Florent Schmitt’s Crépuscules (1898-1911): Richly evocative tone painting in the finest French pianistic tradition.

Cimetierre at duskComposed between 1898 and 1911, Florent Schmitt’s Crépuscules, Op. 56 is a set of four pieces for solo piano that was published in 1913.

It’s one of the most compelling French piano works of the period.  It also looks forward to Ombres which came along just a few years later — and which is probably the composer’s ultimate expression in this idiom.

Roughly translated into English as “Twilight,” Crépuscules’ four movements are as follows:

  • Sur un vieux petit cimetière (In an Old, Small Cemetery)
  • Neige (Snowfall)
  • Sylphides
  • Solitude

    Florent Schmitt and Ralph Vaughan-Williams

    Florent Schmitt and composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams, pictured together in about 1957: Schmitt had dedicated the first movement of Crépuscules to his English counterpart nearly 50 years earlier.

With uncanny ability, Schmitt’s highly descriptive music establishes the moods suggested by these titles.

The first movement, which was dedicated to Schmitt’s lifelong friend and fellow composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams, conjures up the dark, oppressive stillness of a graveyard – eerily presaging Ravel’s own piano suite Gaspard de la nuit.

The quietly expressive “Snowfall” movement and fluid-yet-nervous virtuosity of “Sylphides” that follow provide a fitting contrast to the dark hues of the first movement.

The final “Solitude” movement returns to the atmospherics of the opening number.  Schmitt’s manuscript for this movement bears an inscription from the French symbolist poet Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947):

“…But what we love always ends up disappearing, and we are alone.  Always alone … all aim for solitude.”

Leon-Paul Fargue and Maurice Ravel

The Symbolist poet Léon-Paul Fargue (left), pictured with Maurice Ravel (near left) and several other members of “Les Apaches.”

Schmitt’s characterization of Fargue’s poignant sentiment is perfectly rendered – proving that he was every bit as capable as his compatriot Ravel in setting to music the verses of the man known as “The Poet of Paris.”

And small wonder, since all three gentlemen were part of Les Apaches, a loose-knit group of musicians and writers who were in the forefront of artistic and aesthetic trends in Paris in the early years of the 20th Century.

In any number of Parisian salon gatherings, you could expect to find Schmitt, Ravel and Fargue together in attendance.

Considering its highly effective pianistic writing and evocative characteristics, Crépuscules is a suite that deserves to be far better known than it is.

In fact, it has had only two commercial recordings to my knowledge.

Florent Schmitt piano music (Alain Raes)

First Crepuscules recording: French pianist Alain Raës in 1985.

The French pianist Alain Raës recorded the suite in 1985, and more recently fellow-Frenchman Laurent Wagschal (in 2005).  These performances are available on YouTube.

Happily, both of them are quite good — although my personal preference leans more towards Laurent Wagschal’s interpretation.

And there is now a pianist from among the newest generation of performers who is championing this music:  a young Australian artist named Kenan Henderson.

Kenan Henderson, pianist

Young Australian pianist Kenan Henderson: Passionate advocate for Florent Schmitt’s Crepuscules piano score.

Still in his early twenties, Kenan Henderson is the 2013 recipient of the inaugural Peter Schodde Piano Scholarship prizeCrépuscules was part of the core repertoire program Mr. Henderson performed during the various rounds of this competition (along with music of Franz Liszt).

[Courtesy of YouTube, you can listen to Henderson perform the suite, recorded in recital in Adelaide, Australia in 2013.]

Thanks in part to the Schodde scholarship prize proceeds, Kenan Henderson is embarking on several years of additional music study in Germany.

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask the pianist to share his thoughts on Florent Schmitt’s piano music — and the Crépuscules score in particular.  Here are highlights from that interview:

PLN:  How did you become acquainted with the music of Florent Schmitt, and of Crépuscules in particular?

KH:  I first became aware of Florent Schmitt and his music through my own personal exploration.  I knew he was a prominent member of the aesthetist group Les Apaches, of which Maurice Ravel was also a member.  I have always had a deep love of French music from this period, so I decided to do some further research.  

Florent Schmitt piano music (Laurent Wagschal)

Early inspiration: Laurent Wagschal’s recording of Crepuscules, originally released on the Saphir label and reissued by Timpani Records in January 2014.

The wonderful recording of Crépuscules by Laurent Wagschal was actually the first piece by Florent Schmitt I ever listened to, and it made a great impression.  I loved it immediately.

PLN:  What do you find most appealing about the music?

KH:  I love the dark sensuality of the music.  In fact, I find it to be one of the richest and most colorful works by any French composer of this time period.  

In many ways, Crépuscules is an embodiment of the ideals of the Symbolist artistic movement – a period of art which I have always loved.  I also think the work has a very visual, almost synaesthetic quality, and the depiction of the subject matter of each movement is incredibly strong.

It’s a shame the composition is almost entirely unknown because it really deserves to be as famous and frequently played as works by Ravel or Debussy.

PLN:  Do you have a movement from the set that is your favorite – or that you find particularly noteworthy?

KH:  I love all of the movements!  But I’d say “Sylphides” is perhaps the most remarkable, as it combines amazing harmonic shapes and colors with dangerously stark and quicksilver-like textures.  It’s very difficult to play — but when played well, it’s absolutely stunning.

The impression of the piece upon hearing it for the first time tends to be a bit of a blur of notes, but it is actually constructed in an incredibly efficient manner by a composer with a remarkable ear for color.

In my opinion it’s one of the Florent Schmitt’s best pieces – and perhaps one of the most daring and original piano works of all from this period!

PLN:  Some people see a connection between this piece and the piano works of Ravel or Debussy.  In what ways do you see the music as similar … or different?

KH:  I agree that there is a very strong connection between Crépuscules and the piano music of Debussy and Ravel.  The impressionistic inspiration behind the work is quite similar to a number of Ravel and Debussy compositions such as Debussy’s Images or Estampes and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit or Miroirs – all of which depict similar subject matter to Crépuscules

The presence of bell-like sonorities is also a similar feature — along with how the scores are often written on three staves for atmospheric effect.

It’s important to remember that these men were all in the same social circles and lived in close proximity to each other most of the time.  So it’s no surprise at all that they would be influenced by each other’s works.  

I’ve read about a story where one day Ravel announced to his circle of friends that it was impossible to write effectively for piano anymore.  Florent Schmitt then proceeded to write his remarkable Les Lucioles (Fireflies, Op. 23, No. 2) in reaction to Ravel’s contention, which subsequently provoked Ravel into writing his innovative and famous Jeux d‘eau.  This shows just how closely linked these two figures were in day-to-day life.

At the same time, I think of Crépuscules as being quite unique. It’s more contrapuntal than anything Debussy or Ravel composed, making it structurally more similar to the music of César Franck, for example.

The arrangement of the four movements also mimics the typical classical sonata form (i.e. ‘sonata’ opening movement, intermezzo ‘slow’ movement, scherzo, rondo) which I think is a deliberate gesture – and a unique one at a time when it was quite fashionable to be dismissive of classical forms.

PLN:  How would you characterize the music’s difficulty, technically and interpretively?

KH:  The music is quite difficult, but not generally in technical details (although “Sylphides” is one of the more difficult pieces I’ve learned).  Its difficulty lies more in carefully constructing a hierarchy of ideas.

The piece is actually quite “symphonic” in nature, and one would do well to approach it as an orchestral work:  building up the many levels of sounds and sonorities over time.  

The music also features extensive rhythm changes; often, the performer is required to play in three or even four rhythmic pulses at the same time!  This took me a great deal of practice to achieve — particularly in the “Neige” movement which combines unusual rhythmic patterns that often change bar by bar (although one might not initially hear it).

PLN:  Tell me about your decision to include Crépuscules as part of your piano competition repertoire.  This must have been a very unique selection!

KH:  I learned this work for my final Honours recital.  It was quite possibly the Australian premiere of the work, and it received a lot of praise afterwards.  I have an affinity for French music of this period, so I decided to include this work in the Schodde piano competition after several people suggested I perform it.  

Also, I had not played the music in a while and missed performing it!

PLN:  Where have you performed this music?

KH:  For the most part, I’ve played this work in my hometown of Adelaide, South Australia, in performances for Recitals Australia and for other events.  It has been recorded twice for radio – so perhaps it has been heard internationally over the airwaves, too. 

I also performed selected movements of the work throughout Germany for several music professors during a study trip in 2012.  Most of them had never even heard of Florent Schmitt — let alone Crépuscules.  They were intrigued by the music and surprised at the work’s high quality.

PLN:  What sort of audience reaction have you experienced when you perform Crépuscules?

KH:  People love this music!  I’ve always received warm comments afterwards, with audience members commenting on how much they enjoy the work’s brooding atmosphere and changing colors.

PLN:  I understand that you wrote a college thesis on the topic of this music …

KH:  Yes, I wrote my college thesis on this work at the suggestion of my Honours professor, who thought it would be an interesting project.  

I had great difficulty finding any material on the work – or even on the composer, which surprised me.  I was forced to rely primarily on information contained in CD booklets, websites and so forth, since I could not locate even a single volume in English on the composer’s music or his life, which astounded me.

In my research, one of the most interesting things I discovered about Crépuscules was how long it took for the composer to complete it.  Schmitt began working on it as a student – and finished it a decade later as one of the most famous French composers of his time.  

In many ways, this work is a synopsis of this transition for the composer.  Schmitt must have felt a great sense of accomplishment when he finally completed it.

PLN:  Are there other piano works by Florent Schmitt that you have studied or performed?

KH:  I am familiar with other Schmitt piano pieces from several CDs I now own, as well as from my own research into the composer’s output.  I would love to perform Ombres and Enfants in the near future, and possibly Chaine Brisée also. 

There is also a great body of two-piano music in his oeuvre.  Perhaps I can convince a friend to learn and perform some of those pieces with me!

PLN:  Tell me briefly about your background in music.

KH:  I started learning piano at the age of five and continued with regular lessons until I was 11 or 12 years old.  I then began learning violin, but eventually switched back over to piano, which I had begun to take more seriously by the age of 16.

I studied architecture at the University of Adelaide, but decided halfway through the degree program that I wanted to focus on music as well.  So I completed my architecture degree and began studying Classical Performance in 2009. This year I finished my Honours, attaining a First Class result, and I will be commencing a Masters degree in Germany in 2014.

PLN:  Do you see your studies in architecture and design relating to your musical activities in some ways?

KH:  Perhaps there is some unconscious or subconscious link I am not aware of, but I can’t really think of any examples where my studies in architecture have directly influenced my musical thinking or sensitivities.  To me, there’s quite a gap between these two parts of my life, actually.

PLN:  What are your current activities involving studying, performing or teaching piano?

Kenan Henderson pianist

Australian pianist Kenan Henderson in recital (Adelaide, South Australia).

KH:  At the present time, I’m teaching piano at several schools in order to help raise money for my Masters degree in Germany next year.  I won the Peter Schodde Memorial Scholarship competition which will also contribute towards this goal, and I’m applying for several other major scholarships to help raise funds for my studies.

As for recitals, I will soon be performing a concert series around South Australia, which is currently in the organizational stages.

PLN:  What future plans do you have for performing Crépuscules or other piano music by Florent Schmitt?

KH:  My desire is to learn new Schmitt piano music for upcoming concerts – possibly Ombres.  As for Crépuscules, it is such a stunning piece, I’m sure I’ll be playing it for many years to come, wherever I have the opportunity to perform.

… To which we can only say in response:  We hope Kenan Henderson keeps Crépuscules in his repertoire “forever and ever” …

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