Of Florent Schmitt’s major compositions, undoubtedly the one that has achieved the greatest fame over the decades is the ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, which Schmitt created for the dancer Loïe Fuller who presented the hour-long “mimed drama” at the Théâtre des Arts (now the Théâtre Hébertot) in Paris in 1907. That original version of La Tragédie de Salomé was scored for a small ensemble of some 20 musicians, necessitated by the limited size of the theatre’s stage and orchestra pit.
The success of the premiere led Schmitt to prepare a new version of the ballet in 1910, rewriting and paring the score by about half while substantially augmenting the musical forces to encompass an entire symphony orchestra.
This new version of La Tragédie de Salomé, which was dedicated by Schmitt to Igor Stravinsky, received its premiere performance in 1911 as a symphonic suite, played by the Concerts Colonne Orchestra conducted by the composer-conductor Gabriel Pierné.
The premiere was soon followed by a ballet staging in 1912 (with Nathalie Trouhanova), a Ballets-Russes production in 1913 (Tamara Karsavina), and another staging in 1919 (Ida Rubinstein).
Over the ensuing decades, the ballet was revived in Paris and premiered in other European cities up to the mid-1950s. But since the 1970s, to the best of my knowledge it has been presented on the stage in only three countries: Italy in 1973; Germany in 1994-95; plus Russia and Italy in 2013 (the latter two by the Mariinsky Ballet).
As for the suite, its success has been far greater. The music took hold in the concert hall — and not merely in France. It was first presented outside the country in 1913 (at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam). And today, more than a century after its initial appearance, it’s safe to contend that the music has never been so recognized or oft-performed as it is now.
If you ask most any musician who has performed Schmitt’s Salomé, likely you’ll get an earful of complaints that the music is very challenging to master. As the French conductor Fabien Gabel has noted:
“Always when I program Florent Schmitt, the musicians are freaking out. Their first reaction is to say, ‘It’s so complicated! We don’t know where it goes!’ I think success with Schmitt is a matter of preparation, and the musicians are extremely well-prepared because they know the music is challenging to play.”
So, it is not too surprising to discover that La Tragédie de Salomé has tended to be a “major orchestra” repertoire piece fairly exclusively.
But that’s changing; today one finds that the score is being performed not only by the majors, but also by regional orchestras and student ensembles.
You can view a listing of post-World War II presentations of Salomé here, and from that listing we can see the piece’s track record in North America since 2015, where it has been performed by the following major symphony orchestras:
- Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Stéphane Denève, 2011)
- Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Alain Alginoglu, 2012)
- The Cleveland Orchestra (Lionel Bringuier, 2015)
- Philadelphia Orchestra (Yannick Nézet-Seguin, 2017)
- Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (JoAnn Falletta, 2019)
But something else is happening — not just in North America but all over the world. Going beyond the so-called “major” orchestras, we are now seeing Salomé being taken up by regional ensembles and student groups. Among them are:
- National Youth Orchestra of Wales / Paul Daniel (2015)
- Moldova Philharmonic Orchestra of Iasi / Gottfried Rabl (2016)
- Paris Conservatoire Student/Graduate Orchestra / Alain Altinoglu (2016)
- Asheville Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Meyer (2016)
- Fresno State University Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Loewenheim (2016)
- Spokane Symphony Orchestra / Eckart Preu (2017)
- Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Myssyk (2017)
- Transylvanian State Philharmonic Orchestra of Cluj / Gottfried Rabl (2018)
- Orquesta Filarmonica de Mexico (UNAM) / Ronald Zollman (2018)
- Augusta Symphony / Dirk Meyer (2019)
It’s likely that practically none of the musicians who play in these various groups had performed this music prior to their orchestras taking it up. Despite this — and despite the intensive practice and preparation that the score demands — it is interesting to note that in more than a few cases, similarly challenging pieces of music were also programmed for the same concerts.
For example, the 2015 performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales was part of a concert that included three “big ballets”; in addition to Salomé, the NYOW orchestra tackled Paul Dukas’ La Péri and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. Conductor Paul Daniel remarked that “they played the concert program wonderfully well,” while music critic Roger Jones wrote the following about the Schmitt and Stravinsky performances in his review of the NYOW concert:
“The ever-youthful Paul Daniel guided the young Welsh musicians through the scores with clarity, zest and enthusiasm …
A good deal of solid preparation had evidently gone into these performances, which demonstrated a standard of playing I’m sure many a professional orchestra would be glad to attain. Precision, commitment and passion seem to be the hallmarks of this wonderful orchestra, and if anyone wonders where the classical musicians of tomorrow will come from, having heard the NYOW in action I can report that the Principality is teeming with burgeoning musical talent.”
Other regional and student orchestras have performed Salomé alongside similarly challenging concert program fare — such as Alphons Diepenbrock’s Marysas Suite and Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain being presented by Gottfried Rabl and the Moldova Philharmonic Orchestra in 2017 … Richard Dubugnon’s Arcanes symphoniques sharing the program with Eckart Preu leading the Spokane Symphony in 2017 … and Gustav Holst’s The Planets being presented by Dirk Meyer and the Augusta Symphony in 2019.
When the Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra programmed La Tragédie de Salomé under the direction of Daniel Myssyk in 2017, it may well have been the premiere performance of this piece in Mexico (since then, Salomé has been presented by the UNAM Orchestra in Mexico City). Maestro Myssyk recalls how the piece was received at his concert:
“The audience’s reception was excellent. People in Guanajuato have a very open mind when it comes to discovering new repertoire. In many ways reminiscent of Le Sacre, the orchestra musicians thought the piece was challenging — yet very palatable. It’s always interesting to note that La Tragédie de Salomé was one of Stravinsky’s main sources of inspiration for Le Sacre.”
As for the most recent presentation of Salomé in concert — earlier this month by the Augusta Symphony under its German-American music director, Dirk Meyer — the conductor has commented:
“It was a truly wonderful experience to conduct La Tragédie de Salomé and I was thrilled with how many audience members as well as musicians approached me afterwards, thanking me for programming it. Even though very few in attendance knew of this piece, it left a profound impression and was one of the highlights of the evening’s performance. I am looking forward to introducing more audiences and musicians to this great work.”
Recent news about upcoming concerts reveals the the Orchestre Français des Jeunes will be including Salomé in its fall/winter 2020 European touring, culminating in a December performance at the Philharmonie in Paris. It will be an opportunity for top young musical talent to perform one of the shining examples of France’s “Golden Age” of classical music. Fabien Gabel, who directs the OFJ, says this about the upcoming tour:
“I am looking forward to presenting La Tragédie de Salomé by Florent Schmitt to the musicians of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes. Most of these young artists will be discovering a new, lush world of sound. The work makes great virtuosic demands on everyone, and it will require a lot of work on the part of all sections of the orchestra.”
In a similar vein, the efforts that French conductor Alain Altinoglu has made to popularize Salomé to the youngest generation of conductors are laudable. Maestro Altinoglu has presented the piece with numerous orchestras (including ones in Chicago, Montpellier, Paris and Toulouse), but his advocacy for the work while serving as a conducting instructor at the Paris Conservatoire is arguably even more consequential.
In 2016, Maestro Altinoglu chose La Tragédie de Salomé as the piece for the students in his classes to study. Moreover, each of the students conducted portions of the ballet on a March 7, 2016 program that was open to the public.
Thanks to Maestros Daniel and Gabel and other music directors, younger musicians are being exposed to Florent Schmitt’s music. And special thanks go to Maestro Altinoglu as well, through whom more of today’s “rising stars” in the conducting world are gaining exposure to La Tragédie de Salomé, much as they have done with the symphonies of Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler.
Plus, considering how infectious the music is to anyone who encounters it, this early acquaintance and exploration can’t help but result in more respect and love for this incredible piece of music — and with it, more chances for audiences to experience the piece live in the concert hall.
Update (11/18/19): Shortly after this article was published, I heard from Thomas Loewenheim, a cellist and conductor who directed the Fresno State University Symphony Orchestra in La Tragédie de Salomé in 2016. Maestro Loewenheim was effusive in his praise of the music’s qualities, noting:
“Performing La Tragédie de Salomé has been a dream come true ever since I discovered the piece when I was seeking great works for my orchestras to perform. The rich sonorities in the piece are the most attractive aspects for me; Florent Schmitt manages to combine beautiful French harmonies with rich and warm symphonic sounds that are usually associated with Germanic music — thus creating his own unique orchestral sound.
For my students, this was an incredible lesson regarding the music that preceded Stravinsky’s famed ballets. Seeing the writing, the harmonies, and the direction Schmitt went to inspire what was to come was an important history lesson, and both the performers and the audience members came out of the concert amazed at the beautiful music and high-quality writing. The soprano soloist and female choir joining the orchestra gave the music a dimension not frequently heard in symphonic works.
All together, it created a unique and deeply emotional experience that our audience will not soon forget. I am very much looking forward to the next time I can perform this piece.”
Update (11/19/19): After seeing this article, the American conductor Daniel Meyer got in touch with me about his own experience directing La Tragédie de Salomé as music director of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra in an October 2016 concert. Here are his comments:
“Florent Schmitt’s vibrant, dramatic and sensuous score was a thrill to conduct. Our audiences really responded to the immensity of color and the grand sweep of the score. While I believe that the musical language owes a debt to Debussy, Dukas, and Ravel, I also think Schmitt forges a path of his own with this particular score.
I look forward to the next opportunity I have to tackle this fascinating work.”