for Voice of America. In 1945 she and her husband co-founded Congressional Quarterly, aiming to provide a link between local newspapers and Washington DC’s complex Federal government activities. (ca. 1940 photo)

“In a program called simply Scènes dansées, Carina Ari, one of the dancers of the Swedish Ballet, showed a remarkable ingenuity and understanding of the possibilities of interpretation …

She gave an oriental danse by Florent Schmitt, based on the story of King David and the virgin, called Danse d’Abisag, of full mellow tone and exotic development, ending in the futility which is so characteristic of Schmitt …

The new producers of modern ballets have tried to avoid a struggle between the dancing and sets and the music by giving each its proper place in the ballet, by devising scenery and dances which seem to be part of the music rather than an ostentatious explanation of it. It is an effort to combine all arts into one. The old form of ballet was constricted, but the new composers are changing that; there is now pliability where there was formality.”

Paul Paray French conductor

Paul Paray, French conductor and composer (1886-1979)

Early the following year (January 1926), Danse d’Abisag had its concert hall premiere in a performance by the Lamoureux Orchestra under Paul Paray, the director who was to introduce concert audiences to more of Schmitt’s orchestral works than any other conductor.

Reviewing the Lamoureux performance in the pages of Apollo magazine, poet, author and critic André Salmon was effusive in his praise of the composition, writing:

Andre Salmon French poet writer critic

André Salmon (1881-1969) was a French poet, critic and journalist. An early defender of the Cubism movement  in art, among Salmon’s many artist friends were the painters Modigliani and Picasso. (Painting: Josette Bournet, ca. 1947)

“What a far cry this is from Strauss’ Salome. The tension of the rhythm gives it its architecture, and the composer has long been famous for his very personal harmonic prolongations, faintly sustained.

Florent Schmitt captivates by the richness he dominates, reducing its various elements to a constant value. A measure often detaches itself from the rhythm without breaking it. This may be compared to the poetic image supporting brilliantly all the aerial mass of the [symphonic] poem. Did not Florent Schmitt … write once that music is superior to painting in that it does not leave beyond its surge any encumbering dross?”

Aline van Barentzen pianist

Aline van Barentzen (1897-1981)

Concurrent with the staging of Danse d’Abisag, Florent Schmitt prepared a piano reduction of the score, and it was this version that was presented in recital on June 25, 1926 at the Salle Gaveau by the American-born pianist Aline van Barentzen. The Paris correspondent of Musical America magazine was present at the recital — which included music by Brahms, Mompou, Szymanowski, Villa-Lobos and Ravel in addition to Schmitt’s piece — noting that the pianist “is master of every phase of technique required in modern piano playing — added to this is a keen musical sense and a reverent approach to the masters.”

Dancer Carina Ari kept Danse d’Abisag in her repertoire for the remainder of her career on the stage. Indeed, the ballet would be included in six of Mme. Ari’s twelve gala farewell performances at the Paris Opéra-Comique, presented in March, April and May of 1939.

Olav Kielland

Olav Kielland (1901-1985)

Since then, the ballet has disappeared from the stage, and its fate in the concert hall hasn’t been much better. In my research, I’ve found scant evidence of performances of the music. Way back in 1932 the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra presented the piece under the direction of composer-conductor Olav Kielland.

Much more recently, a performance from February 1991 featured the Orchestre National de Montpellier conducted by Marc Soustrot, which was also broadcast over French Radio.

Marc Soustrot French conductor

Marc Soustrot

Danse d’Abisag has had only one commercial recording to date, made in 1992 by the Rheinland-Pfalz Philharmonic (German Südwestfunk Radio), conducted by Leif Segerstam and released on NAXOS’ Marco Polo label.  (The recording emanates from a broadcast performance.) The Marco Polo recording has also been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.

Even better, the Soustrot performance is available to hear and view in conjunction with the score, courtesy of George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos’ worthy music channel.

Schmitt Segerstam Marco Polo

Only commercial recording to date: Leif Segerstam and the Rheinland-Pfalz Philharmonic (1992).

To my ears, the music of Danse d’Abisag reminds me not only of Schmitt’s score for the silent film Salammbô, composed in the very same year, but even more Schmitt’s final orientalist composition, the large-scale ballet Oriane et le Prince d’Amour which he composed in the early 1930s.

In fact, I consider Danse d’Abisag to be the forerunner of the later ballet — albeit on a much smaller scale than Oriane, which clocks in at well over 50 minutes and also includes a large chorus and an important solo tenor part. (By comparison, Danse d’Abisag is purely orchestral and fewer than 15 minutes in duration.)

Florent Schmitt letter to Michel de BryIn the early 1940s, writing to the then-director of the Académie du Disque Français, Michel de Bry, Schmitt provided a glimpse of his “oriental muse” (translated from the French):

“I love the Orient as my third homeland – without neglecting that Italy, where I lived, is the second.  I cherish my voyages in Arabia, in Persia, in Afghanistan and other unforgettable small countries nearby, even if I am ignorant of their languages …”

Of course, by the time Schmitt penned this note, his orientalist compositions were well behind him. Yet it seems those compositions remained among the favorites of his “musical children.” Critics seem to agree: Taken as a group, these works represent not only the core of the composer’s orchestral oeuvre, they’re also the ones singled out most often for praise.

Danse d’Abisag may not be the brightest star in that galaxy, but it is a highly characteristic piece that deserves a place among the great orientalist music of Florent Schmitt — La Tragédie de Salomé Psaume XLVII … and all the others.

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