Sprinkled throughout the catalogue of Florent Schmitt’s compositions are a goodly number of shorter orchestral pieces. They range in their moods from contemplative to joyous to stormy.
One of these orchestral miniatures that I find particularly compelling is Rêves, Op. 65 (Dreams), a work that Schmitt began composing in 1913. He prepared a piano version of the score in that year, and the orchestration was completed two years later.
The composer had just finished putting the final touches on the score when he was called up for World War I military service. It was a period of time in Schmitt’s life that he would later characterize, in a letter to fellow composer Igor Stravinsky, as “two less-than-amusing years of militarism.”
Rêves is a short work, lasting under ten minutes in duration. But despite its brevity, it is a concentrated, intense piece even in its quietest moments. Indeed, the reveries in this music are not “sweet dreams” at all. Rather, it’s more like a fitful, hallucinatory experience for the listener.
It helps for understanding to know that Schmitt took a poem written by the French symbolist poet Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947) as inspiration for this work.
Fargue and Schmitt were fellow members of Les Apaches, a group of Parisian musicians, artists and writers that was a precursor to Les Six. Fargue’s verses would serve as inspiration for other Schmitt compositions as well, such as the “Solitude” movement from the composer’s piano suite Crépuscules.
Fargue’s words that head the music score translate into English roughly as follows:
“Watch our days and our dreams passing;
Old accomplices show them to us, as we look at these pictures.
They distinguish the nocturnal screen;
They come forward with the suspended steps of those who love us, when mystery chimes on the threshold of feverish nights.”
I think that the essayist and music critic Benoît Duteurtre puts it well when he describes how the music in Rêves unfolds “like a free commentary.”
Schmitt scored the work for his customary large orchestra, including full winds and brass, an entire battery of percussion instruments, plus celesta and two harps.
As in a feverish dream, the music swells and abates in successive waves — and is often quiet rather than loud. The writing is dense in texture — and very rich in its changing sound colors.
In its near-suffocating mood and intensity, I find that Rêves shares similarities with Schmitt’s very next opus number, the Légende, Op. 66 for saxophone (or viola) and orchestra. That work was completed in 1919, and if you compare the two pieces of music, I think you’ll hear the same kind of intense, unsettled atmospherics.
Is it possible that World War I, and Schmitt’s experiences in it, informed the nature of these two works? There are no explicit indications to that effect. Moreover, Rêves was completed before Schmitt’s military service started (although the war had been going on for some months by then). And the Légende would not be composed until after the end of the war.
Still, it’s hard not to think that wartime circumstances contributed in some manner to the general flavor of both compositions. Certainly, any “resolution” that we may hear at the end of either piece doesn’t come across as anything particularly definitive or cathartic.
Rêves received its first performance in November 1918 in Paris, in a combined Lamoureux/Colonne Orchestra concert under the direction of Camille Chevillard. The Paris correspondent for the British publication The Musical Times was in the audience and filed these observations about the composer and the piece:
“M. Florent Schmitt is not a very young man, being now about forty-five. Thus it will be admitted that he has certain claims to distinction of technique. But [he] is a very broadminded man, and full of sympathy for the most recent musical expression. Moreover, like all truly great artists he is eager always to renew his musical vitality. He is far from being satisfied with reperforming his old musical triumphs, and his new departures have occasionally not met with the full approval of the Junkers of the art.
His last work — Dreams — was hissed by the reactionary section of the audience, while the new blood and ardent spirits were just as vigorously applauding it. As a matter of fact, this work of M. Schmitt’s is extremely interesting. He has employed the wind instruments in an entirely new manner, giving to them almost the most important part of the score, [thereby] creating an atmosphere of profundity and grandeur in so short a work.”
In the United States, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented Rêves in December 1924, under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky. But for a composition whose premiere performance happened as far back as 1918, the first recording of the piece wouldn’t come along until nearly 70 years later.
To my knowledge, there have been just two commercial recordings ever released of Rêves. The first one, made in 1987 by Leif Segerstam and Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra, originally appeared on Cybelia, a short-lived French record label with only limited distribution in the United States.
That performance was later reissued by NAXOS/Marco Polo, and it remains available today.
The second recording was made in 1993 by David Robertson and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, and was released on the Valois label.
Compared to the Segerstam interpretation, Robertson’s is a more broadly expansive reading — adding a full minute to the recording time. I find that both interpretations serve the music quite well, even if my own personal preference goes to the slightly more taut Segerstam approach.
You can hear the Segerstam recording for yourself, as that one has been uploaded to YouTube. Give it a listen. Better yet, you can follow along with the score in this upload of the Robertson recording.
See if you don’t agree that Schmitt has conjured up a highly effective hallucinatory dream-sequence — one that contains a healthy dose of ominous foreboding to go along with the magical atmosphere.
Update (1/28/18): Florent Schmitt’s Rêves has found a new champion in French conductor Fabien Gabel, who became acquainted with the score several years ago. He performed it first with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (Berlin RSO) in December 2016. Maestro Gabel was interviewed in the days leading up to that concert about how he discovered the score and the impact the music had on him; those remarks are presented in this article.
In 2018, the conductor brought the piece to the United States, leading the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in several performances in late January. It was the first time the score had been presented in America in many decades.
I was privileged to attend one of the Milwaukee concerts. It was a rare opportunity to see and hear this fascinating score in the immediacy of the concert hall — and an unforgettable experience it was.
Update (6/1/22): Fabien Gabel continues to champion Rêves around the world. He has now performed the piece in four countries on three continents — including his most recent performance with the Orchestre National de France at Maison de la Radio in Paris, a concert I was privileged to attend on May 12, 2022. I found that this particular Rêves performance benefited from the fact that the conductor has now “lived with” the music for nearly five years — and with each subsequent performance his interpretation gains from fresh insights into the score.
The ONF performance is noteworthy in another respect as well: It was filmed by France-Télévision — the first video documentation ever for this composition — and that video has now been released and can be viewed here. Having the opportunity to “see as well as hear” the music being made adds even more to being enveloped in the extraordinary landscape of Schmitt’s Rêves.