Hallucinatory Atmospherics: Florent Schmitt’s Rêves (1915)

dream sequence

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.

Leon-Paul Fargue

Léon-Paul Fargue, photographed at about the time he wrote the poem upon which Florent Schmitt’s Rêves is based.

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 rather 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.

Florent Schmitt Reves

An original edition of the full score to Florent Schmitt’s Rêves, a tone picture the composer completed in 1915. Its premiere performance was in 1918 by the Colonne Concerts Orchestra conducted by Camille Chevillard.

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 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 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.  But the first recording of the piece wouldn’t come along until nearly 70 years later.

Florent Schmitt Reves Segerstam Marco Polo

First recording: Leif Segerstam and the Rhineland-Pfalz State Philharmonic (1987).

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.

Florent Schmitt Reves Robertson Monte-Carlo Valois

Second recording: David Robertson and the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic (1993).

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.

Fabien Gabel Berlin Philharmonie

French conductor Fabien Gabel rehearses the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (Berlin RSO) for a December 2016 concert performance of Rêves.

You can hear the Segerstam recording for yourself, as that one has been uploaded to YouTube.  Give it a listen.  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.

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