By now, it seems that Florent Schmitt’s two Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites, Op. 69 have at last transitioned from being true rarities to become orchestral repertoire that is actually known. There are now four commercial recordings of the suites (three of them made within the past decade), and in the past several years the music has appeared on concert programs in the United States, England and France. In the upcoming 2019-20 concert season, the second suite is slated for performance by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in Belgium.
Without a doubt, part of the reason for the growing interest in Schmitt’s sumptuous suites comes from the 2015 NAXOS recording of this music featuring the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Unlike two earlier recordings, Falletta’s release was given full international promotional support by NAXOS’ promotion department — including physical distribution into every corner of the world, along with heavy marketing of digital downloads.
As well, the Falletta recording sparked interest on the part of other musicians, including the conductor Sakari Oramo, who upon hearing it was inspired not only to record the music for the Chandos label with his BBC Symphony Orchestra, but also to team up with Shakespeare’s Globe to present a concert that included not only Schmitt’s music but also dialogue from Shakespeare’s eponymous play.
The music that Florent Schmitt created came about due to a 1920 production of Shakespeare’s play in a new French translation prepared by André Gide. That luxe production starred the famed dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein in the role of Cleopatra.
The six-hour extravaganza mounted on the stage of the Paris Opéra would run for just six performances, but Schmitt wisely extracted the music and turned it into two orchestral suites of three movements each, which were premiered later the same year by the Orchestre Lamoureux under the direction of Camille Chevillard.
That this incredible score lay nearly forgotten for decades following is one of those mysteries of the classical music business, but the 2015 NAXOS recording has gone a long way to revive interest in the music. Things have been helped along further by the dramatic adaptation prepared by Bill Barclay, then-music director at Shakespeare’s Globe, for the BBC/Globe co-production presented at London’s Barbican Centre in October of 2016.
Recently, events came full circle when the Virginia Arts Festival decided to mount the Barclay production of Antony & Cleopatra as part of its 2019 season. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra is retained by the VAF each season to participate in one of the productions, and this year it happened to be for the Antony & Cleopatra concert, with the VSO’s music director JoAnn Falletta conducting.
For Bill Barclay, who is now artistic director of Concert Theatre Works, it was a chance to mount his adaptation working in concert with the conductor whose recording he knew first. Realizing the significance of this collaboration, I made contact with the two artists and had the opportunity to interview them during the weekend’s concerts.
The three of us spent an enjoyable hour together backstage, discussing Florent Schmitt’s incredible score and how Barclay had woven it together with Shakespeare’s dialogue to create a highly effective 80-minute theatrical experience in the concert hall. Highlights of our conversation are presented below:
PLN: Could you tell us how this unusual project came to be? What was its genesis?
Bill Barclay: The genesis was JoAnn Falletta’s 2015 recording of this music with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Then Sakari Oramo, the conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, heard it and decided he wanted to do it.
Around that same time we had two big Shakespeare anniversaries — his birth and death anniversaries – happening in 2014 and 2016. In the vein of the classical world loving an anniversary, the Globe got hit with a couple of proposals to do something collaborative to mark the moment.
Sometimes initiatives like this can be rather boring, but in this instance it really helped us. Sakari and the BBC pitched the idea of doing the Schmitt with me. I then pitched it to the Hollywood Bowl (the LA Phil had asked us to collaborate on something as well). I triangulated those three companies to prepare this new adaptation.
And then, after having made the financial deal, I had to write it. I didn’t actually have a set plan for doing so, but I thought it could be done. The LA and London performances came about in 2016 — the first one a truncated offering and the second one the full production. And now, here we are in 2019 and we get to do it right at the fountainhead — stitching it together with the conductor who started it all, using JoAnn’s own phrasings and tempi.
JoAnn Falletta: I didn’t realize that Sakari Oramo discovered this music because of my recording. If we had done it on our own house label, no one would ever hear it. But NAXOS gets it all over the place. NAXOS wants us to find composers like Florent Schmitt: great Romantic, accessible music that isn’t well-known. They feel they don’t need more of the same Brahms and Dvorak that they’ve had in their catalog for decades now.
I think at that time — back in 2015 — Schmitt was just beginning to experience his renaissance, which has gathered even more momentum since then. I’m not surprised, because Schmitt’s music is very fine but also very important. In some ways it’s like a missing link in French music. It goes beyond impressionism and it’s very complex without going into “Stravinsky-world.”
In his day, Schmitt was composing his own brand of complicated, sophisticated, unusual music. No one was doing this sort of music — at least not in Paris. Before his renaissance it was in danger of being lost forever.
PLN: How did you discover the existence of the 1920 André Gide Paris production, and Schmitt’s music that he composed for it?
Bill Barclay: I started out by doing as much research as I could, including having a couple of short, bewildering conversations with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France where no one had recollection of even a single scrap of paper belonging to that original Paris Opéra production. All they could locate was one fanfare from the production that they said I could come down to Paris and look at in their vault.
After that rather fruitless endeavor, I called the music publisher Durand and had a similar conversation with them, which proved no more fruitful. Ultimately I came to realization that I was up against the same wall that I’ve faced with Shakespeare’s music — which is that incidental music scores for theatre productions are habitually cast away. They’re considered disposable, and no one keeps a record of stage management books, cue books, or anything else.
This practice goes all the way back to Purcell and The Fairy Queen, the score to which was lost for many decades before finally being unearthed. It’s just the legacy and history of theatre music, unfortunately.
Thank goodness Schmitt, like Mendelssohn did with Midsummer Night’s Dream and Grieg did with Peer Gynt, took his music and turned it into concert suites that he intended to be in the orchestral sphere for posterity. Had he not, probably we would have none of it today.
I did as much research as I could but finally realized that it was an abyss. Besides the one fanfare, apparently all that’s survived of the André Gide adaptation is a program booklet from the 1920 production which indicates that Schmitt’s music was played in between the acts of the play. What I found I needed to do was to “unpick” the music of the suites and turn it back into an incidental score, using only my instincts as my guide.
One happy aspect of that challenge is that it was concrete; if it had been about putting a score back together or re-notating written music, probably I’d have ended up in a really difficult place regarding the coherence and compatibility of the orchestration.
JoAnn Falletta: Thankfully, there’s a great deal of music in Schmitt’s two suites — plenty from which to draw on for the adaptation Bill was able to create. And now that we have the chance to perform the music with the words from the play, the music Bill has chosen to pair with the scenes seems to me like they were “meant to be.” What else could it be except music for these scenes of the play?
Bill Barclay: Yes, it seems so “now.” The music for the barge speech, for instance — the music goes so well with the words in that scene.
JoAnn Falletta: We have several full movements that are performed without dialogue – and those make perfect sense, too.
Bill Barclay: My hope is that in the sections of our production where the actors get out of the way and let the orchestra play, it reminds the audience that the music is the dominant modality. The actors are there at the invitation of the music; it isn’t that the music is there at the invitation of the story. So yes, playing full movements is an important gesture in that it reminds the audience that this is a feast for the ears. The words contextualize that and not the other way around.
PLN: What I’m hearing you say is that the play is incidental to the music, not that the music is incidental to the play …
Bill Barclay: Exactly so!
PLN: When you first heard Maestra Falletta’s 2015 recording, what were your initial impressions of the music — and her vision of the score?
Bill Barclay: Wow — it took me to a place where I was describing the music to friends as “Ravel on steroids.” It had this sort of deeply impressionistic, interwar Paris melting-pot energy where I could totally imagine the fingerprints of the literary geniuses that surrounded this arms race of composers who were trying to top each other in this friendly competition they were all having.
It wasn’t just French artists, of course, because Stravinsky was there. Gershwin was there. It seems to me that Schmitt was attempting to top Pétrouchka and the other Ballets Russes pieces. But he’s also harnessing that orientalist streak that was happening in Paris at that time – even as the world was starting to actually hear authentic music and witness the dancing from those exotic lands, from Bali and South Asia or elsewhere, thanks to international expositions.
Not surprisingly, we see that pentatonic scales are littered throughout so many of the compositions being written in those times. My musical brain was clicking on all of this as I was listening to Schmitt. I saw complete virtuosity in the compound time signatures that he was using to displace the downbeats.
It one-ups even some of the better passages in Debussy where that composer had attempted to do the same thing. In Schmitt’s music I sensed this sheer force of willpower — a strong iron will — that’s guiding these huge gusts. And while it felt like Debussy and Richard Strauss in places, ultimately it was unfamiliar — and quite unique — in terms of the musculature of the writing.
JoAnn Falletta: To me, the music is very dark. It comes from a time when the world was in the midst of unsettling change. It’s not easy-listening music like we encounter in some of the more prettified orientalist scores of Saint-Saëns and Bizet. One of the most astonishing things about Schmitt’s music is its rhythmic complexity, which I don’t really see in any other composer writing at that time. Even Stravinsky’s music, with all of his changing of meters, isn’t nearly as complex as Schmitt.
I recall one of our oboe players exclaiming to me that when she listened to her oboe solo on the Buffalo recording, “I don’t know what’s going on! I feel like I’m swimming around without an anchor. How will I figure out what to do?” But of course, you can figure it out; you just have to approach Schmitt a bit differently than you do most other composers.
I’d venture to say that Schmitt was guided by a rhythmic force that few others possess – where the music leaves you never quite feeling grounded. You’re moving somewhere but you may not know where. Whatever’s happening, you’re in a beautiful place even if it’s unsettled — a lovely sort of bewilderment, if you will.
And if you think about the particular characters in Antony & Cleopatra, it makes complete sense. We have the Antony theme which is so noble, but the leitmotiv crops up in many guises. Sometimes it’s strong, sometimes it’s poignant. And it’s genius in how it interacts with the seductive and sometimes evil themes of Cleopatra and Egypt; it all comes together perfectly.
The way that Bill has pared down Shakespeare’s play, it really focuses on the relationship between the two main characters, which makes these leitmotivs even more important to the entire experience.
PLN: Maestra Falletta, you are familiar with many of Schmitt’s orchestral compositions, and you consider Antony & Cleopatra to be among his very finest creations. What is it that you find so compelling about the music?
JoAnn Falletta: I just recorded La Tragédie de Salomé in March which is another important work, but I still see Antony & Cleopatra as Schmitt’s greatest masterpiece. There’s something about the tone painting in this music that’s so emotionally effective and that really gets at the tragic aspects of the title characters — encompassing both their flaws and their nobility.
PLN: In your view, how effective is Florent Schmitt in conjuring up “atmospherics” that are fitting for Shakespeare’s drama?
Bill Barclay: Schmitt paints the scene like a Turner painting, it seems to me — where you get the whole emotional quality of the mise en scene but you’re also invited into the ambiguity and the quick-moving aspects of it. It isn’t about realism or making sure that you buy it at face value; it’s an invitation into all of the emotional flexibility that’s behind the veil.
There’s a visceral quality to this music — such as in the Orgies et danses movement where there’s clearly a sexual climax in the music. It isn’t ham-fisted; rather, it takes your breath away because the music is so kinetic. And it begs the presence of actors to embody some of the language and to use their bodies in telling the story.
Either that, or the whole orchestra should stand up and play … but Schmitt invites a reincarnation of these mythic characters. If you listen to this music long enough, it takes your heart right out of your chest and you want to see that heart beating in someone else’s breastplate.
JoAnn Falletta: We know that Schmitt was a cultured person – worldly, elegant, well-dressed and all of that. But when you think about it, he must have been a tortured soul in some respects as well, in order to create music such as this.
I’d like to make another point which I’ve discovered as we’ve been rehearsing the music with the actors for these concerts. We play the music one way when we perform it as the suites, but I’m finding that the musicians are playing it in a different way when they come in under or following the actors. Hearing the dialogue, it’s affecting their view of the music and how it should be played. It’s been very interesting.
PLN: Your production of Antony & Cleopatra doesn’t encompass Shakespeare’s entire drama. Can you tell us what the strategy was in creating your 80-minute “filleted” version of the play?
Bill Barclay: I don’t know that I had an actual “strategy” going in at the outset in terms of how this would come together. I had a problem to solve: I had made a financial deal with two very big orchestras and had gotten my organization behind something that I said would work — and then I had to produce it.
I didn’t know for sure that it was even possible, but I just assumed that I could somehow make it happen. So I listened to the movements of the suites to determine what parts of the play would correspond best to the music. From there, it was whittling down the speeches and dialogue — cutting the words to fit the amount of music we had.
For instance, at the end of the Orgies et danses movement we have silhouettes of three of the characters — which is very important to that part of the play in that the characters all realize that death is coming and they see it in front of their eyes. Those are three of my most favorite speeches in the play, but in the adaptation the audience is hearing half or less of those speeches so that we can have certain phrases spoken over certain bars of the music. The key is to make it so that the music and words are intentionally matched to one another.
Once the set pieces were there — those silhouettes and the barge speech that are in marquee lights, in a sense — from there it became a question of deciding if we were going to tell the story, or just give impressions. Merely giving impressions can be OK; we see that in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream where many people already know Shakespeare’s play — or at least they know the broad outlines of the love affair.
But in the Schmitt I got ambitious in the Battle of Actium scene. In the middle section where things in the score calm down a little bit, I could actually front-load enough of the plot to get the audience to lean forward and follow the language – which is important because their own empathy depends on understanding what is happening. That’s a fundamentally different approach than having a pastiche where we do just a bit of text and then some beautiful music is presented.
Once I had an itch to accomplish that, I was able to set all the gears in motion that would allow the skeletal structure of the plot to hang on the structure of the music.
Related to this, there’s an interesting aspect about Shakespeare that I’ve noticed happening in recent years, where there’s a bit of fatigue about him that may have set in — the idea that some of his plays are simply too long. Unfortunately, I think that view is only going to become more prevalent over time.
Modern attention spans may be three hours long for an Avengers movie, but for Shakespeare, if you’re going to ask for a three-hour commitment from people and you want them to stand up for the ovation at the end, it has to be the best three hours they’ve ever spent in a theatre. That’s a challenge, to put it mildly.
As for our 2016 presentation of the Antony & Cleopatra adaptation at the Barbican, I’m actually wondering if the critics were happy that the production was as short as it was — because this particular Shakespeare play goes on and on and on!
JoAnn Falletta: I had to smile when one of the Arts Festival staff members mentioned that in Bill’s adaptation, he had left out all the boring parts of the play! She’s correct; there isn’t very much empathy for characters like Octavius and Lepidus, so you don’t lose much by reducing them to little more than plot references.
PLN: From the information contained in the elaborate (and rare) multi-page printed program from the 1920 Paris production that surfaced recently at an international arts auction, we know that Schmitt’s score was played as incidental music in between the acts of the play. The current production takes a different approach, integrating the music with the words of the play. In what ways does this make for a more satisfying presentation of both the music and the drama?
JoAnn Falletta: I think it’s quite different. In this production the musicians and the actors are reacting to each other, whereas in the original 1920 production, those aspects were separated and, in some ways, disconnected.
Bill Barclay: Before the end of the First World War and the end of silent films there were so many great theatre scores that were prepared. In those days theatres would have a live orchestra — even for straight plays. There might be a few songs included, but mostly it would be incidental music, scene-change music and spectacle music to accompany a play.
That was the case for 200 years of theatre history, but there were only a few composers who had the time or the ability to revise and prepare their scores for orchestral performance later — Peer Gynt, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bizet’s L’Arlesienne and a few other examples. The rest were destined to be forgotten.
But today we have a window of opportunity because orchestras need to innovate in new ways. We find now that certain theatrical innovations are becoming more commonplace. I’m thinking about things like Cirque de la Symphonie, feature films with live orchestra, and so on.
Today, we’re in this moment when orchestras are realizing that they need to hybridize their audience base. The interesting thing is that the solutions aren’t just about today or the future; we can go back and recreate some of these entertainments from yesteryear that involved full orchestras.
We cannot go back completely to the way it was — doing a six-hour production of Antoine et Cléopâtre like the Paris Opéra did in 1920 — but we can do it on the turf of the concert hall, mixing in and contextualizing stories to recreate the Golden Age of theatre. In essence, to create a Gesamtkunstwerk without Wagner. There are many scores like Antony & Cleopatra that could be refashioned like this – and one way to do it is in the concert hall with performers.
JoAnn Falletta: It’s been interesting to compare notes with Bill on how orchestras and other performing arts groups are tackling the need to adjust the way we’re delivering music. But importantly, it has to change in ways that preserve the art form and actually intensify the quality — not “dumbing it down” in an ill-conceived attempt to reach more people.
I’m very impressed with how Bill has maintained the integrity of both artistic products – Shakespeare’s words and Florent Schmitt’s music. Thankfully it’s not making it mindless “easy listening” or seeking to avoid taxing the audience, but it’s changing the concert experience in very interesting ways.
Some of the attempts certain orchestras are making in this general direction aren’t really working. For example, performing movie soundtracks over top a film like Indiana Jones or Home Alone or Harry Potter I or II might have seemed like a good idea initially, but now looks more like a fad that might run its course after only a few years.
PLN: Bill, the first full presentation of your production was in London in 2016. What was the audience and critical reception to the performance?
Bill Barclay: It was a Barbican audience — which is to say the hall was filled with people who love the experimental side of classical music. That audience tends to be edgier because of the brutalist construction of the complex and the whole streak of experimentalism that the Barbican embodies.
It’s somewhat like the role Lincoln Center plays in New York City but it has a more permanent avant-garde streak. So I’d say that the audience was up for it — they were willing to go on the adventure.
Thank goodness the press was gracious, enthusiastic — and I think in a very London way, supportive of the risk-taking which is something one can count on in the critical community there. They have an ability to acknowledge when people experiment and try new approaches, and to appreciate the effort more than we might expect to find in the New York press in comparison. In a place like London, the movable feast is something you can have and it will be welcomed into the community.
PLN: Have you made any adjustments to the production between 2016 and today?
Bill Barclay: Initially the Globe was going to produce this Virginia production as well, but then a new artistic director come in which resulted in a change of focus. At first I was disappointed in that development because I had wanted to bring the Globe here, but it turned out to be a blessing in actuality.
For a while I had been thinking about starting my own company. Virginia gave me an opportunity to launch with this idea. Then it became the question of what actors I could get. I grew up in Boston and knew performers there that I could pull in for this production. I could bring them together for a week of rehearsal on their own home turf and then bring them down here to Virginia. Three of the five cast members are people I’ve worked with in the past, and the other two came recommended by people I know.
But as far as the production itself is concerned, what we’re presenting Virginia is exactly what was done in London.
PLN: How has it been for the two of you to collaborate on this Virginia Arts Festival production? How have the rehearsals gone with the actors and musicians working together?
JoAnn Falletta: The great thing for me is that Bill is a fantastic musician. Otherwise, it could have become difficult when attempting to work the music portion in with the dialogue.
In our rehearsals Bill is talking to me as a musician, and that has helped me understand what is in his mind. And then he’s also the conduit to the actors, who of course are not musicians. Bill has been that bridge for us.
I’m not sure how well it would have worked without someone with Bill’s background and knowledge.
Bill Barclay: It helps when there’s a great collaboration between the musicians and the actors when preparing the production for performance. Collaborating with JoAnn has been a dream.
I’ve done this maybe about a dozen times — putting actors in front of the orchestra. It’s never been as pleasurable as working with JoAnn, and I’m saying this without hyperbole. It has been the most accommodating environment for collaboration.
JoAnn Falletta: Bill is generous in his praise, but unlike some other conductors who might come to a score like this without much foreknowledge, I knew this music already from performing and recording it. I knew the treacherous moments and could address those areas with the musicians. Even so, the first orchestra rehearsal we had was quite rocky, but then we had four rehearsals to work things out.
Bill Barclay: And the second dress rehearsal went beautifully.
PLN: Are there additional presentations of this Antony & Cleopatra production that are in the works?
Bill Barclay: None yet, but I hope that there will be. We’ll all be talking about it afterwards to figure out how to push this over the fence. It isn’t easy to cold-call a vice president of artistic planning at a place like Minneapolis or St. Louis and say, “I think you folks should do this.” I think it needs to develop more organically — building on the success of it being mounted elsewhere.
JoAnn Falletta: I think this adaptation has that kind of potential. I’d like to bring it to Buffalo, and music festivals are often a good environment because planners are hungry for fresh and interesting material to program.
But people also need to realize that it’s not easy material; it isn’t just whole notes and the actors carrying the entire thing.
Bill Barclay: … Which is one reason why I think JoAnn might be the best person to conduct the orchestra in future productions of Antony & Cleopatra!
PLN: The French conductor Fabien Gabel, who presented the second suite from Antony & Cleopatra with the Orchestre de Paris last year, remarked that the musicians found it the most challenging of the five “orientalist” works on that program — and also the one that required the most time to prepare. Maestra Falletta, do you agree that the music poses special challenges for players?
JoAnn Falletta: It does pose challenges, and the musicians at my two orchestras agree that this is very difficult music to master. One of our VSO trombonists joked with me after the first rehearsal this week, asking, “Are you trying to kill us?” But I think if you’re conducting an orchestra of a certain level of quality, it’s definitely something that can be programmed and I would love to do so again.
PLN: As we wrap up, do you have any further observations you would like to make about this production of Antony & Cleopatra or Schmitt’s music in general?
Bill Barclay: With these productions, the costuming is fine and the visual sense of the orchestra in the hall is great. But when we can achieve a high level of collaboration like has happened here in Virginia, it makes the whole thing as a feast for the ear with the text and the music coming together. It’s quite special.
With something like an orchestra accompanying films with live music, the film is so interesting visually that people end up subverting the ear to the eye. We need to realize that it’s important that the music not become secondary to the visual. The music shouldn’t be subservient to the screen. I honestly think that we’ve accomplished that in this Schmitt production.
Having witnessed the Virginia Arts Festival presentation of the dramatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra with Schmitt’s music, I can attest to the fact that the Bill Barclay’s endeavor is a success. Here’s hoping that this production — and others like it — will be taken up by other orchestras around the country and across the English-speaking world.