In his later career, the French composer Florent Schmitt would devote more of his energies to composing works for chamber wind ensemble. Among those works are his quartets for saxophones, flutes, trombones and tuba, and a sextet for clarinets.
But Schmitt also composed two highly engaging chamber pieces for diverse winds: A Tour d’anches, Opus 97 dating from 1939-43, and Chants alizés, Opus 125, composed in the early 1950s.
In focusing on chamber wind groups, Schmitt was following the same path as several other French composers — Jacques Ibert, Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc and Jean Françaix among them — who saw the potential for writing scores that exploited the interesting and contrasting sonorities of various wind instruments.
A Tour d’anches (translated into English, it means “Reeds in Turn”) is scored for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano.
The French music critic Pierre Barbier contends that the piece is a tribute to the 18th century spirit of Rameau, brought forward into the 20th century in the same manner as Maurice Ravel did with his Le Tombeau de Couperin.
Indeed, they’re described by the musicologist Caroline Wright as “chasing each other through the texture until disappearing into the distance.”
The second movement is in a waltz tempo. But this is no ordinary waltz, as it’s punctuated by unpredictable rhythms. Begun by the clarinet declaiming a sentimental melody reminiscent of Emmanuel Chabrier or Erik Satie — or Ibert of the Divertissement — the other instruments soon join in.
The discourse becomes ever more animated, leading to an abrupt finish. It’s a waltz, certainly … but the whole enterprise seems a bit “off.”
The third movement is the centerpiece of the suite — a fervent nocturne and sarabande remindful not only of Claude Debussy but also of Schmitt’s mentor, Gabriel Fauré. The movement opens with an oboe solo that then becomes interwoven with the other wind instruments. Florid piano writing helps bring the movement to a powerful climax before subsiding into quietude. The emotional arc of this movement, which is as lengthy as the entire rest of the suite, is powerfully effective.
The finale returns to the spirit and humor of the first two movements. In this case, it’s a musical portrait of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. One can clearly picture Victor Hugo’s character as he moves purposefully among the bells in the cathedral’s tower. It’s all over in under two minutes.
A Tour d’anches was composed by Schmitt over a four year-period from 1939 to 1943. The score was dedicated to the French bassoonist, teacher and conductor Fernand Oubradous, who was among the players who premiered the piece in Paris in 1947. Thereafter it was taken up by a number of other ensembles, such as the André Dupont Trio with pianist Henriette Puig-Roget in a 1948 performance that was broadcast over Radio-France. In 1955, a different French Radio broadcast performance featured the Daraux Trio with Claudie Martinet at the piano.
Oboist René Daraux led another stellar group of performers in a 1962 French Radio broadcast that also featured Fernand Gossens on clarinet, Ange Maugendre on bassoon, and Henriette Puig-Roget returning to play the piano part.
Performances outside of France have picked up as the decades have rolled along. The work was still a renuine rarity when it was presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in April 1982.
The musicans for that performance were a stellar cast including Gervase de Peyer on clarinet, oboist Leonard Arner, bassoonist Loren Glickman, and Charles Wadsworth at the piano. In his report on the concert for the New York Times, author and music critic Theodore W. Libbey, Jr. remarked:
“Played with éclat … the Schmitt work … proved a charming diversion in the manner of Poulenc or Ibert, though stylistically distinct from both.”
In 1954 the composer produced an alternative version of the piece scored for strings and piano. Although that version is far less well-known and likely still awaits its first-ever performance in North America, the score is available from Durand.
We are fortunate in that A Tour d’anches in its original form has received a fair number of fine recordings over the years. Among my personal favorites is one by members of the Prague Wind Quintet, recorded in 2000 on the Praga label.
Another fine rendition, more recently recorded, is by the Berlin Solisten-Ensemble, recorded in 2008 by NAXOS.
The four movements of the suite have also been uploaded to YouTube, taken from the Berlin Solisten-Ensemble recording:
And the most recent upload to YouTube is a very fine public performance by the Lubelskie Trio, joined by pianist Waldemar Mazur, which has been uploaded to YouTube accompanied by the score, courtesy of George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos’ very worthy music channel.
To my mind, this is a score that brings forth the diverse sounds of these wind instruments in a wonderfully winsome way. Give it a listen; see if you don’t agree.