Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
Salammbô, Op. 76 (1925)
The premiere of the silent film Salammbô occurred on the evening of 22 October 1925 at the Paris Opéra. For this lavish production, the score, by Florent Schmitt, included full chorus, and most importantly, sections of dramatic vocalization.
When Schmitt was commissioned by film producer Louis Aubert and director Pierre Marodon to write music for their silent film Salammbô, based on Flaubert’s novel of the same name, he was not only one of the most famous composers of the interwar years, but also the greatest living orientalist composer, Saint-Saëns having died four years earlier.1 The two-hour film score was written very rapidly during the summer of 1925. To save time, Schmitt was obliged to insert fragments borrowed from his earlier works, including La Tragédie de Salomé, op. 50 (1907), incidental music to Antoine et Cléopatre, op. 69 (1920), and Mirages, op. 70 (1920–21).2
A few months later, Schmitt extracted from the massive film score three large suites for orchestra and chorus.3 The first concert performances took place in March 1927, December 1928, and May 1931 respectively. The suites were published by Durand as Salammbô: Illustration de quelques pages de Gustave Flaubert, op. 76, the composer’s way of quietly dissociating himself from the film, which he considered “rather incoherent.” 4
There is extensive wordless vocalization in the opening and closing sections of the last movement of the third suite, “Supplice de Mathô” [“Torture of Mathô”], with a middle section including texted singing. There is also a short section of wordless vocalization at the opening of the second movement, “Le défilé de la hache—Cortège d’Hamilcar” [“The parade of the axe—procession of Hamilcar”].5
Even though Salammbô only received a few performances in its original form, the use of dramatic vocalization accompanying a film score was truly a novel device, one that would have to wait to finally come to fruition when logistical issues were solved by the sound stage, the recording studio, and the elimination of live performers.
(Nauman 2009, 233–35)
|Troisième Suite, mvt. 3 “Supplice de Mathô”|
1 Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) had previously established his reputation as an orientalist with his two operas La Princesse jaune (1872) and Samson et Dalila (1877).
2 See the discussion of La Tragédie de Salomé. The passage of dramatic vocalization in La Tragédie de Salomé is not used in Salammbô.
3 These suites, op. 66, contain the following:
1. Le Palais silencieux—Festin des Barbares. [The Silent Palace—The Barbarians’ Feast.]
2. Au Gynécée—Fuite de Mathô avec le Zaimph. [In the Harem—Mathô’s Flight with the Sacred Veil.]
1. Sous la Tente. [In the Tent.]
2. Récit du Vieillard—Le Champ de cadavers du Macar—Les Frondeurs baléares. [The Old Man’s Tale—The Field of Corpses—The Balearic Rebels.]
1. Le Pacte de guerre—Au Conseil des anciens. [The War Pact—At the Council of Elders.]
2. Le Défilé de la hache—Cortège d’Hamilcar. [The Massacre in the Pass—Hamilcar’s Procession.]
3. Supplice de Mathô. [Mathô’s Death.]
4 Catherine Lorent, trans. by Roger Greaves, liner notes to Salammbô, by Florent Schmitt, RCA Victor 74321 733 952, 14.
5 Video and sheet music, whether of the film score or the latter suites, for Schmitt’s Salammbô, are currently unavailable for review.