Hyperion Records

La tragédie de Salomé - Symphonic Poem, Op 50
A fellow-member—with Ravel, Delage, Fargue, the poet Tristan Klingsor, the conductor Inghelbrecht, the pianist Ricardo Viñes and others—of the exclusive artistic brotherhood who called themslves Les Apaches, Schmitt was an ardent champion of new music and was an early advocate of Stravinsky, an attitude which attracted the younger composer’s friendship and praise. Schmitt was so taken with Stravinsky’s Firebird that he renamed his house ‘Villa Oiseau de feu’. Stravinsky for his part may have been influenced by Schmitt, especially by what was destined to become his most famous work, La tragédie de Salomé Op 50, which he persuaded Diaghilev to put on stage. While taking up a subject to which Strauss had devoted an opera, this work, which Schmitt dedicated to Stravinsky, represents the summit of his achievement in ‘Franco-Russian’ style.

La tragédie de Salomé originated in a commission from the writer Robert d’Humières to produce an accompaniment for a scenario about the Jewish princess which he had written for the dancer Loie Fuller (celebrated in verse by W B Yeats). This Schmitt fulfilled with the completion in November 1907 of a ballet for a small orchestra of twenty players. Strauss’s opera had received its first Paris performance only six months before, but d’Humières’ scenario does not follow the Oscar Wilde version of the story of Salome, her lust for the prophet Jochanaan (John the Baptist) and her dance before Herod which formed Strauss’s libretto. Indeed, d’Humières conceived his work as a kind of moral answer to Wilde’s supposed amorality. In his version the action centres on Salome dancing for Herod—which she does in a whole series of dances that arouse his ardour. According to d’Humières, though, Salome is essentially innocent, obedient to her mother. She does not desire the execution of the prophet and casts away his head in horror, only to be pursued by a phantom of it which drives her to a frenzy of guilt and fear. Thus the title: ‘The tragedy of Salome’.

The ballet was rapturously received and ran for fifty performances. In 1909 Schmitt made a symphonic suite for large orchestra, comprising about half of the original music, and it is this version, which was not performed until 1911, which has become comparatively well known. (Schmitt himself conducted a recording of it in 1930.) In April 1912 it—the suite, not the full ballet, which was not revived until recent times—was staged, not by Diaghilev but by the short-lived rival company of Natasha Trouhanova, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in an evening of French ballet that also included Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, d’Indy’s Istar and Paul Dukas’s La Péri. Schmitt’s work was the sensation of the four, and this success, coupled with Stravinsky’s advocacy, led to a spectacular staging in 1913 by the Ballets russes with sets and costumes by Serge Sudeykin (whose wife, Vera de Bosset, would eventually become Stravinsky’s second wife).

The highly coloured violence and exoticism of Schmitt’s score certainly owes something to Strauss, and even more to Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Sheherazade, a work whose key position in the formation of twentieth-century modernism—especially through the effect of Rimsky’s highly individual harmonic techniques on Stravinsky—tends to be neglected when considering its obvious programmatic elements. The air of oriental sensuality and violence present in Rimsky’s work is enormously amplified in Schmitt’s, along with his personal adaptation of Impressionist musical vocabulary. But there is much that is original in the score, notably the dissonant harmonic sensations achieved by the bitonal combination of superimposed chords, and the unusual rhythmic formations which Schmitt groups into pulverizing cumulative ostinati. There is every reason to think that Stravinsky in 1910–11 found elements in Schmitt’s score that he was able to use in his own fashion in composing Le sacre du printemps in 1911–13. This is especially the case with the rhythmically complex and virtuosic ‘Danse de l’effroi’.

Schmitt’s symphonic suite reduces the eight sections of the original ballet to five. The mysterious, crepuscular Prelude is a study in the orchestra’s darker timbres, essentially concerned to set the scene and evoke an oriental night tremulous with suppressed passion that will set the drama in motion. The ‘Danse des perles’ (Dance of the Pearls) corresponds to Salome’s first dance before Herod and is contrastingly brilliant in its orchestration. Part II illustrates the gathering storm and the darkening mood of tragedy and cruelty that envelops Salome and Herod’s entire court, while the final ‘Danse de l’effroi’ (Dance of Terror) is Salome’s last frenzied dance as her reason gives way and she strives to escape the visions of blood and destruction that pursue her, bringing the work to its orgiastic conclusion.

Though Stravinsky praised Schmitt’s Salomé extravagantly in an often-quoted letter to Schmitt, and though he told the London Daily Mail in February 1913 that ‘France possesses in Debussy, Ravel and Florent Schmitt the foremost musicians of the day’, their friendship rapidly cooled. In later years (according to Robert Craft, in his edition of Stravinsky’s letters) his opinion of Schmitt’s music was ‘unprintable’; but a catalyst for this reversal of his former praise was the fact that it was Schmitt and not Stravinsky who was elected to the Institut de France in 1936 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Paul Dukas.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2007

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