Spirit of the Dance: Florent Schmitt’s Suite sans esprit de suite (1937-38)

Florent Schmitt French composer 1937 photo

Florent Schmitt, photographed outside his home in 1937, the year he composed the Suite sans esprit de suite. ©Boris Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet

In the last two decades of his long life and extensive musical career, the composer Florent Schmitt would devote much of his energies to creating instrumental music and pieces for voice and choir.

Indeed, by and large Schmitt’s later-career output eschewed the full orchestra — with a number of notable exceptions, among them the Introït, récit et congé for cello and orchestra (1949) and the Symphony No. 2, Schmitt’s penultimate composition, dating from 1957.

In addition, there are also a number of orchestral suites from this period.  One, Scènes de la vie moyenne (1950) has yet to receive its first recording.

Another is the Suite sans esprit de suite, Op. 89.  Written for piano and orchestrated by the composer immediately thereafter, this work received its orchestral premiere in January 1938 by the Colonne Concerts Orchestra in Paris.

Paul Paray, French Conductor

Conductor of the premiere performance: Paul Paray, who led more world premieres of Florent Schmitt’s orchestral works than any other conductor.

Both of these suites were fortunate to have their premieres entrusted to the capable hands of Paul Paray (1886-1979), the celebrated French director who premiered more of Florent Schmitt’s orchestral works than any other conductor.

The Suite sans esprit de suite had an interesting genesis in that the piece was originally prepared by Schmitt as his submission to an “omnibus” project conceived by the pianist Marguerite Long and music publisher Raymond Deiss — a collection of piano pieces by eight Parisian composers on the theme of the Paris Exposition of 1937.

But Schmitt’s entry was far larger in scope than what had been envisioned by Long and Deiss, whereupon the composer was prevailed upon to withdraw his submission in favor of a much shorter standalone piece by the name of La Retardée. (You can read more about the Deiss project here.)

The Suite sans esprit de suite carries one of Schmitt’s humorous titles that also connotes a double meaning — in this case, the idea that the movements lack coherence to one another.

As the musicologist and author Nicolas Southon has pointed out, the music’s title is nearly impossible to translate.  “Schmitt is playing with the ambiguity of the meaning of the word ‘suite’.  Of course, the first reference is to a musical suite as it has existed since the Baroque era.”

Southon continues, “The second reference — ‘esprit de suite’ — is an idiomatic expression in the French language, meaning something akin to ‘striving for consistency.’  So what Schmitt is telling us, using word play, is that his suite isn’t consistent with the way people commonly think of a musical suite’s characteristics.  It’s also very typical of the play on words we find in the titles of some of Schmitt’s compositions.”

However one chooses to translate the title, the piece is an engaging work that can be enjoyed on many levels.  And in my view, the movements do share a common trait:  each is suggestive of different dance styles, and the spirit of the dance imbues the entire composition.

Florent Schmitt Suite sans esprit de suite

Spirit of the Dance: Florent Schmitt’s Suite sans esprit de suite, composed in 1937.

In the evocative names of the five movements of the Suite, one can clearly sense the composer hearkening back to the earlier days of his great travels.  (Actually, Schmitt would continue to travel the world in the remaining two decades of his life; the musicologist Dr. Jerry Rife has noted that Schmitt’s final passport, issued in 1956 two years before the composer’s death, contains more than 40 visa stamps!)

Florent Schmitt Suite sans esprit de suite Thierry Fischer Hyperion

Hyperion’s recording, featuring Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The five movements of the Suite are as follows:

  • Majeza
  • Charmilles (Bowers)
  • Pécorée de Calabre (Calabrian Peasant Girl)
  • Thrène (Threnody)
  • Bronx

… in which we can recognize regions of Spain, France, Southern Italy, Greece, and the New World.

In fact, Schmitt had traveled to each of these places.

Majeza opens the suite in showy fashion as a kind of curtain-raiser.  The title refers to a dance style popular in aristocratic circles in 18th Century Madrid … but music critic Frédéric Decaunes has written that it is also remindful of a bossa nova.  It’s an interesting observation considering that in 1938, the bossa nova was still two decades away from breaking out beyond the borders of Brazil. At the top of this movement, the score includes an epigraph that translates into English roughly as follows:

“Provocative and disdainful in turn, the dancer’s supple body undulates and swirls voluptuously. Drinkers stare at her, their eyes glistening with fierce desire.”

Gabriel Faure, French Composer

Gabriel Faure was Florent Schmitt’s most influential teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. Schmitt also studied with Jules Massenet, Théodore Dubois, Albert Lavignac and Théodore Gédalge.

The second movement, Charmilles, is also dancelike but in a wholly different way:  It is a dreamy and tender barcarolle. The epigraph hints at this as follows:

“Dreamy young girls wander in the autumnal park: their silky trains brush against the dead leaves. They place themselves in the pool’s waters — then, in the arms of their lovers, disappear through the deep alleys.”

To my ears, the movement is similar in character to Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande — and wholly appropriate, too, in that Fauré had been Schmitt’s great teacher and mentor.

The province of Calabria in Southern Italy is the setting for the sassy middle movement, Pécorée de Calabre.  This is Schmitt’s own take on the gossiping, chattering peasant folk in the town square that was so effectively realized in Mussorgsky’s Limoges – Le Marché movement in Pictures at an Exhibition as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. As the epigraph for this movement says:

“The boots click rhythmically; the wind lifts the colorful skirts and the high conical hats. Girls and boys leap under the bright sun.

Jaunty, obstreperous rhythms and chirping woodwinds — they’re all here in Schmitt’s tonal picture.

The Greece of Thrène is not the one inspired by a modern travelogue, but rather by ancient times and the lamentation for the dead:

“On the marble slab, a strewn lily. The cypress trees shiver against the azure sky; she sleeps eternally …”

Schmitt’s vision is beautifully realized in the form of a sarabande via delicate, ethereal orchestration, adding “tuneful percussion” such as the celesta for extra effect.

The final movement, Bronx, is a short, exuberant outburst:

“Multicolored drinks sparkle in the glasses … Nostalgic jazz rips the air heavy with alcohol and smoke.”

More sassy than jazzy, we are reminded that Schmitt had visited New York City during his single journey to North America in the early 1930s.  And the music does sound like a foreigner’s take on New York City — it’s hardly “authentic,” but it’s an honest reaction to the gritty, overwhelming presence of America’s largest city.

To me, Bronx comes across much like Ferde Grofé’s final movement from his 1955 Hudson River Suite: a brief, primal shout — and an exclamation mark to end the work in a big way.

The orchestrated version of the Suite sans esprit de suite appears never to have gained a foothold in the symphonic repertoire, although it did appear on concert program occasionally during the 1950s — including the ORTF in 1955. To my knowledge, the Suite has never been recorded in its original piano version, but it has received two recordings in its orchestral garb.  Fortunately for us, both of them are quality performances.

Florent Schmitt James Lockhart Cybelia

First recording: James Lockhart directing the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra (Cybelia label).

The first recording was made by Cybelia in the late 1980s and features the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of James Lockhart.  Long out of print, the performance is a fine interpretation that deserves to be reissued.

The more recent one features Thierry Fischer conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales — recorded in 2006 and available on the Hyperion label.  Likewise an effective and attractive interpretation, this recording has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.

Thierry Fischer orchestra conductor

Thierry Fischer

The Suite sans esprit de suite reminds us that, even as his career moved into its late period, Florent Schmitt had lost none of his powers of orchestration:  All of his masterful skills are on brilliant display here.

Moreover, the music proves that Schmitt’s ability to conjure up the “spirit of the dance” in its varied manifestations remained as effective and engaging as ever.

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