Le palais hanté, Op. 49 (1904)

By Roger Nichols

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In January 1936 the musical world of France was holding its breath. After the death of the revered composer and teacher Paul Dukas, the election was taking place for his successor in the Institut de France, that summit of glory for all French notables, and among the candidates was Igor Stravinsky, recently enrolled as a citizen of France. Surely the composer of Le sacre du printemps and Oedipus Rex was bound to trounce all opposition? In the event, Stravinsky received a mere four votes. The winner, with twenty-eight, was the sixty-five-year-old Florent Schmitt.

The politics of the French musical world have often appeared to put those of ancient Byzantium in the shade and, while it was quite natural that a genius like Stravinsky should make enemies, there were no doubt other currents operating which an outsider will probably never be able to chart. But for Stravinsky’s conqueror to have been Florent Schmitt has a certain historical rightness.

Schmitt was born in the department of Meurthe-et-Moselle in Lorraine in 1870. After musical studies in Nancy, he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889 where his teachers included Théodore Dubois, André Gedalge, Massenet and Fauré. Every year from 1896 to 1900 he tried his hand at the competition known as the Grand Prix de Rome and in that last year won it with his cantata Sémiramis. Like all winning students, he then spent three years in Rome, from where he sent back to Paris the regulation annual envois — large-scale choral or orchestral works demonstrating progress made under the influence of the Eternal City.

Schmitt’s last envoi, a setting of Psalm 47, “O clap your hands, all ye people,” published in 1904 (performed by the ASO on April 13, 1997), achieved considerable popularity for some years in France and elsewhere with its blend of the grandiose and the voluptuous, as did his “wordless drama” La tragédie de Salomé. Both works, being based on Biblical themes, could be seen as belonging to an established composing tradition and audiences hearing them would undoubtedly have known, without the benefit of program notes, what they were “about.” Schmitt’s Étude pour ‘Le palais hanté’ d’après Edgar Allan Poe (“Study for ‘The Haunted Palace’ after Edgar Allan Poe”) was, on the contrary, aimed at an elite.

Since it was published in the same year, 1904, as Psalm 47, it is tempting to regard Le palais hanté as in some sense complementary to it. If the former was a final gesture of conformity to the Establishment, the latter tapped into a private, reclusive stream that had been running through French intellectual life for many years. The popularity of Poe, in translations by Baudelaire and Mallarmé, may possibly have stemmed from the turbulence of French political life since 1789 and the lesson it taught that all things in this life are transitory and that, however good and stable institutions may appear, the ghost of evil ever lurks just round the corner. Whatever the reason, in 1890 Debussy was already planning a work based on some of Poe’s writings and two years later the adolescent Ravel was making “very gloomy, very black” drawings for “Maelstrom” and “Manuscript found in a bottle.”

Schmitt’s achievement in Le palais hanté‚ was to marry the feeling of doom inherent in the story with the texture and lineaments of the Lisztian symphonic poem. Although Wagner has always been recognized as a strong, even overpowering influence on French music in the thirty or so years leading up to the First World War, there was an almost equally strong counterinfluence to be found in the orchestral works of Liszt, especially the Faust Symphony; where, as Ravel said, “you find the main themes of The Ring, and so much better orchestrated.” One problem for Schmitt in Le palais hanté‚ was that, while Liszt’s symphonic technique was all about relevance and growth, Poe’s story tells of arbitrary dissolution.

Schmitt solved the problem of “relevant irrelevance” mainly through his use of the orchestra. Although his best work was done by 1914, his orchestration shows a mastery and individuality worthy of many a greater composer. Through this mastery and control he is able to convey that the haunted palace is still the same place as the unhaunted, but that its spirit and atmosphere have changed, and not for the better.

Finally, to return to the Schmitt/Stravinsky imbroglio with which we began, it is instructive that Schmitt was so enthused by Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird in 1910 that he renamed his house “Villa Oiseau de Feu.” Stravinsky, on the other hand, soon grew tired of this early work, which showed all too clearly its 19th-century roots. Le palais hanté‚ likewise does not explore new paths. But the Institut, in choosing Schmitt before Stravinsky, was at least rewarding proven worth, even if in an established idiom. As has often been said, “to have an avant-garde, you have to have a garde.”