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).
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.
Writing in the September 1986 issue of Notes, a publication of the Music Library Association, the American composer Jerome Rosen characterized Florent Schmitt’s Clarinet Sextet as follows:
“The tempos are flexible, with frequent accelerandos and ritardandos, [and] occasional extended sections in secondary tempos. Part-writing is florid and the harmonic language is chromatic. Schmitt keeps everything under firm control, so that what might have been an effusive Romantic outpouring is in fact direct, fairly short, and formally clear.
The texture, however busy, is always transparent; every detail comes through. So do the subtle contrasts of timbre among the various clarinets — an effect not easily achieved since clarinet ensembles, especially large ones, can sound thick and dull if not handled correctly. The rhythms are bouncy; even the slow movement flows lightly over an upbeat pulse.
This, then, is first-rate writing for clarinets. It calls for expert ensemble playing as well as virtuoso mastery of each instrument. These are challenges worth meeting, given the quality of the music.”
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!
Performances of the Sextet are fewer than one might expect, considering the paucity of repertoire written for six clarinet players. The Leblanc Clarinet Sextet is one ensemble that presented the music regularly in France during the 1970s and 1980s, including a 1981 performance that was broadcast over French National Radio.
Unfortunately, the Clarinet Sextet isn’t well-represented on recordings, either. The Sextuor de Clarinettes de Paris made the first recording of the music in the mid-1950s, released in England by Decca Records (London Records in the United States) as one of several 10-inch LP recordings devoted to French classical music composed for clarinet and saxophone ensembles (and referred to collectively as the “Selmer Collection”).
In its February 1955 review of the recording, U.K.-based Gramophone magazine stated:
“The sextet is directed by Armand Birnbaum, who has certainly achieved from his individually brilliant players an ensemble of outstanding quality. And both of the works recorded are eminently listenable — Florent Schmitt writing at the age of 82 a sextet of astonishing vivacity, and Raymond Loucheur, undaunted by a long official career in French musical education, writing a family suite that quite humanly characterizes Papa, Mamam, Philibert and Sylvie.”
Long out-of-print, the Decca/Longon recording was regarded as “definitive” by many clarinet aficionados — and for that reason commanded stratospheric prices in the used record market until a CD reissue was finally released a few years back.
Among several more recent recordings, another Paris-based clarinet sextet was founded in the 1970s and remains active up the present day. The Sextuor de clarinettes français has kept Florent Schmitt’s Sextet in its repertoire for decades and made a recording of the piece in 1992, released on the REM label. It is a highly idiomatic performance.
There is also 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.
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.”
The ARTS recording has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.
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.
Update (3/16/21): History has come full circle in that a new crop of clarinetists of the Garde Republicaine have just performed Florent Schmitt’s Clarinet Sextet, nearly 70 years following the premiere of the piece by the original six Garde Republicaine musicians.
Doing the honors in 2021 are the following players:
- Thierry Vaysse, E-flat clarinet
- Alice Caubit and Cindy Descamps, B-flat clarinets
- Claire Vergnory, basset horn
- Martin Vaysse, bass clarinet
- Masako Miyako, contra-bass clarinet
What’s more, the first movement from the 2021 live performance has been uploaded to YouTube and can be viewed here. Everyone — most especially the E-flat clarinetist — appears to be having a grand time playing this winsome composition.