“In my estimation, Dionysiaques is the first truly artistic work created for large concert band … Regardless of how many times I listen to Dionysiaques, it always feels new and interesting. It also suggests that Florent Schmitt considered the wind band ensemble to be ‘without limits’.”
— Dr. Armand Hall, American conductor and educator
Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques, Opus 62, composed in 1913, is acknowledged today as one of the most inventive and interesting works for concert band ever created.
It was revolutionary when it first appeared, and more than a century after its composition, it remains one of those pieces of music that always elicits surprise and delight among audiences whenever it is presented. (I know this from personal experience, having witnessed audience reactions when the piece was performed by wind ensembles at Peabody Conservatory and the University of Maryland.)
These days, Dionysiaques is played the word over. It’s a composition that’s as popular in North America and the Far East as it is in France and Europe. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it took many decades for the piece to find its rightful place in the concert band repertoire.
Two reasons are responsible for that slow evolution. One is the work’s difficulty; ask any wind ensemble director and nearly all of them will tell you that Dionysiaques is among the most challenging pieces of music to pull off.
The other is the piece’s instrumentation. When Schmitt composed this work in 1913 for the Orchestre d’harmonie de la Garde Républicaine – then as now the best wind ensemble in France – he scored the piece not only for the usual wind instruments but also incorporated unconventional or now-rare instruments such as petit bugles, sarrusophones, saxhorns and double basses.
Moreover, when played at the full complement of forces called for in Schmitt’s original scoring, Dionysiaques requires 125 players – well beyond the resources of many concert bands.
Even with these challenges, in earlier years Dionysiaques did experience a limited number of performances outside of France. Then, beginning in the 1970s with the emergence of a revised score prepared by Guy Duker, an American band leader and music educator who was associate director of wind ensembles at the University of Illinois from 1953 to 1978, Dionysiaques began to appear with more frequency on concert programs.
Dionysiaques was just one of numerous arrangements and transcriptions Duker made for wind ensembles. As such, he was a well-known personage in the American concert band community, which likely increased interest in the Schmitt score and a willingness to prepare and perform it.
Since the 1970s, Dionysiaques’ rise has been steady and inexorable. Today, nearly every concert band of serious intent anywhere in the world includes the piece in its repertoire. And the work’s popularity only grows over time.
Dr. Armand Hall is an American conductor and educator. He is an assistant professor of music and also associate director of bands at the University of Memphis. Like many concert band musicians, he is a great fan of Dionysiaques. He is keenly interested in the evolution of the work’s popularity and has researched the topic intensively.
In March 2017, Maestro Hall made a presentation on this topic at the annual national conference of the College Band Directors National Association. Titled From There to Here: The Evolution of Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques, Maestro Hall’s presentation charted the interesting musical journey the piece has made during the 100+ years since its composition.
Having read about the CBDNA presentation, I got in touch with Maestro Hall and asked him to share the salient points about his research and scholarship, which he kindly agreed to do. Highlights of our very interesting discussion are presented below.
PLN: When did you first become acquainted with Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques? Have you ever performed it as part of an ensemble yourself?
AH: As a clarinet player and a band director, I have been well aware of Florent Schmitt’s tour de force Dionysiaques for a long time. I first heard it performed by the University of Michigan Symphony Band during my undergraduate degree work there.
At the time, I remember it being the most technically difficult piece for winds I had ever encountered, and it remained in my consciousness as an extremely challenging piece of music.
Since then I have heard some fantastic live performances of the piece – several of them extremely musical performances. I have not had the opportunity to perform it myself, but look forward to conducting it this fall with the University of Memphis Wind Ensemble.
PLN: What sparked you to investigate this particular piece of music and to trace its development over the past century?
AH: In 2010 I began my DMA studies at Michigan State University with Dr. Kevin Sedatole. He programmed the work that fall and I was assigned to give a presentation on the piece in my conducting studio class. I quickly realized that information about the composition was limited, as much of the biographical information about Schmitt is written in French.
At that time, there were roughly three major dissertations on Schmitt in English, and one by Diane Janda on Dionysiaques. I read the Janda dissertation, went through her bibliography, acquired those texts, and researched connections between Schmitt and Les Apaches. [The Société des Apaches was a group of French musicians, painters and writers, formed in 1900, whose members represented the more non-conformist strains of Parisian artistic society. Members of the group included composers such as de Falla, Ravel, Schmitt and Stravinsky as well as literary figures like Léon-Paul Fargue, to whom the score of Dionysiaques is dedicated.]
I became enthralled with attempting to discover the germination of this piece of music. I’ve come to believe that Dionysiaques is the natural combination of Schmitt’s Prix de Rome travels [from 1900 to 1904 across Europe, the Mediterranean region and the Near East], his military experience, and the significant time he spent and the influences he experienced interacting with the members of Les Apaches.
After seeing the poor condition of the parts Michigan State rented from the Durand publishing firm as well as the handwritten score by Guy Duker, I decided that my DMA dissertation would be on the topic of creating a critical-edition of the piece.
Dr. Sedatole was in great support of this project. So I began finding and translating more research about Schmitt and Dionysiaques, while simultaneously contacting Durand in Paris to obtain the rights to create a new edition of the piece.
In spring 2011, following many letters and phone calls to Paris, I received a final response to my request in which Durand denied my request and implied that they were not interested in my project. I assumed they did not want to invest the money to create new rental parts.
Much to my dismay, later I found out that while I was petitioning to prepare my edition, Durand was already in negotiations with the Éditions Robert Martin publishing firm for it to purchase the rights to many pieces. Therefore, the edition prepared subsequently by Felix Hauswirth [a Swiss-born band leader and former president of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE)] is the only legal version in the world.
PLN: Tell us how you went about conducting your Dionysiaques research? How did you plan your activities, and how did you identify sources?
AH: For my CBDNA presentation, I wished to highlight the significant changes inherent in the new Hauswirth edition. Dionysiaques presents many challenges for a modern wind ensemble, as it was written and orchestrated for the Orchestre d’harmonie de la Garde Républicaine, the best military band in France.
The major challenges in preparing a new edition of the score center on the instrumentation (including how to deal with obsolete regional instruments, particularly the family of saxhorns), and also the size of the ensemble.
I compared every measure of the three accepted versions (Schmitt’s original, Duker and Hauswirth), noting the differences. Beyond those, there are other editions – several illegal and one done for a United States military ensemble (by the harpist and arranger Lawrence Odom).
My intent was to describe Hauswirth’s approach to solving the inherent instrumentation and size-of-forces issues, as I knew these were the major issues that anyone would face in editing the piece. [The Hauswirth edition calls for just 76 to 79 musicians – vastly lower than the 108-120 musicians called for in the Duker version or the 91-125 called for in Schmitt’s original.]
I included the Duker in the comparison because it is the version with which Americans are most aurally familiar, and it would be important to explain how the Hauswirth edition is different from it.
PLN: In your research, what did you discover in terms of how Dionysiaques has grown in fame and popularity as a concert band piece here in the United States?
AH: Schmitt’s original orchestration is a uniquely “French” instrumentation, which posed a problem for ensembles in the United States – or so I thought. It was written for the instrumentation of the 1920s Garde Républicaine wind orchestra.
Prior to Duker’s 1975 adaptation for American ensembles (and other regions of Europe that did not have similar instruments), there was no way to perform the piece without compromising the ensemble tone color.
Duker’s parts and score were very difficult to read, as they were handwritten. But I could tell that Duker used as many original Schmitt parts as possible – only creating parts to cover now-obsolete instruments and to match the large University of Illinois band instrumental forces Duker had at his disposal.
Based on letters from Duker’s own archive, five university bands performed his adaptation within two years. However, I also discovered that ensembles had actually been performing the original Schmitt scoring here in the United States as early as 1935 (at the University of Illinois). I am attempting to catalogue every performance in the United States prior to the approval of Duker’s edition.
Despite this discovery, it remains that there were only two possible ways to perform the piece prior to Duker: leave out instruments, or employ antiquated instruments used in early American bands – the alto and tenor horn to be specific.
Dionysiaques has been long recognized as an original composition for band and I hope the new Hauswirth edition (which is available for purchase instead of rental) will mean even greater access to the piece.
Also welcomed news is that the requisite technical facility needed by the individual players is more within reach by university and high school students across the United States.
PLN: What are the various editions of the score that exist, and in what ways do they differ from each other and from Schmitt’s original orchestration?
AH: There are a number of versions of the score, beginning with Schmitt’s own four-hand piano reduction of the music that he prepared in 1917 and that predated the Garde Républicaine’s first performance of the piece in 1925, a dozen years after its composition.
Here are the various ones I’ve identified:
- Four-hand piano score – Florent Schmitt – 1917
- Orchestration for the Garde Républicaine Band – Florent Schmitt – 1925 [very large musical forces and specific instrumentation]
- American Adaptation – Guy Duker – 1975 [to fit the University of Illinois Symphonic Band’s instrumentation]
- U.S. Military Band Adaptation – Lawrence Odom – 1983 [not commercially available, this version has very different instrumentation including major harp parts]
- Illegal typeset version of the Duker score (supposedly with major errors fixed) – 2001 [many school bands have copies of these parts, as the original Duker parts have become increasingly unreadable]
- Modern Edition – Felix Hauswirth/Éditions Robert Martin with the blessing of Durand – 2011 [includes additional trumpet parts but with a significant reduction of instrumental forces, as well as the interpolation of optional additional instruments such as celesta]
Interestingly, the Hauswirth edition contains an admonition that “ensembles who do not have this required instrumentation (no instrument is ‘exotic’) should not play this work.”
PLN: In what ways do you find Dionysiaques to be a special composition in the band repertoire? Do you see it as a pacesetting (or maybe even a revolutionary) piece?
AH: In my estimation, Dionysiaques is the first truly artistic work created for large concert band. To be sure, there were large-scale band works created before Dionysiaques. However, no tone poem of high artistic merit had ever been envisioned for band prior to that. Generally, there had been transcriptions or other formulaic pieces written for bands (marches, overtures, song form and so forth).
We know that Schmitt wrote this piece expressly for wind ensemble, as Schmitt’s published four-hand piano part is subtitled “Poéme pour Orchestre d’harmonie”. At the time, Schmitt was at the top of his game – at the height of Parisian musical society while still heavily influenced by his Prix de Rome travels – when he decided to compose Dionysiaques.
PLN: How is Dionysiaques regarded among conductors and performers of wind music?
AH: It is a highly respected piece, but the rental costs and requisite ensemble size have precluded many ensembles from attempting to perform it. Due to the smaller instrumental forces it calls for, I believe the Hauswirth edition could make the piece more accessible to more ensembles.
PLN: Tell us a little about your background in music. Did you start out as a performer? Where did you study and who were your mentors?
AH: I am primarily a conductor. It is important for conductors to learn as much as possible about the compositions they direct, creating a bigger opportunity to develop an appropriate interpretation. Good conductors spend a lot of time digging and making connections, using the wonderful work of musicologists to delve deeper into a composition.
I approach each composition as an educator — prepared to educate the ensemble and the audience about a piece, its place in time, and possibly its impact on society.
I received bachelor and master degrees in music education from the University of Michigan. I then taught middle and high school bands for eight years before returning to academia to earn a doctorate in wind conducting with Kevin Sedatole at Michigan State University.
I have also been extremely fortunate to participate in numerous conducting symposia, working with many fantastic conductors on technique and score-studying along the way.
PLN: Besides your study of Dionysiaques, what other major musicological projects have you undertaken?
AH: As a conductor, I’m focused on commissioning and championing new music and emerging composers. I feel a duty to continue to push musical boundaries!
However, my “guilty pleasure” is the music – specifically the chamber music – of composers who were members of or involved with Les Apaches. Also, I am always searching and trying to find more pieces for wind bands and mixed instrumentation chamber music groups.
PLN: What new plans or research activities are on the horizon for you?
AH: I hope to prepare a conductor’s guide to Dionysiaques very soon, illuminating the history of the piece and its evolution. I’m hopeful that this will help promote the piece and its new availability.
I am also excited to be able to conduct Dionysiaques for the very first time, leading the University of Memphis Wind Ensemble this coming fall.
PLN: Are there any additional observations you would like to share about Florent Schmitt and Dionysiaques?
Regardless of how many times I listen to Dionysiaques, it always feels new and interesting. This speaks to the high level of musical invention, the technique and the artistry required to perform the piece.
It also suggests that Florent Schmitt considered the wind band ensemble to be “without limits.”
It must be acknowledged that the membership of the Garde Républicaine Band was made up of the top students from the Paris Conservatoire – some of the most skilled instrumentalists of the time. While instrumental technique has improved in the 100 years since Dionysiaques was created, Schmitt’s compositional technique also stands the test of time, allowing us to make great music with every performance.
There is no question that Dionysiaques’ upward trajectory shows no sign of abating, and the new Hauswirth edition will contribute even further to this piece’s ascendancy in the wind ensemble repertoire.
With each passing decade Dionysiaques becomes more and more famous. Lucky indeed are the musicians who have the chance to play it – and audiences to hear it.