Within Florent Schmitt’s musical output are a half-dozen works that feature the violin. Perhaps the most significant of them is his Sonate libre, Op. 68, a work he composed in 1918-19 at Artiguemy, his country retreat in the Hautes-Pyrenees.
The formal title of the music is a real mouthful: Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées, ad modem Clementis aquæ.
Evidently, Schmitt was using a play on words in the title – a reference to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Homme libre which later became known as L’Homme enchaîné.
The French novelist and musicologist Benoît Duteurtre has written that the Sonata’s title “perfectly sums up the spirit of a work that is at the same time magnificently constructed and astonishingly free in expression.” He likens the style to Olivier Messiaen’s early works that were to come along a number of years later.
Writing in The Musical Times in 1993, the British musicologist and biographer of Vincent d’Indy, Andrew Thomson, described Schmitt’s Sonata as follows:
“With the formidable Sonate libre … an extraordinary stylistic transformation has taken place. Composed in the Pyrenees in 1918-19, it is music of a truly Hispanic explosiveness and volatility, whose astonishing improvisatory freedom of form is handled with a firm underlying control throughout its half-hour duration. The tremendously hard-cutting edge of the violin’s soaring lines is matched by the piano textures — ranging from abrupt percussive outbursts of dance rhythms to sparkling, harmonically advanced impressionistic sonoroties.”
Le Monde music critic René Dumesnil wrote these words about the Sonate libre in 1958:
“The two instruments have an equally important — and perilous — role in this work which associates them closely, sometimes to unite them and sometimes to oppose their timbres. It demands tremendous virtuosity from performers; but even more than that, they must focus on the deeper meaning of the music to bring out both its vigor and its tenderness — this restraint which translates to what we could call its ‘interiority.'”
I agree with all three writers’ perspectives. To be sure, this is a lengthy sonata: a half-hour long, two-movement work that exploits the full range of sonorities, with a magnificent rhapsodic interplay between the violin and piano in the first movement, titled Lent sans exagération. In the second movement that follows without a break – titled Animé – we are treated to completely different atmospherics. The piano-only introduction tells us immediately that this is the Florent Schmitt of sass and irony, replete with nervous energy and spikey rhythms.
The two movements are vastly different … yet they do seem made for one another: two sides of the same mirror casting different reflections, as it were.
When the piece was premiered in Paris in March 1920 at a Société Musicale Indépendante concert (performed by violinist Hélène Léon and pianist Lucien Bellanger), it was warmly received. The composer and critic Alexis Roland-Manuel wrote these words about the Sonate libre in his review of the concert:
“The music is so flowingly captivating and diverse that at no moment does our attention wander; it moves along with the freedom of running water, and its merit lies not only in the charm of its free and solid structure, but also in the fruitful search for a melodic, harmonic and instrumental style that is quite new.”
Roland-Manuel went on to write:
“It is a pleasure to hear a sonata for piano and violin in which two timbres that are usually so essentially opposed are in harmony; the flowing arabesques contrast or merge in the subtlest, most perfect manner.”
Shortly after the Paris premiere, the Sonate libre was performed at Wigmore Hall in November 1920 as part of a program presented by the London Chamber Concert Society, and featured the Belgian violinist Désiré Defauw with the composer playing the piano part. Alfred Kalisch of The Musical Times, who was present at the performance, seemed a little put off by the work’s title — and perplexed by the music itself — writing:
“The title of the Sonata is curious … one might begin by questioning whether a ‘sonata’ could be “free’ because the very word ‘sonata’ suggests obedience to certain rules. This does not imply any question of a composer’s right to employ any kind of form he likes — only, if he does so, why call it a ‘sonata’ in this case?
The Sonata is a very long and involved work. Its principal themes promise well, but in treating them the composer relapses into violence and obscurity. There is a constant feeling that the two instruments, instead of working harmoniously to a common end, are desperately fighting for supremacy all the time.”
Another British musical observer, Walter Willson Cobbett, seemed equally perplexed by the music, writing:
“Florent Schmitt’s Sonata for pianoforte and violin is remote from ordinary musical humanity. It appears to me, and to many others, to be of incredible aridity.”
… further noting that his “disillusionment extends to certain composers [Schmitt] who have delighted me in the past.”
For such a significant composition that was certainly stirring the musical pot, it may be surprising to learn that the piece isn’t well-known and hasn’t been performed all that often in the years since its debut.
In my research I have discovered a number of performances in subsequent years. The piece was presented in the second concert of the 1923 Salzburg Festival, performed by violinist Alphonse Onnou — the founder and first violinist of the Belgian-based Pro Arte Quartet — and composer-pianist Henri Gil-Marchex.
The Sonate shared billing on that program with other recently created works by Ernst Krenek, Othmar Schoeck, the Latvian composer Eduard Erdmann, and the Finnish composer Yrjö Kilpinen. Edwin Evans, a critic from the British publication The Musical Times who attended the Salzburg concert, reported: “The Schmitt Sonata we know — and it is necessary only to record a first-rate performance.” (He then proceded to damn the other works with faint praise.)
We also know that Florent Schmitt himself included the Sonate libre as one of the works he presented during his American tour in 1932. One of those performances was held in San Francisco on December 13, in which Schmitt was the pianist alongside violinist Jascha Veissl (only the first movement was presented). Writing for the Oakland Tribune, composer, professor and music critic Charles C. Cushing (1905-1982) reported on the performance as follows:
“Here was a characteristic work of long opulent lines, luxuriant harmonies and intense emotional passages. Veissl’s rendition was suave and expressive, and did justice to the heavy demands of the composition.”
The Sonate libre was one of the works performed as France was preparing to defend itself against the anticipated Nazi invasion of the country in early 1940; a chamber music concert of the Aide aux musiciens mobilisés included works of Eugene Goossens, Lennox Berkeley and Maurice Delage in addition to Schmitt’s piece.
In the postwar period, the violinist Jeanne Gautier performed the work with pianist Lélia Gousseau in the early 1950s, as did the violinist Gabrielle Devries with the pianist Hélène Boschi. Additionally, violinist Maurice Fueri and pianist Jean Hubeau performed the piece on numerous occasions during the 1950s and 1960s, including at least one such performance that was broadcast over French Radio.
A memorable presentation of the piece was given in in November 1958 Brussels, Belgium as part of a tribute concert in memory of Florent Schmitt, who had died the previous August. That performance, featuring violinist Robert Hosselet and pianist Suzanne Hennebert, received positive reviews in the pages of Le Monde magazine.
More recently, the violinist Maurice Moulin teamed up with pianist Louise Blessette for another Radio France broadcast performance (in the 1980s). And in recent years, the mother/daughter team of violinist Beata Halska-Monnier and pianist Barbara Halska have presented the work on numerous occasions in Poland and France, including over French Radio.
As for commercial recordings, there have been only two of them made — although a third one is scheduled to be released in the United States in April 2014 (featuring violinist Ilona Then-Bergh and pianist Michael Schäfer) on the Genuin label.
The first recording was made by the husband-and-wife duo team of violinist Jean Fournier and pianist Ginette Doyen in 1959 for the French label Véga, which issued the Sonata on a 10” LP.
[Long considered a touchstone recording, the Fournier/Doyen performance has been reissued on CD, on the ACCORD label.]
More than 30 years would go by before the second recording of the Sonate libre was made, by violinist Régis Benoit and Franco-Turkish pianist Huseyin Sermet. It was recorded in 1992 and released on the Valois label.
Interpretively, I consider the Valois recording to be every bit the equal of the classic Fournier/Doyen performance. It also boasts better sonics, sounding more natural and less “boxy.”
The Benoit/Sermet recording is also available for audition on YouTube:
For those who wish to investigate the music in greater depth, the same recording has also been uploaded along with the score, and can be viewed here.
For clues as to the musical challenges the Sonate libre poses to musicians, the words of violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams are instructive. He and pianist David Riley tackled the work back in the mid-1990s, performing it at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Here’s what Maestro Williams says about the composition:
“It is such a great piece. You can easily wonder why it isn’t performed more, and I can answer authoritatively that violinists look at the score and say, ‘WTF!’. Some will never show it to a pianist because they cannot comprehend what they are looking at. Sonate libre is modern music that begins stylistically where Debussy and Ravel left off. While harmonically their influence is detectable, it is actually anticipatory of Messiaen, while texturally it inhabits the world of the younger Dutilleux.”
… All of which serves to show us the musical riches that await the listener when hearing Florent Schmitt’s Sonate libre. Give it a whirl; I think you will find that it is a half-hour of time well-spent.
Update (1/5/15): In more recent years, Florent Schmitt’s Sonate libre has received two additional recordings — both of them released in 2014.
Violinist Ilona Then-Bergh and pianist Michael Schäfer have recorded Schmitt’s Sonata on the Genuin label, while violinist Beata Halska-Le Monnier and pianist Claudio Chaiquin recorded their interpretation with the NAXOS label, coupled with other music composed by Schmitt for violin and piano.
I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview Miss Halska and Mr. Chaiquin shortly after the release of their NAXOS recording. You can read their insightful remarks about the Sonata plus other works by Florent Schmitt for violin and piano here.
Update (4/15/2019): Violinist Hélène Collerette and pianist Anne Le Bozec have gone into the studios of France-Musique and presented a televised performance of the first movement of the Sonate libre, which can be viewed here, courtesy of DailyMotion. The performanced dovetails the release of a new Radio-France commercial recording of the work in 2018, in a recording that also includes music by Albert Roussel and André Prévost.