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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHMITT, F.: Piano Duet and Duo Works (Complete), Vol. 4 (Invencia Piano Duo)
Florent Schmitt was one of the most important of all French composers, an individualist who defies the simplicities of classification. The last of this four-disc series explores Schmitt’s Humoresques, Op 43, a cycle full of unexpected and witty twists, as well as the visionary Lied et scherzo, Op 54. His gift for characterisation is always evident, not least in Trois pièces récréatives, Op 37 which is strongly spiced with humour.
Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
Complete Original Works for Piano Duet and Duo • 4
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
Schmitt completed his extensive oeuvre for piano duet with one of his best-known works, Une semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil. Included on this recording, Une semaine is also the latest of four duets, the melody of which is based on the first five notes of a diatonic scale. Additionally, the recording contains Humoresques, Trois pièces récréatives and the composer’s arrangement of his Lied et scherzo for piano, four hands.
Humoresques, Op 43 (1911), exemplifies Schmitt’s good-humoured nature and represents a microcosm of his diverse ideas. Opening the cycle is Marche militaire that starts with an explosive fanfare, but quite unexpectedly and uncharacteristically fades away. Humoresques then continues through the peaceful Bucolique and poignant Valse sentimentale, revealing Schmitt’s intimate lyricism. The playful Rondeau and charming Scherzetto, on the other hand, display his cheerful side as well as his rhythmic and contrapuntal ingenuity. Closing the cycle is Danse grotesque whose accented “tutti” chords evoke Stravinsky’s early ballets.
Lied et scherzo, Op 54 (1910), was originally written for double wind quintet, with the first horn treated as a solo. Recorded on two pianos on this recording, Lied et scherzo is undoubtedly one of Schmitt’s most masterful and visionary compositions. The melodious Lied gradually segues into the driving and goal-oriented Scherzo, at times featuring intense polymetric layerings of contrasting materials that presage similar ideas by Ravel, Carter and others. Emerging in the enigmatic introduction are the main thematic elements and tempo co-relations between them. A quarter note (crotchet) of Lent equals two dotted quarters (crotchets) of Animé throughout the piece that concludes with an extensive, contemplative coda.
Trois pièces récréatives, Op 37 (1907), belongs to some of Schmitt’s most compact and lighthearted works as is implied by its title: Three Entertaining Pieces. The duet starts with the energetic Quadrille which is followed by Gavotte and Marche, unabashedly ironic and Satie-esque in spirit. Akin to Une semaine, a diatonic set of five pitches serves as a matrix for the melody in all three movements.
Une semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil ou Les songes de Hialmar (A Week in the Life of the Little Elf Shut-Eye or The Dreams of Hialmar), Op 58 (1912), is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale Ole Lukoie. Shut-Eye appears every week night to the little boy Hialmar to tell him the stories that become his dreams. One after another, Hialmar sees the ceremonial gathering of well-dressed mice in La noce des souris (The Nuptials of the Mice); a tired stork unable to fly and being mocked by the fowls in La cigogne lasse (The Weary Stork); Death that rides on horseback in Le cheval de Ferme-l’oeil (The Horse of Shut-Eye); an adoring couple that decides to live on love alone in Le mariage de la poupée Berthe (The Wedding of the Doll Bertha); the loud protests from weak-legged letters unable to stand on the copy-book’s lines in La ronde des lettres boiteuses (The Round of the Lame Letters); and painted objects magically coming alive in La promenade à travers le tableau (The Walk through the Painting). Finally, Shut-Eye transforms his umbrella into a richly decorated Chinese bowl in Le parapluie chinois (The Chinese Umbrella), at which point a five-note set in the melody becomes pentatonic.
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