SCHMITT Psalm 47. The Tragedy of Salome. The Haunted Palace

by Walter Simmons

SCHMITT Psalm 47.  The Tragedy of Salome. The Haunted Palace ● Yan Pascal Tortelier, cond; São Paulo SO; São Paulo SO Ch; Susan Bullock (sop) ● CHANDOS CHSA-5090 (68:10 &)

Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was born when Debussy was 8 years old, and lived long enough to have heard Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître. During the earlier part of his career he was considered a rather important figure, having earned the enthusiastic praise of none less than Igor Stravinsky (who, however, subsequently reversed his position on Schmitt). However, by the time he died in 1958 he was largely forgotten. The three works included on this recent release date from the period 1903-1907, and are probably his best known compositions. Schmitt represents what might be considered a secondary vein in French music of the early 20th century: Though strongly influenced by Debussy, his music is characterized by more robust, full-bodied textures and gestures, charting a course along the lines followed by Lili Boulanger, Arthur Honegger, and Henry Barraud. Its greatest strength lies in the sumptuous sensuality of its sonorities, while its greatest weakness is probably a lack of distinctive musical ideas and of a strongly memorable, individual profile.
Although I don’t claim familiarity with a large proportion of his output, of the works I know my favorite is the half-hour setting of the Psalm 47 (“O Clap Your Hands”). A relatively straightforward ternary form, the piece begins and ends with tremendous vigor, an extravagant outburst of highly perfumed Franco-exoticism at its most virile, heroic, and exalted. Sandwiched between these two grand end-pieces is a more subdued central section, dripping with sensuality, and featuring a lovely soprano solo. I can’t think of another piece that achieves—or even attempts—quite the impact made by this work.
Probably Schmitt’s best known work is the suite he drew from his ballet, The Tragedy of Salome. Composed in 1907, this was the piece that so impressed Stravinsky while he was working on Le Sacre. The suite comprises five sections, lavishly orchestrated for maximum richness and splendor. However, much of the work proceeds as so much undifferentiated treacle, lacking the arresting thematic material that might compel one’s interest more intently. It is worth hearing occasionally for its strengths and for its place in French musical history.
The least interesting piece is The Haunted Palace, a tone poem inspired by verses that appear in Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. (This and the Psalm setting were fruits of the Prix de Rome, which Schmitt won after several attempts.) The attraction felt by French poets and writers toward the works of Poe is well known, and this attraction was shared by French composers as well. In fact, when he died, Debussy himself was working on an operatic adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher. But Poe’s extraordinary works evoke a sense of malevolent foreboding as well as dark moods of abject terror, whose musical counterparts are rather along the lines of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Op. 16, or even Webern’s Six Pieces, Op. 6. Schmitt’s offering is pathetically tame, if not benign, by comparison—straightforward, generic post-Impressionism.
With music like this, performance and, especially, sound quality are paramount. I found these performances to be excellent. Jean Martinon conducted the French National Radio Orchestra and Chorus in brilliant performances of Salome and the Psalm 47 on an LP which evidently was available briefly as a CD reissue. However, I have only the LP, an inferior pressing that makes comparison with this splendid new recording impossible. The sound quality of the new Chandos release is truly spectacular, and even more so when heard on SACD equipment. I think this is the Schmitt CD to have, if you’re having only one.