Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dramatic scene painting

The legend of Edgar Allen Poe loomed large in Paris, and much of Europe, in the late 19th century. It’s amusing to see how seriously intellectuals of a certain type took a writer who wasn’t as well regarded on this side of the Atlantic (and though perhaps we’ve come to under-value him today, I still cringe when I read his poetry). Florent Schmitt takes as his text for Le Palais hanté a Stephane Mallarmé translation of Poe’s 1839 poem, and provides a lush, romantic score full of menace and dread. It’s reminiscent of Tristan but also anticipates Debussy’s Le Martyre de saint Sébastien of 1911. It’s a really effective orchestral work that at 13-1/2 minutes never outstays its welcome. And it’s very well played, with vigour and nuance, by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta.

The music Schmitt wrote in 1920 for a ballet performed between the acts of Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra has a more distinguished literary inspiration, and Schmitt’s music has gained power and complexity in the sixteen years after he wrote his Poe music. This is dramatic scene-painting of the highest order. It still has a strongly impressionistic sound, but now Stravinsky’s influence can be heard, though with a very much softened modernist sound. When I read in Edward Yadzinski’s suggestion in his liner notes that Schmitt “emulates the orchestral manner of Richard Strauss” I thought of course, there was something not French there, and not just the orientalizing overlay. Schmitt was on top of the latest music from around the world. In 1920 Schmitt wouldn’t have yet met, or likely have heard the music of Villa-Lobos, though within a few years the two began a lifelong friendship. So the many times I thought of Villa when listening to this beautifully evocative music can be put down either to my own obsession with the Brazilian composer, or more likely to the common influence of Stravinsky. From all accounts, Schmitt was a brilliant musical critic and journalist, perhaps to his detriment as a composer. But in this music, well chosen by JoAnn Falletta and Naxos, you can see that he borrows from the best.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderfully perceptive review of this great new recording!

    To add further insights into how the "Antony & Cleopatra" music came to be, this article recently published on the Florent Schmitt Blog makes for fascinating reading:

    This also underscores the fact that Paris was the cultural center of the world in those times -- literary, artistic and musical. And everyone was connected to everyone else. Indeed, there are almost too many dots to count!