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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHMITT, F.: Piano Duet and Duo Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (Invencia Piano Duo)
Florent Schmitt was one of the most original and influential French composers of his time. His music shimmers with luxuriant melodies, good humour and a fearless harmonic vocabulary. This second of four volumes is filled with innovation and stylistic bravura, from the remarkable variety to be found in Sur cinq notes to the balletic poetry of Reflets d’Allemagne.
FLORENT SCHMITT (1870–1958)
COMPLETE WORKS FOR PIANO DUET AND DUO • 2
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 (Lorraine) 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
Beginning in 1906, Schmitt experimented with a method of composition based strictly on the first five pitches of a diatonic scale in melody. Once introduced in a particular movement, each five-note set would remain unchanged, with the composer masterfully disguising this self-imposed limitation by a variety of other available means. This approach later proved to be very useful for numerous others, including Stravinsky in both his Five Easy Pieces for piano duet (1917) and The Five Fingers for piano (1921).
Sur cinq notes (On Five Notes), Op 34 (1906), is first among four duets based on the aforementioned principle. The composition opens with the lively and humourous Ronde, featuring a bright, bouncy theme that calls to mind Glinka’s Kamarinskaya. In contrast, a delicate Chopinesque sub-cycle of Barcarolle, Mazurka and Bercement brings out subtle shadings and a gentle touch. Rhythmic vigour and playful humour return in Danse pyrénéenne, which is followed by the chanson-like Mélodie anticipating some tunes and harmonic turns in popular culture. The ensuing Pastorale has a swaying, even-keeled feel reminiscent of the rhythmic modes of Medieval French polyphony. Syncopated and harmonically intriguing, Farandole carries the piece to an exciting and rousing close.
Reflets d’Allemagne (Reflections of Germany), Op 28 (1905), was given its première in 1906 by Maurice Ravel together with the composer himself. Schmitt transformed this work into a ballet by 1932 and subsequently included the duet version in his American tour’s programme, thereby contributing to its wider publication history and notoriety. Featuring a much freer approach to melody than Sur cinq notes, these eight waltzes unmistakably reveal the composer’s poetic gift and penchant for travel, as well as his admiration of nature and architecture. Reflets d’Allemagne’s overall structure is shaped as a large arch, with the highly energetic Heidelberg, Vienne, and Munich positioned at the beginning, middle and end. The nostalgic beauty of Lübeck and the picturesque river views of Coblentz contrast with the boisterous streets of Heidelberg. Werder’s reflective character and Dresde’s magic at dusk are separated by the broad daylight and rapid action of Vienne. Finally, a leisurely stroll around Nuremberg, with its old town, market square and scenic views, is followed by the breakneck pace of Munich, evidently depicted during its rush hour.
Huit courtes pièces pour préparer l’èléve à la musique moderne, Op 41 (1907–1908), is third in the series of piano duets based on the five-note method of composition described in the opening paragraph. Schmitt wrote this work with apparent pedagogical objectives in mind, as evidenced by its elaborate title: Eight Pieces to Prepare the Student for Modern Music. Following the bantering Ouverture—the composer remarks “non sans une certaine pompe” (not without a certain pomp)—he gradually introduces the student to a variety of genres, forms, techniques and ideas that were in vogue in the first decade of the twentieth century. Neoclassical forms are represented by the graceful Menuet and tongue-in-cheek Sérénade, while Virelai and Complainte (Lament) signal an emerging interest in much older forms and styles, including Medieval among others. The Spanish-inflected Boléro and Russian-flavoured Cortège represent influences from abroad, with the modal Chanson pointing toward the music by Schmitt’s French contemporaries.
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