“In the 20th century, France was unusually blessed with composers who can be called ‘great’ without question or compromise. It’s arguable that they could be listed with a certain linearity. Debussy, Schmitt, Ravel, Messiaen, Dutilleux; when I think of their music it seems clear to me that they were listening to each other, and those who came before.”
— John McLaughlin Williams, American Violinist & Conductor
One of the most interesting violin sonatas in the repertoire is Florent Schmitt’s Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées, Op. 68, which was composed in 1918-19. It was considered pathfinding in its day, and it remains strikingly original nearly a century after its composition.
As of today, there have been just three commercial recordings made of the Sonate libre — the latest one released mere months ago. But this music has intrigued violinists over the years.
One musician who was taken by this work is the Grammy®-winning violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams. No doubt, he is one of the few Americans who has studied and performed this music in recital. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Williams to share his perspectives on the sonata and its significance in the violin repertoire. His insights, presented below, are quite revealing.
PLN: Tell me how you came to know the music of Florent Schmitt, and the Sonate libre in particular?
JMW: Florent Schmitt’s music was introduced to me by Bradley Pfaller, a New York City-based pianist. Brad was very knowledgeable about the repertoire of lesser-known composers like Schmitt, Joseph Jongen and Egon Kornauth. Often, he would assemble like-minded musicians to read and play through unusual works. One of the works we read together was Schmitt’s 1908 Piano Quintet — and I found it to be an amazing piece of music.
As is always the case for me when discovering a new composer, I then sought to hear everything I could that had been written by Schmitt. This being the days before CD recordings were in general circulation, there wasn’t very much available. I did obtain the classic Jean Martinon recordings of La Tragédie de Salomé and Psalm 47 along with some Cybelia LPs, but I could find no recording of Sonate libre.
However, the score to the sonata was easily obtainable. Perusing it convinced me that Schmitt had another great work in his canon.
PLN: How would you characterize the music in the Sonate libre? What is it about the score that you find particularly interesting or inventive?
JMW: Schmitt’s mature style is newly in evidence in the Sonate libre — and by this I mean his individual blend of what some might consider certain tropes of Impressionism (parallel 7th and 9th chords, quartal voicings, etc.) alongside unabashed techniques of modernism (pointillism, expressionism, unusual scales, implications of chaos), and an unusually free approach to rhythm.
These seemingly disparate characteristics are unified by clear and memorable motives which, while not being employed in the strict developmental manner of the Austro-German composers, nevertheless have the result of being developmental in Schmitt’s own idiosyncratic and ingenious way.
Overall, it is a marvelous work — and certainly one of the greatest of 20th century violin sonatas. It is also extraordinarily difficult. But interestingly, it is not the straightforward execution of the notes that is most challenging; it’s the rhythmic aspect.
The work has an improvisatory feel despite its being ruled by several easily discernible motives. The pianist must be virtuosic, of course, but he must also be exceedingly musical, because this is first and foremost music of serious intent.
For the violin, the biggest challenge is sostenuto. Though it must unleash torrents of notes from time to time, it is the bedrock legato that makes or breaks the piece.
PLN: Do you hear influences of other composers or particular musical styles in the Sonate libre?
JMW: Certain influences are clear. Florent Schmitt is a French composer, and when his body of work is viewed from the beginning to the end of his career, one can observe steady development from unusual phrase structures and harmonies that can be traced to Gabriel Fauré, through incorporation of “Ravelian” impressionist elements in the handful of Schmitt’s first mature works.
And subsequently, his embrace of modernism in disjunct rhythms, and harmonies not based on triadic concepts — all of which gives his music an originality not bound to any “school.”
There is also the matter of humoristic elements in the music, which he evidenced throughout his life. One is tempted to say that Schmitt knew his Chabrier!
PLN: Considering the date of its completion (1919), do you view the Sonate libre as forward-looking or pacesetting in certain ways?
JMW: The Sonate libre is unusual in its form. Schmitt called it a sonata — and indeed there are aspects of traditional sonata form in the first movement, such as the initial thematic statement (there is an introduction) and a clear recapitulation.
But there are also significant departures: There is no clearly stated second theme or delineated development — Schmitt choosing instead to follow the implications of his chosen motives, and in that way creating a non-traditional development. There is also an epilogue.
The second movement is a broad scherzo-with-trio, and this is another interesting (and modern) feature.
The sonata itself is comprised of two movements of approximately equal length, rather than the customary three or four movements of contrasted tempi and forms. Not only are the two movements of equal length, they share material. But this material is never treated the same way twice — and that lack of repetition is another modern feature.
The pointillism of the scherzo, the literal splashing of color (akin to the brush technique of a Jackson Pollock painting), and the harmonic permutations of octatonic scales are indicative of a disjunct and disparate sound-world — one that is clearly forward-looking for its time.
Finally, the work’s full title gives some clue to its content and procedures: Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées (free sonata in two linked parts). There is a subtitle: ad modem clementis aquæ (in the way of peaceful water).
Indeed, the flow of the sonata is super smooth despite its sometimes violent content. And yet there seems to be an inevitability about it all that suggests the elemental nature of water.
Along those lines is a notable episode found in the second movement’s trio section: It is the most evocative suggestion of the surface of water that I’ve ever heard.
All in all, the Sonate libre shows that despite Schmitt being a French composer, his writing shows a number of very “un-French” characteristics that mark him as a highly individualistic and “modern” composer as well.
PLN: Where have you performed the Sonate libre?
JMW: I had the opportunity to perform the Sonate libre twice in 1995 with David Riley, who was a wonderful collaborator as pianist. The performances were held in Kulas Hall at The Cleveland Institute of Music, and on both occasions the audience responded enthusiastically.
I believe they knew they had heard and witnessed something quite special.
PLN: Besides the Sonate libre, are there other pieces of Schmitt that you have studied or performed?
JMW: I have perused many other scores of Schmitt, but I haven’t had the opportunity to perform any of them. At present, I am largely involved in conducting — and performing Schmitt requires a truly virtuosic orchestra. There is no easy Schmitt!
PLN: As a violinist, you have performed a varied and interesting repertoire over the years, including works by composers like York Bowen, Sir Arnold Bax, Joseph Jongen, William Grant Still and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. How have you discovered these works — and is there a “strategy” behind what you choose to perform?
JMW: These composers were revealed to me at different points in my studies and in my career. Realizing what “found treasures” they are became the inspiration for a performance “strategy”: I simply decided that there is too much that is great to repeat that which has been endlessly repeated — no matter how great such music may be.
There is so much more in the world of classical music that is great. The concept of a “standard repertoire” is an ossified notion that does little good for audiences and performers alike. I believe that promotion of such a concept actually does harm, in that it teaches audiences to limit their expectations.
The situation isn’t helped when teachers insist on limiting their students’ repertoire to what is considered “standard” — in many cases stunting their natural curiosity. I was fortunate to have had teachers who allowed me to follow my proclivities (not that they could have stopped me!).
For all of these reasons, I continue to insist that on any program I do, there will be something that is (still unfortunately) considered unusual. My goal is to make the unusual “usual”!
PLN: You have had an interesting career as a composer and conductor, plus a performer on the violin and piano. What major musical activities are you involved in right now?
JMW: Years after I “officially” stopped being a full-time violinist, I have made my first violin solo recording. It contains the complete violin sonatas (plus smaller pieces) of Karl Weigl, a composer who lived from 1881 to 1949. A protégé of Mahler and a fine composer in his own right, Weigl’s legacy was nearly destroyed by the National Socialists.
There is also a Vittorio Giannini orchestral project in the offing.
PLN: Do you have future plans to perform the Sonate libre or any other music by Florent Schmitt?
JMW: Sadly, there are no concrete plans right now. While I wish I could report specific plans and a firm date to perform the sonata or other Schmitt works, what I can say is that his music is constantly with me, and I remain alert to any opportunities to program it. In fact, I hope I’ll have some additional news to share about that in the near future.
Fortunately for us, we can hear John McLaughlin Williams’ and David Riley’s performance of Schmitt’s Sonate libre via this YouTube link. To my ears, the interpretation is every bit as effective as any of the three commercial recordings ever made of this strikingly original work — particularly in its “immediacy” as a live performance.
Here’s hoping Mr. Williams will be able to return to the recital hall soon to perform this piece or other Florent Schmitt works.
Update (8/18/22): It’s just been announced that John McLaughlin Williams will be performing Florent Schmitt’s Sonate libre in recital once again. This time he will be performing it with pianist Matthew Bengtson, in a program that will also include music of Joseph Marx and Cyril Scott.
The event is part of the Steinway Saturday Classics recital series and is scheduled to be held on October 23, 2022 at the Piano Gallery of Detroit.