On March 7 and 8, 2020, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of its music director, JoAnn Falletta, presented what may well be the North American premiere performances of the suite from Florent Schmitt’s ballet Oriane et le Prince d’Amour.
Composed in 1933-34 for Ida Rubinstein, the famed dancer and dramatic actress who commanded the limelight in Paris from her arrival with the Ballets-Russes in 1908 until her departure from the city at onset of World War II, Oriane represented Schmitt’s final foray into the world of “orientalism.”
The piece is a musical tour de force that stretches the physical limits of the symphony orchestra (augmented by an eight-part mixed chorus à la Daphnis plus a tenor solo as well) that is matched only by the brilliant choreography, lavish set designs and colorful costumes in the ballet’s staging, which happened in January 1938.
And while the staged production didn’t actually star Miss Rubinstein, who by that time was nearly 53 years of age and likely no longer able to take on the challenging role, nonetheless it was a star-studded affair with the prima ballerina Lycette Darsonval dancing as Oriane and the famed Serge Lifar dancing the role of the Prince of Love. (Lifar also created the choreography.)
The production, mounted at the Paris Opéra, also included the sumptuous set designs of Georges Mouveau and colorful costumes designed by Pedro Pruna.
“The action of this music upon our senses, our hearts and our minds is so powerful and so bewitching, that we should sometimes have a mind to crave for mercy. But then again, why should we? Grasped by an iron hand, it is only at the very end that we feel it yielding.”
And here is what a young Olivier Messiaen wrote upon seeing the complete ballet premiered in a concert performance in 1937:
“On 12 February, the first performance of Oriane et le prince d’amour, the unparalleled ballet with choruses by Florent Schmitt, was given in a concert version with the Société Philharmonique Orchestra under the direction of the vigorous and passionate Charles Münch.
This is a sumptuous work: gleamingly, powerfully, at times overwhelmingly orchestrated. Languid melodies with voluptuously oriental contours; a dance of the Mongols in 5/4 where the harsh root-position minor chords slide modally over dissonant basses; a whispering dance of love for four horns, couched in warm pedals; a sniggering, swarming dance of the mad, with devilish rhythms.
All the hallmarks of Schmitt’s style were present. His language is less impressionist than it used to be. It remains, however, tonal and consonant throughout and reminiscent of Dukas’ La Péri, of Un Jardin sur l’Oronte by [Alfred] Bachelet and of Schmitt’s own famous La Tragédie de Salomé.”
Before the ballet reached the Paris Opéra stage in 1938, Florent Schmitt had already prepared a concert suite, consisting of purely orchestral material extracted from the ballet. While less than half the length of the complete score, the suite contains some of the ballet’s most memorable music.
But despite its very positive initial reception, Oriane et le Prince d’Amour is all-but-unknown today. In fact, it may be the most obscure of Florent Schmitt’s large-scale orientalist scores (the others being La Tragédie de Salomé [1907/10], Antoine et Cléopâtre , and Salammbó , along with the composer’s stunning choral fresco Psaume XLVII ).
Oriane has been revived only once as a stage production since its premiere (in 1961, also by the Paris Opéra), and other than some occasional concert broadcasts of the complete ballet or the suite over French National Radio during the 1950s, the piece seems never to have gained a foothold anywhere.
To my knowledge, up until now neither the suite nor the complete ballet had ever been performed in concert in North America. Moreover, there has been only one commercial recording ever made of the music (the suite only) – a rather substandard production released on the Cybelia label in the 1980s. Unfortunately, that recording doesn’t do the music many favors: the interpretation is hidebound; the orchestral playing merely average, and the audio fidelity underwhelming.
But at long last, the fortunes of Oriane are changing for the better. And to see how, we need to first dip back about five years in time.
In 2015, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and its music director, JoAnn Falletta, made a recording devoted to the orchestral music of Florent Schmitt: the two Antoine et Cléopâtre suites plus the symphonic poem Le Palais hanté. Released on the NAXOS label to near-universal critical accolades, that recording has probably done more than any single thing in recent years to fan the flames of “Florent Schmitt love” on every continent.
And now, the Buffalo Philharmonic and JoAnn Falletta are preparing another NAXOS recording which is planned for a 2020 release, during Schmitt’s 150th birthday anniversary year. The new recording will contain two major works in addition to two smaller ones.
One of the two “big pieces” is Schmitt’s best-known orchestral composition – La Tragédie de Salomé – while the other one is the Oriane Suite. The two works share a connection not only in their exotic subject matter, but also in Ida Rubinstein’s involvement in their staging.
While she did not dance the premiere of Salomé (that honor went to Loïe Fuller in 1907), Rubinstein had starred in the fourth Paris mounting of the ballet in 1919. It was working together on that project that sparked a 20-year collaboration between Rubinstein and Schmitt. The fruits of that collaboration included the Antoine et Cléopâtre commission in the following year (a lavish production at the Paris Opéra of Shakespeare’s drama featuring a new French translation by André Gide) and later the Oriane commission (another spare-no-expense theatrical production set to a prose narrative by Claude Séran, the nom de plume of Adrien Fauchier-Magnan).
When considering the various compositions to include in her latest Schmitt recording project, conductor JoAnn Falletta found in Oriane the perfect disk-mate to Salomé. Indeed, it seems as if these two femmes fatales were made for one another in their personification of women with “questionable but fascinating” reputations.
Jumping at the rare chance to experience the Oriane Suite in concert, I was joined by Florent Schmitt devotees from six states who traveled to Buffalo to attend the two weekend concerts prior to the NAXOS recording session.
While in town, I also had the opportunity to visit with Maestra Falletta about the Oriane score and what makes it such a special piece of music. The two of us met at Kleinhans Music Hall following the orchestra’s rehearsal the day before the first concert. Highlights from our conversation are presented below:
PLN: The Oriane Suite isn’t a well-known piece of music — even for Florent Schmitt. To date it has received just one commercial recording that’s long out-of-print. What was the strategy behind selecting this piece for performance and also including it in your second all-Schmitt NAXOS album?
JAF: It was a question of finding pieces that I felt worked well together. The centerpiece, of course, is La Tragédie de Salomé; it’s Schmitt’s most famous orchestral work and I really wanted to include that on the recording. And then the completely unknown jewel is Musique sur l’eau — oh my God, what a piece of music that is! I’m so glad we’re able to make the world premiere recording of that work.
But I also wanted to find two other pieces to fill out the recording that might relate to the first two in some ways, but that also show a contrasting side of the composer.
I’ve long been attracted to Schmitt’s exoticism — particularly his fascination with so-called “orientalism.” Schmitt had great interest in the sights and sounds – and even perfumes – of the east. I’ve loved that aspect in Antoine et Cléopâtre and also in Salomé, which are both fantastic, gleaming pieces.
So our third piece for the recording, the Légende, is a work that made sense in that it has hints of orientalism in its writing. It’s pretty well-known known as a saxophone piece, but we’re actually performing Schmitt’s violin version which is a certainly a rarity.
A larger work that is our fourth piece on the recording, Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, also has the ambience of something foreign and alluring — along with a real sense of the decadence that also seemed to be a preoccupation of the composer.
One aspect of Oriane that was very attractive to me was that I could work on preparing a piece that didn’t already have an established performance tradition — something which Salomé certainly has when you consider that famous conductors of the past like Paray, Martinon and Munch had performed and recorded it, not to mention conductors today like Denève, Bringuier and Gabel who perform the piece often.
In the case of Oriane, there’s been only one recording — and not a particularly successful one at that. So, it has given me an opportunity to look at a piece of music with completely fresh eyes, not being influenced by the weight of history. In fact, I hardly listened to the recording because I wanted to focus solely on the score and treat it on its own terms.
Interestingly, Schmitt leaves a lot to the imagination in this score. He is not as explicit in his markings as we see in the earlier orientalist pieces; he isn’t as “controlling” about things. As a result, I could be flexible in my approach without going against the composer’s expressed intentions. I was able to experiment with some different tempos and different rubatos that aren’t indicated — but that by looking at the musical line, I surmised he wouldn’t have minded me doing.
PLN: With this new recording that you’re making, you will have recorded all three compositions that connect Florent Schmitt to Ida Rubinstein. How do you see these three scores — Salomé, Cléopâtre and Oriane — fitting with Miss Rubinstein’s outsize life and persona?
JAF: I think Ida Rubinstein must have reveled in these roles, don’t you? These are women of commanding presence, of noteworthy beauty, and of sex appeal, I suppose. They’re women of extraordinary power — although they don’t necessarily use it to the wisest ends. There’s something about these women which is irresistible and, in some ways, fatal.
It is certainly interesting that these were the kind of roles that interested her. It could be that in her own life Rubinstein couldn’t measure up to the personas of these women. But there’s something about their allure that she absolutely loved — notwithstanding the havoc that their power wreaked on others.
When you consider these roles and the stories of the ballets, I think Florent Schmitt must have been the perfect choice to bring them to life in music. In France he may have been the only choice, because if you think of Debussy and Ravel — his two best-known counterparts — they both have a degree of coolness about them. So while Daphnis et Chloé, for instance, is highly effective and indeed brilliant music, it doesn’t have quite the final measure of wildness that we encounter in Schmitt’s scores. It’s not quite as personal in the same way as Schmitt, who is going “all-in” on the passion, so it seems.
We also get a similar sense of this in the Mongol dances in the second part of the Oriane Suite, where we can clearly imagine the stunning sets and costumes that must have been part of the stage production.
PLN: When you consider when these three scores were composed – Salomé, Antony & Cleopatra and Oriane – it’s a three-decade span from just before 1910 to the late 1930s. What are the salient similarities or differences that you detect between them?
JAF: Pretty much all music by Schmitt is challenging, but I think of the three scores, Antony & Cleopatra is the most difficult one that we’ve done. Of course, Oriane is very intense and very brilliant – it’s virtuoso writing that requires skill in navigating fast tempos and some difficult passages, along with maintaining a high level of energy throughout. But it isn’t quite as difficult technically.
However, what is challenging about Oriane is in successfully coalescing the sections that make up the suite. In Antony & Cleopatra, where there are six self-contained movements, this was easier to accomplish than in Oriane which is around 20 minutes of music without any distinct breaks. So, one big challenge is to establish a musical and emotional “arc” in the work, which you can do if you approach the music a certain way. Schmitt brings back various passages — the melodic material — at different times during the course of the suite. It’s that yearning leitmotiv in particular that we associate with the persona of Oriane, and it’s very important when it returns at the end of the suite, too.
Our two concert performances predate the recording session by about a week, so I intend to listen to playbacks of the concerts and think about how well everything is working with the tempos and rubato. I’ll give the musicians my feedback, too. I feel the recording will be even better as a result.
PLN: The arts critic Steven Kruger has characterized Florent Schmitt’s orientalist scores in an interesting way: “sensuality as defilement.” It’s true that the heroines of these compositions — including Salammbó, his fourth large-scale orientalist work — involve women who one could characterize as scheming, manipulative, or even evil. Do you see a larger pattern at work here?
JAF: I think one can easily have the impression that Schmitt was somehow drawn to these characters. There’s this sense of danger, but also a sort of irresistible attraction. Schmitt must have been attracted to these alluring worlds and to these roles in ways that go far beyond simply fulfilling the stipulations of a commission from Rubinstein.
You can feel that Schmitt is invested in these women and with these roles in a very personal way — and that he was able to explore his sense of imagination and musical color in this way. You feel that he is reveling in it.
PLN: Regarding the Oriane Suite, what particular challenges have the BPO musicians faced in mastering this music? How have they approached preparing the music for performance and recording?
JAF: Well, by now our orchestra has played enough Florent Schmitt to understand his musical world. So, for this concert it has been easier for them to prepare the music than has been the case in the past. There are undeniable similarities in this piece in its structure and character which the musicians already know from their other experiences with Schmitt. Of course, they also know that Schmitt’s music is difficult to play, so they’ve come to our rehearsals thoroughly prepared.
But in particular, I’ve been very intrigued by the composer’s use of the 7/4-time signature throughout the suite. Schmitt has a daring rhythmic sense in many of his works, but this 7/4 really requires a lot of sustaining to get the sense of line — achieving that one long breath. We’ve worked a lot on rubato and how to treat those long lines in a way that’s most musically effective. Keeping them completely square can’t be what Schmitt had in mind. Instead, the 7/4 rhythm conveys a feeling of breathing and movement over time.
We found that we needed to try different interpretive approaches during our rehearsals, experimenting all along the way. Getting the musicians to be flexible in their approach is always part of the challenge. Often when they encounter music of a certain difficulty, the automatic response is to approach things “by the book” and to look for the most “logical” answer. But that isn’t what Schmitt wants. Of course Schmitt wants rhythmic integrity, but he wants it in the service of all of this excitement and wildness.
Even in the Dance of Love where we have the passages in 7/4, the musicians were being extra-careful to play the seven beats, which actually gave the music a stilted feeling. But we know that isn’t what Schmitt wanted; the whole idea of seven beats was signaling a long line. It shouldn’t be like a bar of three and a bar of four, bopping along from bar to bar in the manner of Roussel or Stravinsky — where it’s right there and you finish it and go on to the next bar.
In the Oriane score, it’s always left unfinished somehow — a feeling of reaching and longing and temptation, perhaps. So, it was important to play that rhythm with a kind of intrinsic rubato that make the passages feel flexible, alluring, dangerous — but also free. After all, these are nights of passion — dances of passion — and the music just flows.
Our musicians are achieving it now after a good deal of work, and with each rehearsal the passages are “breathing” more and the interpretation is coming together the way I envision it should.
PLN: Has there been special preparation on the part of any of the musicians, beyond the usual pre-rehearsal practicing of their parts?
JAF: As far as any special preparation goes, we have had to deal with the lack of a jeu de timbres in the orchestra, which is part of Schmitt’s score. You just don’t see a keyboard glockenspiel in orchestras today; I’m not aware of any American orchestra that has one. Our percussionists came up with a novel solution in having the keyboard glock notes played by the celesta, and then using our concert bells to double the upper line from the jeu de timbres part.
This way, we can preserve the special sound of the bells while also making sure that every note is covered by one of the tuned percussion instruments. It’s resulting in a sound that’s much brighter and more brilliant than what you hear (or more accurately can’t hear) in the one recording of this piece, since apparently they didn’t play the part at all.
PLN: I find the sinister horn calls that open the suite to be some of the most ominous passages in all of classical music. They’re unforgettable. What are your thoughts on those passages?
JAF: At the outset, not only do the French horns sound ominous, the rhythm is different in every single bar. It’s so detailed in what Schmitt wants, it’s astonishing — but it also adds to the sense of danger and unpredictability.
For the trumpet calls that come in next, the composer has marked those parts piano, but we’ve actually been experimenting with playing them more brilliantly. We’re still experimenting, and I can see the merits of both approaches. Check back in at the concert and on the recording to see where we end up with this!
PLN: If I understand correctly, there is a slight modification that you’ve made near the beginning of the suite, interpolating a fragment from the complete ballet score. Can you tell us about the decision to make this modification, and how it changes that particular moment in the suite as a result?
JAF: There is a passage which appears twice in the complete ballet, at the beginning and again towards the end of the second act. It’s nearly identical except for an important pizzicato for the strings that occurs in the middle of the harp glissando. This happens in the complete score the second time only, but Schmitt selected the first passage for the suite. Instead, we’re using the second passage which I feel is quite special in its added emphasis. It isn’t really a change but actually a switch, as the music is all Schmitt’s.
I have to say, the change makes that moment more brilliant — particularly as it’s in the midst of this wild passage for the harps. The pizzicato kind of gives it an exclamation point — a center of sound at the top of the scale.
PLN: Considering the musical forces that are required to present the complete ballet – including a tenor soloist plus an eight-part mixed chorus – it’s likely that we won’t see a live performance or commercial recording of it anytime soon. Is that something you’d want to do if given the chance?
JAF: I like the idea of the ballet suite, because it indicates that Florent Schmitt wanted to preserve the music and see it have a life on the concert stage. It means that the composer felt the music would work in concert without the need for dancers. The suite preserves what Schmitt thinks is most beautiful in the score. We don’t need to ask him, “What are your favorite spots in the ballet?”, because there they are — right here in the suite.
Generally, I’m not a big fan of presenting full ballets in concert — without the dancing — because so often there are sections that the composer would never have created for the concert stage because they serve mainly to propel the action along.
What’s included the Oriane Suite is very dramatic music – and also very passionate and mysterious, too. Whether you know the story line or not, listeners get a great sense of drama from the suite. Schmitt has selected very brilliant moments from the ballet, but these are interspersed with very tender, yearning passages as well. And it all comes together wonderfully.
Also, when you consider that the Dance of Love at the beginning of the suite comes from Act II of the full ballet, as compared to the Act I Dance of the Mongols which is placed in the latter part of the suite, you realize that Schmitt organized his suite based on the musical flow, rather than adhering to any particular storyline.
Now, it is true that there are certain complete ballets that have found a life in the concert hall — like Stravinsky’s Le Sacre or Pétrouchka or Ravel’s Daphnis – or even Schmitt’s own Salomé. But these are pieces that work better as absolute music or as tone poems than they do as ballets. In fact, they work so well that most people don’t even think of them as ballets anymore.
But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. So no, I don’t think I’ll be performing the complete Oriane in the future, but I certainly hope to have more opportunities to present the suite!
PLN: In closing, do you have any further thoughts to share about your journey of discovery with Florent Schmitt, and the Oriane Suite in particular?
JAF: I have to say that the Oriane Suite is beautifully scored music, with a lot to do for all the musicians. It’s a heavy score with a lot going on musically. With Schmitt, you can generally hear everything but we’ve worked on balancing things to favor particular instruments in particular moments, which adds to the overall colorful effect.
And of course, as with most of Schmitt’s scores, the more you study them, the more you see and the more you discover. They have great depth as well as breadth.
With regards to Florent Schmitt in general, I’ve come to appreciate his music more and more – the sense of structure that he has and the exquisite skill of his writing. This is not a composer who throws a score together; Schmitt is a man who meticulously creates his musical world. It’s a world that’s full of challenges, but it is a fascinating and beautiful one.
It’s also filled with things that seem a little unusual, surprising, or even a little jarring — moments that pass by quickly but where you’re absolutely sure you heard something important and consequential. That’s the fascination and beauty of it.
Florent Schmitt should be played so much more than he has been up to now. If you look closely at his musical legacy, it’s hard not to conclude that his importance within French music is nearly at the same level as Debussy and Ravel. This was well-understood during his time, and little by little we are starting to realize that again today.
Without Schmitt, we are actually missing a big chunk of French musical history. Let’s not forget that Schmitt outlived Ravel and Debussy by many years, and therefore he was absorbing much more in the way of other influences over that time. Schmitt changed and grew as a composer throughout his long creative career — all while remaining true to himself. One can’t fully understand the French musical landscape without taking into account Schmitt’s scores, which are so spectacular.
Some composers who have long lives outlive their fame in a way — and for no good reason other than tastes that change and the younger generation can’t see that the music still matters. Consider that when Schmitt began composing it was still the era of Franck and Saint-Saens, but when he died it was the era of Messiaen and Boulez. By contrast, Debussy and Ravel died much younger, and so their reputation sort of crystallized before the time when French classical music became so radical, squeezing out a voice like Schmitt’s.
Speaking in particular about our upcoming recording, I have hopes that the shorter pieces on it will spark the interest of other conductors in performing them. That includes the Oriane Suite because it lasts only about 20 minutes, or even a bit less. It’s even something that could be placed at the beginning of a concert program, replacing an overture or shorter tone poem.
In the end, the test for any music is this: When it’s played, do people respond to it positively? In the case of Florent Schmitt, the answer is a resounding “yes”! When Schmitt is performed, audiences love it. Musicians love it. And NAXOS, with their international marketing reach, will help spread the appeal, too.
Having been fortunate to attend the Buffalo Philharmonic concerts in 2019 and 2020 in which all of the works planned for the new NAXOS recording had been performed so beautifully, I have no doubt that the upcoming release will prove to be every bit as successful as the first Florent Schmitt recording by Maestra Falletta and the BPO. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait longer than a few months for it to appear!