“What I find most astonishing about this piece is the fact that such heightened intensity and élan is achieved in record time … Florent Schmitt packs in the musical imagery required to make us imagine in our minds — and feel in our bodies — the dancing rites and rituals of the Devadasis. He makes us travel to that place.”
— Karina Gauvin, Canadian soprano
When one looks at the body of work that comprises French composer Florent Schmitt’s 138 catalogued compositions, the period 1900 to 1935 is striking in the number of significant works that were inspired by Eastern/Oriental subjects and themes.
Among the most significant of these creations are nine that were scored for orchestral forces — five of them with voices as well:
- Psalm XLVII, Op. 38 (1904) for soprano, chorus, violin, organ and orchestra
- Danse des Devadasis, Op. 47 (1908) for soprano, chorus and orchestra
- Selamlik, Op. 48 (1906) for concert band
- La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50 (1907/10), ballet for soprano, women’s voices and orchestra
- Dionysiaques, Op. 62 (1913-14) for concert band
- Antoine et Cléopâtre, Op. 69 (1921), incidental music to André Gide’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play
- Danse d’Abisag, Op. 75 (1925), ballet for orchestra
- Salammbô, Op. 76 (1925), film music after Gustave Flaubert’s novel, for chorus and orchestra
- Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, Op. 83 (1934), ballet for tenor, chorus and orchestra
Of these creations, the three most famous and oft-recorded are the ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, the massive fresco Psaume XLVII, and the pioneering wind ensemble composition Dionysiaques.
But nearly all of the others have achieved a certain degree of awareness and recognition — all except for Danse des Devadasis. Indeed, Devadasis is the only one of these nine compositions that has never been commercially recorded.
That’s a shame, because the piece is a real gem that deserves a rightful place within the “core” repertoire of French choral music.
Completed in 1908, the inspiration for Danse de Devadasis was a poem by the French physician and symbolist writer Jean Lahor (the nom de plume of Henri Cazalis), whose literary creations were set to music by numerous French composers of the era including Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc, Reynaldo Hahn, Paul Paray and — most famously — Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (Danse macabre).
There’s no question that in his poetry, Jean Lahor brought his subjects to resplendent life in the most colorful terms. But just who are these Devadasis?
In South India, a Devadasi was a young girl selected to dedicate her life to worship and serve a deity or a temple. The dedication would take place in a Pottukattu ceremony (which is similar in some ways to a marriage). In addition to taking care of the temple and performing rituals, Devadasis also learned and practiced classical Indian artistic traditions like Bharatanatyam and Odissi dances.
Devadasis possessed high social status, since dance and music were essential parts of temple worship. After becoming Devadasis, these young women would spend their time learning religious rites, rituals and dancing. They had children by high officials or priests who were also taught their skills of music or dance.
From our 21st century perspective, the heritage of the Devadasi tradition might conjure up distasteful implications of “human trafficking,” but it should be noted that eminent personalities have hailed from the Devadasi community, among them Bharat Ratna recipient M. S. Subbalakshmi, along with Padma Vibhushan recipient Balasaraswathi.
Still, the Devadasi tradition died out in the years following India’s independence, thanks to the enactment of a series of increasingly strict laws that were aimed against the practice of recruiting young girls dedicated to Hindu temples.
In reveling in Jean Lahor’s multicolored poetry, we can immediately sense the exotic attraction of the subject matter — which must have fanned the flames of Florent Schmitt’s own imagination as well, considering the composer’s red-blooded attraction to women (the polar opposite of his fellow-Apache composer friends Maurice Ravel and Manuel de Falla).
Presented below is the English translation of Lahor’s poetry that is found in Durand’s piano/vocal score to Danse des Devadasis, as prepared from the original French by the English author, music critic and vocal instructor Herman Klein:
Nautch-girls are whirling, gliding and twirling
To the rhythmic beat of the drum.
See ‘mid their dances, amorous glances
Darting from their eyes, though lips be dumb.
‘Neath silk or gauze their limbs ne’er pause
But as they sway, freely disclose rare forms enchanting.
Dark and fair, haunting
like the early dawn of day.
‘Round ankles tiny, gold and shiny
See a neat coil of rings is bound.
Merry feet twinkling, set up a’tinkling
As they respond to the music’s sound.
What are they hearing? A bee, I’m fearing.
Now the music mimics the noise.
Dancing and strumming, buzzing and humming
Swiftly, it teases and pursues.
One maiden fearful, grown almost tearful
Declares the bee is hid, she knows not where.
Scarf quickly tearing, fair bosom baring
She searches long to find him there.
And then the dancer, with sudden laughter
Forgets her fears and joins the throng,
While pipe and drumming resume their strumming
In gentle phrases soft and long.
In Schmitt’s score, the last two stanzas of Lahor’s poem are sung by a soprano soloist. In this regard, Danse des Devadasis is similar to Psaume XLVII in that the composer assigns an important part of the “story” to the soprano. In both pieces, it is a masterstroke.
As for the “flavor” of the music, I find this score to be one in which the composer may have come closest to the French operatic tradition of Bizet and Massenet — the latter of whom had been one of Schmitt’s composition instructors at the Paris Conservatoire.
But the influence of Emmanuel Chabrier may be even more discernible — in particular shades of that composer’s stunning 1885 work La Sulamite which is scored for soprano and female chorus. Although better-known than Schmitt’s composition, Chabrier’s masterpiece is also shamefully neglected in the concert hall and has had only a few commercial recordings.
Speaking about the effectiveness of Danse des Devadasis as music, the Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, who performed Psaume XLVII with Fabien Gabel and the Quebec Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in May of 2019, has stated:
“What I find most astonishing about this piece is the fact that such heightened intensity and élan is achieved in record time. Within less than a 7-minute timeframe, Florent Schmitt packs in the musical imagery required to make us imagine in our minds — and feel in our bodies — those dancing rites and rituals of the Devadasis. He makes us travel to that place.
I’d also note that we can also clearly hear shades of Ravel’s Boléro in this music — twenty years before that piece was composed!”
Scott Tucker, music director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, who also presented Schmitt’s Psalm 47 during 2019 (at the Kennedy Center), makes these observations about Devadasis:
“Schmitt has turned east for something exotic to express. The harmonic minor scale he uses in the opening woodwind figures … [and] his use of the triangle and bells and tambourine also allude to an eastern sound-world.
The first half has a kind of whirling rhythm … the second half, which features the solo soprano, is more atmospheric. Schmitt writes so well for the solo soprano voice, and here I think the piece hits its stride with some lovely lyric writing for the soprano — beginning from a dreamier place with harp and strings, moving to a more frenzied pace … then ending with some very satisfying, dreamy scalar passages which drift off to conclude the piece with a sense of longing.
The choral writing, while not simple, is certainly more accessible than some of Schmitt’s other works.”
And consider the personal reaction of American conductor and Schmitt champion JoAnn Falletta to this music:
“Florent Schmitt shines in many musical mediums, but my favorite is his astonishing gift for painting exotic — and often erotic — landscapes.
The composer captures the very fragrance of southern India in his scene of young maidens singing to their deities. And with his French sensitivity to the female voice, he creates a world that shimmers with both innocence and intoxicating allure.”
Schmitt dedicated Danse des Devadasis to the arts critic and sometime-composer Émile Vuillermoz. The first performance of the score was mounted in London in 1911 in Schmitt’s version for soprano, chorus and piano. The composer himself played the piano part at the premiere.
In the decades since, the piece has never achieved any significant degree of renown. Indeed, I have been unable to trace any performances of this music anywhere in the world in the past half-century.
As for commercial recordings of this music, as noted above there have been none to-date. However, music-lovers now have the opportunity to hear Danse des Devadasis, thanks to audio documentation of a live performance of the music that was performed and broadcast on May 3, 1956 by the ORTF Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, joined by soprano Françoise Ogéas as the featured soloist.
Of the performance, René Dumesnil, the music critic for Le Monde, observed:
“We congratulate M. Inghelbrecht for presenting this piece, so rarely heard since its creation in 1914 [sic]. For many in the audience it was a revelation — and triumphantly welcomed.”
That idiomatic 1956 performance, which was captured in decent sonics, has now been released by Forgotten Records as part of a CD featuring three ORTF broadcast performances of Schmitt’s music done in the 1950s. The disk is well-worth acquiring and can be purchased directly from the Forgotten Records website, with orders shipped worldwide.
As a little-known but highly attractive and engaging choral work, Danse des Devadasis is long overdue for a revival in the modern era. We can only hope that some of today’s more inquisitive conductors and choral directors will investigate this score and add the music to their repertoire for the benefit of audiences everywhere.