Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > SALAMMBÔ – Florent Schmitt

SALAMMBÔ – Florent Schmitt

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1924 French film producer Louis Aubert and director Pierre Maradon were researching a story for their next film. They were greatly impressed by the historical novel Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert and decided to bring its sprawling story to the big screen. Arnold Pressburger was given the reins to produce the film with Aubert’s production company Gaumont-Franco Film-Aubert funding the project. Gustave Flaubert was hired to adapt his novel and write the screenplay. Maradon was tasked with directing and selected a cast including Jean de Balzac as Salammbô, Rolla Norman as Mâtho, as Victor Vina as Hamilcar Barca, Raphaël Lievin as Havas, Henri Baudin as Spendius, and Adolf Weisse as Scharabaim.

The film is set in the aftermath of the first Punic War (264 – 241 B.C.E.), which ended in a Roman victory. A defeated Carthage is in chaos after its mercenary troops and subjugated north African cities rise up in rebellion. During this tumult the film explores the life of Salammbô, the priestess daughter of Carthaginian General Hamlicar Barca and her tragic love affair with Mâtho, leader of the mercenaries. Salammbô’s beauty is renown, and Mâtho, lusts for her and sets a trap by having his slave Spendius steal the sacred veil of the goddess Tanit, guardian of Carthage. As priestess Salammbô is responsible for the veil, and so she sneaks into the mercenary camp to retrieve it. She reaches Mâtho’s tent, falls in love at first sight, and they make love. She steals the veil as he sleeps and returns it to the temple. Yet she has fallen in love with Mâtho and dies of heartache after her father defeats him in battle, and she witnesses his brutal torture and execution. The film was a commercial and critical disaster with the chief complaints being that it lacked the beauty and grandeur of the novel, and that there was asynchrony between the score and film.

Louis Aubert and director Pierre Maradon were very much impressed with composer Florent Schmitt’s concert works La Tragédie de Salomé (1907) and Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920), as well as his standing as the greatest Orientalist composer of his generation. They offered him the scoring assignment, which to their delight Schmitt accepted. He was given two months to compose the score for the two-hour film. Schmitt understood that he was being provided a massive tapestry on which to compose, which offered the epic sweep and fierce battles of the first Punic War, a post-war rebellion, which rocked the foundations of the Carthaginian state, and a tragic, forbidden love affair between the priestess daughter of the Empire’s greatest general and the leader of the rebellion.

Schmitt rose to the occasion and composed what most critics believe was a score, which transcended its film. He utilized modern scoring sensibilities, which included contemporary French harmonies, ornate Oriental orchestrations, brilliant antiphonal fanfare, and character leitmotifs. Yet the reality that his handiwork was attached to a truly awful film, which bombed, led to not only the film’s demise, but his score as well. Yet Schmitt was not to be deterred and he salvaged his creation by extracting its finest portions and repackaging them in three suites for orchestra and chorus titled “Salammbô: Trois Suites d’Orchestre, Op. 76”. Untethered and unencumbered by the visuals of the awful film allowed the brilliance of his music to soar and shine, bringing widespread critical acclaim.

It is my customary practice to review the score cues in film scene context. I am forced to deviate from this practice as all efforts to secure a copy of the film to either stream or watch as a DVD failed. I will attempt to still achieve some degree of film context, relying on the cue titles, and a film plot synopsis although I acknowledge my review will be less precise.

Suite No. 1

“The Silent Palace” offers a score highlight that features extraordinary orchestral auras and impressionist modernist writing, which perfectly sets the tone of the film. The cue title suggests the great palace of Carthage and Schmitt creates a dark, cavernous soundscape full of foreboding using a recurring six-note motif for strings, and later, woodwinds. We begin a slow building crescendo at 2:43, which bursts at 3:09 in “Feast of the Barbarians”, a brilliant score highlight, where Schmitt supports the extended scene with extraordinary rich and complex writing for restless strings and woodwinds animato, which challenges the discerning ear. Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca is throwing a lavish feast following the conclusion of war between Carthage and Rome. His guests are hired foreign mercenaries who are disgruntled over having not been paid. Wine leads to drunken revelry, which turns violent as frustrations rise and the soldiers go on a rampage destroying the garden grounds and killing Barca’s sacred fish. Salammbô, Barca’s daughter and a Carthaginian priestess, can take no more, stands up, and rebukes them. Although the mercenaries are unable to understand her words, they are captivated by her virtuous strength and beauty, particularly their leader Mâtho. The Mercenaries agree to leave the city, but remain restless over the withheld wages and so camp outside the city walls. The festive music is a slow build over an undercurrent of rising tension fueled by the effects of wine. At 7:30 strings romantico change the musical flow, which suggests to me the introduction of Salammbô as perceived by Mâtho. The music rises and falls like a restless sea with simply dazzling orchestrations. We conclude with a crescendo dramatio, which culminates in a flourish.

“At the Gynaceum” offers another score highlight, which showcases Schmitt’s compositional skills and insight. It reveals the feminine sanctum of women priestesses who tend to the zaïmph, a sacred veil that embodies the mystic power of the city. Schmitt understands he is composing a scene, which reveals a domain of women. His music softens, bathing us in feminine gentility, and the idyllic auras of the sacred temple. At 2:47 we segue violently into “Escape From Matho With The Zaimph” offers an astounding score highlight of orchestral violence. Mâtho’s lust and obsession with Salammbô leads him to steal Carthage’s most sacred treasure the zaïmph, a sacred veil that provides divine protection, life, and embodies the mystic power of the city. He hopes that its theft will induce Salammbô to try and retrieve it and bring her to him. With the zaïmph in his possession, Mâtho takes full command of the mercenaries, leading them into battle against the Carthaginian forces who he believes have lost divine protection. The music is aggressive, combative, war-like, with pronounced discord. Schmitt unleashes an angry orchestral torrent to support the theft and call to battle as Mâtho has not only violated the sacred feminine sanctum, but defiled it with the theft of zaïmph.

Suite No. 2

“Under The Tent” offers a supreme score highlight of unabashed romanticism. Salammbô secretly travels to the mercenary camp, and meets with Mâtho in his tent. They are both captivated with each other, fall in love and she remains the night, making love to him. Mâtho is bewitched, surrenders the sacred veil and Salammbô returns to Carthage with it in the morning. We open tentatively with woodwinds gentile, and strings tenero. At 1:27 harsh drums and dire horns unleash tension, which slowly subsides, and shifts to a soft pastorale by woodwinds tenero. From out this gentility we are graced by a rapturous romance for strings, which supports Salammbô surrender to Mâtho in love, for one of the score’s supreme moments.

“Old Man’s Story” reveals the Carthaginian General Gisco, son of Hanno the Great seeking to ameliorate the aggrieved mercenaries by reminding them to not forget that Carthage had treated them as free men, and respected their customs, cultures, and deities. Schmitt bathes us in oriental auras by woodwinds and shifting strings, which slowly gain potency, rising on a crescendo of tension, which supports an angry segue at 2:10 into “The Macar’s Field of Corpses”. The scene reveals General Hamilcar leading his troops and battle elephants in an attack that decisively defeats the mercenaries. The music again assumes martial aggressiveness with violent cymbal strikes and resounding horns bellicoso. At 2:57 we segue into “The Balearic Slingers” where mercenary specialists, expert in the use of sling weapons have left the great feast intent on enriching themselves by pillaging the town. Schmitt offers a grim, diminuendo, full of foreboding as woodwinds orientalis weave dark specters. We slowly swell on a crescendo dramatico, cresting at 5:01, before dissipating on a tortured descent. Forlorn woodwinds resurrect the ominous six-note motif of the opening Silent Palace cue as the Slingers stealthily enter the town and launch their attack with violence at 2:53. We bear witness to an agitato of violence, which supports their pillaging and slowly dissipates as they leave the town with their spoils. A coda of satisfaction concludes the cue.

Suite No. 3

This suite is the most popular in concert halls, and one in which Schmitt added choral support. “The War Pact” reveals that Narr’Havas, the leader of the Numidian cavalry, is an unprincipled opportunist who betrays his fellow mercenaries by defecting and forging an alliance with Carthage. In gratitude, Barca betrays his daughter Salammbô by committing her to Narr’Havas in marriage. Schmitt sow dark purpose with abyssal woodwinds, which rise darkly out of well of treachery to support Narr’Havas’ betrayal of his allies. Strings sofferenti join as Hamilcar makes the fateful choice to betray his daughter’s love by gifting her to Narr’Havas. At 1:04 we segue into “To The Council of The Ancients”, which offers a glorious, resplendent score highlight. The city is under siege, weakened by lack of water and food, and is in imminent danger of falling. The Council of Elders make the fateful decision that for the city to survive, it must offer a major sacrifice to the god Moloch. They order that a male child from every family is to be bound and cast into a furnace where they will be consumed by the fires of the ravenous god. Martial snare drums of doom thunder, ushering in a crescendo minaccioso empowered by resounding fanfare diaboliche and chorus to support the council edict. At 1:58 strings and woodwinds energico launch a horrific chorus of dread as boys are gathered and taken to their doom. We conclude with resounding antiphonal fanfare reale and choral splendor as the city completes the sacrifice and regains the favor of Moloch.

“The Massacre At The Pass” reveals Hamilcar trapping the mercenary forces in a blind gorge, which he barricades trapping them. Lions are set loose, which kill many, and as the survivors starve, they turn to cannibalism. With the rebels weakened, Hamilcar strikes and massacres the remaining men, capturing one lone survivor – Mâtho. We open with dark, portentous strings, bleak woodwinds and moaning chorus as Schmitt bathes us in auras of despair and death. At 3:14 we segue into “Parade of Hamilcar” atop antiphonal trumpets di vittoria, that supports the massive victory celebration of Carthage’s citizenry following the defeat of the mercenaries. The music softens, tinged with sadness for Salammbô who is also honored as the heroine that saved the city by recovering the sacred zaïmph, thus regaining the favor of the gods. At 4:47 powerful horns brilliante resound, and usher in a fleeting parade, that dissipates on a diminuendo from which arise tremolo strings of dread evoking a dark menace. We close with horns trionfale, which resound in a paean of victory, concluding with a flourish.

“Torment of Mathô” offers a supreme score highlight. The defeated Mâtho is forced to run bound through the city streets suffering horrific torture by city people who vengefully flay his flesh to the bone. The mortally wounded Mâtho completes the run and appears before Salammbô covered in blood, and barely recognizable. She is horrified as he is murdered and a priest removes his heart, sacrificing it to the god Moloch. Narr’Havas, revels in his victory and claims his prize Salammbô. He toasts to Carthage and their victory, yet when Salammbô drinks as well, she falls dead of a broken heart. We open darkly and swell on a crescendo di orrore joined by mixed chorus, which unleash the bleeding pain of Mâtho’s torment. Waves of oppressive orchestral and choral lashes buffet us as a bleak violin doloroso seeks voice, only to be silenced. A heavy dirge arises with bass male chorus joining with female chorus as Mâtho’s body and spirit is crushed in a horrific crucible of pain. We conclude powerfully with a dramatic choral lament that marks Mâtho’s passing, and then Salammbô’s, culminating in a grand flourish!

I would like to thank RCA Red Label – BMG Entertainment and Éditions Durand for this outstanding recording of Florent Schmitt’s masterpiece, “Salammbô: Trois Suites d’Orchestre, Op. 76”. The CD audio quality and the performance of the Orchestre National d’Île de France and Le Choeur de l’Armée Française under the baton of Jacques Mercier was superb. Schmitt understood that he was being provided a massive tapestry on which to compose, which offered the epic sweep and fierce battles of the first Punic War, a post-war rebellion, which rocked the foundations of the Carthaginian state, and a tragic, forbidden love affair between the priestess daughter of the Empire’s greatest general and the leader of the rebellion. I believe he composed a score of such magnificence and brilliance to earn him accolades of one of the finest film scores in cinematic history. Folks, in the end, Schmitt’s handiwork supported a truly flawed film, which survived only five performances, and then faded into obscurity. Yet its brilliance was undeniable, and we are thankful of his choice to reincarnate his music in the form of a concert piece of three suite. I believe Schmitt’s music offers a well-conceived and balanced work, alight with exotic oriental auras interwoven with contemporaneous French harmonies. The music embraces modernist, impressionist sensibilities, which provide a riveting listening experience. I believe the drama, pathos, romance, militarism and celebratory power of the score offers inspired orchestral-choral writing at its finest, and stands for me as a precious gem of the Silent Film era. I hope that some day the actual film can be made available to the public so we can fully appreciate the brilliance of Schmitt’s score’s conception and execution. For now, we must be content with his extraordinary concert piece Trois Suites d’Orchestre, Op. 76. I highly recommend you purchase this exemplary album as an essential film score for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the complete Trois Suites d’Orchestre, Op. 76: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DdSIWnj5MQ

Buy the Salammbô soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Première Suite: The Silent Palace/Feast of the Barbarians (13:36)
  • Première Suite: At the Gynaceum/Escape from Matho With The Zaimph (7:33)
  • Deuxième Suite: Under the Tent (6:50)
  • Deuxième Suite: The Old Man’s Story/The Macar’s Field of Corpses/The Balearic Singers (10:08)
  • Troisième Suite: The War Pact/To the Council of the Ancients (3:39)
  • Troisième Suite: The Parade of the Ax/Parade of Hamilcar (6:38)
  • Troisième Suite: Torment of Mathô (7:28)

Running Time: 56 minutes 32 seconds

RCA Red Label/BMG Entertainment 743217-733-952 (1925/2000)

Music composed by Florent Schmitt. Conducted by Jacques Mercier. Performed by the Orchestre National d’Île de France and Le Choeur de l’Armée Française. Original orchestrations by Florent Schmitt. Recorded and mixed by Philippe Pélissier. Score produced by Florent Schmitt. Album produced by Éditions Durand.

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