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Composed: 1907; 1910
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 15, 1932, Artur Rodzinski conducting
Highly independent in style and spirit, Schmitt was almost equally admired and detested by a broad spectrum of his contemporaries. While at work on The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky admitted that La tragédie de Salomé “has given me greater joy than any work I have heard in a long time.” Satie, on the other hand, later advised young composers to “kill yourselves rather than orchestrate as badly as Florent Schmitt.” (Schmitt’s pro-German and Vichy sympathies did not endear him to many in post-WWII France, or elsewhere.)
Stravinsky’s enthusiasm (later withdrawn) was understandable, since Schmitt’s ballet has much of the color and dynamism of The Rite of Spring, down to specific matters such as bitonality and polyrhythms. Originally composed in 1907 for the American dancer Loie Fuller and the Théâtre des Arts, Salomé was based on a poem by Robert d’Humières. Schmitt expanded the orchestration in 1910 (dedicating the work then to Stravinsky) and it quickly became popular for a number of companies, including the Ballets Russes and the Paris Opéra, where Ida Rubinstein danced it in 1919. Swirling, shimmering water imagery is very important in the music, as the story was set on a terrace of Herod’s palace overlooking the Dead Sea. In this version of the story, John the Baptist attempts to shield Salome after Herod rips off her veils, causing Herod to have him decapitated. Salome throws the head into the sea, only to have it reappear, spurring the fiercely Stravinskian “Dance of Fear” in which the tragedy comes to its crashing climax.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.