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.

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.

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.

Florent Schmitt Danse d'Abisag Segerstam Marco Polo

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

To my knowledge, 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 has also been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.

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 under 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 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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