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.
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 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 joining forces with the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in 1954.
The piece Schmitt brought to America stands as a unique composition among the composer’s works. Carrying the opus number 82, it represents a clear break from the style of Schmitt’s earlier works – 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 for a book these two musican-authors were preparing on modern classical music, Florent Schmitt commented on the audience’s reception at Parisian premiere of the Symphonie concertante that had been presented at the Salle Gaveau in 1936, played by pianist Hélène Pignari. The composer noted:
“It received a friendly welcome there, while two years later at the [Théâtre du] Chatelet — still with Hélène — it was ten minutes of whistles, pugilists, and umbrellas breaking on slender shoulders.”
Despite its dissonance that might initially come as a shock, 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 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 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.)
Thanks to Jean-Christian Bonnet’s excellent and long-running YouTube music channel, you can sample all three movements of this extraordinary composition:
[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.