Florent Schmitt’s Mirages: Poignant and Potent Musical Pictures Inspired by Paul Fort and Lord Byron (1920-23)

Mazeppa painting (Lord Byron)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.

Contributing to the effectiveness of the music is the inspiration for both pieces, which comes from literature: the French symbolist poet Paul Fort and the British writer Lord Byron.

La Revue Musicale December 1920 issue devoted to Claude DebussyThe 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.

La Revue Musicale Debussy Commemorative Issue

The December 1920 edition of La Revue musicale was dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy; the entire 150+ page magazine was devoted to the composer, including scholarly articles, reminiscences by other artists, as well as ten new pieces of music composed in his memory.

Florent Schmitt’s contribution to the Claude Debussy memorial as printed in the pages of La Revue Musicale. Schmitt’s work bears the title Et Pan, au fond des bles lunaires, s’accouda … .

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.

Paul Fort, the French symbolist poet.

Paul Fort (1872-1960), French symbolist poet: Two of his poems were set to music by Florent Schmitt in his Six Choruses in 1931, in addition to another Fort poem being the inspiration for Schmitt’s musical tribute to Claude Debussy.

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.

Letter from Florent Schmitt discussion Mirages (Tristesse de Pan)

A letter written by Florent Schmitt in advance of a piano performance of his Mirages for a concert in honor of the poet Paul Fort in Paris in November 1936. He writes in part: “Here is the poem of Paul Fort that you can have someone recite before Pauline Gordon plays ‘La Tristesse de Pan.’ Would you be able to confirm the date with Mme. Gordon? With all my best sentiments, F.S.”
Pauline Gordon was a pianist active on the Parisian music scene during the 1930s, performing solo, chamber and concerto literature of contemporaries like Florent Schmitt and Henri Tomasi in addition to the classics.

Claude Debussy Memorial 1920

In good company: Florent Schmitt was one of ten noted composers asked to contribute new musical creations dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy.

The French historian and musicologist Michel Fleury has made an insightful point about this compelling musical picture when writing 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.”

Paul Fort Concert 1936

The program cover for a concert of music inspired by the poetry of Paul Fort, presented at the Paris Conservatoire on November 28, 1936, during which pianist Pauline Gordon performed Florent Schmitt’s Tristisse de Pan.

Paul Fort honorary concert Paris Conservatoire 1936

The back of the concert program shown above was signed by Paul Fort and numerous composers, among them Louis Aubert, Georges Auric, Philippe Gaubert, Arthur Honegger, Marcel Landowski, Georges Migot … and Florent Schmitt.

In the second musical picture makes up 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. The accused 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.

Schmitt Dukas Roussel d'Arco Calliope

An early commercial recording of Florent Schmitt’s Mirages (Annie d’Arco on the Calliope label, 1980s).

Personally, I find Schmitt’s original piano version of this movement somewhat ineffective; in my view, the horse’s braying, bucking and galloping rhythms are difficult to be realized 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 complete pianistic justice.)

Schmitt Tragique Chevauchee score page

The first page from Florent Schmitt’s La Tragique chevauchée, dedicated to Alfred Cortot.

In any case, any pianistic limitations are not at all an issue in the orchestrated version, 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 melody 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 …”

Pierre Dervaux French conductor

Pierre Dervaux (1917-1992)

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  done by 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.

Concert program March 1957 Paris Conservatoire Orchestra Brun Schmitt Stravinsky Liszt Richard Strauss

The March 1958 concert performances of Florent Schmitt’s Mirages featured the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under the direction of 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.

Alfred Hertz conductor

Alfred Hertz (1872-1942)

In the United States, the earliest record I can find of the orchestral version of 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 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 extensive distribution outside of France and, to my knowledge, has never been reissued on CD or in download form.

Florent Schmitt Pascal le Corre Cybelia

The Pascal Le Corre recording of Mirages (Cybelia, 1986).

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 others 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.

Florent Schmitt Mirages score cover

Florent Schmitt’s Mirages: Tonal pictures based on literary inspiration.

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.

Florent Schmitt Mirages Jacques Mercier Lorraine National Orchestra

Jacques Mercier’s recording of Florent Schmitt’s Mirages, with the Lorraine National Orchestra on the Timpani label, is “the first and last word” on this music.

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.

That recording has been uploaded to YouTube; the two movements are available here and here.

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.

Florent Schmitt Mirages score

A vintage copy of the Mirages score, inscribed by Florent Schmitt

In addition to Schmitt’s essay, three others that are worth getting to know are:

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.


Schmitt Salome Psaume Mirages Markevitch Schwarzkopf Le Conte Dervaux Forgotten RecordsUpdate (5/15/23):  Forgotten Records has now released the 1956 broadcast performance of La Tragique chevauchée that was performed by the French National Radio Orchestra under the direction of Pierre Dervaux. Only the second of the two Mirages appeared on that program — an all-Schmitt concert with its centerpiece being the complete ballet Oriane et le Prince d’Amour — also available from Forgotten Records. The Dervaux interpretation of La Tragique chevauchée is über-exciting and a must-hear performance; it can be ordered directly from the label’s website.

5 thoughts on “Florent Schmitt’s Mirages: Poignant and Potent Musical Pictures Inspired by Paul Fort and Lord Byron (1920-23)

  1. Although “Le Chasseur maudit” remains a hugely popular work in France (and derserves it), I was unaware that the almost perfectly unknown Ernest Guiraud composed a work of similar proportion and similar style. I am under the impression that it was composed after Franck’s more famous work.

    • You are correct, J-C! Guiraud’s work was composed about seven years after Franck’s. It is well worth a hearing, even if it is eclipsed by the fame of the Franck. I think that Henri Duparc’s composition is also very fine, and I would love the opportunity to see it performed in concert someday.

  2. Pingback: First-ever recording of Florent Schmitt’s ballet Le petit elfe Ferme-l’oiel to be released. | Florent Schmitt

  3. Pingback: Originality, Eclecticism … and Female Voices: Florent Schmitt’s Six Chœurs (1931). | Florent Schmitt

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