Florent Schmitt and the Organ

Schmitt Psaume Salome Debussy KhammaOne of Florent Schmitt’s most famous and popular compositions is his monumental choral work Psaume XLVII, Opus 38.  Composed in 1904, it is one of the most striking choral works of the 20th Century — or of any era in classical music.

Music lovers who know this work know how important the organ is in Schmitt’s Psalm, which also features a soprano solo in addition to the large mixed chorus and large orchestra.

I saw Psalm 47 performed at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC in 2001, where the massive pipe organ in that space filled the hall and shook the rafters. It was truly a sonic “experience.”

On recordings, one can get the same sense of this in the 1973 Jean Martinon/ORTF performance on EMI, which benefits from the powerful pipe organ of the Salle Wagram in Paris. That recording features the legendary Gaston Litaize on the organ, and he does marvelous things with the part.

This highly effective recording has been uploaded to YouTube.

Rarissimes Georges Tzipine Florent Schmitt Albert RousselAnother successful treatment of the organ part in Psaume XLVII is on the 1952 premiere recording of the work, made at the Palais de Chaillot by Georges Tzipine, the Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra.  The equally impressive organ soloist on this recording was Maurice Duruflé, who is perhaps better known as the composer of the Requiem and a number of highly effective solo organ works.

This recording has also been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.

Having composed such an impressive organ part in the Psalm, one might assume that Florent Schmitt would have penned other music for the organ.  However, a look through the composer’s catalogue of 138 opus numbers reveals only a few entries.

Aside from a small cache of unpublished juvenilia written when the composer was between the ages of 14 and 17, there are just two works for solo organ, composed decades apart from one another in 1899 and 1946.

The earlier of the two published works is an organ prelude, which Schmitt titled Prière.  As his Opus 11, the piece was written when the composer was in his late twenties.

It is a meditation — quiet and contemplative — that bears little resemblance to the musical style the composer would adopt just a few short years later.  Listening to the Prière, I hear influences of Schmitt’s teacher and mentor Gabriel Fauré.  But in its plaintive sounds I am also reminded of the organ works of Sigfrid Karg-Elert, the German/English composer who lived from 1877 to 1933.

[Considering that Karg-Elert was Schmitt’s junior by seven years, one could speculate on who may have been influencing whom.]

French Organ Recital Jan KraybillThe Prière received its premiere recording only this year, in a Reference Recordings recital of French organ music by the American organist Jan Kraybill performing on the new Casavant organ at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

Commenting on the music, Ms. Kraybill singles out the prominent string and flute ranks that are notated in the score, which are beautifully rendered on the recording. With the ability to hear this music after a century of silence, Schmitt’s miniature may finally get its due.  In its atmospherics and in its brevity (barely three minutes long), it seems the perfect piece to perform during Communion at a Roman Catholic or Anglican Mass.

Jan Kraybill organist

First recording of Florent Schmitt’s organ prelude Prière, Op. 11: Jan Kraybill.

Nearly 50 years later, Schmitt would pen his only other work for solo organ. Again, it was music for a sacred setting — but quite different in that is a wedding march.

The Marche nuptiale, Opus 108 dates from 1946 and was first performed that same year at the Eglise St-François-Xavier in Paris.  The score was published by Durand in 1951.

From the very opening measures, one realizes that this 10-minute composition is no ordinary wedding march. Fanfares provide a stentorian introduction, which is followed in quick succession by a procession-like passage and boldly rhythmic “episodes” that alternate between melodic, quiet sections and boldly exuberant, almost bombastic phrases … ultimately leading to fanfare flourish at the end of the work.

Florent Schmitt Marche nuptiale

Florent Schmitt’s Marche nuptiale was published by Durand (1951).

Along the way, we are treated to the trademark changing rhythms for which the composer was so notorious, along with thrilling passages and fascinating chord progressions.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most interesting and inventive scores for a wedding march ever composed. It is musically quite meaty, but I can’t imagine any young brides and bridesmaids wishing to attempt to process down the aisle to this music (much as I would love to convince my own daughters to take up the challenge when their big days come)!

Bouquet de France Bernhard LeonardyTo my knowledge, there has been only one recording made of the Marche nuptiale — but it’s a magnificent performance.  Performed by organist Bernhard Leonardy on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St-Sulpice Cathedral in Paris, this 2001 recording also features other unusual organ fare composed by Fernand de la Tombelle, Henri Letocart, Henri Büsser, Max d’Ollone and Eugène Reuchsel.

Beyond these two solo organ pieces, the only other Florent Schmitt compositions that call for organ are two sacred choral pieces from 1952 and 1953 that include ad libitum organ parts (the Laudate Dominum Pueri, Opus 126 and Oremus pro Pontifice, Opus 127), as well as the Five Motets, Opus 60 for male voices and organ composed in 1917.

… Plus one more — the very last piece written by the composer — his Mass, Opus 138 for four-part choir and organ.  It was composed in 1958 in Schmitt’s 88th year, just a few months before his death.

To my knowledge, the Mass has never been commercially recorded, although I once heard an aircheck performance of this music, courtesy of the French National Broadcasting System in North America.

A handful of other pieces originally composed for piano were transcribed for organ by Gaston Choisnel and published by Durand — most notably Après l’été, the fourth number in Schmitt’s set of piano nocturnes Soirs (Opus 5) dating from the 1890s.

In sum, Florent Schmitt may not have composed much music for the organ. But what we do have is interesting, finely crafted material that represents a worthy contribution to the repertoire.


Guillaume Le Dreau organ recital Forgotten RecordsUpdate (12/31/16):   A second commercial recording of Florent Schmitt’s Marche nuptiale has now been released, courtesy of Forgotten Records.  It is part of a 2016 recital of French organ music performed by Guillaume Le Dréau, the principal organist at Rennes Cathedral.

As part of his highly informative CD liner notes, Mr. Le Dréau relates to us that Schmitt created this composition for friends at the time of their wedding.  True to the composer’s reputation for ironic wit, there is an optional “false refrain” in the middle of the piece which is described in a footnote written by Schmitt in the music score as follows:

“If the crowd thins out prematurely and the couple and the celebrants seem impatient, skip from this sign to the same one on Page 8.”

Florent Schmitt Marche nuptiale score detail

Florent Schmitt’s humorous notation in the Marche nuptiale score, directing the organist to skip to the final bars “if the crowd thins out prematurely and the couple and the celebrants seem impatient.”

In addition to Schmitt’s fascinating wedding march, this entire CD consists of a very interesting selection of music that includes organ works by Maurice Emmanuel, Jean Roger-Ducasse and Claude Delvincourt, along with Le Dréau’s own transcriptions of orchestral works by Henri Rabaud (La Procession nocturne) and Gabriel Fauré (the prelude from Pénélope).  The new recording can be purchased at the Forgotten Records website.

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