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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHMITT, F.: Piano Duet and Duo Works (Complete), Vol. 3 (Invencia Piano Duo)
Florent Schmitt remains one of the most important and influential French composers of the twentieth century. Although he wrote successfully in almost all forms except opera, he was by training a formidable pianist and his writing for the instrument is colourful, bold and harmonically dextrous. Schmitt was also an inveterate traveller and this permeates his poetic and Romantic Feuillets de voyage (Travel Pages), Op 26 whilst Musiques foraines (Carnival Music) Op 22 reveals Schmitt the festive humorist.
By James Harrington
American Record Guide
By Gary Lemco
Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
Complete Works for Piano Duet and Duo • 3
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
Over the course of his long and prolific career, Schmitt orchestrated a substantial number of his piano compositions. He also arranged some of his most significant works in other mediums for piano solo, duet and two pianos. While this collection focuses mainly on Schmitt’s original pieces for piano duet and duo, it includes some transcriptions as well.
Marche du 163e RI or Marche du CXLIII (March of the 163 Infantry Regiment) Op 48, No 2 (1916), was initially intended for military band, composed on the front lines in Toul. The band manuscript’s location and fate, however, have since been a mystery, with the original version of the score still remaining unpublished. Instead, Marche is best known today in Schmitt’s arrangement for piano, four hands, and is recorded here on two pianos in affirmation of its orchestral nature. The spirit of this piece, written in sonata form, closely relates to other major war compositions by French composers, Debussy’s En blanc et noir and Ravel’s Piano Trio among them. In the grand emotional and colouristic palette of Marche, patriotic feelings intertwine with anxiety, nostalgia, longing for a return home and hope for a peaceful future. An apprehension of impending bloody battles becomes particularly palpable in the developmental middle section, as it starts ominously in the low register before returning to the opening fanfare.
Feuillets de voyage (Travel Pages), Op 26 (1903–1913), is a large-scale work that epitomizes the composer’s independent spirit and love of travel. Innately connected to Schumann, Feuillets belongs to some of Schmitt’s most Romantic compositions.
In Book I, three faster movements alternate with two slower ones. The opening Sérénade’s graceful elegance is followed by the intimacy and subtlety of Visite, while the noble and charming Compliments gives way to the highly poetic aura of Douceur du soir (Balmy Evening). Brisk and energetic, Danse britannique (British Dance) concludes the first set.
Book II is structured differently as it begins with a slow movement. Berceuse, though atmospheric and gently floating, contains contrapuntally elaborate passages and is succeeded by the brief and melodically attractive Mazurka. In a stark departure, Marche burlesque (Farcical March) exerts grotesque and, at times, even sarcastic qualities. The journey comes to an end with the quiet joy of Retour à l’endroit familier (Return Home) and the exuberant buoyancy of the resplendent Valse.
Musiques foraines (Carnival Music), Op 22 (1895–1902), is the first pronounced statement of Schmitt the humourist, instantly immersing the listener into its theatrical and festive atmosphere from the introductory octave repetitions of the jovial Parade. The uplifting mood persists throughout the work and culminates in the exhilarating ride of its finale, Chevaux de bois (Wooden Horses), bringing to mind Bizet’s and Debussy’s pieces with the identical title. A succession of happenings in between includes the circus of Boniment de clowns (Tale of Clowns), the entrancing elasticity and enchanting North African dress of a belly dancer named La belle Fathma (The Beautiful Fatima), the majestic stunts in Les éléphants savants (The Learned Elephants), and the fortune-telling magic of La pythonisse (The Pythoness). An important stepping-stone for Schmitt’s further achievements in the genre, Musiques foraines stands among some of the most technically and rhythmically challenging masterpieces in the literature.
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