Recently, French conductor Fabien Gabel returned to the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse to lead a concert of music by composers from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The choice of repertoire was interesting in that it had a distinctly “Salome-centric” cast — featuring the music of Florent Schmitt and Richard Strauss. But the concert also included works by Engelbert Humperdinck and Franz Liszt — the latter piece being Liszt’s large-scale Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” for solo organ featuring Henri-Franck Beaupérin at the console.
For such an unusual program, an interesting question was the strategy employed in putting it together. It was precisely that strategy that author and dramaturge Charlotte Ginot-Slacik sought to find out when she interviewed the Maestro in the month preceding the concert. Gabel’s remarks were published in the September-December issue of Vivace ! magazine.
For those who can read French, the original article is reproduced below. For others, an English translation of the interview follows.
FROM SALOMÉ TO SALOMÉ: TOWARDS A FRENCH SCHOOL
An interview with Fabien Gabel.
Established as one of the privileged guest directors of the Orchestre National du Capitole, the French conductor Fabien Gabel returns this new season with a shimmering program under the theme “femme fatale.” An interview with this passionate advocate for French music (but not only French):
CG-S: The program you have chosen for October is definitely off the beaten track. How did you build it, and what connects these composers and these works?
FG: The Salomé of Richard Strauss and Florent Schmitt have an obvious link. Both date from the same period: 1905 for Strauss and 1911 for the composition that Schmitt drew from his ballet originally mounted in 1907. Beyond their common theme, there is also the question of orientalism – sometimes German, sometimes French – and particularly eruptive in the case of Schmitt.
For the rest of the concert, I had to think about a piece that features the organ – which is not so easy to accomplish, considering that the repertoire for this instrument with symphonic forces is quite small. The figure of Liszt loomed large — especially since Strauss was stationed in Weimar in the 1880s, the city where Liszt had lived for a long time. For the Königskinder of Humperdinck, it was Wagner, Liszt’s close friend, who helped create that link, since Humperdinck was Wagner’s assistant. So in that sense the musical connection to Liszt works.
CG-S: Two visions of Salomé dialogue here: on one side is the famous figure brought to the opera stage by Strauss, the other that of Florent Schmitt, created nearly contemporaneously. What do you see in these works?
FG: The “Dance of the Seven Veils” by Strauss is undoubtedly better known than Schmitt’s piece. We know how much Strauss’s Salome remodeled the lyrical landscape of the twentieth century. But the piece by Schmitt, although less known, represents the face of modernity. Completed a few months before Le Sacre du printemps of Stravinsky, the piece was dedicated to that composer, who was particularly honored by the dedication.
I am always struck by the work’s size — epic, incandescent — which transports us to a Biblical Judea. Today we recognize how much this work influenced Le Sacre through its rhythms, its power, and by its very frightening dimensions. This Salomé freezes our blood!
CG-S: How do you explain the fascination with the story of Salomé at the turn of the century?
FG: It seems to me that the story relates to lust – to the “forbidden” – which is what shocked people. Oscar Wilde’s play was deemed “pornographic” in its time. Irresistible to musicians, the music they created was precisely to defy the prohibitions — to provoke — with such a subject.
CG-S: What excites you about Schmitt’s music?
FG: First, its harmonic language. Schmitt suffered by having survived long past Ravel and Debussy, and after the Second World War his music was considered old-fashioned by the young avant-garde. This, despite the fact that he had been a great defender and friend of premier modernist personalities such as Schoenberg, but he also paid for his ambiguous political position during the war and risky declarations against some composers.
Even so, Schmitt remains one of the acknowledged masters of the orchestra of his time, and his capacity for evolution is fascinating. Take Psaume XLVII for example: The work begins in a language inspired by the 19th century – even pompous in its own way – and yet it ends with incredibly modern speech, in the colors of the 20th century. All throughout his life, Schmitt never stopped evolving and continually questioning the musical language.
CG-S: After performing Roussel with the Orchestre du Capitol last year, it seems you have a heartfelt desire to showcase all French music rather than just the iconic works …
FG: No matter how much I love the great French masterpieces, French music cannot be summed up in just five works by Ravel and Debussy! I believe in defending this musical heritage in all of its diversity.
CG-S: How do you characterize the challenges of bringing this repertoire to the concert hall?
FG: First by the fact that French composers did not provide us with a body of symphonic works in the Germanic or Russian sense of the term. The surge of works by composers like Mahler or Shostakovich marginalized the diversity of French music — then by the gap between its “surface” image and the fact that the music actually requires vast in-depth study.
We now have musicians including François-Xavier Roth, Alain Altinoglu, etc., as well as the Bru Zane Foundation at work on this — plus a whole generation of instrumentalists who have worked with those who were personally connected to the era. As a young trumpeter, I studied with a teacher who had played under the direction of Ravel, for example.
What is very effective is to thematize things – mix aesthetics, styles, and national schools as a means of arousing curiosity. Explore the Pelléas et Mélisande by Schoenberg, Fauré and Sibelius, for instance.
CG-S: You are one of the masters today of what one might call the “French School.” How do you describe that school in in terms of colors, orchestration — genres even? Can we discern a common thread at the turn of the 20th century?
FG: It’s a difficult question! First to the term “French school”: It designates French composers from the beginning of the Twentieth century – or let’s say from the time of Debussy. That’s because Berlioz did not really create a French “school,” and the last part of the 19th century was dominated by Wagner. The true rupture with the Germanic style was carried out by Debussy, Fauré and Ravel.
If I had to define French music, I would speak of “colors.” In terms of timbres, the use of winds in French orchestras was unmatched in Europe at that time. However, we must beware of clichés! For German music, it is the idea of “depth” that is often used to characterize it, but I also feel a lot of depth in the score to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, for example.
For French music, it’s the idea of an ethereal sound that is typically a characterization. But anyone who listens to the Pelléas et Mélisande of Debussy will hear a very dense orchestral sound – in places even as dense as Wagner’s Parsifal!
The second term that comes to mind is that of “punctuation,” which derives from the French language itself. French composers often indicate very precise punctuation, particularly forcefully, which can pose problems for non-French musicians — even if musical globalization is reducing this challenge.
And finally, of course, the musical painting. A simple example: take a score of Debussy and you will see a picture. Then take a Mahler score, and you will see problems!
French music is subliminally seductive and always sensual. In Schmitt you get to experience evil in balmy luxury — and no matter the French composer, sex always seems to take place in good weather!