Generally speaking, music lovers who know the works of French composer Florent Schmitt are most familiar with his compositions dating from the early 1900s onward.
Far less known are the numerous works the composer created in the years before the appearance of the startling and celebrated Psaume XLVII, which Schmitt composed in 1904 in Rome and which received its premiere in 1906 in Paris two days following Christmas.
Even today, many of Schmitt’s earliest compositions have yet to be recorded commercially, although a number of them including the Quatre pièces and the Chant du soir for violin and piano, the Andante & Scherzo for harp and string quartet, the Scherzo-Pastorale for flute and piano, and the Prière for organ have at last received their recording premieres within the past several years.
However, there is one early work by Schmitt that has been in the record catalogues for years. It’s Soirs, Op. 5, consisting of ten preludes for piano composed in 1890-1896 when Schmitt was between 20 and 26 years of age (although the score wouldn’t actually be published until 1911). The published score carried a dedication to the Comtesse de Chaumont-Quitry.
Being early pieces, they inhabit a sound-world vastly different from the compositions of Schmitt that most people know. Listening to these preludes, one can easily discern the influence of Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann — as well as Gabriel Fauré, who was Schmitt’s beloved teacher and mentor at the Paris Conservatoire.
The ten preludes bear descriptive titles redolent of the prevailing salon piano literature of the day:
- En rêvant (Dreaming)
- Gaity (Gaiety)
- Spleen (Melancholy)
- Après l’été (After the Summer)
- Parfum exotique (Exotic Fragrance)
- Un soir (An Evening)
- Tziganiana (Gypsy Style)
- Eglogue (Idyll)
- Sur l’onde (On the Wave)
- Dernières pages (Last Pages)
But of course, they are far more than mere salon miniatures. The musicologist Eric Berman captures the essence of Schmitt’s suite well when he states:
“The title [Soirs] quite remarkably defines it: A nostalgic atmosphere and a feeling which is very close to romanticism hangs over the whole composition. The influence of Chopin is undeniable, but the preludes already have the stamp of a master …
The themes are beautiful, with minor tonalities prevailing. This very intimate music appeals directly to the soul without any artificial means. It also has a certain innocence which makes it both charming and fascinating.”
The piano suite has been recorded commercially twice — the first one performed by pianist Francisco Manuele and released on the Cybelia label in the 1980s. That performance has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.
A more recent recording is by the English pianist, mathematician and arts broadcaster John Clegg (recently deceased), recorded in 1998 and released on the U.K.-based Paradisum Records label. It is available for purchase through the label’s own website.
As he would also do with many of his other piano compositions, several years afterward Schmitt prepared an orchestral version of Soirs, omitting two of the preludes (Tziganiana and Dernières pages) and reordering the remaining eight.
Likewise, the orchestral version of Soirs has been recorded twice — first by James Lockhart and the Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra on the Cybelia label in the 1980s, and later by David Robertson and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, released in 1994 on the Valois label.
Essayist and music critic Benoït Duteurtre has remarked on Schmitt’s orchestral version of this music as follows:
“The light orchestration shows the consummate talent of the student, his capacity for simplicity and naturalness, which preceded the scholarly elaborations of his mature years.”
The Robertson/Monte-Carlo recording has been uploaded to YouTube in two parts, which you can listen to here and here. The Lockhart/Rhenish recording is now also available on YouTube, courtesy of Philippe Louis’ fine music channel.
Unfortunately, performances of Soirs in the concert hall appear to be quite rare, but interestingly, they appear to have been performed in North America as much as anywhere else.
The Romanian conductor Rémus Tzincoca, who studied in Paris with Eugène Bigot following World War II, is one musician who championed the music. After coming to North America in the 1950s as assistant to the composer and violinist Georges Enescu, Maestro Tzincoca conducted Soirs with the Orchestra da Camara, an ensemble he founded and directed in the New York City metropolitan area.
Portions of a rehearsal prior to one of those live performances were captured in a private recording that has been uploaded to YouTube, courtesy of Max Valley’s estimable music channel. The audio document includes two movements of the eight in the set: Spleen and Après l’été.
To the best of my knowledge, the most recent public airings of the orchestral version in North America happened in February 2004 with Jacques Lacombe directing the Montreal Symphony Orchestra … and then in April 2016 by the Virginia Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Grandis.
Because of its multi-movement structure, the various preludes making up Soirs are sometimes performed individually or in smaller sets rather than as the entire suite. Along those lines, four of the preludes were performed in concert in Tokyo in September 2015 by the Orchestre Français du Japon.
The OFJ was formed in 2013 with the express purpose of performing French music for audiences in Japan. Music professor and Ravel specialist Arbie Orenstein of Queens College played a major role as artistic advisor during the orchestra’s formation, which presented its first concert in 2014 under its music director Daijiro Ukon in works by Fauré, Ravel and Honegger.
The 2015 OFJ concert performance featuring Schmitt included En rêvant, Gaiety, Parfum exotique and Sur l’onde from Soirs, in addition to music by three other French composers (Debussy, Ravel and Milhaud). It was an opportunity for Schmitt devotees residing in Japan and East Asia to attend the only live performances of any of the composer’s orchestral music happening that season in those regions.
Update (5/15/20): It’s been announced that Soirs will be receiving a new American performance. It will take place in August 2021, presented by the Lake Placid Sinfonietta under the direction of Stuart Malina. The concert had originally been planned for August 2, 2020, but has now been postponed until a year later due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More details about the event will be provided as they become available.