The 2020-21 season includes performances of the small-orchestra version in Japan, Germany and France.
As is so well-known to music-lovers everywhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on concert-going the world over. For too many orchestras and chamber ensembles, the entire 2020-21 season has been a total bust — or at the very least, upended in dramatic ways.
It’s a particularly disappointing turn of events for those composers who were celebrating birthday anniversary milestones during the season — not least the French composer Florent Schmitt, born in 1870 and whose 150th birthday anniversary fell in 2020.
It’s no coincidence that more concerts featuring Schmitt’s orchestral music had been planned for the 2020-21 season than in any season since the composer’s death back in 1958. Unfortunately, nearly all of these performances have had to be canceled or postponed.
But while the overall picture is discouraging, there has been a silver lining of sorts.
Quite a few symphony orchestras have gone about “reimagining” their concert seasons to present music that calls for smaller instrumental forces, allowing for appropriate distancing on the stage. This has opened the door to pieces that aren’t typically presented in regular symphony seasons. Speaking personally, I’ve had the pleasure of watching streamed concerts of unusual fare such as Sir Granville Bantock’s late-career Celtic Symphony (scored just for strings along with a bevy of harps).
Another piece that has “benefited” from the coronavirus pandemic is the original version of Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, dating from 1907. Salomé may be Schmitt’s best-known orchestral work, but the version most people know is a reworking of the score for large orchestra, in which the composer shortened the music by about half while substantially augmenting the number of instrumentalists.
This “famous” Salomé was composed in 1910, dedicated to Igor Stravinsky, and began life in 1911 in the concert hall rather than the ballet stage, with the Colonne Concerts orchestra led by composer-conductor Gabriel Pierné.
The newer version has also been staged as a ballet, beginning in 1912 with a production featuring the prima ballerina Natalia Trouhanova. It was added by Serge Diaghilev to the Ballets-Russes’ repertoire in 1913, along with being revived regularly on various Paris stages through the 1950s. In more recent years, the 1910 version of the ballet has been staged in Germany, Italy and Russia.
But the original 1907 version of La Tragédie de Salomé is a fascinating score as well — and some ways more so, considering the restrictions under which the piece was created.
Schmitt composed the music for Robert d’Humières and his conception of the Salome story, which was mounted at the Théàtre des Arts (now known as the Théàtre Hébertot) in Paris. Reportedly, d’Humières had been completely smitten by Schmitt’s blockbuster score Psaume XLVII when he heard it at the piece’s December 1906 premiere. Through a mutual friend, the writer Jean Forestier, d’Humières reached out to the composer shortly thereafter to offer the Salomé commission.
Due to the small size of the theatre’s stage and orchestra pit, Schmitt was forced to write music for no more than 20 players (plus an offstage soprano). What’s quite amazing is the degree to which Schmitt was able to conjure up an astonishing array of colors and drama while utilizing such a small group of instrumentalists.
There’s no question that the music Schmitt created added much to the mimed drama of d’Humières and the portrayal of the heroine by the American-born dancer Loïe Fuller — famous for her scarves and lighting effects.
Running for more than 50 performances, the 1907 Salomé was an artistic and commercial success for all of the key personnel involved: d’Humières, Fuller and Schmitt in addition to a then-very-young Désiré Inghelbrecht who conducted the orchestra.
There’s no question that Florent Schmitt’s 1910 reworking of La Tragédie de Salomé produced a tighter score along with the kind of “orientalist opulence” in the grandest Rimsky-Korsakov tradition that only a full symphony orchestra could deliver. And yet … the original score contains passages of music which are every bit as effective — and highly interesting musically — which didn’t make it into the revised version.
As for what happened next, the original score disappeared from view for more than 70 years, even as Schmitt’s 1910 version was published by Durand and went on to become the composer’s most celebrated orchestral work.
The original manuscript score eventually made its way to the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris, where it was rediscovered decades after the composer’s death and recorded in 1993 on the Marco Polo label. The conductor on that recording (the only commercial one to date) was Patrick Davin, a Belgian musician well-known for championing lesser known repertoire.
Schmitt’s manuscript has also been converted to a modern score which is available for rental from the BnF. What the COVID-19 crisis has shown us is that the small-orchestra version of Salomé is a very good fit for orchestras that are seeking pieces scored for reduced forces. Sure enough, the piece has already appeared on two programs this season and is slated for more later in the year.
The first presentation was done by the Sinfonietta Shizuoka in Tokyo, Japan on November 4, 2020, under the direction of Tomoya Nakagawa. Maestro Nakahara studied in France where he became acquainted with lesser-known French scores, and he has championed this sort of repertoire since returning to Japan. In fact, this is the second time that the original version of Salomé has been presented by these same musical forces (the first time was in 2015).
On the same November 2020 concert as the Schmitt, Nakakara programmed the Petite symphonie of Joseph-Guy Ropartz, and later this season he is planning on presenting Schmitt’s Janiana Symphony for strings.
Portions of the Sinfonietta Shizuoka’s November performance, encompassing slightly less than half of the Salomé score, have been uploaded to YouTube and can be viewed here. Viewing the concert, we can see that Nakagawa has adhered strictly to Schmitt’s instrumentation; there are just 20 performers on the stage. So we can imagine that this performance sounds very close to what the audience at the Théàtre des Arts would have heard back in 1907.
Such a measure of historical accuracy hasn’t been adhered to in a subsequent performance of the original version, presented on January 21, 2021 by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of its music director-designate Alain Altinoglu. That performance, which was filmed for streaming and can be viewed here, employs closer to 40 players rather than 20.
But where the Frankfurt presentation might deviate from the number of players called for in the original score, it is faithful to using an offstage soprano — unlike in the Shizuoka performance, where the vocal lines are played by the oboe.
The Altinoglu/Frankfurt RSO performance is beautifully structured and played with real polish. Indeed, it is demonstrably superior to the Marco Polo recording in nearly every aspect. The success of the Frankfurt rendition shouldn’t comes as a surprise, in that Maestro Altinoglu has been a champion of Florent Schmitt’s Salomé ballet for more than a decade. He has presented the 1910 version in concert in Europe and the United States (at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2012), and he has also included the score in his classes for conducting students at the Paris Conservatoire. With such passionate advocacy for the music, it seems only natural that he would also want to program the 1907 score — and that he would do the job exceedingly well.
But this season’s presentations of the 1907 score don’t end there. Ensemble Les Apaches, a French chamber orchestra founded and directed by Julien Masmondet, also has plans to present the original 1907 version in France in November and December 2021. Those concerts will be presented at the Théàtre de l’Athenée in Paris and at several other opera houses and theatres elsewhere in the country.
Dates and details are still being finalized, and the information will be updated just as soon as the schedule is set.