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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHMITT, F.: Piano Duet and Duo Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Invencia Piano Duo)
Winner of the Prix de Rome in 1900, Florent Schmitt stands alongside Debussy and Ravel as one of the most original and influential French composers of his time. This is the first of four volumes including unpublished work and rarities for piano duo and duet, each representing Schmitt’s rich harmonic palette and good humoured lyricism.
By Gary Lemco
By Daniel Foley
Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
Complete Original Works for Piano Duet and Duo • 1
French music during the late Romantic period and early years of the twentieth century consisted of such an imposing collection of individual styles that, as a school, it defies definition. Composers from this era, notably Fauré, Massenet, Bizet, Roussel, Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Milhaud, and Chabrier, each made lasting contributions to the French sound and influenced musicians of the next generation. Florent Schmitt stands more boldly toward the fringe of this group, for his compositions are not easily categorized, and his compositional ethos, based on the requirements of the music or on the literary, historical or geographic source of inspiration, varied more in style than that of his contemporaries. From the age of seventeen, when he devoted himself to a career in music, Schmitt maintained his French musical lineage, incorporating as its essential element what he called “seductive harmony”. Yet his individual musical language gathered energy from all that he experienced. In spite of his connections to the music of his countrymen, Schmitt’s music avoids easy classification. He has been labelled a product of German romanticism, French sensibilities, exotic locales, Russian experimentalism, and orientalisms. In reality he is an independent, creative force to be reckoned with; one who made authentically original contributions to twentieth-century music.
Born in Blâmont (Loraine) in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, Schmitt studied piano and harmony at the Nancy Conservatoire where he prepared the entrance examination to the Paris Conservatoire. Work in Paris brought him into a circle of influential master teachers including André Gédalge (counterpoint and fugue), Albert Lavignac (musicology) and composers Théodore Dubois, Jules Massenet, and, upon fulfilling his required military service, Gabriel Fauré. In 1900, after four previous attempts, Schmitt won the coveted Prix de Rome composition competition which allowed him four years of untroubled artistic growth. Rather than staying in Rome to compose, as expected to, he travelled extensively to the Mediterranean countries, Islamic Turkey, western Asia, northern Europe, and back to the fertile creative atmosphere of Paris, gleaning influences along the way. In fact, mail from the Parisian officials asking for updates on his work pursued him from city to city. His most important works from this period reflect his extensive travels and experiences. Schmitt loved travel his entire life. His last passport, issued two years before his death at the age of 87, contains no fewer than 41 visa stamps. When he did return to Rome he would often try out his new compositions, playing four-hand piano pieces with his close friend André Caplet at the Villa Medici.
Schmitt’s career as a composer was firmly established before World War I by his large-scale works for orchestra. Psaume XLVII, his most important Rome envoi, and La Tragédie de Salomé are works that received critical acclaim, multiple performances and are still performed today. Most of his compositions from this period were for piano, however, and many were orchestrated after the War. With Ravel, he was a founding member of the Société Musicale Indépendante, and after the War he remained, for ten years, the foremost French music critic at Le Temps, the newspaper of record in Paris. He became the director of the Academy of Music at Lyon, and was elected to Dukas’ seat at the prestigious Institute of France, winning out over Stravinsky. Musically, Schmitt is grouped with Debussy and Ravel as the most influential French composers of their time.
Schmitt’s music shows great originality, humour, a brilliant understanding of form and counterpoint, and a mastery of all genres except opera. He wrote essential works in the areas of stage music, chamber music, solo piano, ballet, sacred music, and made pivotal contributions to early band music (Dionysiaques) and film scores (Salammbô). His orchestral palette rivals that of Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel. Florent Schmitt was among the first twentieth-century composers to write for harpsichord and was known for his exquisite choral writing. Much of his music is concentrated and rich, and all of it tends to be pianistic in conception. He wrote luxuriant melodies that he typically developed extensively throughout the work. He was a pioneer in rhythmic empowerment, writing in an energetic often polymetrical style that matched perfectly the dynamism and powerful grandiloquence of his climactic moments. At times Schmitt’s harmonies are bitingly dissonant or opulent and sensual, evocative of a place or literary source. He was prolific, with 138 opus numbers and over two hundred works in total. Schmitt is equally a master of the miniature and the massive. His final work, a complex and vast Second Symphony, was given its première two months before his death. Schmitt was there to receive the standing ovation.
Although Schmitt would not consider himself a concert pianist, he could play the piano music he wrote, which certainly places him among an elite group of performers. In characteristic acerbic humour that characterized his entire life, he called the piano a ”convenient but disappointing” substitute for the orchestra. Yet he composed a great deal for solo piano and for piano, four hands. This music places great demands on the pianist. Often, the solo piano part is written on three or even four staves—“fistfuls of piano”—as he put it. These recordings bear ample witness to his virtuosic piano writing.
With a creative output of over sixty years, Florent Schmitt bequeathed an oeuvre as rich and as varied as any composer’s. Although his music has become obscure, it stands as a bold and colourful depiction of what is surely the most vibrant and exciting period in the history of French music. Predicated on classic formalism, his music shimmers with bold conviction, elemental intensity and fearless harmonic vocabulary. It is at once a distillation of much of the music which preceded Schmitt, who became a highly-respected and visible rôle model for his contemporaries and students, and achieved the respect of the next generation through the strength of his personality and a personal vision of nonconformity. His music deserves rediscovery—a noble goal of these important recordings.
Jerry E. Rife
Written between 1893 and 1912, Schmitt’s original works for piano duet and duo occupy a special place in his substantial oeuvre. These compositions represent an assorted array of styles, trends and techniques that he employed extensively throughout other forms, mediums and genres. Deserving of attention is the sheer volume of his piano duets, as Schmitt is probably second only to Schubert in terms of the overall quantity produced in this medium.
Trois rapsodies, Op 53 (1903–1904), is among the better known piano works by Schmitt, championed by Robert and Gaby Casadesus, who recorded it on LP in 1956. The piece is conceived in the grand Romantic style, with the composer taking full advantage of the multilayered textural and coloristic possibilities of two pianos. Despite the intense contrapuntal writing and, at times, complex harmonic language, the work never loses its Gallic charm, lyricism and humour. Each of the three titles contains a national or geographical reference—Française, Polonaise and Viennoise—with a strong connection to the Viennese Waltz evident in the final rhapsody. Whereas the vigour and wit of the first rhapsody represent the French spirit, the melancholic character and melodic seductiveness of the second may be alluding to Chopin.
Sept pièces, Op 15 (1899), is the composer’s first large-scale cycle for piano duet. Overall, its structure is reminiscent of Schumann, with his predilection for concluding a substantial cyclical work with a slow movement. The influences of Debussy, Grieg and Borodin are discernible in Souhaits de jeune fille (Wishes of a Girl), Fête septentrionale (Northern Festivity) and Traversée heureuse (Happy Crossing), respectively. Schmitt, nonetheless, emerges as an independent and innovative voice, infusing piano duet writing with original harmonic superimpositions and juxtapositions, as well as bold timbral ideas. His rich palette is audible straight away from the opening of Somnolence. The composer’s originality also manifests itself in the melodic breadth of Souvenir de Ribeaupierre (Memory of Ribeaupierre—a Medieval castle near the province of his birth) and the rhythmic vitality of Fête septentrionale. Schmitt makes exceptional technical demands on both pianists, as for instance in Scintillement (Sparkling), thus directly continuing the lineage established in Bizet’s Jeux d’infants (Children’s Games).
Rhapsodie parisienne, WoO (1900), is one of the two unpublished duets by the composer. Yet, the pencil markings in its manuscript, presently kept in the National Library of France, indicate that the piece was also to be orchestrated. The other duet, Marche spectrale (1893), is not included in this collection out of respect for Schmitt’s wish not to publish the work. Granted permission from Mme. Annie Schmitt, the composer’s granddaughter, the Invencia Piano Duo gave the American première of Rhapsodie parisienne in Culpeper, Virginia, on 18th March, 2011. The exuberant energy and brilliance of this composition evoke the manner of Chabrier’s orchestral writing. Equally striking are Rhapsodie parisienne’s intricate polymeters and intense dynamic development toward the coda that foreshadow La valse by Ravel. Owing to the above-mentioned characteristics, the present recording is made on two pianos.
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