The saxophone has always held a somewhat tenuous position in the symphony orchestra. Perhaps because of its relatively late invention (around 1845), it’s never really become a full-fledged part of the wind section in classical music.
Undoubtedly too, some composers have found the saxophone’s sonorities to be better suited for wind ensembles and pop bands than for the classic symphony ensemble.
But if there’s one place where the saxophone has been integrated into the orchestral fabric better than anywhere else, it is in France. That may be because the saxophone’s inventor, Adolphe Sax, was a Parisian resident (though born in Belgium). And the instrument became popular with musicians at the Paris Conservatoire, the most important school of music in France.
The composer Hector Berlioz was an early advocate of the saxophone, and yet we don’t find the instrument cropping up in many of his scores (except for the concert band masterpiece Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale). By the 1870s, we can hear the saxophone playing beautiful (and important) solo passages in Leo Délibes’ musical score to the grand ballet Sylvia, as well as in Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne incidental music.
And over the years, many other French composers would create concertante pieces featuring the saxophone with orchestra. Among them are works by Vincent d’Indy, Claude Debussy, André Caplet, Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, Henri Tomasi … and Florent Schmitt.
The Schmitt piece is the Légende, Opus 66, which was composed in 1918. The Légende exists in composer-sanctioned versions for saxophone, for violin and for viola, accompanied by orchestra or piano — although it is the saxophone versions that are the most popular and oft-performed.
It’s a pretty incredible piece of music. Within the span of just ten minutes or so, Schmitt offers us a rhapsodic ballad that is amazing in its breadth and depth of atmosphere, with a masterfully colorful orchestration coexisting with the solo saxophone.
To me, it seems like an unsettled, fitful dream sequence … and I also hear more than a hint of the orientalisms that were so common in Schmitt’s scores of the period.
This is a piece of music I’ve known for decades – one that that never grows old. One of my favorite commercially recorded performances features saxophonist Johannes Ernst with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, recorded in 1998 and released on the Arte Nova label.
A later recording (2007) from BIS is equally fine, featuring saxophone player Claude Delangle with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lan Shui.
YouTube has numerous live performances documented of the saxophone and piano version, as the Légende continues to grow in popularity around the world. One of the best of these was recorded in Italy in 2010 and features Stefano Papa on the saxophone along with pianist Daniele Albericci.
Even more famous than the Légende is Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet, Opus 102, written in 1941 when the composer was 71 years old.
While the very idea of a piece featuring four saxophones may seem unusual, there are actually quite a few works of this kind in existence, thanks in part to the Paris Conservatoire’s need for recital and contest pieces.
The legendary French classical saxophone player Marcel Mule (1901-2001) was also instrumental in encouraging composers to write for his saxophone quartet — for which they were happy to oblige during the period from about 1930 up to the early 1960s.
So we see that Florent Schmitt’s piece stands alongside other notable French works for saxophone quartet like Gabriel Pierné’s Introduction & Variations on a Popular Rondo (1930), Jean Françaix’s Petit Quatuor (1936), Jean Absil’s Saxophone Quartet (1937), Jean Rivier’s Grave et Presto (1939), Eugène Bozza’s Andante et Scherzo (1938) and Nuages (1946), and Alfred Désenclos’ Saxophone Quartet (1962).
Schmitt’s own Quartet employs soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. The first movement is a fugue … the second is a toccata-like number … while the third movement is slow and reflective and the concluding movement is marked “animated without excess.”
The Quartet has been well-served in recordings, beginning with Marcel Mule’s own ensemble recording the piece in the mid-1950s (released on the Decca label in the UK and the London label in the USA). A review of that recording, appearing in the January 1955 issue of Gramophone magazine, noted:
“Most writing for sax quartet consists of short pieces; Gabriel Pierné extends the form to a set of variations which explore the resources of the medium quite fully. But the greatest extension is from Florent Schmitt — a full-scale quartet including in its second and fourth movements virtuoso writing of a very high order.
The Marcel Mule Quartet takes it all in stride; greater fluency is not to be had from the saxophone than this … wonderful saxophone playing, wonderfully recorded.”
Notable recordings coming after Mule’s include particularly effective performances done by the Deffayet Saxophone Quartet on EMI and the Diastema Saxophone Quartet on NAXOS, along with recordings by the Syrinx Quartet, the Aurelia Quartet, the Linos Quartet and others.
The first U.S. recording was made in the early 1970s by the American Saxophone Quartet (comprised of saxophonists George Wolfe, James Kaiser, Dean Kluesner and Dennis Bamber), which appeared on the Coronet label. While that performance sounds a bit rough-hewn to my ears, there’s no doubt that the recording helped bring this music to the attention of musicians in America.
Over on YouTube you can find numerous live recordings of the Quartet made in recent years, including two movements from a winsome concert performance in Osaka, Japan by the Zzyzx Quartet (made up of saxophonists Stacy Wilson, Stephen Page, Matt Evans and Dana Booher):
As in Légende, the music in Schmitt’s Quartet is inventive, easily holding the listener’s interest from first note to last. Master orchestral colorist that he was, Schmitt coaxes a wide variety of sonorities from the four saxophones.
The Légende and the Quartet would be sufficient in themselves to grant Florent Schmitt immortality in the world of classical saxophone music. But as it turns out, there is a third piece written by the composer that is equally a part of the standard repertoire for the instrument: Songe de Coppélius. Dating from 1908, this work is also one of the earliest pieces written for the tenor member of the saxophone family.
Regarding the musical flavor of Songe de Coppélius, composer and music critic David DeBoor Canfield has stated:
“The style of the piece is rather much infused with Impressionism — but it is that of Schmitt and not Debussy. The saxophone line is rather subdued and doleful throughout, and no flashy displays of virtuosity are required.”
In recent years this composition has become better-known — particularly as an instructional vehicle for students of the saxophone, for whom the piece has proven to a good introduction to the world of impressionism in music. Numerous performances of the piece have been uploaded to YouTube; you can listen to representative examples here and here and here.
Writing in 1999 about the place of saxophone music in the concert hall, the German saxophone soloist Johannes Ernst observed:
“Outside France, concert repertoire for the saxophone developed later and on a much smaller scale. The saxophone has only been able to establish itself as an ideal solo instrument, through its wide range of sounds and registers, in the last quarter of our century.”
It would seem that the highly interesting saxophone compositions of Florent Schmitt – and several of his fellow French compatriots – have helped that process along greatly. Indeed, as David Canfield notes, Schmitt’s music is the perfect introduction to the instrument for those who think they don’t care for the saxophone — and that exposure is very likely to create new converts.