Florent Schmitt’s early art songs: A trove of treasures awaits rediscovery.

Florent Schmitt French composer

Florent Schmitt in his early years as a composer.

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.

Albert Samain French Symbolist Poet

Albert Samain, French Symbolist Poet (1858-1900)

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.

Florent Schmitt Musique sur l'eauThe 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.

wlLet us slip between sky and wave,
Let us slip beneath the deepening moon;
All my heart, from the world away,
Takes refuge in thy eyes.

And I gaze at thy eyes
That swoon beneath the chanterelles,
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 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.”

Régine Crespin French Soprano

Régine Crespin, French Soprano (1927-2007)

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.

Florent Schmitt Musique sur l'eau

The first page of Florent Schmitt’s Musique sur l’eau, from the first edition of the published score by A. Z. Mathot (1913).

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.

Wigmore Hall Schmitt Ravel 1909

Florent Schmitt and fellow French composer Maurice Ravel made their U.K. performing debut in 1909 at London’s Bechstein (Wigmore) Hall, appearing in the very same program. They performed their own piano works and accompanied vocalists in selected chansons. Among the selections performed was Schmitt’s Musique sur l’eau.

The unexpected (and welcome) emergence of the ORTF “musical relic” from 50+ years ago leaves us anxious to hear more from Schmitt in this vein. And in fact, a review 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.

Montaut song recital 1923

A 1923 Parisian program featuring chansons by Schmitt, Debussy, Ravel, Roussel, Caplet and Aubert, presented by soprano Marie France de Montaut.

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:

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.

Schmitt Honegger Satie MarcoulescouIn 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.

Florent Schmitt Kerob-Shal

Florent Schmitt: Kerob-Shal, Op. 67 (1920-24)

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 will not have to wait much longer to find out the treasures that are in store for us.

4 thoughts on “Florent Schmitt’s early art songs: A trove of treasures awaits rediscovery.

  1. A very interesting article. There is a great deal of early music by Florent Schmitt that the composer marked “never to be published.” Some are juvenilia, and some are early works that point to his mature style.

    You are right to point out that Schmitt was ahead of his time and was exploring some compositional techniques and styles that influenced later composers. The link between Schmitt and Stravinsky (or rather between Salomé and Le Sacre) has been noted by musical scholars. The written documentation between the two composers supports what the ear hears — that Stravinsky was influenced by Schmitt’s earlier work while he was composing the “Augurs of Spring” in the Rite.

    Since Schmitt was avant-garde in some of his early works, it is important to listen to them in order to come to a more accurate understanding of his historical position in the music of the turn of the century and beyond.

    — Jerry Rife

  2. Well, after this rediscovery, maybe we should hope that Timpani will look into Florent Schmitt’s chansons for a future recording?

    It’s actually quite a mystery to me that all the record labels that have launched series on the French Art Song (Calliope, Hyperion, Timpani et al) have overlooked and ignored these works …

  3. I just became aware of your blog. I study the music of Manuel de Falla and of course know Schmitt’s name from the Falla Paris days. I will look into the Schmitt/Falla relationship.

    I want to thank you for your excellent blog and dedication to this unjustly forgotten composer. The Petrucci listing is not listed by genre, is there an isolated list of songs for voice and piano?

    • Thank you for reaching out, Ms. Tonna. I know your impressive singing career and am very pleased that you are focusing on the artistry of Manuel de Falla.

      It is true that Schmitt and de Falla were close musical acquaintances in Paris during the early years of the 20th Century. In fact, they were fellow members of Les Apaches.

      I believe there may be a listing of Schmitt’s compositions grouped by genre that would prove helpful. I will research this and let you know what I can find. In the meantime, using the links from the page on this website that displays Schmitt’s compositions (shown at top right) should give you quick access to many scores — both voice/piano and voice/orchestra arrangements.

      Kind regards, ~Phillip

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