One of the highly interesting compositions by Florent Schmitt is Mirages, Op. 70. This work exists in two versions: its original piano form composed in 1920/21, and a later orchestration prepared by the composer in 1923 and premiered in 1924 by Schmitt’s friend, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky.
I find Mirages to be one of Schmitt’s most compelling works, even though it doesn’t fall into the composer’s famous “orientalist” group of compositions. Its two highly contrasting movements show two vital sides of Schmitt’s musical personality: ruminatively languid as well as harshly emphatic.
Even in its pianistic form, this music is an implicitly symphonic conception – undoubtedly contributing to the effectiveness of the later orchestration which is so impressive not just on first hearing, but also in subsequent listening.
The first of the two Mirages numbers is titled Tristesse de Pan. Dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, the great French Impressionist composer who had died in 1918, it’s a work that is opulent and positively magical in its mood and color.
Schmitt’s piece was one of ten works created by Parisian-based composers for a December 1920 issue of La Revue Musicale, a French magazine devoted to the latest musical and cultural trends in the country.
In his contribution to the Debussy memorial project, Schmitt does an incredible job evoking in musical terms the themes of Paul Fort’s ballad:
“… Pan leaned on his elbows deep down in the lunar wheat fields. Then, from neighboring woods, the nightingale sings to a beautiful full moon, which, on the rising tills of its voice … it seems to be resting – better than a flower on a fountain.
Pan falls silent; does not interfere … inattentive to the reed, and sad. Leaning his elbows on the ground, he feels the weight of his entire necklace made of dead moons …
Is he thinking about the dead gods? Is he thinking about the works that his flute revisited: the rivers, the breeze, the forests, the dawn – all works of the dead gods?
… And suddenly, Pan forever throws to the ground the supreme shout of love.”
In its short six-minute duration, Schmitt conveys the full range of emotions suggested by the original ballad.
The French historian and musicologist Michel Fleury makes an insightful point about this compelling musical picture when he wrote these words:
“With this moving piece, Schmitt closes the magical book opened 30 years earlier by [Claude Debussy’s] Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune.”
In the second musical picture making up the Mirages, Schmitt turned to a very different subject: the poem Mazeppa by Lord Byron. Based on a legend and set in the times when the Polish kingdom stretched from the Lithuanian Baltic coast all the way to the Black Sea, the poem’s topic is Mazeppa, is a nobleman accused of being the lover of a rival’s wife. He is sentenced to be bound to a wild horse that is released into the woods.
Mazeppa’s tortuous ride nearly kills him, but after the steed falls exhausted, the unconscious nobleman is rescued by local farmers, eventually becoming the leader of the Ukrainian people.
Florent Schmitt titled this movement La Tragique chevauchée, and its depiction of Mazeppa’s wild ride in the orchestrated version of the piece is overwhelming in its impact.
[For classical music buffs who know the Mazeppa tone poem of Franz Liszt, that earlier essay doesn’t come close to matching the visceral impact of Schmitt’s musical picture.]
Personally, I find Schmitt’s original piano version of this movement somewhat ineffective; in my view, the horse’s braying, bucking and galloping rhythms don’t seem to be realized too well in pianistic terms. (Perhaps it takes an artist of the caliber of Alfred Cortot, to whom Schmitt dedicated this movement, to do the piece pianistic justice.)
In any case, that is not an issue at all in the orchestration, where Schmitt is able to deliver an aural experience that is shattering in its impact.
Then again … what makes the piece more than simply an orchestral tour de force is the inclusion of a plaintive theme that represents the suffering and resignation of Mazeppa. This line rises above the pounding hoofbeats to bring a kind of noble beauty to the otherwise horrific picture.
In the end, as the exhausted Mazeppa is rescued from near-death, Schmitt evokes the turn of fate in masterful fashion. As the French musicologist and fellow-composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud once noted, “Leaning softly on the strings, the oboe, followed by the trumpet, the clarinet and the horn in solo, pour out the sweetness of their balm …”
In its orchestral garb, performances of Mirages have been rather sparse — even in France. Searching through concert archives, we find it showing up on the occasional program, such as a 1953 performance by the Colonne Concerts Orchestra as well as 1956 and 1957 broadcast performances by the the Orchestre National de l’ORTF — both ensembles under the direction of Pierre Dervaux. There were also a pair of Paris Conservatoire Orchestra concerts presented in March 1958, led by François-Julien Brun.
In the early 1960s the score was presented by conductors Eugène Bigot and Louis de Froment (with the ORTF) and François-Julien Brun (this time with the Garde Républicane Orchestra) in concert performances that were broadcast over French Radio.
There have also been occasional performances of each of the two numbers separately, such as a January 1950 performance of the Chevauchée movement presented by the French National Radio Orchestra led by Roger Désormière.
In the United States, the earliest record I can find of the orchestral Mirages being performed happened during the 1926-27 concert season, done by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Alfred Hertz; I have yet to identify any American performances of the music in recent decades.
On the other hand, the original piano version of Mirages has been fairly well-represented in performances and on recordings. The first commercial recording of the piano version that I’m aware of was made by the English pianist John Ogdon and released on the EMI label in 1972. It remains a touchstone recording to this day, and has been in the catalogue pretty much ever since its initial release. Another earlyish recording was made French pianist Annie d’Arco around 1980 and was released on the Calliope label — a recording that never had much distribution outside of France and, to my knowledge, has never been reissued on CD or in download form.
In subsequent years, recordings of the suite have been made by French pianists Pascal le Corre (1986) and Vincent Larderet (2009). And there are numerous other performances that have been presented of just the first movement — including performances by Marie-Catherine Girod and recordings by pianists ranging from Winston Choi and Laurent Wagschal to Bennett Lerner, Andrey Kasparov and Tomer Lev.
Mirages is a piece of music that has grown on me over time. Originally familiar with just the original piano version, I was most immediately drawn to the Pan movement, finding the Chevauchée harsh, awkward-sounding and overly repetitive.
I’ve changed that initial assessment completely now that we have a recording of the 1923 orchestration available — a marvelous interpretation featuring L’Orchestre National de Lorraine directed by conductor and Schmitt advocate Jacques Mercier.
There is also a recording of the original piano score available for audition here, courtesy of YouTube.
Interestingly, just as the Pan movement has been described as “closing the book” that had been opened by Claude Debussy in his Afternoon of a Faun, the Tragique chevauchée represents the last in a line of French compositions that depict “wild rides” based on various different literary inspirations.
In addition to Schmitt’s essay, three others that are well-worth hearing are:
- Lénore by Henri Duparc (1874), after a ballad by Gottfried August Bürger (performed here by Michel Plasson and L’Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse)
- Le Chasseur maudit by César Franck (1880), after a different ballad by Gottfried August Bürger (performed here by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra)
- Chasse fantastique by Ernest Guiraud (1887), after Victor Hugo (performed here by Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra)
Each of these fine compositions is worthy in its own right … but Florent Schmitt’s piece is clearly the most advanced harmonically and packs the greater musical punch.
At least that’s my personal view; see what you think.