One of the final works created by the French composer Florent Schmitt was a quartet he titled Pour presque tous les temps. It is one of the last numbered compositions in Schmitt’s entire output (#134 out of a total of 138 opus numbers) and was completed in 1956, two years before the composer’s death.
Schmitt was known to use plays-on-words for the titles of some of his compositions. Thus, we have pieces like Hasards (“Chances”) … Suite sans esprit de suite (“Suite that Isn’t in the Spirit of a Suite”) … Le Clavecin obtempérant (“The Ill-Tempered Clavier”) … Suite en rocaille (“Suite on-the-Rocks”) … Chants alizés (a play on “Champs-Élysées”) and in the case of the Opus 134, “Quartet for Almost All the Time.”
Some musicologists have surmised that Schmitt was doing a riff on Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), which was composed in 1941 during Messiaen’s wartime captivity in Germany.
But I find this cheeky connection rather unlikely because of the substantial differences in the scope and length of the two works. (Messiaen’s quartet is fully 50 minutes long, whereas Schmitt’s piece is far shorter — and of a vastly different musical character.)
French musicologist Nicolas Southon, on the other hand, sees a possible connection to Messiaen in the music, writing:
“The very first measures of the work may well be a kind of joke at Messiaen’s expense. Schmitt uses only the notes D and A-flat, which together form a tritone. It’s a somewhat strange interval — not really melodic — that’s forbidden in earlier music. Perhaps it is a reference to the language of Messiaen and his ‘modes’ — specific scales that often include tritone invervals.”
And there’s another trick up the composer’s sleeve when it comes to the name of this composition. If one looks at the cover of the score (see below), there are five time signatures noted beneath the title of the work: 2/4, 3/4, 3/2, 6/8 and 5/4. As it turns out, these are the various time signatures used in the score. So Schmitt’s title has a second meaning: “Quartet for Almost All the Times (Signatures).”
Schmitt’s quartet is scored for flute, violin, cello and piano. The dedication on the manuscript is to the Quatuor Instrumental de Paris, and this ensemble, made up of flautist Yanet Puech, violinist Janine Volant-Panel, cellist Mireille Reculard and pianist Françoise Petit, gave the premiere performance of the work as well.
Taken together, the quartet’s four movements clock in at under 11 minutes, with all but the third movement lasting fewer than three minutes each.
- Au clair de la R – IV
- Lent mais non languide
What I find delightfully surprising is how fresh and vigorous the music sounds – it hardly seems the work of a composer who was, by then, well into his ninth decade.
The musical idiom is “agreeably modern” – even “neo-classical” – but with a big measure of impressionistic flavor overlaid on it. In fact, the music sounds far more lush than similarly scored pieces by other composers like Albert Roussel, Darius Milhaud and Jacques Ibert. And the writing for the cello and piano parts in particular is quite intriguing.
In the end, this is music that remains true to Florent Schmitt’s Romantic inclinations.
Another characteristic of this music is this: It never grows old. I find that with each additional hearing, fascinating new musical aspects come to the fore, and each of the individual parts for the four instruments is rich and robust on its own. Because of these characteristics, I consider Pour presque tous les temps to be an important piece within its genre.
Unfortunately, Pour presque tous les temps finds its way onto music programs only occasionally. An online search reveals only three or four references to public performances of the score within the past several years – none of them happening in the United States. Dipping back to the year 1996, the Connecticut Trio (made up of violinist Gerard Rosa, cellist Julie Ribchinsky and pianist Linda Laurent) teamed up with flautist Sharon Davis to present the work in recital in Hartford-New Britain.
As for commercial recordings of this music, there was one made by the Quatuor Instrumental de Paris shortly after the work was premiered, but it was a limited-edition pressing distributed to members of Les Amis de la musique de chambre, a Paris-based arts organization — and very likely the press run numbered in the low hundreds only.
To my knowledge, the piece has been recorded just two times since. The earlier of the two recordings (from 2006, released on the Marcal label) features violinist Anne Werner-Fuchs, cellist Alexis Descharmes and flautist Frédéric Werner, along with Genevieve Ibanez on the piano. It is coupled with chamber music by the Swiss composer Pierre Wissmer.
The Marcal recording is a fine one, as is a somewhat newer recording by the Ensemble Martinů, released in 2008 on the Cube Bohemia label in a CD that also contains music by other French composers (Ravel and Ibert) and several Czech composers (Martinů, Kurz and Riedlbauch). The Cube Bohemia recording is polished and effective, performed by musicians who are clearly first-rate. I heartily recommend either of these recordings to anyone curious to sample this highly engaging music.
Pour presque tous les temps is a piece that could certainly use more advocates. I hope several other ensembles will choose to take it up soon – particularly in the United States. Any takers?
The performance was played by the “Schmitten Ensemble,” one of six finalists out of more than 500 participating groups … and it has just been uploaded to YouTube.
You can view the performance here, played with freshness and vigor by four up-and-coming classical musicians.
Update (11/14/19): In the past several years, more performances of Florent Schmitt’s Pour presque tous les temps have been happening, which is very good news. In 2018 the piece was performed as part of a season-opening concert of the Scarab Club Chamber Music Series in Detroit, featuring an ensemble including Dennis Carter on flute, violinist Veldy Kelly, cellist Nadine Deleury and pianist John McLaughlin Williams. I was present at that recital and had the opportunity to interview the players afterwards about preparing the piece for performance. You can read that interview here.
And in 2019, the Spanish-based L’Arjé Ensemble (made up of Andrea Velasco on flute, violinist Cristina Perez, cellist Daniel Gutierrez and pianist Atenea Miralles) presented Pour presque tous les temps as part of that year’s Le Altre Note Festival in Sondrio Province, Italy. The first movement from that performance has been uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo and can be viewed here and here.
Update (9/17/20): The Schmitten Ensemble performance of Florent Schmitt’s Pour presque tous les temps has been selected for presenting the music in conjunction with the score. Music-lovers can now “see as well as hear” every one of Schmitt’s musical tricks that goes into creating such a fresh, invigorating score.
The upload is now available for viewing here, courtesy of George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos’s estimable music channel on YouTube.