Dancing Demons and Underwater Airplanes: Florent Schmitt’s Phantasmagorical Ronde burlesque (1927)

Dancing Demons (moravid)

Dancing Demons (artwork by moravid)

Within the catalogue of Florent Schmitt’s compositions are a goodly number of brilliant orchestral showpieces that exploit the colors of the orchestra to the fullest degree.

One of the most interesting and effective of these also happens to be one of the shortest — the Ronde burlesque, Opus 78.

This piece was composed in 1927 during a time when Schmitt was experimenting with a more contemporary compositional style. The most prominent fruit of this experimentation is the stunning Symphonie Concertante for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 82, a major 30-minute work known as much for its its craggy atmospherics and jagged rhythms as for its glittering orchestration.

Equally brilliant, the Ronde burlesque, which was first performed in January 1930 by the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris at the Salle Pleyel by the French-Romanian conductor Georges Georgescu, who was also the work’s dedicatee, seems a fitting forerunner to the Symphonie Concertante. The premiere performance was followed by a second one at Belgium’s Liège Festival in September of the same year.

Barely six minutes in length, it is music that befits the classic (i.e., non-striptease) definition of the term “burlesque” — that is, an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation or parody.

Airplane CombatIn the case of this particular burlesque, the composer revealed that it was supposed to represent “an underwater airplane combat”! Others have sensed different connotations as well. Arts critic Émile Vuillermoz described Ronde burlesque like this:

“A kaleidoscope of swirling rhythms that leaves no rest for the instrumentalists drawn into its frantic gyrations — it is a truly hellish atmosphere that leads this grimacing, satanic dance. Taking on the character of the grotesque religious imagery of the Middle Ages, timbres squeak, giggle and whistle with a kind of fantastic fury.”

Musicologist and writer Robert Dezarnaux sensed similar echoes of “olden times” in the piece, characterizing the music as follows:

“It twists, grimaces and jumps like those damned in the boiler — like the clawed devils one encounters in the underworld of the Old Dutch Masters.”

Lionel Salter

Lionel Salter (1914-2000)

Pianist and music critic Lionel Salter is in broad agreement, writing these words about the piece in the October 1988 issue of Gramophone magazine:

[It] may indeed be, by its title and the composer’s own comment on it, a Satie-esque leg-pull, but sounds more like Vuillermoz’s suggestion … of the medieval Dance of Death. ‘Grotesque’ rather than ‘burlesque,’ in fact: It’s febrile gaiety, grimacing gestures and sardonic mockery are, to my ear, distinctly sinister.”

When I listen to Ronde burlesque, I can picture all of these images quite clearly. But to my mind, the imagery that comes closest to the target is Schmitt’s own characterization of an “underwater airplane dogfight” — weird and unrelentingly frenetic sounds that seem at once phantasmagorical and yet all-too-real.

Florent Schmitt Ronde burlesque

Dancing demons and underwater airplanes: The piano four-hands version of Florent Schmitt’s Ronde burlesque (1927).

At the time of piece’s premiere, the author Pierre de Lapommeraye wrote:

“A buoyant rhythm, whose framework will be maintained under all of the subsequent deformations and embellishments, launches the Ronde. Nimble — and a little sarcastic like its composer — it never loses its vigor and motion. As for the rich orchestration and the sudden and curious encounters of timbres, we know with what mastery Florent Schmitt handles them — with what ingenious dexterity he kneads them. [In this regard,] never perhaps has he shown so much skill.”

Florent Schmitt calling card Ronde burlesque

A Florent Schmitt calling card, inscribed by the composer including a musical quotation from his Ronde burlesque.

The Greek composer Petros Petridis, who stuied with Albert Roussel in Paris and also wrote music criticism for the London-based magazine The Musical Times, hinted at the possibility of a ballet-in-the-making when commenting about the piece after its Paris premiere:

“This is a rhythmical scherzo … pending the performance of the ballet, we may well consider Ronde burlesque as one of the most perfectly worked-out specimens of Schmitt’s powerful art.”

Edwin Evans

Edwin Evans (1874-1945)

The English music critic Edwin Evans, who attended the September 1930 performance in Belgium, reported his own impressions of the music in the pages of the same magazine as follows:

“Schmitt’s Rondo is good music, but … the score is so burdened that none of the players seem to have a moment’s respite. Yet the substance is attractive.”

A somewhat different conclusion was drawn by Henry Prunières, the Parisian publisher and critic who submitted the following report to the New York Times:

Henry Prunieres 1935 photo

Henry Prunières, photographed in 1935 at his editor’s desk at La Revue musicale. Prunières (1886-1942) founded the magazine in 1920, which was published until the onset of World War II. He was also an international music correspondent for the New York Times during the 1920s.

“Florent Schmitt’s Ronde burlesque, very well directed by Fernand Quinet, was an immediate success. Its rhythmic vivacity and its skillful composition were relished by the musicians.”

To be sure, Ronde burlesque is a virtuoso number — and it requires a virtuoso orchestra to do it full justice.

Unfortunately, performances have been rare occurences — even in Paris, where it appears that there have been relatively few concert presentations of the music since a January 1933 concert by the Orchestre des Concerts Pasdeloup led by Henri Tomasi. In the United States I am aware of several early performances, including in October 1924 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, as well as by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra during the 1930-31 concert season, led by Alfred Hertz.

Florent Schmitt Ronde burlesque manuscript pages

Several pages from Florent Schmitt’s own manuscript for Ronde burlesque, composed in 1927.

Gaston Poulet French conductor

Gaston Poulet (1892-1974)

Moreover, to my knowledge there have been just two recordings ever made of this fascinating score. Unfortunately, in my view neither of them quite measures up to the music’s full potential. The earlier of the two recordings was made in the later years of the 78-rpm era and featured Gaston Poulet conducting on a Decca-Odeon disk. I own a copy of that recording, which I believe has never been re-released in LP, CD or download format.

Florent Schmitt Ronde burlesque Gaston Poulet Odeon Decca

The American Decca pressing of the first commercial recording of Florent Schmitt’s Ronde burlesque, with the orchestral forces led by Gaston Poulet. (Recorded  in Paris by Parlophone.)

Florent Schmitt Pierre Stoll Ronde Burlesque Oriane In MemoriamThe newer recording dates from the late 1980s and appeared on the French Cybelia label in both LP and CD incarnations. That performance features Pierre Stoll directing the Rhineland-Palatinate Philharmonic Orchestra.

Although captured in decent sound quality, it too is not as polished a performance as one would wish to hear of this brilliant tour de force.

Beyond which … the Cybelia recording has been out of print for nearly 20 years, making it a rarity to say the least. Until recently, anyone who wished to hear this music had a hunt on their hands, but thanks to George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos and his estimable music channel, the performance has finally made it to YouTube and can be heard here, along with the added benefit of viewing the score while the music plays.

So … what we really need is for one of today’s ardent Schmitt advocates to take up the cause of Ronde burlesque and produce a recording that boasts not only fine sonics, but also the polished performance this score deserves. Lionel Bringuier … Stéphane Denève … JoAnn Falletta … Fabien Gabel … Sascha Goetzel … Yan-Pascal Tortelier:  Whose game?


Update (5/24/17):  The North American premiere performance of Ronde burlesque was presented by the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec and its music director, Fabien Gabel, 90 years following the work’s composition.

And what a revelation!  Maestro Gabel’s interpretation stands head-and-shoulders above the two commercial recordings.  Never before have I heard such musical detail with the inner voices — not to mention overall brilliance and orchestral colors.

Wisely, the conductor chose a slightly slower tempo in his interpretation, which made such a difference in presenting this composition as the orchestral showpiece it most assuredly is.  Here’s hoping that Maestro Gabel will see fit to record this music — and soon — for all to hear.

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