In 2010, the American conductor JoAnn Falletta resurrected a Florent Schmitt rarity: The Suite No. 1 from the incidental music the composer had written for Andre Gide’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Antony & Cleopatra. It was an Ida Rubinstein production done in her characteristically outré style: an entire-evening extravaganza mounted at the Paris Opéra.
Schmitt’s incidental music, which was performed in between the acts of the play, was praised by critics – even as they found problems with the rest of the production. Antony & Cleopatra would run just six nights before disappearing from the stage.
Wanting his music to have a life beyond the original stage production, Schmitt created two suites out of the music, which were premiered in the concert hall later in the year by the Lamoureux Orchestra conducted by Camille Chevillard.
One of the brightest stars in Schmitt’s constellation of “orientalist” compositions, Antoine et Cléopâtre is music that remained barely known for decades. Two French recordings surfaced 20 years apart from one another (both with rather limited distribution), but it wasn’t until 2010 that the music began to be heard in the concert hall outside the borders of France thanks to the efforts of JoAnn Falletta.
Then in 2015, Maestra Falletta performed and recorded both suites with her Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, in a NAXOS release that finally gave the music true worldwide reach and penetration.
It was the NAXOS recording that sparked the interest of Bill Barclay, director of music for Shakespeare’s Globe who was planning series of productions in 2016 commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of The Bard.
Fairly smitten by the color, sweep and power of the incidental music, Barclay’s vision was to “re-imagine” Shakespeare’s play by integrating Florent Schmitt’s score with the drama and presenting it in a shortened version in a concert venue. Barclay chose the prestigious Shakespearean director Iqbal Khan to oversee the production.
Unsuccessful in finding any surviving documentation of the original Rubinstein/Gide/Schmitt Paris production, in the words of Bachtrack music critic and editor Mark Pullinger, “Barclay unpicked the stitching [of the suites], reordered and sewn it back together to accompany a filleted version of the play.”
A “first run” of a portion of the resulting production was presented at the Hollywood Bowl by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Bramwell Tovey in August 2016, joined by actors from Shakespeare’s Globe.
Then the production was presented in its entirety on October 4, 2016 by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in London. Praise was near-unanimous, with critics noting the “superb synchronicity between actors and orchestra … to form a coherent musico-dramatic whole … fascinating – every second of it” (The Guardian). The Financial Times wrote of the production, “Sensuous and exotic … and imaginative stage direction featuring rarely heard music.”
One of the faithful readers of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog, British heritage consultant Edmund Harris, was able to attend the Barbican concert. I asked him to share his perspectives on the music and the performance for the benefit of other readers. His comments are presented below.
PLN: Were you familiar with Florent Schmitt’s Antony & Cleopatra score before you attended the BBCSO/Shakespeare’s Globe presentation?
EH: I wasn’t. I knew that JoAnn Falletta had released a recording of it recently and wanted to investigate it, but hadn’t got around to doing so.
PLN: What were your impressions of the music?
EH: Heady, wonderful stuff! It was vintage Schmitt: dramatic, luxurious, highly romantic (and Romantic), emotionally highly charged and sumptuously orchestrated.
Having listened to quite a bit of Schmitt’s music, I could have been left in no doubt as to who the composer was. That said, it is definitely Schmitt from his earlier period; the music he wrote towards the end of his life is far more terse – even cryptic.
PLN: Schmitt’s music has been characterized by some scholars as being a blend of French impressionism and German late-romanticism. Do you think this this a fair characterization?
EH: I think that’s a fair description – although to answer your question I have to ask myself, “What is characteristic of both, and which elements of either does Schmitt embody?”
Most obviously to me, the element of French impressionism (but also of French music more widely) that his music embodies is the concern with sonority: very carefully judged and blended instrumental timbres along with really exquisite orchestration.
At the same time, music like the Antony & Cleopatra is very bold and colorful, and certainly that is more redolent of someone like Richard Strauss. There’s none of the gauziness – stasis, even – of typical French impressionism.
To me, this is most obvious if you compare him with Koechlin, almost his exact contemporary, who I think built more obviously on the achievements of Ravel and Debussy into the mid twentieth century. Schmitt can do dramatic counterpoint – like the fugal second section of Psalm XLVII – that certainly strikes me as more Germanic. But I think it might be better to say that he embodies a pole which we don’t always think of as typical for French music.
The liner notes to the Hyperion recording of Schmitt’s Psalm XLVII [Thierry Fischer/BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales] talk about that piece as embodying the “Dionysian” tendency in French music represented equally well by something like Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla. It is opposed to the classical poise, elegance and lightness that we more often associate with French composers and which represent the opposite pole in French music.
I think it might be fairer to contend that Schmitt demonstrated that the language of impressionism could be adapted to serve the “Dionysian” tendency every bit as much as the musical language of a full-on late Romantic like Richard Strauss.
PLN: What are the aspects of Schmitt’s score that appealed to you most? Are there certain sections that were particularly effective and memorable during the concert?
EH: That’s a difficult question to answer because the movements were reshuffled and not presented in the order in which Schmitt intended them to be played. I think any section in the score where I was able to immerse myself without distractions was effective!
That said, the music that was played when Cleopatra first came on stage made for something very memorable indeed – it really underscored the beauty and sensuality of her persona.
PLN: The BBCSO/Shakespeare’s Globe production was a re-creation of sorts – in which Schmitt’s two orchestral suites were broken apart and then pieced back together with portions of dialogue from Shakespeare’s play interpolated. How well did this work in terms of presenting a cohesive “narrative”?
EH: I think it was a very worthwhile thing to try, and probably better than just giving it a concert performance. I’m always aware when I listen to suites drawn from operas or music to accompany a play that it is completely divorced from what it was meant to accompany on the stage — and for that reason a great part of it is going completely over my head.
Given that the original production of Antony & Cleopatra apparently ran for six hours, and also that we don’t know enough about it to be able to attempt an ‘archaeologically’ correct reconstruction, it would have been impossible to do it any other way in this instance.
PLN: What were your impressions of the actors who played the main roles in the production? Any particular observations to share on how well the characters were “realized” on the stage?
EH: They were superb. They played bits of it for laughs, although perhaps it would be better to say that they were successful in bringing out the humor in Shakespeare’s text and there was plenty of laughter from the audience.
The actors made their characters big, boldly drawn, charismatic personalities, and that seemed to fit into the spirit of the production that Schmitt’s music embodies.
PLN: Presenting music and the spoken word together can pose challenges – ranging from poor balances between the dialogue and the music, to a lack of clarity – or simply having the two together be a distraction. How well did this aspect of the presentation work?
EH: I’m not quite sure whether they solved all the problems of balance. I have to say that the evening left me feeling that what I really want to do now is to listen to the new Falletta recording of the score and also to read the original text of the play (which I’m ashamed to say I don’t know) so that I can gain a proper appreciation of both!
Inevitably, some of the soliloquies delivered against the backdrop of the music got drowned out, and that was quite frustrating as one could appreciate properly neither Shakespeare nor Schmitt at those moments.
Also, the effect of having just a handful of actors on a narrow stage in front of a huge, late-romantic-sized orchestra was slightly odd, and the scene of Anthony’s death – where the actor looked at one point like he was about to roll off the stage right into the audience – rather suffered for it. (There were laughs from the audience at that point that the scene shouldn’t have elicited.)
PLN: You have an interesting background as an architectural heritage consultant rather than as a musician. How did your love for both evolve? Can you tell us how your interest of music influences how you think about architecture, and vice versa?
EH: As a heritage consultant, I advise on the significance and capacity to accommodate change of historic buildings to developers and architects who are doing work that involves them. My love of architecture goes back to early childhood and was fired by my parents, who took me to see a lot of historic sites. It was galvanised by being brought up in a rather dreary bit of the Home Counties, because thanks to that I quickly realised that there were far more interesting and beautiful places in Britain than where we lived.
As for music, my mother loves early German Romanticism and used to sing and play the piano when I was little; some of my earliest musical memories are of hearing Schubert. In the late 1980s my father got interested in the music of Shostakovich. There was a festival of his music in London which helped to raise the composer’s stock. At the time, the composer was viewed in some quarters as having sold out to the Soviet regime at the end of his life, but the festival helped to establish the revisionist view of him.
This sparked another great interest of mine: Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. As the former Warsaw Pact countries were starting to open up, this brought about an increased awareness of the architectural as well as musical heritage of these places.
I did languages at Cambridge – Russian and French, and I also did a paper in medieval Latin. Music is a huge part of university life there – performances of instrumental music and choral music in all the college chapels. Naturally that had a big influence on me, as did knowledgeable friends who hugely broadened my musical horizons.
After graduation I came to the realization that it is very difficult to make a career based on knowledge of languages alone. Having done a year abroad in Russia as an undergraduate I was very keen to go back, and I ended up living in Moscow from 2003 to 2009. That was a great experience, musically speaking, as there was so much going on.
I became very interested in the music of Alfred Schnittke, who, it turned out, had lived in the neighboring block of flats to mine. There was a big festival of his music in 2004 to mark what would have been his 70th birthday when a plaque to commemorate him was installed on the wall of that building, which I’d see every day when shopping for groceries!
I worked as a freelance translator for the literary department of the Bolshoi Theatre, translating texts for program notes, which were interesting, well written and very educational. I also translated the libretto for Leonid Desyatnikov’s opera The Children of Rosenthal, which was premiered in 2005. It caused quite a scandal at the time although for stupid, purely political reasons which I think stemmed ultimately from a very conservative view of what the Bolshoi is and what it should stage.
While I was in Moscow I worked mainly as a journalist, writing about the real estate market (which included covering new architecture) for an English-language newspaper. During that time, I became involved with a pressure group campaigning against the demolition of historic buildings. I met international specialists in architectural conservation and discovered that this was the career I really wanted to pursue. Eventually I went back to Cambridge and did a Master’s in building history, which I finished last year and which gave me the training for what I do now.
As for the interrelation of architecture and music, the two are very close for me. Perhaps the best illustration of that is my increasing appreciation of Romantic music. For a long time most of the nineteenth century was a blind spot with me – yet I have always loved the architecture of the period. Seeing links between the two has helped my love of the one foster appreciation of the other.
But I wouldn’t want to push that too far, as trying to draw too many parallels between the different arts can lead one down blind alleys, and many of my associations between architecture and music are very personal and entirely subjective.
PLN: What are your current strong musical interests – in terms of composers, musical forms, styles or eras?
EH: It changes all the time! I have a list on my laptop where I note composers or works that have prompted my interest and which I want to investigate. Recently, reading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Britten prompted me finally to investigate Frank Bridge’s music properly, and I’m very glad I did as he’s a most interesting figure. I’ve been listening to the symphonies of the Ukrainian composer Boris Lyatoshynsky, which are really effective bits of music.
This week I discovered Stravinsky’s wonderful Persephone (I saw it mentioned in the program notes to Antony and Cleopatra because it was another Ida Rubinstein production), and I am also investigating the work of László Lajtha, Hungary’s twentieth century symphonist.
Just yesterday I listened for the first time to Edmund Rubbra’s Piano Concerto and have been listening to more of his symphonies, having gotten interested in him some years ago but then letting him fall by the wayside.
Lastly, reading your interview with the author Julien Columeau has prompted me to investigate Paul Le Flem, André Caplet and Charles Tournemire’s work.
I have to say that I probably listen to more music from the twentieth century than any other, and French music is also an abiding love.
PLN: Are there any final thoughts you would like to share about Florent Schmitt and his music?
EH: There are various composers who were a revelation to me when I first discovered them and who immediately made me want to investigate as much of their music as possible. Schmitt was one such composer. I really hope that wider interest in his music continues to build. There’s no doubt that there are a frightening number of composers whose music hasn’t been given a chance to come into its own. Schmitt is undoubtedly one of those – I’d like to see a recording of all three of his symphonies on one disc [Symphonie Concertante, Janiana Symphony, Symphony #2].
I’ve listened to so many works of music that have left me thinking, “This would bring the house down in a concert!” but which I know are unlikely ever to get an airing because the composer just doesn’t have enough name recognition.
I’ve often thought that I’d like to put on a program of “lucky dip” concerts, with warhorses to bring in the punters mixed in with works by underappreciated composers. Florent Schmitt would definitely figure in that!
Luckily for London audiences, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra did just that with Florent Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre this past week … with a big dose of support from Bill Barclay and the actors of Shakespeare’s Globe. Here’s hoping it’s just the start of this music being exposed to more audiences throughout the world.