For a composer who wrote many pages of chamber and instrumental music featuring nearly every instrument of the orchestra, Florent Schmitt’s compositions featuring the flute are comparative few.
This may seem surprising for a musician who actually played the flute in several military musical ensembles during World War I. Nevertheless, I count only three such works in the Schmitt catalogue.
They span all the way from his earliest years as a composer (1889) to nearly to the end of his life (1954). And all three scores are well-worth getting to know.
The earliest of these works is the Scherzo-Pastorale, Op. 17, a work for flute and piano which Schmitt began composing in 1889 when he was not yet 20 years old. The piece had a long gestation, receiving its final revisions as late as 1912. At the time of its publication it was dedicated to the famous French flute player and fellow composer Philippe Gaubert.
Until very recently, this music was hardly known. It received its world premiere recording only in 2008, by English flautist Kathryn Thomas and pianist Richard Shaw, in a highly interesting CD release on the Deux-Elles label titled Fauré and His Circle.
Just about five minutes in length, the Scherzo-Pastorale is revealed as a highly appealing early work. In the CD’s program notes booklet, pianist Richard Shaw characterizes the piece as “a short, charming and inventive work,” adding that “its sparkling character and harmonic language suggest the influence of Richard Strauss.”
Personally, I don’t hear strong Richard Strauss influences – and I suspect that the piece’s composition predated most of the German composer’s international successes. Either way, I agree that the music is infectious and interesting throughout – and is over way too soon.
I also find that the Scherzo-Pastorale stands up very well in comparison to the other works on the Deux-Elles disk, including music of Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Koechlin, Georges Enesco, Alfredo Casella and Lili Boulanger. But you can judge for yourself by listening to the Kathryn Thomas performance which has been uploaded to YouTube.
More than three decades would pass before Schmitt composed another work featuring the flute – in this case, four of them. His Quartet for Flutes, Op. 106 — which was composed in 1944 and had its premiere performance in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil of all places — is nearly unique in the flute repertoire.
It’s true that composers like Franz Anton Hoffmeister and Joseph Boismortier composed music for flute ensemble – but those works appeared in the 1700s.
Other compositions featuring flute quartet would come along in the modern era (from 1970 on), created by composers like Eugène Bozza, Jacques Castérède, Pierre Dubois, Serge Lancin and Paule Maurice.
But Schmitt’s Quartet stands nearly alone in the period before the 1970s.
Is Schmitt’s score more than simply a curiosity? Fortunately, we have several fine recordings that give us an affirmative answer.
The one I know best was performed by the Quatuor Arcadie, recorded in the early 1970s and released on the Edici label. It would be the only recording available until 2005, when a performance by the Israel Flute Ensemble was released on the Centaur label.
To my knowledge, the Arcadie Quartet premiere recording hasn’t been reissued on CD or in download form, but the Israel Flute Ensemble reading is available here.
A short work, the Quartet’s four movements, taken together, comprise only about eight minutes of music:
IV. Avec entrain, mais sans précipitation
I have known the Arcadie Quartet recording for years. It reveals a highly inventive score — rather similar in spirit to Schmitt’s compositions featuring other woodwinds (the Saxophone Quartet and the Clarinet Sextet in particular). It’s a fine piece that deserves to be better known; I’m sure it would make a highly effective recital number for flute players.
… Which then brings us to Florent Schmitt’s third and final work featuring the flute: the Suite en quatre parties, Op. 129, a work completed in 1954 and dedicated to the great French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal.
Unfortunately, Rampal never performed the piece, declaring it to be “atrocement difficile” (horribly difficult). And in fact, until very recently the work was never performed or recorded in its flute-and-orchestra incarnation, although it has been performed on occasion using a piano reduction score. One of those performances has been uploaded to YouTube, featuring Russian flautist Victoria Yanushkevich and pianist Hanna Bryleva, which you can view here.
Today, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Brazilian flautist James Strauss for discovering the orchestral manuscript of the Suite in the archives of the Durand publishing house in 2002, resurrecting the work, and making the world premiere recording in 2013 with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Laércio Diniz.
Soloist Strauss has recounted this about the early days of this music:
“There never was a premiere with orchestra; the flute part with piano accompaniment was performed for the first time on October 29, 1959, a little more than a year after the death of Florent Schmitt.”
Writing about the Suite, he continues:
“It is, without doubt … one of the most difficult works for flute and orchestra composed in the 20th century. I always thought there was no impressionistic flute concerto ever composed – but then found this one.
The Suite is within the impressionistic universe of Debussy and Ravel; the orchestration is quite transcendental. It really does sound like a Debussy or Ravel concertante piece. And the ending is remindful of Daphnis et Chloë, with a dance in 5/8 time.”
I am not in complete agreement with Mr. Strauss’ assessment, in that I also consider Jacques Ibert’s 1934 Flute Concerto to be fairly impressionistic in flavor. But I’m hard-pressed to think of any others beyond that one complementary case.
To give you a flavor of the inventive music in the Suite, this YouTube clip contains brief excerpts from each of its four movements as performed by James Strauss and the LNSO, and the entire recording of the Suite can be heard here.
Listening to Florent Schmitt’s Suite for Flute & Orchestra, it’s clear that the composer was able to assimilate the best of the 20th Century’s classical music idioms, reaching back to the time of Ravel and Debussy without sounding derivative or dated.
In this respect, I sense similarities with the composer’s penultimate work, the Symphony No. 2 (penned in 1957). Likewise, that piece, while sounding thoroughly contemporary, also hearkens back to the sumptuousness of the ecstatic middle section of Psaume XLVII, a work Schmitt had composed more than a half-century earlier.