All his life, Florent Schmitt was an inveterate traveler … but we think of his globetrotting primarily in connection with Europe, the Mediterranean Region, the Middle East, South Asia and Brazil, rather than North America.
And in fact, the composer was to travel to the United States only one time his life – in 1932 at the invitation of his friend Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Maestro Koussevitzky had commissioned Schmitt to write a piano concerto to commemorate the BSO’s 50th anniversary, a work he composed in 1931 and premiered with the orchestra in Boston on November 25, 1932. Schmitt played the challenging piano part himself.
Schmitt visit to America was sponsored, in part, by the New York-based League of Composers. International in its outlook, the League welcomed an impressive range of composers to the United States — including Bartók, Hindemith, Milhaud, Prokofiev, Schoenberg and Villa-Lobos in addition to Schmitt — before merging with the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in 1954.
The piece Schmitt brought to America stands as a unique creation among the composer’s works. Carrying the opus number 82, it represents a clear break from the style of Schmitt’s earlier compositions – far more modern, even dissonant. Moreover, it isn’t a concerto in the conventional sense. Instead, the composer named it Symphonie concertante. According to the musical essayist Benoit Deuteurtre, “Schmitt, who did not really appreciate the conventional dialogue between soloist and orchestra, preferred to merge the piano and orchestra.”
It’s an amazing piece of music. It is also less immediately “approachable” than many other works by the composer, and for some listeners the jagged harmonies and spikey rhythms will come as a surprise. Indeed, at the time of its composition more than one person dubbed the piece the Symphonie déconcertante (“Disconcerting Symphony”) for precisely that reason.
Asked decades later by Bernard Gavoty and Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur to comment for a book these two musican-authors were preparing on modern classical music, Florent Schmitt spoke about the audience’s reception at the first Paris performances of the Symphonie concertante, presented in 1934 by the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Salle Gaveau (with Pierre Monteux conducting and the composer as soloist), and then in 1936 at the Théâtre du Chatelet (played by pianist Hélène Pignari with Paul Paray conducting).
The composer reported:
“It received a friendly welcome there, whereas two years later at the Chatelet — with Hélène — it was ten minutes of whistles, pugilists, and umbrellas breaking over slender shoulders.”
As the French music critic and author René Dumesnil recounted in his book La Musique en France entre les deux guerres, “Two gigs; two audiences — with that of the Chatelet only loving and admiring music written prior to 1890.”
Despite its dissonances that might initially come as a shock to some, if people listen closely and allow themselves to become enveloped in the grand musical fresco that Schmitt has created in this piece, many will discover an inventiveness and brilliance that is tremendously rewarding on an emotional level.
Speaking for myself, I find new nuances every time I listen to this work, and I’m continually amazed by the rich palette of colors the composer conjures up in the orchestra: great blocks of sound that are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Jean-Christian Bonnet, a classical music connoisseur who is an evangelist on YouTube for French classical composers, is quite keen on the Symphonie concertante, remarking that it is “a highly original work that sits at the crossroads of different influences – very modern in its style yet romantic in its mood.”
I agree completely with that assessment. And consider this commentary from Alan Ding, another connoisseur of music from this particular “time and place”:
“An absolute masterwork that exemplifies the best of late-Romanticism, Impressionism, and innovative Modernism; Schmitt’s writing is not only unique but incredibly polished, mature, and natural.
In my opinion, his harmonic language rivals that of Roslavets and Stravinsky in terms of complexity (yet to me, Schmitt’s harmonic innovation feels much more natural), and his pianistic figuration rivals Rachmaninov in terms of elegance ([although] clearly Schmitt’s style is far removed from that of Rachmaninov).
The orchestration is dense, but highly evocative and entirely justified; Schmitt does not waste a single note for any instrument. Yet, despite the textural and harmonic innovations that Schmitt presents, the work, I feel, is not inaccessible. Emotionally appealing to the untrained ear and not needlessly abstract or jarring, it is chock-full with the ‘make it new’ fervor of modernism, giving it a most refreshing sound [even as it] continues the Romantic tradition of placing feeling at the center of the work. Truly exemplifying the constructive improvement of art over time, this Symphonie concertante has become one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever come across.”
Like many of Schmitt’s scores, the Symphonie concertante is fiendishly difficult for both the pianist and orchestral musicians. This fact may have conspired to keep it from becoming standard concerto repertoire — although we do know that a number of important conductors chose to program the work in the first years following the Koussevitzky premiere, including Désiré Defauw, Désiré Inghelbrecht, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Monteux and Paul Paray.
Later on, the French pianist Monique Haas included it in her repertoire, playing it with Jean Martinon and the Lamoureux Orchestra in February 1957, in a performance that the newspaper Le Monde described as “valiant”(!).
Later still, another French pianist, Françoise Petit, tackled the Symphonie concertante in a January 1982 concert performance with the Orchestre Symphonique de la Garde Républicaine led by Roger Boutry. Once described by the composer as «une pianiste sensible et fougueuse» (“a sensitive and fiery pianist”), no doubt Mme. Petit did full justice to Schmitt’s score.
Fortunately for us, the one commercial recording that’s ever been made of the Symphonie concertante is mighty fine as well. Recorded on the Valois label in 1993, it is a top-notch interpretation. The impressive Franco-Turkish pianist Huseyïn Sermet turns in a Herculean performance on the keyboard, and he’s given grand support from conductor David Robertson and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. (In fact, it is one of the most polished performances I’ve ever heard from this orchestra.)
In its September 1994 review of the Valois recording, Gramophone magazine referred to the piece as “music of strong personality — complex, grandiose and thickly scored,” while praising the performance of Mr. Sermet. I can understand Gramophone‘s further description that characterized the middle movement of the Symphonie concertante as “a night-music piece that Bartók would have understood.”
Thanks to Jean-Christian Bonnet’s excellent and long-running YouTube music channel, you can sample all three movements of this extraordinary composition in the Sermet/Robertson recording via these links:
For those who would prefer to listen to the composition without a break as well as to follow along with a two-piano reduction of the score, the entire piece has been uploaded to YouTube as a single track, synchronized with the score, and can be viewed here.
From the opening explosion of sound to the thrilling flourish at the end, you will not be disappointed — or so I think. But I welcome your comments and observations about the music.
Update (10/13/21): The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra has just announced its programming for the 2022-23 concert season, which will include a performance of Florent Schmitt’s Symphonie concertante — the first time the piece has been presented anywhere in years, and very likely its Japanese premiere.
The performance will feature pianist Tomoki Sakata, with the orchestral forces being led by the veteran conductor (and passionate Schmitt advocate) Yan-Pascal Tortelier. The all-French program will also include music by Gabriel Fauré and Ernest Chausson’s Symphony in B-Flat.
Update (2/14/23): The concert presentation of Florent Schmitt’s Symphonie concertante, featuring the brilliant young pianist Tomoki Sakata and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Yan-Pascal Tortelier, was an artistic as well as commercial success. So reports Kitahara Toshiyuki, an IT specialist and French music-lover who had the opportunity to attend the Valentine Day’s performance at Suntory Hall.
The evening was a personal triumph for Mr. Sakata, tackling with aplomb a challenging work that hadn’t been presented in concert anywhere in the world in more than 30 years. The concert was also a dream come true for Maestro Tortelier, who reportedly had studied the score for years and always hoped for the opportunity to present it in front of an audience.
Reviewing the TMSO performance afterwards, arts blogger and Prokofiev music scholar Shin-ichi Numabe wrote:
“It was a truly moving evening. The performance was magnificent; throughout the Symphonie concertante the solo piano and orchestra were always closely linked, while fully conveying the subtlety and power of Florent Schmitt’s music.”
Grateful TMSO concert-goers were also treated to a compelling rendition of Ernest Chausson’s Symphony in B-Flat — a Tortelier specialty that is likewise too-rarely performed in concert. Click here to read an “eyewitness report” of the concert, as recounted by Mario Ishiguro, an attendee who traveled to Tokyo for the event.
I have to admit that it took me several hearings before I could fully grasp the value of this outstanding and highly complex work. I was familiar with Schmitt’s earlier works and this “concerto” came as a shock to me.
Although the second movement with its lush harmonies went directly to my heart, the third movement slowly grew on me and became one of my all-time favourites. The percussive sound and the extremely exciting rhythms are a pure wonder and require huge stamina from the soloist.
Thanks again for your kind words about my YouTube channel.
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