Brilliance and Sophistication: Florent Schmitt’s Trois Rapsodies for Two Pianos (1903-04)

One of the most satisfying of Florent Schmitt’s extensive trove of music for piano duet and duo – and the one that is my personal favorite of all of them – is Trois Rapsodies, Op. 53, a work he composed in 1903-4.

Made up of three movements titled Française, Polonaise and Viennoise, it is a work that fully engages the senses on first hearing.

Florent Schmitt: Trois rapsodies for two pianos, Op. 53, score

“Nearly every possible kind of ‘poly’ element – polyphonic, polyrhythmic, poly-thematic”: Florent Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies (1903-4).

That’s not unexpected, considering the “immediate appeal” that music of this kind has on listeners; the rhapsodies of Liszt, Dvořák, Enesco, Ravel and Gershwin are also good cases in point.

What is perhaps more surprising is how interesting and inventive these rhapsodies continue to sound on subsequent hearings. As it turns out, this isn’t superficial music at all. Instead, it is meaty material that continues to pay rich dividends every time it’s heard. I’ve known this music for more than 40 years, and it never grows old or “routine.”

As the CD booklet notes for one of the Rapsodies recordings puts it:

“The music is saturated with rich harmonies and textures, offering nearly every possible kind of ‘poly’ element – polyphonic, polyrhythmic, poly-thematic – in a rainbow of colors coated with grace and elegance.”

The Canadian pianist Leslie de’Ath contends that Florent Schmitt’s “mastery of the unexpected” is unsurpassed in this particular composition, writing:

“Schmitt’s cornucopia of delicious musical tricks seems always to be just one step ahead of the listener, while at the same time inviting us to savor each unexpected moment.”

The musicologist and librettist Charles Burr described the pieces as “sophisticated national rhapsodies.” He is correct: each of the movements possesses distinct “national” characteristics – yet they are also thoroughly cosmopolitan.

The French novelist and music critic Benoît Duteurtre senses the inspiration of three composers in the music: Chabrier in Française; Chopin in Polonaise; and Johann Strauss Jr. in Viennoise.  Perhaps — but I wouldn’t consider Schmitt to be aping these other composers in any sort of fashion.

Florent Schmitt Trois rapsodies score

Pages from a vintage score to Florent Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies for two pianos (1903-4), published by Durand.

More broadly, the Armenian-American pianist Andrey Kasparov discerns other aspects as well, describing the movements that make up the Trois rapsodies like this:

“[They] are conceived in the grand Romantic style, with the composer taking full advantage of the multilayered textural and coloristic possibilities of two pianos. Despite the intense contrapuntal writing and, at times, complex harmonic language, the work never loses its Gallic charm, lyricism and humor.”

Les Apaches

Les Apaches, a painting by Georges d’Espagnat (1910). Ricardo Viñes is seated at the piano, Florent Schmitt stands at far left, and Maurice Ravel is at far right, leaning on the piano.

Early performers of the Trois rapsodies included Florent Schmitt’s fellow Apache members Maurice Ravel and Ricardo Viñes, both of whom teamed up with the composer to present the rhapsodies in recital on several occasions in the years leading up to the First World War.

These rhapsodies proved to be quite popular with the later generation of French pianists as well, including the team of Ginette Doyen and Hélène Pignari, as well as Mme. Doyen teaming up with André Collard (performances by both teams were broadcast over French Radio in the 1950s).

More recently, the music has been broadcast by pianists Nathalie Radisse and Jeanne Wolferstaeter (in the 1970s), plus Nadine Desouches and Janine Sassier (in the 1980s).

Gunnare Johansen pianist

Gunnar Johansen (1906-1991). The Danish-born pianist performed Trois rapsodies with Florent Schmitt in San Francisco in 1932. In 1939, Johansen was offered the position of Artist-in-Residence at the University of Wisconsin — the first such post ever offered by an American university. (1935 photo)

In the United States, two of the three rhapsodies (Polonaise and Viennoise) were presented in Boston as early as 1919 by the piano duo team of Alfred de Veto and  William Mason. And in December 1932, Florent Schmitt himself presented Trois rapsodies during his only American tour. In San Francisco he was joined by pianist Gunnar Johansen as the opening number of an all-Schmitt concert that also included the composer performing several solo piano pieces, the first movement from his Sonate libre (joined by violinist Jascha Veissl) and his monumental Piano Quintet. According to a report in the Musical Courier, “The Veteran’s Auditorium was packed to capacity by a representative audience of musicians and music-lovers.”

Several weeks later, Schmitt would perform two of the Rapsodies in a Los Angeles concert of his music — this time joined by Marvine Maazel (a pianist better-known as the father of conductor Lorin Maazel) as the second pianist.  The program, which choral director and arts critic Hal. D. Crain characterized as “overlong” in his review in Musical America‘s January 10, 1933 issue, also included the Piano Quintet with the John Reed Quartet, plus a group of mélodies sung by soprano Cecile Barbezet with the composer at the piano.

Also in 1932, the duo-piano team of Arthur Loesser and Beryl Rubinstein presented the Trois rapsodies in recital at the Singer’s Club in Cleveland, Ohio.

Arthur Loesser Beryl Rubinstein duo-pianists

Pianists Arthur Loesser (1894-1969) and Beryl Rubinstein (1898-1952) were fellow-faculty members at the Cleveland Institute of Music. They played recitals together from the 1920s to the 1940s. This  promotional bulletin announces a 1940 appearance at New York’s Town Hall. Arthur Loesser was the half-brother of Broadway composer Frank Loesser. Amusingly, he would refer to Frank as “the evil of two Loessers.”

Frank Cooper Martin Marks

Frank Cooper (l.) and Martin Marks (r.)

Moving ahead some three decades, after essentially complete silence one of the first to begin performing the complete Trois rapsodies in concert again was the duo-pianist team of Frank Cooper and Martin Marks. Their October 1967 live performance of the music at Butler University’s Clowes Memorial Hall has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.

Florent Schmitt Trois rapsodies Casadesus Columbia

First recording: Robert and Gaby Casadesus for Columbia Masterworks (1956).

Fortunately for us, the music is well-represented on disk these days — although it took decades before the first recording would appear. That premiere recording was made by Columbia Records in 1956 with Robert and Gaby Casadesus – and it would remain the only commercially recorded documentation of this music for nearly 40 years thereafter. In his review of the recording in the August 1958 issue of American Record Guide magazine, keyboard artist Igor Kipnis characterized the Trois Rapsodies and its companion work on the album, Une Semaine du petit-elfe Ferme l’oeil, as “charming pieces full of wit and humor, and they receive the most brilliant performances imaginable. Highly recommended.”

The Casadesus’ full-bodied performance is viscerally very exciting, and I think it’s fair to say that no other recording since has conveyed quite the swagger that this team delivers.

Gaby Casadesus French pianist

This photo of French pianist Gaby Casadesus (1901-1999) was taken at Maurice Ravel’s home Belvédère in Montfort l’Amaury. Along with her pianist husband Robert, Mme. Casadesus left us scintillating recordings of the piano music of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Florent Schmitt, among others.

Florent Schmitt Casadesus Pasquier Fortin-Jammes 1953

Florent Schmitt is pictured with members of the Pasquier Trio and the Casadesus Piano Duo following a concert of his music at the Salle de Caen on February 14, 1953. The all-Schmitt program included the String Trio and Trois rapsodies for two pianos, along with several mélodies. The composer’s newly composed Clarinet Sextet was also premiered by members of the Garde Republicaine wind ensemble. Standing at left in the photo is Mme. Renée Fortin-Jammes, secretary of the Association des Prix de Piano du Conservatoire de Paris. (Photo: Musical Courier, March 15, 1953)

The Casadesus recording is available to hear on YouTube. If you listen past the somewhat scratchy vinyl and the thin bass response (a defect in the transfer, not in the original Columbia recording which is satisfyingly full-bodied), you’ll discover just how effective the Casadesus interpretation is.

Even better, the recording has finally been reissued on CD mere months ago, after being out of the catalogue for decades.

Columbia Records advertisement 1957

This 1957 Columbia Masterworks advertisement appeared in various American music magazines. Among the items featured was the new Casadesus recording of two-piano works by Florent Schmitt.

Florent Schmitt: Trois rapsodies (Sermet + Paik) (Valois)

First stereo recording: Huseyin Sermet and Kun Woo Paik (1992).

In 1992, the first stereo recording of the Trois rapsodies appeared – another highly effective reading by pianists Huseyin Sermet and Kun Woo Paik. Released on the Valois label, this interpretation inhabits a sound-world redolent of the Casadesus performance — but perhaps with a bit more “icy brittleness.”

But you can compare for yourself, thanks to Philippe Louis who has uploaded the Valois performance on one of his worthy YouTube music channels. The same recording has also been uploaded along with the score, for those who wish to investigate the music in greater depth.

The three most recent recordings of the Trois rapsodies – two Canadian and one American – are more broadly expansive in their approach. They are:

Kanazawa-Admony Piano Duo (Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony) – Roméo Records (recorded in 2001)

Invencia Piano Duo (Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn) – NAXOS Grand Piano (recorded in 2010)

Leslie de’Ath and Anya Alexeyev – Dutton Epoch (recorded in 2011)

Having listened to all five of the commercial recordings of the Trois rapsodies, I can confirm that each one has its own merits. All of the performances are polished efforts; whichever interpretation one would consider “the best” is purely a matter of personal preference.

Invencia Piano Duo 10th Anniversary Recital

The Invencia Piano Duo’s Tenth Anniversary recital featured the Trois rapsodies and Rhapsodie parisienne of Florent Schmitt (September 2013).

I have also been fortunate to see this music performed in recital — a terrifically exciting performance by the Invencia Piano Duo done in 2013. From this experience, I know first-hand that the rhapsodies can make quite an impact when heard live. It can be safely assumed that the audience at the recital I attended did not know this music at all before hearing it that evening … and yet the response was electric.

Interestingly, there is another two-pianist rhapsody by Florent Schmitt that exists – an unpublished work composed in 1900. Written in much the same vein as the Trois rapsodies, this other one is called Rhapsodie parisienne.

The score was discovered among the composer’s papers at the Bibliothèque National in Paris when Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn (who make up the Invencia Piano Duo) were doing research as part of their project to record the entire works by Florent Schmitt for piano duet and duo. (Those four CDs were released by NAXOS Grand Piano in 2012 and 2013.)

Thanks to permission granted by Florent Schmitt’s granddaughter, the Rhapsodie Parisienne was able to be recorded.  It appears on the same Invencia Duo CD as the Trois rapsodies, and it proves itself to be every bit as colorful as the other three pieces. An exciting public performance of this rhapsody, played by the Invencia Piano Duo, is also available on YouTube.

Florent Schmitt Rapsodie viennoise

The first of the three rhapsodies orchestrated by Florent Schmitt: Rapsodie viennoise (1911). (Collection Palazzetto Bru Zane)

Schmitt was known to consider the piano to be “a convenient but disappointing substitute for an orchestra” (to quote his own words). So it should come as little surprise that he orchestrated a number of his piano scores for performance in the concert hall. Examples of these works include Soirs, Feuillets de voyage, Mirages, Pupazzi and Reflets d’Allemagne.

Such was the case with the Trois rapsodies also. The first movement to be orchestrated was Rapsodie viennoise, done by Schmitt in 1911. It received its first performance by the Orchestre Lamoureux later that year under the direction of Camille Chevillard (and it was recorded by Albert Wolff with this same orchestra in 1931).

The American release of Albert Wolff’s recording of Florent Schmitt’s Rapsodie viennoise was on the Brunswick label. Upon its release, the January 1932 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review stated, “The Viennese Rhapsody here makes its phonographic debut. It is another instance where the Viennese waltz is laid on the operating table, but the patient pulls through all right with no great disfiguration … The opening measures might lead you to suspect that, after all, it is only Salome disguised as a Kellnerin, but the vision soon disappears when the waltz theme gets underway; incidentally, it is a first-rate tune. The performance is vivicious and you will no doubt find this a most interesting disk.”

Florent Schmitt Rapsodie viennoise Wolff Decca

The postwar UK release of Albert Wolff’s recording of Florent Schmitt’s Rapsodie viennoise, on the Decca label.

Georges Longy conductor

Georges Longy (1868-1930)

Meanwhile, the first North American performance happened in March 1912 in a Boston concert directed by Georges Longy. The following year, the piece was presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski (November 1913). Next up was the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which performed the piece in January 1914 led by that ensemble’s first music director, Emil Oberhoffer.

Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra concert program 1-4-1914

The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra program featuring Florent Schmitt’s Rapsodie viennoise (January 4, 1914). The accompanying program notes state, “The title is the best clue to the character of the composition, except that the word ‘valse’ might appropriately precede the existing title. It is, in fact, a Frenchman’s … conception of the Viennese waltz, embellished and augmented by all the intricacies of modern orchestration and instrumentation.”

Thereafter it was the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, which presented the work in a pair of early February 1918 concerts led by its music director, Alfred Hertz.

San Francisco Symphony concert program 1918

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Florent Schmitt’s Rapsodie viennoise happened in February 1918.

In 1919 and 1920 the New York Philharmonic led by its music director Josef Stránský presented the piece to audiences there.

NYS Stansky Florent Schmitt program

The program for the first New York performance of Florent Schmitt’s Rapsodie viennoise (December 11, 1919).

Nathaniel Shilkret conductor

Nathaniel Shilkret (1889-1982)

The Rapsodie viennoise was even performed over U.S. radio by the General Electric Orchestra under the direction of light-music conductor Nathaniel Shilkret. The program, which also included music of Wolf-Ferrari, Humperdinck, Moszkowski, Glazunov, Massenet, Chabrier and Cyril Scott, was aired nationally on September 28, 1929.

Paul Paray, French orchestra conductor

Paul Paray (1886-1979) premiered more orchestral works of Florent Schmitt than any other conductor. The Trois rapsodies was premiered by Paray in Paris in 1928, several years after this photo was taken.

Schmitt orchestrated the Française and Polonaise rhapsodies as well — about 15 years following Rapsodie viennoise. Those orchestrations were published by Durand, and the full set was premiered by Paul Paray and the Lamoureux Orchestra in 1928.

[According to a report from Andrey Kasparov, when studying the manuscript for the Rhapsodie parisienne he noticed instrument markings made by Schmitt on the score. This leads Kasparov to believe that the composer had intended to orchestrate this work as well.   Why he didn’t – and why the original two-piano version wasn’t published either – remain a mystery.]

Over the years, the Rapsodie viennoise has proved to be the one most often performed in its orchestral garb — being programmed by French conductors such as Jean Martinon and Serge Baudo in the 1950s and 1960s. In one Martinon performance with the Lamoureux Orchestra in 1954, the Le Monde music critic René Dumesnil remarked that the piece ended the concert “like a bouquet of fireworks.”

Florent Schmitt letter Rapsodie viennoise Lyon Conservatory

A letter written by Florent Schmitt during the time he was director of the music conservatory in Lyon (early 1920s). In it, he speaks about the orchestrated version of Rapsodie viennoise (1911), describing its musical form and thematic material.

Timpani Records Complete Albert Wolff recordings with Orchestre Lamoureux

Only orchestral recording (so far): Rapsodie viennoise, with Albert Wolff and l’Orchestre Lamoureux (1931).

But unlike the relatively robust recorded history of the piano version of the Rapsodies, no complete recording of the orchestral version has ever been made. The 1931 Rapsodie viennoise recording is still available today, contained in a large 4-CD set released by Timpani Records that includes all of Albert Wolff’s recordings made with the Lamoureux Orchestra.

Forgotten Records d'Indy Schmitt Roussel WolffFor those who do not wish to invest in a big set such as this, the 1931 Wolff performance has also been issued by Forgotten Records in a single-CD format, along with works by Vincent d’Indy and Albert Roussel.  That CD is available for purchase online and can be ordered here.

Unfortunately both the interpretation and the sound quality of the 1931 Rapsodie viennoise recording are disappointing; the orchestra sounds lumpy and sluggish, and the sound is thin and boxy. It is nice to have it for historical reference – but that’s about all.

Serge Baudo French conductor

Serge Baudo

An alternative to the Wolff/Lamoureux recording exists in the form of a 1964 concert performance done by Serge Baudo with the ORTF Orchestra and broadcast over French National Radio.  Although not much better in terms of sonics, it is a far more vivacious and engaging interpretation.  The Baudo performance has been uploaded in combination with the score, which you can “see and hear” courtesy of Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst’s YouTube music channel:

Florent Schmitt Trois rapsodies orchestral score

Florent Schmitt completed his orchestration of all three rhapsodies in the 1920s. Curiously, when Durand published the orchestral score the sequence of the movements had been changed, with Rapsodie viennoise now appearing first rather than last. (Collection Palazzetto Bru Zane)

Despite their sonic shortcomings, listening to these orchestral performances makes it clear that this music is well-worthy of resurrection in the modern era. Having paged through the instrumental score, I can report that all of the trademark aspects of Schmitt’s compositional style are present – most particularly the beguiling and highly colorful orchestration in the grandest Rimsky-Korsakov tradition.

Florent Schmitt Rapsodie viennoise score

A vintage copy of the instrumental parts for Florent Schmitt’s orchestrated version of Rapsodie viennoise, which the composer prepared in 1911.

Of the three rhapsodies, Viennoise is the one that gets an occasional airing in concert these days.  It was performed by the late conductor Gianfranco Masini and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Montpellier in July 1991 — a performance which the newspaper Le Monde characterized as follows:

[The piece] begins a bit in the Russian way — Mussorgsky genre — then follows with splendid Viennese waltzes à la Johann Strauss which also resonate with the polyphonic complexity of Richard Strauss, and ends with an astonishing prefiguration of Ravel’s La Valse … This virtuoso, opulent piece puts the musicians of an orchestra to the test — a test that the Montpellier players dispatched with their heads held high.”

Maurice Ravel, French composer

Let’s take a trip back in time to the early 1900s. Florent Schmitt composes Rapsodie viennoise for two pianos in 1903-4 … Schmitt and Maurice Ravel perform duo-pianist works together in concert in Paris (and in London). Ravel begins his sketches for Wien (La Valse) in 1905 … Schmitt orchestrates Rapsodie viennoise in 1911 … Ravel completes La Valse in 192o. Welcome to Paris, where everyone is influencing (and being influenced by) everyone else.

Most recently, Jacques Lacombe and the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse performed the Viennoise as part of their 2020 New Year’s Concert program. Moreover, several other conductors I know have considered programming Rapsodie viennoise, but that continues to leave the other two rhapsodies as the odd ones out. Here’s hoping that several of Schmitt’s more ardent advocates will redress this situation in the coming years – perhaps conductors Yan-Pascal Tortelier, Alain Altinoglu, JoAnn Falletta, Sascha Goetzel, Fabien Gabel, Jean-Luc TingaudLionel Bringuier or Stéphane Denève will step up to the podium and make the premiere recording. Who’s game for it?


The Sony complete Columbia Album Collection CasadesusUpdate (3/5/19):  The Casadesus duo’s premiere recording of Florent Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies has finally been released in CD format featuring a remastering from the 1956 session tapes.

It is part of a collector’s edition set of 65 CDs released by Sony that encompasses all of Robert Casadesus’ recordings for Columbia Masterworks, as well as his Columbia recordings of duo- and triple-pianist works with wife Gaby and son Jean.

The Sony set features original jacket artwork, including the LP release of the Schmitt material (see above) that also contains the piano four-hand suite Une Semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil.  The set is well-worth acquiring.

2 thoughts on “Brilliance and Sophistication: Florent Schmitt’s Trois Rapsodies for Two Pianos (1903-04)

  1. Pingback: Forgotten Records: Resurrecting noteworthy recordings of Florent Schmitt’s music from the LP era. | Florent Schmitt

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