Musicologist Megan Varvir Coe talks about the Symbolist roots of Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé (1907/10).

Loie Fuller Florent Schmitt Salome 1907 Paris

A promotional poster for the original 1907 production of Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, featuring the American-born dancer Loïe Fuller, famous for her scarves and lighting effects.

Along with his concert band masterpiece Dionysiaques, La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50 is French composer Florent Schmitt’s best-known score.  But most music-lovers know only the version that Schmitt prepared in 1910 for large orchestra.  Three years earlier, an original version twice as long had been created by Schmitt for the American dancer Loïe Fuller, who presented it at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris, an intimate theatre space, accompanied by an ensemble of 20 musicians led by Désiré Inghelbrecht.

The original score of La Tragédie de Salomé has never been published and the music has been commercially recorded just once.  But unlike the original conceptions of many classical pieces, this one is just as important musically as the composer’s final, published version.  Moreover, to fully understand the published version, including the music’s influence on other composers of the period (not least the young Igor Stravinsky), it is necessary to become acquainted with the original version of Salomé as well.

Florent Schmitt La Tragedie de Salome Durand

The revised version of Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé was published by Durand in 1912; the original version from 1907 exists in an autograph performance copy only.

That realization is underscored by the scholarship of the American musicologist Megan Varvir Coe, who has studied Florent Schmitt’s composition and its roots in Symbolist artistry as well as investigating the circumstances of how the original production of Salomé came into being.

Recently, Dr. Varvir Coe outlined her research in an article that was published in the 1st Quarter 2017 issue of Dance Chronicle magazine.  Encountering that article, I was struck by the valuable scholarship that fills in some significant gaps in our knowledge of Schmitt’s development as a composer and the important position he held in the Parisian artistic scene during the early years of the 20th century.

Megan Varvir Coe

Megan Varvir Coe

I contacted Dr. Varvir Coe, who was kind enough to share additional perspectives on the topic. Highlights of our highly interesting discussion are presented below.

PLN: How did your interest in the ties between Symbolist writers and music develop?  Did it start with the “words” or with the “music”?

MVC: What a fitting question for beginning this interview!  Many Symbolists did not, in their aesthetics, differentiate between words and music, and my own curiosity about this topic stemmed from my fascination with the interrelationship between words and music in one particular work.   

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), photographed at about the time of the premiere of his opera Salome (1908).

My interest in Symbolist literature and the music inspired by it began, as did my interest generally speaking in French musical culture at the fin de siècle, not with a French work but a German one – Richard Strauss’s 1905 music drama Salome.  I fell in love with this opera as an undergraduate music major; I was bewitched by the beauty of the music, of course, but even more so by how Strauss had united the text and music.   

Strauss set a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s 1893 Symbolist play, Salomé, originally written in French.  I began my research into Symbolist literature and music by going down the research “rabbit hole,” as it were, to deepen my understanding of Strauss’s Salome by learning all I could about the play and the Symbolist aesthetic that informed its creation.  Eventually my research moved further away from its starting point and towards a focus on Symbolism and French musical and dramatic culture in the early years of the 20th century. 

PLN: Which Symbolist writers did you come to know first?  Was this in connection with your work as a vocalist?

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

MVC: Though I became familiar initially with Symbolist poets through singing French mélodie, the first Symbolist writer I studied extensively was Oscar Wilde, who, with the exception of his work on Salomé, was not a writer of Symbolist works at all.   

Salomé is an outlier in his oeuvre because only in it did Wilde consciously strive to emulate the French Symbolists he admired.  These writers included Stéphane Mallarmé — the so-called “Father of Symbolism” — as well as Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and others. Salomé was my first window into Symbolism and its philosophy and aesthetic as related to music and drama. 

PLN: How did you first begin to study the connections between language, literature and dance? 

MVC: Again, this was the result of the “rabbit hole” of research initiated by my love of Strauss’s opera.  From studying that opera I moved into researching Wilde’s play, then French Symbolism and its cultural and historical context, and then French musical works inspired by Symbolism.   

One of those works was Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé, the score for a ballet-pantomime commissioned by the Symbolist muse and dance pioneer Loïe Fuller.   

Fuller was also an inventor, and her fame as a performer rested on her ability to combine music and dance with fantastic mise-en-scène created with light, smoke, mirrors, projections and so forth.  The Symbolists had dreamed of an art form in which the boundaries between the different artistic genres blurred, and Mallarmé and others saw in Fuller’s performances the possibility of a realization of this dream.   

My research into musical works inspired, like Strauss’s opera, by Wilde’s Salomé eventually brought me to Schmitt’s ballet which, rather remarkably, led me to Fuller and the role of dance in Symbolist aesthetics, coming full circle in a way.

PLN: What sparked you to investigate this particular piece of music and to study its interrelationships with literature and dance?

Florent Schmitt French composer

Florent Schmitt, photographed at about the time he created the original version of La Tragédie de Salomé in 1907.

MVC: The popularity of the character of Salome at the fin de siècle cannot be overestimated.  The controversial nature of Wilde’s play — and of Wilde himself — fanned the flame of this so-called salomanie; the popularity of Strauss’s opera fueled it further.   

Evidence of this is the plethora of musical and dramatic works from this time period, both low- and highbrow, that dealt with the character Salome. Over the course of my research I discovered many of these works were written in France between 1890 and the onset of World War I, including La Tragédie de Salomé 

Robert d'Humieres

A noteworthy stage and literary career cut short by the First World War: Robert d’Humières (1868-1915).

I first learned of Schmitt’s ballet-pantomime during my search for Salome-related pieces. My further investigation revealed that this particular work connected several separate strands of my study – Symbolism, Salome, music, literature (through the ballet’s Symbolist-inspired scenario written by Robert d’Humières), fin-de-siècle musical culture, and dance.  

Digging more deeply into the music of La Tragédie, as well as the historical circumstances of its conception, performance, and reception, led to my study of the interrelationships between these strands — most importantly, the interrelationships between music, dance, and literature within Symbolist aesthetics and how a composer like Schmitt might respond to these interrelationships musically.     

PLN: How did you go about conducting your research?  How did you plan your activities, and how did you identify sources? 

MVC: In conducting my research, first I needed to overcome the main obstacle in studying  Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé – accessing the score.   

In 1910, Schmitt prepared a concert suite created from the ballet-pantomime music; this suite is what is performed in concert halls today and what is available as a printed score.  

Schmitt Tragedie de Salome original version

Only commercial recording of the original version (so far): Patrick Davin and the Rhineland-Pfalz Philharmonic Orchestra (1991).

The music for the actual ballet-pantomime, however, has never been published. It is much longer – almost an hour’s worth of music instead of the 25 minutes of the concert suite.  The 1907 ballet-pantomime score only exists in a facsimile of an autograph performance copy used by the conductor of Fuller’s 1907 performances, Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht.  The score, which is in Schmitt’s handwriting and contains performance markings by Inghelbrecht, is held at the Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra, Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.  [There is a highly effective recording of the 1907 score performed by the Rheinland-Pflaz Philharmonic conducted by Patrick Davin, recorded in 1991 and available on the NAXOS-Marco Polo label.] 

In the summer of 2012 I journeyed to Paris in no small part to obtain a copy of this score while in the process of researching La Tragédie de Salomé in the archives of several Bibliothèque départements 

I then continued my research as I normally do: I began by reading all of the secondary literature on La Tragédie de Salomé, including scholarship by Déborah Bonin, Catherine Lorent, Jerry Rife and Clair Rowden — all of which was indispensable to me in my initial work on the project.   

Next, I evaluated primary sources including autograph letters by Schmitt, the scenarist Robert d’Humières, and Fuller, the memoirs of those connected to the production, and, most importantly because of my interest in reception history, articles in the contemporary general and musical press about the work.  I also analyzed the scenario and the score and began to make connections between the music, the scenario, and the possible influence of Symbolist aesthetics on La Tragédie’s creators.   

Unfortunately, the choreography for Fuller’s ballet is no longer extant; however, the press reception gives us a good idea of the technological wonders she created for her mise-en-scène.  Immersion in the primary sources enabled me to slowly pull the many threads together. 

Tragedie de Salome 1907 Program Cover

The program cover for the original production of La Tragédie de Salomé, presented at the Théâtre des Arts.

PLN: During the course of your research into this ballet, what discoveries, if any, did you find particularly surprising — things that you might not have expected to encounter? 

Loie Fuller

From Hinsdale, Illinois to Paris, France: American dancer Loïe Fuller (1862-1928).

MVC: A composer working on commission, such as Schmitt working on Fuller’s commission for La Tragédie de Salomé, must balance the requests of the patron with his or her own vision for the project.  When I compared Fuller’s requests and d’Humières’ scenario with the finished score, I was surprised, not that Schmitt had imposed so much of his own vision on the final work (to be expected with a composer as self-assured as Schmitt was even at a young age), but how he had done so.   

In my article in Dance Chronicle, I focus in particular on Schmitt’s creation of evocative music for what d’Humières termed “Les Enchantements sur la mer” — visions that occur around (and possibly in the minds of) Herod and Herodias before and after Salomé dances “La Danse de l’Acier.”  The scenario describes symbolic visions of lights beneath the Dead Sea and the appearance of the ruined architecture of “Pentapole” (the biblical kingdoms in the Old Testament destroyed by God for their wickedness).   

Schmitt created mysterious, rhythmically rocking tremolos to signify the lights and an angular leitmotif to represent the ruins. As with Wagnerian leitmotifs generally speaking, the “Architecture” leitmotif, as I termed it, changes over the course of the ballet in relation to developments in the scenario and through its interaction with other leitmotifs; as a musical symbol in the Symbolist sense, this leitmotif is revealed over time to have multiple meanings.   

Schmitt’s decision to interpret d’Humières’ scenario in this way was very original — and completely the composer’s idea. Schmitt goes beyond musically illustrating or accompanying the scenario; like other great composers, he engenders the possibility inherent in music for multiple layers of meaning. 

Another fascinating example of Schmitt imposing his own interpretation of the scenario (in spite, in this case, Fuller’s stipulations), is the addition of the “Chant d’Aïça” as part of the reprise of “Les Enchantements sur la mer” after “La Danse de l’Acier.” Schmitt created the “Chant d’Aïça” from a Palestinian folksong transposed by a tourist on the banks of the Dead Sea and published in an article in the journal Le Mercure musical in 1906;  the composer noted the provenance of this melody in the autograph score.   

Schmitt received the commission for La Tragédie from Fuller through a letter written by their mutual friend, Jean Forestier, on August 23, 1907, and, intriguingly, Forestier specifically asks in the letter for music “ni paroles ni chant.”  Yet Schmitt inserts this haunting melody, the “Chant d’Aïça,” sung by a soprano soloist from offstage, at a pivotal moment in the narrative, immediately before Salomé’s “La Danse d’Argent,” the seductive dance she uses to convince Herod to give her the head of John the Baptist.   

As I interpret it, this exoticist melody acts as a symbol connecting multiple layers of intertextual meaning. The themes of the music of Salomé’s dance of seduction are derived from motives in the “Chant d’Aïça,” therefore connecting the seduction with the depraved “Pentapole” of “Les Enchantements.”   

In my Dance Chronicle article, I further connect this melody sung by a disembodied voice to traditional conceits in Symbolist dramatic practice and to other Symbolist interpretations of the Salome myth, including those by Wilde and Mallarmé.  Here again, Schmitt idiosyncratically interprets the scenario and contributes to the richness of the work’s multivalence. 

Tamara Karsavina as Salome (Ballets Russes 1913)

Tamara Karsavina as Salome in the Ballets-Russes production (1913).

A final surprising aspect of my research was the popularity of La Tragédie de Salomé as a ballet, not just as a concert suite, in the years following the suite’s appearance.  With new choreography to the shortened music of the concert suite, it was danced by Natalia Trouhanova in 1912, by Tamara Karsavina and the Ballets-Russes in 1913, and by Ida Rubinstein in 1919.  Today it really only exists in concert halls.

PLN: As you were conducting your research, did you discover other French musical works for the stage that share similarities with La Tragédie de Salomé?  What makes Schmitt’s ballet the better “specimen” in terms of the Symbolist connections? 

MVC: There are many musical works for the stage from this time period that reveal the continuing influence of Symbolist aesthetics, even though literary Symbolism was considered somewhat old-fashioned in many circles by the first years of the new century.   

An aspect of Symbolism that continually fascinates me is how it lends itself to very different, sometimes even paradoxical, interpretations. In that sense, Schmitt’s ballet is not necessarily a “better” specimen, though its connection with Fuller makes La Tragédie particularly fruitful for exploration from a Symbolist perspective.   

An often different but equally valid application of Symbolist aesthetics to music and dance can be seen in the performances of the pre-war Ballets Russes. Several musical works commissioned by or set by that troupe are, I believe, open to further viewing through the prism of Symbolism.  A specific Symbolist-influenced work written before World War I in France is the incidental music written by Debussy for Le Martyre de saint Sébastian (commissioned by dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein in 1912).   

Rubinstein herself had a deep commitment to her own interpretation of Symbolism, and perhaps her collaborations with Schmitt might be reexamined from a Symbolist perspective. 

PLN:How do you find La Tragédie de Salomé to be a special or noteworthy composition among the stage works of the period?  Do you see it as a pacesetting piece in some ways? 

Theatre Hebertot

The interior of the intimate Théâtre des Arts (now named Théâtre Hébertot), where Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé was first mounted in 1907. An ensemble of just 20 musicians could be accommodated. The later version with expanded “post-Rimsky” musical forces was prepared by the composer in 1910 for both the concert hall and the ballet stage.

MVC: As many music-lovers well-know, Florent Schmitt was a master in creating new and exciting timbres, and La Tragédie de Salomé certainly demonstrates his strengths in that regard.  For this particular piece, Schmitt was limited in which instruments he could include in his orchestra because the auditorium at the Théâtre des Arts where La Tragédie premiered was so small (he later scored his concert suite for a much larger orchestra).   

Critics at the time were amazed by the variety of unique timbres he created with such a small ensemble. There is also the ostinato of highly dissonant block chords in “La Danse de la peur” (“La Danse de l’effroi” in the concert suite) which scholars like Martin Cooper have long claimed influenced Igor Stravinsky when he composed his Le Sacre du printemps 

Florent Schmitt with Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (l.), photographed with Florent Schmitt in about 1910.

Stravinsky’s own letters prove he was instrumental in convincing Sergei Diaghilev to create a new ballet to the music of Schmitt’s La Tragédie concert suite for the 1913 season of the Ballets Russes.  So I definitely believe, based on the musical and archival evidence, that Schmitt influenced Stravinsky’s composition of Le Sacre in some way. 

I also think that it’s important to remember that La Tragédie de Salomé was originally intended to be a multimedia stage work; the combination of Schmitt’s music with Fuller’s dancing and mise-en-scène were bound to be highly influential on future dancers, directors, and stage designers.   

PLN: While it is performed fairly regularly in the concert hall, La Tragédie de Salomé has been staged only rarely since the 1950s.  I am aware of several Italian and Russian performances only.  Do you see the potential for the piece to be revived as a stage work? 

MVC: It would be very difficult to “revive” La Tragédie de Salomé as a stage work in an historically-informed way because the original choreography and mise-en-scène were so integral to it, and neither are in existence.  It would be impossible to recreate those elements.   

However, I see no reason why the music itself shouldn’t continue to inspire choreographers to create their own interpretations. Any performance that utilizes modern stage technology to create a multimedia spectacle would certainly be in the spirit of Fuller and Schmitt’s original.

Florent Schmitt La Tragedie de Salome Ballet Russes 1913

The Ballets-Russes production of Florent Schmitt’s revised score to La Tragédie de Salomé (1913).

PLN: Please tell us a little about your background and how you “migrated” from being a performer to becoming a musicologist.  Where did you study and who were your mentors? 

MVC: I earned my B.A. in music and in history in 2004 from Austin College, a small liberal arts college in Sherman, TX; there I studied voice with Wayne Crannell and Sylvia Rivers.  I then pursued my M.A. in vocal performance (earned in 2006) at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, TX.  It was there in my vocal studies with Joan Wall that I began to include historical research into my preparation of operatic roles.   

Over time it became clear to me that what I enjoyed most in preparing a new piece for performance was the historical study – learning about the composer, his or her work, and the cultural context in which the music was originally created and performed. I eventually decided to turn my attention away from performance and towards musicology so that I could focus full-time on the historical study of music.   

I earned my Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Texas in Denton, TX in 2016. The mentors I gained during that time, in particular Peter Mondelli, my dissertation advisor, and Clair Rowden, my co-editor on the Francophone Music Criticism “Salome” collection, remain invaluable to me. 

PLN: Tell us about the Francophone Music Criticism project, and in particular the “Salome” collection that has been built under its auspices.  What individuals or organizations have collaborated with you in this endeavor?

MVC: The Francophone Music Criticism network is an international group of scholars specializing in the music and culture of France during the “long” 19th-century.  These scholars also share an interest in the musical press in France during this time period and work together, virtually and at conferences, to increase our knowledge of it.   

A key initiative of the network is the collection of transcriptions of French music criticism published between 1789 and 1914 into a searchable database that is open to all interested in learning about and working with these materials. The “Salome” collection, co-edited by Clair Rowden (Cardiff University) and myself, consists of transcriptions of contemporary articles related to the salomanie craze in fin-de-siècle France.   

The wide breadth of this topic means the collection is large and still growing. It includes articles related to many different musical and dramatic works inspired by the character of Salome including Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé.  Our efforts have been supported by the Cardiff University Research Opportunities Programme and the FMC, particularly the network’s managers, Katharine Ellis (University of Bristol) and Mark Everist (University of Southampton), and its host institution, the Institute of Musical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

La Tragedie de Salome 1912 Florent Schmitt

A newspaper clipping from the 1912 ballet production of La Tragédie de Salomé in Florent Schmitt’s new version of the score he prepared in 1910 — half the music, twice the musicians.

PLN: Besides your study of the stage works of France in the early 20th century, what other major musicological projects have you undertaken? 

Antoine Mariotte French composer

Antoine Mariotte (1875-1944)

MVC: The topic of the stage works in France in the early 20th century is so large and interdisciplinary, encompassing studies in literature, language, dance, history, aesthetics, philosophy, and theater arts, as well as music, that it has been and continues to be the focus of all my scholarly effort. 

My current research focuses on another Salome work with Symbolist overtones, Antoine Mariotte’s 1908 opera Salomé.  In particular I am exploring the nationalist rhetoric utilized by the musical press when writing about Mariotte’s opera, especially in comparisons between his opera and Strauss’s.  Both operas were performed in Paris in the spring of 1910 which led to some really colorful and intriguing criticism, to put it mildly.   

Ida Rubinstein

Ida Rubinstein, the Russian-Jewish dancer and dramatic actress with whom Florent Schmitt shared a particularly fruitful artistic partnership during the interwar years in Paris. (Portrait by Lado Gudiashvili, 1921.)

As a long-term project, I want to investigate musical works for the stage commissioned by Ida Rubinstein, a topic that will, happily, bring me back to Florent Schmitt. 

PLN: Are there any additional observations you would like to make about La Tragédie de Salomé, or Florent Schmitt in general?

MVC: My first exposure to Schmitt’s music was through La Tragédie de Salomé, and I am still very surprised that I had not learned of his compositions before that time.  The contrast of dynamism and delicacy in La Tragédie make it an immensely appealing and accessible work, and I believe it deserves to be included on more orchestral programs in either its ballet or suite form.   

That is also true for Schmitt’s work in general. Exposure to his music is not only pleasurable but also reveals to us the complex and highly varied world of French music at the fin de siècle, a fact often overshadowed by the (indisputably wonderful) works of Debussy, Fauré, and Ravel.  Florent Schmitt is one of a number of French composers of the early 20th century whose music should be performed at least as often as theirs. 

______________________

As this interview amply illustrates, the scholarship of Megan Varvir Coe is very insightful, delving into aspects of Schmitt’s most famous composition in ways I doubt have been investigated ever before. As such, it represents essential new insights for anyone interested in the Salomé score — not least the conductors and choreographers who become inspired to produce the original full-length version of La Tragédie de Salomé.

One thought on “Musicologist Megan Varvir Coe talks about the Symbolist roots of Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé (1907/10).

  1. This is a fascinating interview. I always suspected that Florent Schmitt contributed something to Stravinsky.

    When it comes to ballet stories, I find my mind usually supplies impressions when I listen, so I may well be having totally different thoughts from anything suggested by the plot or the composer. But the various symbols evoked in muscal terms are certainly interesting to read about.

    Somehow, I feel this melding of plot and music works better in the movies. When I hear the music to Splendor in the Grass, I think of Natalie Wood, still. But when I hear Salome dance, I’m probably thinking about something else.

    I just reviewed Gabriel Pierné’s Cydalise for Fanfare magazine. It contains a syncopated dance for the satyr, Styrax. But in my mind it sounds like a collection of moose cutting a rug, shoving their antlers this way and that. Too much imagination. I do better with wordless choruses, too, never paying slightest attention to what is actually stated in the usual texts.

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