Born: September 28, 1870, Blâmont, France
Died: August 17, 1958, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
Instrumentation: Military Band
Duration: 10 minutes
Florent Schmitt, like Berlioz a generation before him, was both a composer and a critic. The New Grove Dictionary describes him by saying, “Throughout his life, Schmitt was valued for his independent spirit and refusal to be identified with any school or group. In a time when many composers embraced Impressionism, his music, albeit influenced by Debussy, was admired for its energy, dynamism, grandeur, and virility, for its union of French clarity and German strength…[Many of his works] refuse lyrical abandon and sentimentality and are formed of a wilful and premeditated complexity as well as a passion for strong bold colours, violent emotions and extreme contrasts. Schmitt was considered a pioneer during his lifetime, rejected by some and embraced by others for a style that influenced and helped prepare for later innovations by Stravinsky, Ravel, Honegger and Roussel.”
This description accurately reflects the compositional style of Dionysiaques, a work with roots in Richard Strauss’ Salome and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.
Schmitt was born in Lorraine, near the German border. His parents loved music and assiduously controlled what he listened to, steering him toward the Classical and German Romantic repertories. His father hoped he would become an organist. At 17 he entered the Nancy Conservatoire where he studied composition with Massenet (1890) and Fauré (1896). Schmitt began a life-long friendship with Ravel, who was also in Fauré’s composition class, met Debussy at the Aubèrge du Clou, and was often seen in “interminable discussions” with Satie. He also frequented concerts of Russian music and indulged his interest in Wagner, according to Henri Busser, by reputedly attending all performances of Lohengrin at the Opéra. When Richard Strauss conducted his works at the Concerts Lamoureux in 1899, Schmitt encountered a composer whose style he was soon to embrace.
Schmitt’s early professional years focused on several attempts to win the Prix de Rome, and on his fifth attempt, in 1900, he was successful. His residency in Italy was followed by trips to Russa and North Africa. Interestingly, during this peroid he composed a symphonic poem, Sélamik, that was inspired by Islam and conceived for military band.
Soon afterward, Schmitt composed the masterwork of his early career, a setting of a Robert d’Humières poem, La tragédie de Salomé. This 1907 ballet began a process of artistic give-and-take with Strauss and Stravinsky that, combined with his earlier brushes with military bands, ultimately led to Dionysiaques. La tragédie de Salomé is filled with melancholic arabesques and pentatonic gestures to suggest the “oriental” setting of the story. As in many orientalist works, Schmitt uses erotic dancing and hysteria as occasions for musical innovation. In the animated “Danse des éclairs,” during which Salomé was to appear nude for an instant, and the “Danse de l’effroi,” in which a storm was to erupt as she danced, the rhythmic syncopations, polyrhythms, percussively treated chords, bitonality, and scoring anticipate those of Stravinsky’s “Danse sacrale” from The Rite of Spring. After its concert première on 8 January 1911, Stravinsky, to whom the 1910 version is dedicated, wrote to Schmitt, “I am only playing French music – yours, Debussy, Ravel’. And as he was composing The Rite Stravinsky admitted, “I confess that [Salomé] has given me greater joy than any work I have heared in a long time.” The ballet became one of Schmitt’s best-known works.
Soon afterward the famed Garde Républicaine band of Paris asked Schmitt to compose a work. Schmitt worked on the piece throughout 1913, and in December completed Dionysiaques. Besides the influences of Salomé and The Rite of Spring already noted, the piece has a scherzando, almost comic, quality that draws from Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The Garde Républicaine band had a large complement of musicians, and Schmitt stretched it to its maximum potential. The work was originally scored for: 2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 English horns, 4 bassoons, 2 contrabass Sarrusophones, 4 piccolo clarinets, 26 clarinets, 4 bass clarinets, 2 contrabass clarinets, 4 alto saxophones, 4 tenor saxophones, 4 baritone saxophones, 2 bass saxophones, 4 trumpets, 4 cornets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, 4 string basses, timpani, snare drum, tom-tom, tambourine, castanets, triangle, gong, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, and a full complement of saxhorns including 2 piccolo bugles, 8 bugles, 3 alto horns, 2 baritone saxhorns, 6 bass saxhorns and 6 contrabass saxhorns.
Dionysiaques, named for the Greek god of wine, begins with the languid arabesques and pentatonic gestures found in Schmitt’s eariler work, Salomé, combined with a chromatically expanding gesture in the lower instruments that serves as a primary motive of the piece, ultimately expanding into melodies and gestures based on whole-tone and octatonic scales. This opening suggests the revelers awakening from the “night before,” no doubt with further debauches in mind. As the slow opening section progresses, the music becomes increasingly erotically suggestive with peroidic comic, almost “slap-stick” interruptions. After a wild flourish by the woodiwinds, the party begins as the music becomes a wildly exhuberent dance. The bacchanale is interruped by short erotic episodes which finally unite with the dance to bring the piece to an orgiastic finale that rivals Wagner’s Tristan Prelude for its sexual suggestiveness.
Dionysiaques was not played until after World War I, during which time Schmitt wrote for chorus and military band. Finally in 1923, the work was revised and premiered by the Garde Républicaine band in the Luxembourg gardens in Paris.