Recently, the INA archives (French National Radio and Television) has begun offering for download a memorial concert held in honor of Florent Schmitt. The concert, which was broadcast in October 1958 two months following the composer’s death, has never been made available since its initial airing until now.
The memorial program featured five works by Schmitt including his two most famous compositions, Psalm 47 and La Tragédie de Salomé. In addition, three “rarities” were presented — one of which was a short work for soprano and orchestra titled Musique sur l’eau (“Water Music”).
It is perhaps the most significant discovery on the program, even though the piece is barely five minutes in length. But it opens up an entirely new realm of the composer’s work that has been untouched for decades — namely, his music for solo voice and piano/orchestra.
To realize what this trove of music might represent, let’s start by focusing on Musique sur l’eau.
The work dates from 1898 (although it wasn’t published until 1913). It was inspired by a poem of Albert Samain (1858-1900), the French symbolist writer whose works were also set to music by other French composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns, Lili Boulanger and Jean Cras.
The words to the poem give clues as to the musical atmospherics Florent Schmitt would create for it. The poem is presented below not in its original French, but in an English translation by Kevin Germain:
Oh! Listen to the symphony;
No softness like anguish
In the unlimitable euphony
Breathing in the vaporous distance;
The night, a langour intoxicates,
And delivers our heart
From the monotonous labor of living,
One dies a langourous death.
And I gaze at thy eyes
That swoon beneath the chanted tones,
Like two ghostly flowers
Under melodious rays.
Oh! Listen to the symphony;
No softness like anguish
Of the lips on lips, kiss
In the unlimitable euphony. . .
About this particular poem as well as other literary creations of Albert Samain, the American writer and poet Amy Lawrence Lowell made this insightful observation:
“These poems are as fragile as the golden crystals [Samain] speaks of. What do they give us? It is impossible to say. A nuance … a colour … a vague magnificence.”
Responding in kind, Florent Schmitt’s music is ravishingly beautiful; that is plain to hear by listening to the fine interpretation by the French soprano Régine Crespin in the 1958 memorial concert, accompanied by conductor Désiré Inghelbrecht and the French National Radio Orchestra (ORTF).
You can listen to this gorgeous music here — five minutes of sheer magic. (A special “thank you” to Eric Butruille, a faithful reader of the Florent Schmitt blog, for preparing the high-res audio file.)
Indeed, it is “water music” in the finest French tradition.
And there’s another important aspect to consider that makes the piece even more noteworthy: Schmitt’s composition actually predates Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade by nearly a decade.
So in a sense Schmitt was the forerunner, rather than a composer penning a piece after being exposed to those other, more famous works that also deal with the oceans and water.
The unexpected (and welcome) emergence of this ORTF “musical relic” from 60 years ago leaves us anxious to hear more from Schmitt in this vein. And in fact, a perusal of the composer’s catalogue of works reveals that Musique sur l’eau is hardly an isolated piece.
Indeed, Florent Schmitt produced numerous such chansons over a roughly 20-year period beginning in 1890. And yet … it’s a part of his output that is barely known. The question is: Why?
Perhaps one reason is because the early works of Schmitt, like those of many other composers, might be prone to reflect other musical influences rather than an “authentic” style.
That certainly seems to be the case when listening to Schmitt’s early work Soirs, Op. 5, a set of nocturnes composed for piano between 1890 and 1896 and also orchestrated by the composer. It is easy to discern the influence of composers like Robert Schumann and Gabriel Fauré, Schmitt’s own teacher and mentor, in that work.
But in the Musique sur l’eau of 1898, we already hear elements of Schmitt’s own personal style, and the inventiveness of the score makes one wonder what other vocal gems await an intrepid explorer.
Unfortunately, investigation isn’t easy, as very little if any if this output is available to audition. Indeed, there are many early vocal works of Schmitt that have yet to receive their first commercial recording:
- Deux chansons, Op. 2 (1890-94)
- Trois chansons, Op. 4 (1892-95) (the second of these three chansons can be heard here in a 2012 live concert performance in Madrid by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky)
- Les Barques, Op. 8 (1897)
- Soir sur le lac, Op. 9 (1898)
- Deux chansons, Op. 18 (1895-1901)
- Trois chansons, Op. 21 (1891-1897)
- Vocalise, Op. 30 (1906)
- Musique sur l’eau, Op. 33 (1898)
- Quatre lieds, Op. 45 (1901-1907)
Particularly intriguing is that Schmitt found his inspiration for these compositions in the poetry and words of leading French literary figures including:
- Théodore Aubanel
- Catulle Blée
- Henry Gauthier-Villars
- Camille Mauclair (Séverin Faust)
- Robert de Montesquiou
- Albert Samain
- Paul Verlaine
What’s more, while Schmitt’s chansons were originally written for voice and piano, he also orchestrated a goodly number of them. Such was the case with Musique sur l’eau. Knowing that information makes the prospect of investigating this repertoire even more appealing.
In his later years, Schmitt would continue to compose works for solo voice and piano (and orchestral versions of them as well). Examples such as Trois chants, Op. 98 and Quatre poèmes de Ronsard, Op. 100 from the early 1940s — both of which were commercially recorded by the Roumanian-American soprano Yolanda Marcoulescou in the 1970s — underscore the fact that Schmitt’s writing for voice remained idiomatic and inventive over many decades.
Numerous other chansons from Schmitt’s “middle period” of composition, such as the three pieces that make up Kerob-Shal, Op. 67, have yet to receive their first recordings as well.
But to my mind, it is the early works that beckon most invitingly. The Musique sur l’eau gives us a tantalizing foretaste of what splendors await exploration. Hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer to find out the treasures that are in store for us.