Winsome Winds: Florent Schmitt’s Clarinet Sextet (1953)

clarinetsWhile he may be far better known for his lush orchestral scores, French composer Florent Schmitt also explored the emotional range of solo instrumental and chamber ensembles.

In addition to a vast trove of music written for solo and duo-pianists, much of which was composed relatively early in his career, in later years Schmitt would turn his attention to woodwind and brass instruments.

Among the fruits of those endeavors were the quartet for four saxophones (1941), a quartet for four flutes (1944), a quartet for three trombones and tuba (1946) … and a sextet for six clarinets (or five clarinets and double bass).

Florent Schmitt (1953 photo)

Florent Schmitt (c.), photographed in 1953 at the time he composed the Clarinet Sextet. Also pictured is the composer Louis Aubert (l.) and the photographer Boris Lipnitzki (r.).

The Clarinet Sextet, Op. 128 is one of Schmitt’s late-career creations, written in 1953 when the composer was 83 years old.  It was composed for the Sextuor de Clarinettes de Paris (also known as the Sextuor de Clarinettes de la Garde Républicaine) and its six members:  Georges Delville, Jean Dubois, Albert Gilot, Jean Lixi, Gustave Plaquet and Gaston Urbain.

These performers premiered the work on February 14, 1953 at the Salle de Caen. In the years since, it is acknowledged as a significant work in the repertoire for clarinet ensembles; indeed, there have been only a few works written expressly for this combination of instruments.

Schmitt’s score calls for the use of all instruments within the clarinet family:

  • E-flat clarinet
  • Two B flat or A clarinets
  • Basset horn
  • Bass clarinet
  • Double bass clarinet (interchangeable with a string bass)

The four movements of the 10-minute work are based on classic forms. But each of the movements is characterized by ever-changing rhythms (a Schmitt trademark) as well as an inventive exploration of the various timbres and sonorous effects possible when writing for such a combination of instruments.

The result is a highly original piece, characterized by the bold utilization of rhythm and sometimes-dissonant harmonies — though still remaining firmly within the realm of tonality.

The four movements — none of which exceeds four minutes in length — are as follows:

I.  Assez vite: A sonata-like movement consisting of an exposition, development and recapitulation. As the clarinets engage in dialog with one another, the music exhibits a masterful counterpoint along with showcasing the contrasting sonorities of the various instruments.

II.  Animé: A “divertissement in miniature” — chirpy, lively and amusing, yet also with tenderness and finesse in places.  It’s here and gone in under 90 seconds.

III. Très calme: Yet another one of the composer’s slow movements that reflect the spirit of Schmitt’s teacher and mentor, Gabriel Fauré.  Opening with a quiet hymn-like fervor, the six voices join in tremulously.  At nearly four minutes in length, it is the most extensive movement of the Sextet.

IV.  Animé final: The last movement is a sprightly dance in 5/8 time — suggestive of a Bacchanal, with the instruments tightly wound together. The theme eventually disappears and a coda leads to a wild flourish to end the work.

Whenever I listen to the Clarinet Sextet, I am always struck by the colorful and exotic sonorities that Schmitt is able to extract from the instruments. In places, it sounds as lush as any orchestral composition; clearly, Schmitt knew his woodwinds!

Sextuor de Clarinettes de Paris Schmitt Sextet

First recording: Sextuor de Clarinettes de Paris (1953).

Unfortunately, the Clarinet Sextet is not well-represented in recordings.  The Sextuor de Clarinettes de Paris made the first recording of the music in the mid-1950s, released by London Records in the United States as one of several 10″ “LP recordings devoted to French classical music composed for clarinet and saxophone ensembles (and referred to collectively as the “Selmer Collection”).

Long out-of-print, that recording is regarded as “definitive” by many clarinet aficionados.  It commanded stratospheric prices on the used record market until a CD reissue was finally released a few years back.

Among several recent recordings, there is a very good performance of the Sextet, released in 2002 on the German label ARTS MUSIC.  That performance features five fine young clarinetists:  Thilo Fahrner, Kiyo Hayakawa, Julia Hutfless, Heiko Hinz and Johannes Pieper, along with string bass player Jochen Bardong who performs in lieu of the double bass clarinet.

Clarinet XX Schmitt Sextet ARTS MUSIC

Winsome winds: A 2002 recording of 20th century clarinet works including Florent Schmitt’s Sextet.

The ARTS MUSIC recording also features original works for clarinet or clarinet ensemble by Alban Berg, Edison Denissov, Béla Kovács, Bohuslav Martinu, Olivier Messiaen and Francis Poulenc.

As Dieter Klöcker, producer of the ARTS MUSIC recording, has stated:

“The output of compositions [for the clarinet] experienced a ‘boom’ around the turn of the 19th century. Since then, the number of works for clarinet gradually decreased.  In the 20th century, not many composers can be found, but the high quality of the pieces indicates that the fascination of this instrument to composers remains unbroken.”

Clearly, Florent Schmitt belongs in that company of composers who have produced memorable works that successfully and beautifully exploit the wide-ranging sonorities of the clarinet.

2 thoughts on “Winsome Winds: Florent Schmitt’s Clarinet Sextet (1953)

  1. The “Clarinet XX” recording can be heard on Spotify. Type “Clarinet XX. Vol. 2” into the search field. The Schmitt work comprises the final four tracks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s