Schmitt took his text for Psaume XLVII
from the French translation of the Vulgate (in which the psalm is numbered 46; his work is sometimes called Psalm 46
in Catholic countries), but his treatment of it is defiantly un-ecclesiastical. Instead he interpreted the text as a paean of savage triumph sung by an oriental race; in his autobiography he said that he was trying to transpose into Biblical terms the ceremonial acclamations of the Ottoman Sultan which he had witnessed at Istanbul in 1903. From the deliberately clashing fanfares of the opening, the result is full-blooded, making extravagant but thrilling use of the large forces at Schmitt’s disposal, and with a pronounced exotic, eastern flavour. The orientalism is really all this work can be said to share with the contemporary compositions of Debussy and Ravel: the piece’s grand rhetoric and pulverizing climaxes have more in common with the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss, whom Schmitt greatly admired, and the pungent dissonances of Schmitt’s harmony (which look towards Strauss’s not-yet-composed Salome
) strike a new note in French music. So do Schmitt’s insistent, jabbing dotted rhythms, which give the music a kind of barbaric élan.
When the noise and fury subsides, in the middle section, it is replaced by an equally ‘oriental’ evocation of sensuous languor, led off by melismatic writing for violin and bassoon that would not be out of place in a setting of the Song of Solomon, but the final part of the work piles Pelion upon Ossa in terms of sheer orchestral force. It was this aspect of the work which most impressed its first audiences and seemed to announce the arrival of a major new force in French music when the Psalm was premiered in the concert hall of the Paris Conservatoire in December 1906. Schmitt’s friend, the bohemian poet Léon-Paul Fargue, wrote dithyrambs in (untranslatable) approval of the new sounds produced by ‘cet orchestre de triphtongues, de saxotartes, de trimbalets, de tromboches, de pangibles et de fusils …’. It is hardly surprising that Schmitt was soon being dubbed ‘the new Berlioz’ by the French musical press.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2007