On August 19, 2017, French conductor Fabien Gabel led The Cleveland Orchestra in a concert of mainly French music at the Blossom Music Center, the orchestra’s summer home.
Not only is Maestro Gabel a tireless advocate for the music of his native country wherever he conducts around the world, the artistry of Florent Schmitt is one of his particular passions. So it was no surprise that on the Blossom program he included one of Schmitt’s early-career works — the symphonic etude Le Palais hanté, Opus 49 (The Haunted Palace).
Composed between the years 1900 and 1904, the inspiration for Schmitt’s tone picture was Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 poem The Haunted Palace, in the French translation by Stéphane Mallarmé.
Florent Schmitt shared billing on Maestro Gabel’s Blossom concert program with the two universally acknowledged “greats” of this period of French music: Debussy and Ravel.
It is always gratifying to see this trio of composers together on the same program, as this brings us “full circle” back to the first two decades of the 20th century when Debussy, Ravel and Schmitt were commonly acknowledged as the three most important and influential French composers of the time.
But mirroring the very different trajectories of Schmitt versus the two other composers in the century that would follow, the Debussy Ibéria and the Ravel Boléro that appeared on the August 19th Blossom program are staples of The Cleveland Orchestra’s repertoire … whereas The Haunted Palace was being performed by TCO for the very first time in its history.
Having been fortunate to attend the concert along with 6,000+ other music-lovers, I was also able to visit briefly with Maestro Gabel backstage following the program, at which time I asked him about the Schmitt rarity he chose to present alongside the Debussy and Ravel works. Highlights from our discussion are presented below.
PLN: Le Palais hanté is a relatively early work by Florent Schmitt, completed in 1904 during his time at the Villa Medici following winning the Prix de Rome first prize for composition. Are there characteristics of the piece that you find particularly noteworthy, considering when it was composed?
FG: Le Palais hanté is still a post-Romantic piece. Even if it is a “study,” we feel the heritage of the traditional Lisztian tone poem. But in some parts of the composition, the language is very modern.
Schmitt also uses important counterpoint in the score, which is actually quite unusual in French music. Schmitt’s writing is “horizontal”! The composition also has a classical form, which is in four parts including a spectacular coda.
The thematic language is very developed in this piece, and some passages are very innovative in terms of the orchestration. There are also two or three passages which foretell what’s going to happen with Schmitt in his future compositions, and that’s very interesting, too.
In the orchestration in particular, there are elements which give us distinct clues as to how he’s going to be composing later on — the way he writes for the strings and percussion, for instance.
The bass clarinet we hear at the very beginning of the piece is also interesting. Schmitt does exactly the same thing with Rêves, a work he composed more than a decade later. That piece starts the very same way.
PLN: Florent Schmitt is known for his colorful orchestration. In this piece, are there any special moments where the orchestration is particularly effective?
FG: Yes, two or three passages are definitely interesting in terms of the orchestration. In the exposition, for instance. It’s pretty short, but it’s extremely virtuosic. It is also complex – and quite difficult to comprehend when you read it for the first time.
But each note has its place in the thematic material, and each timbre is extremely important.
The interaction between winds, strings and percussion is really impressive, I think. The way Schmitt uses the glockenspiel is closer to Dukas than it is to Debussy; he probably learned from Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
After studying Le Palais hanté, I understand the evolution of the composer’s language leading to Rêves — a piece I adore.
PLN: The literary inspiration behind The Haunted Palace was a poem of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe in Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation. How successful do you think Schmitt was in bringing the poetry to life?
FG: I don’t think what Schmitt is doing is a literal retelling of the poem, but the music definitely brings in all the craziness – the madness – of the poem. That’s the inspiration, I think.
PLN: Interpretations of Le Palais hanté vary widely among the four commercial recordings made of this music to date – particularly with differences in how tempos are treated. What are your thoughts on what sort of approach to this music is the most valid?
FG: I think if a conductor is too dogmatic – following too exactly what is printed in the score – it is a little bit too safe, and not crazy enough!
Several versions [Falletta and Tortelier] are well-crafted and very respectful to the score. On the other hand, for those who interpret it very fast, it’s barely playable.
I’ve listened to the [Manuel] Rosenthal broadcast performance and the [Georges] Prêtre commercial recording. Both of these conductors were very strong personalities, and no doubt there is a lot of élan in those readings, which sound very impressive on the first audition. But everything is very fast – too “approximate” – and the musicians cannot play all the notes.
Now that I’ve studied Le Palais hanté very carefully in terms of the dynamics and the tempo, it’s nice to find compromises between Schmitt’s markings in the score — while still keeping in all of this madness at the end of the piece.
PLN: This concert was the first time The Cleveland Orchestra had ever performed Le Palais hanté. What was the reaction of the musicians to the score?
FG: Their reaction was just like every other musician I know who encounters a piece by Schmitt, with any orchestra. The first time they play the music, they don’t know where they are, or even how to make sense of it sometimes. But then after they learn it, they like it very much.
However, the string players in particular tell me that the way Schmitt writes for them is extremely difficult – and not that “convenient” for them.
PLN: Are there any additional observations you would like to share about this piece of music?
FG: Only that Le Palais hanté is truly a great work – even if the composer called it just a “study.” I definitely plan to present this piece again in the future – hopefully soon!
We share the same hope as Maestro Gabel. The Haunted Palace is the kind of composition that fairly bursts with musical ideas and wonderful sounds. Moreover, if the reaction of the Blossom Music Center audience is any indicator, the piece should experience a positive reception wherever it is performed.
Wonderful music. The 3 fast notes (A-G-A) in the beginning remind me strongly of Bluebeard’s Castle (another haunted castle), by Bartok. The allusion seems absolutely evident to me. The more that there is another allusion to Bartok, a little further.
But, by the way, who came first? Schmitt had a strong influence on Stravinsky, so why not on Bartok? A task for musicologists ! 🙂