This year, Florent Schmitt’s opulent score will be presented by two leading orchestras — the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony — in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe.
It’s quite interesting to witness a piece of classical music make the journey from being a rarity to becoming mainstream. I can think of several examples, headlined by the popularization of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies beginning after World War II — and then really building up a head of steam in the 1960s.
Today, no self-respecting orchestra would schedule a concert season without including at least one Mahler symphony on its roster.
A more recent example is Joseph Jongen’s 1926 Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra. Once the private preserve of superstar organist Virgil Fox who held exclusive performing rights through the 1970s, now it’s a work that rivals the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony in popularity — played by organists around the world along with being the recipient of dozens of recordings and concert video uploads.
A third example is the Violin Concerto of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Despite Jascha Heifetz’s advocacy of the piece, when the first modern (stereophonic) recording of this concerto was released by EMI/Angel in the early 1970s (played by violinist Ulf Hoelscher), it was considered quite a novelty … and when I saw it presented in concert in Minneapolis in the mid-1970s, it was still a real rarity.
Yet today, the Korngold concerto rivals the Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Beethoven and Lalo concerti in the number of concert performances it receives.
In retrospect, successful transitions like these may seem only natural. But it’s much different to witness the first stirrings of such a transition — and often it’s difficult to discern if those stirrings represent a real trend, or simply “noise.”
We may be at that beginning stage in the case of Florent Schmitt’s two Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites, Opus 69.
Of the composer’s numerous works for large instrumental forces, only three have managed to establish any sort of place in the repertoire. The best known is the ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, composed in 1907/10. The two others are the blockbuster choral work Psaume XLVII from 1904, and Dionysiaques (1913), Schmitt’s stunning composition for concert band.
Is Antoine et Cléopâtre now poised to join these other three?
Composed as incidental music to André Gide’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, the music was first performed as part of famed dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein’s opulent stage production at the Paris Opéra in 1920.
That production was destined to have just six performances before disappearing from the stage. But Schmitt gave new life to the score by fashioning two suites out of the music. The suites were premiered in the concert hall in October 1920, played by the Lamoureux Orchestra under the direction of Camille Chevillard.
And then after that … near total silence for decades. Other than an occasional broadcast performance of excerpts by the ORTF in Paris, the suites were never heard, much less recorded.
The first inklings of a resurrection came about in 1988 when the French recording label Cybelia released the first-ever recording of the two suites — a Southwest German Radio co-production with musical forces conducted by Leif Segerstam.
Only then could curious music-lovers hear Schmitt’s inventive and evocative score. And yet … the recording was no more than serviceable, with less-than-polished ensemble and audio quality that was “just OK.”
On top of these factors, the Cybelia recording had extremely limited distribution beyond the borders of France, soon going out of print.
And so another 20 years of silence elapsed. Then in 2008, the enterprising French label Timpani released Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre suites in a solid interpretation by Jacques Mercier and the Lorraine National Orchestra. Despite being a release with limited physical distribution (and carrying a hefty price tag as well), it was a welcome development that helped spark new interest in the Florent Schmitt’s score.
In North America, this manifested itself in the first-ever continental performances of the Suite No. 1 in 2010 (by conductor JoAnn Falletta leading her two American orchestras, the Virginia Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic) … and then the Suite No. 2 in 2015 (also with Maestra Falletta and the BPO).
Concurrently, the music finally received a recording on a label with true worldwide reach and penetration — NAXOS Classics — made by the Buffalo Philharmonic in 2015. Commenting on the Antony & Cleopatra recording project, Maestra Falletta has remarked:
“In terms of the recordings of lesser-known pieces that I’ve made, to me this material is the strongest musically. Schmitt’s output is music on a different level. It’s music that should be played with Debussy and Ravel — and mentioned in the same breath as Debussy and Ravel.”
With the release of this recording by NAXOS in November 2015, Schmitt’s score has had its most widespread exposure yet, with sales generated not just in Europe and North America but also in the Far East, South Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
The NAXOS recording has also garnered near-universal critical acclaim and a plethora of positive reviews — both for the performance quality and for the inventiveness of the music. Shown below are several representative examples.
“There remains the special thrill of auditioning something unfamiliar. The music doesn’t have to be new, just unknown to the listener. It may disappoint, it might be a revelation …
“The meat of this release, the forty-six minutes of Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920), [has] Schmitt doing Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra proud — music that sucks the listener in, bringing characters and situations alive, and on its own terms ravishes the senses (for the love of the named pair) and excites the red corpuscles (there’s a pulsating, becoming barbaric orgy, and how alluring is its aftermath!). This is music high on imagery, poetic expression and with rivers of colour and description. The time spent with the six pieces passes quickly and rewardingly: terrific brass fanfares to open ‘Le Camp de Pompée’, for example, and the later night music is exotic and perfumed. How tragic and emotionally raw ‘Le Tombeau de Cléopâtre’ is.
“There is, then, much to relish in Schmitt’s ideas and orchestration, and much to admire in JoAnn Falletta’s devoted conducting of music that she clearly believes in.”
“I can honestly say that listening to this performance gave me goose-bumps. Any devotee of large orchestral, vocal or balletic works … should instantly gravitate to Schmitt’s score.”
“There is much here for Francophiles to like … crucially, the various musical inferences would not be possible without a ravishing ear for orchestral timbre allied to delicious harmonies, conveyed with finesse by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. The strings create a suitable haze around the idiomatic woodwind colour. The early melodies in ‘Le Tombeau de Cléopâtre’ for, respectively, cor anglais, lower strings and oboe, surrounded by assorted chirrups, are especially striking.”
It is one thing to receive warm congratulatory reviews for a recording. But what about public performances of the music — particularly ones being done by the world’s leading orchestras? When that begins to happen, it is more likely to signal a trend.
For Antony & Cleopatra, the concert performances are now happening. This summer, one suite will be performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and in the fall the BBC Symphony will perform both suites at the Barbican Centre in London.
Something even more noteworthy is happening with these upcoming performances: They will also feature dramatic readings and staging inspired by the original 1920 Gide/Rubinstein/Schmitt production at the Paris Opéra.
In addition to presenting the music of the first suite of Antony & Cleopatra, the Hollywood Bowl programs will feature three other musical works inspired by Shakespeare: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Overture-Fantasy, scenes from Berlioz’s Romeo & Juliet, and suite from Much Ado About Nothing by Korngold.
Hard on the heels of the Los Angeles concerts, on October 4, 2015, Schmitt’s complete incidental music to Antony & Cleopatra will receive its England premiere at the Barbican Theatre, performed by the BBC Symphony under the direction of the orchestra’s music director, Sakari Oramo.
As part of the Shakespeare 400 celebration commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the death of The Bard, the BBC/Barbican performance will also include dramatic readings from the play, performed by actors from Shakespeare’s Globe. More information about this event is available here.
For lovers of Shakespeare as well as for people who enjoy late-romantic music with a dramatic flair (or French music in general), these upcoming performances of Florent Schmitt’s Antony & Cleopatra promise to be memorable occasions, well-worth experiencing.
Perhaps they signal something else as well: the possibility that Florent Schmitt’s very special music is truly coming into its own, nearly a century after its creation. We’ll see how that trend plays out in the years ahead.