Choral chromaticism par excellence: Florent Schmitt’s Cinq chœurs en vingt minutes for mixed chorus and large orchestra (1951).

Late-career luxuriance: Florent Schmitt's score to Cinq chorales en vingt minutes (1951).

Late-career luxuriance: Florent Schmitt’s score to Cinq chœurs en vingt minutes (1951).

Within the extensive catalogue of Florent Schmitt’s compositions are a great many vocal works — pieces written for solo voice or for chorus.  In fact, there are over 50 such opus numbers.

Many of Schmitt’s choral works are based on sacred texts, although often the scores seem quite removed from a sense of piety.  Perhaps the best-known example of this is Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, Opus 38 which dates from 1904.

Of that particular work, music critic Terry Blain has written:

“Going from the lurid sex and violence of Salomé to Schmitt’s setting of Psalm 47 should be a major wrench stylistically — but isn’t. The orgiastic volleys of brass and percussion in its opening paragraph have a distinctly pagan feel about them, and are a long way from conventional religiosity.”

With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that quite a few of Schmitt’s choral works are based on secular texts, and he drew inspiration from a wide variety of literary sources.  Unfortunately, a number of these intriguing choral scores have yet to see their first commercial recordings.  Among them are:

  • Danse des Devadasis, Opus 47 (1908)
  • Fête de la lumière, Opus 88 (1936)
  • L’arbre entre nous, Opus 95 (1939)
  • Le chant de la nuit, Opus 120 (1951)

But several significant secular works featuring mixed chorus have been recorded — and they demonstrate just how effective Schmitt’s secular choral writing can be.

One is Hymne funèbre, Op. 46 for wind ensemble and chorus, dating from 1899 and available in a 2008 premiere recording on the Corelia label, performed by the Orchestre d’Harmonie de la Région Centre conducted by Philippe Ferro.  Somewhat along the same lines is Schmitt’s Chant de la guerre, Op. 63 from the early days of World War I, which has been commercially recorded recently in an arrangement for soprano solo with reduced instrumental forces.

Another work is the 1933 ballet Oriane et la Prince d’amour, Op. 83, which contains a large and important choral part.  It is available from Forgotten Records in a 1956 O.R.T.F. live performance under the direction of Pierre Dervaux.

And still another creation is Cinq chœurs en vingt minutes, Op. 117 (Five Choruses in Twenty Minutes) — a later-career work by Schmitt for mixed chorus and large orchestra, which dates from 1951 when the composer was past the age of 80.

To begin with, the work’s title isn’t all that accurate because its five movements, taken together, represent fewer than fifteen minutes of music rather than twenty.

But one supposes that Schmitt, as he would often do, came up with the title simply because of the rhyming and alliteration of the words “cinq” and “vingt” in the French language.

Of the five movements that make up the set, all but one clock in at two minutes or less, while the fourth movement — the emotional high-point of the piece in my view — is twice that long.

Rather than relying on a single author, in this work Schmitt drew his literary inspiration from diverse texts including anonymous writings from the 6th and 16th centuries (the 2nd and 4th movements) as well as the writings of Maurice Carême, Maurice Fombeure and Lucien Marceron in the 1st, 3rd and 5th movements respectively.

None of the three men is a particular household name today.  Yet their writings gave Schmitt plenty to work with — not merely in the subject matter but also in the use of alliteration, plus onomatopoeic sounds in two of the movements (#3 and #5).

Considering the musical results, it is indeed rare for poets’ words to be given such marvelous treatment.

The five movements in the set are as follows:

  1. Le Cerisier (The Cherry Tree)
  2. J’ai vu sept pies (I Saw Seven Magpies)
  3. Je stipule (I Stipulate)
  4. L’hiver arrive (Winter is Coming)
  5. Oral (Words)

Within a short overall span, Schmitt treats us to many contrasting moods and colors.  In particular, the fourth movement contains some of the most gorgeous polytonal choral writing ever penned by the composer.  Its voluptuous — even rapturous — character is quite reminiscent of the famous middle section of Psalm 47 from nearly a half-century earlier — rich, chromatic chords that just make you want to crawl up inside the notes and stay there.

In the final movement, the words are nearly nonsensical — and were likely chosen purely for their alliterative character.  The text begins as follows:

“Lac Ladoga, lac Péïpous, lac Alpha, lac Onéga — Hi-ou!  Hi-ou! Fait des cocottes en papier.  Ah! Monsieur le professeur.  Ha-hic!

… and it continues in this vein all the way through to the end.

Florent Schmitt French composer 1953 photo

Florent Schmitt, photographed in 1953 at the time of the Paris premiere of Cinq chœurs en vingt minutes. (Photo: ©Boris Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

Cinq chœurs en vingt minutes was given its premiere performance at the Strasbourg Festival in 1951, with the musical forces under the direction of Louis Martin.  The following year the work received its Paris premiere by the Pasdeloup Orchestra and choirs under the direction of Pierre Dervaux.

On October 8, 1953, another Paris performance — this one presented by the René Alix Chorus and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra conducted by André Cluytens — was reviewed by the Le Monde the music critic René Dumesnil who wrote:

“Despite its facetious title, the piece constitutes a very serious contribution to modern choral music. The René Alix Choir gave an interpretation that revealed this well, highlighting the individual movements’ diversity and richness.”

Bernard Tetu French choral director

Bernard Tétu

Since then, it appears that performances of this music have been few, although I am aware of several performed with Florent Schmitt’s own piano reduction rather than the original orchestral score. These include a May 1963 presentation by the Ensemble Madrigal de la RTF, plus three excerpts presented in concert in 1995 by the Choeur de Lyon under the direction of Bernard Tétu.  (Both the 1963 and 1995 performances were broadcast over French National Radio.)

The Cinq chœurs, along with Le chant de la nuit (likewise a piece Schmitt composed in 1951, on a United Nations commission), would turn out to be the last two secular choral pieces the composer ever wrote. He did pen a group of sacred works for unaccompanied voices (sometimes with organ accompaniment) during the final years of his life. But those pieces are more spare in their conception and sound, which is another reason why Cinq chœurs is so special — representing as it does a kind of valedictory work of Schmitt’s in this vein.

Indeed, in creating Cinq chœurs Schmitt proved that he had lost none of his powers to conjure up heady atmospherics and opulent sounds. To prove the point, we can listen to the single recording ever released of the piece:  a live concert performance from 1976 by the Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Nord-Deutscher Rundfunk conducted by Helmut Franz.

Florent Schmitt Cinq choeurs en vingt minutes Helmut Franz NDR

Only recording (so far): Hulmut Franz and the chorus and orchestra of North German Radio (1976).

To my knowledge, that recording, which was released back in the LP-only era, has yet to make it to CD or digital downloads. But those fortunate enough to have heard it know just how infectious the music is.

All that we have available to us at the moment are several excerpts. One is a performance of the fourth movement, as presented in a choral concert given recently in Hungary employing piano reduction of the orchestral score.  It is available to hear on YouTube (beginning at minute marker 16:00 in the recital).

The other is a performance of most of the first movement of the full-orchestra version, which was included as part of a 1954 interview of the composer conducted by Georges Charbonnier, the longtime executive producer at France-Culture (ORTF).  This excerpt is also available to hear on YouTube (beginning at minute marker 9:30 in the interview).

Rich, opulent, voluptuous and always interesting, each of the movements of Cinq chœurs is its own special adventure. Clearly, music this fascinating deserves to be heard — and heard often. Here’s hoping it will attract the interest of more choral groups in the years ahead.  True, it is complex music that requires diligent preparation. But the end-result is nothing short of amazing.

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