For music-lovers who aren’t very familiar with the music of Florent Schmitt, they may well think that the composer is German. Or at the very least, they might assume that the music bears a strong resemblance to Germanic musical style.
Of course, for those who know Schmitt and his artistry, they realize that any “German” musical influence falls well-behind French influence for the simple reason that Florent Schmitt was a French composer through and through. His entire musical education was in France — first in Nancy and later at the Paris Conservatoire where his teachers included Théodore Dubois, Jules Massenet and, most importantly, Gabriel Fauré.
Moreover, Schmitt “came of age” in a musical Paris that was rebelling against the perceived notion of Teutonic hegemony in classical music. Claude Debussy of course — but also composers like Édouard Lalo, Emmanuel Chabrier and Erik Satie — had been charting new courses in music distinctly removed from the Wagnerian and Brahmsian traditions.
… And if there were potent existential musical influences seeping into France, more often they came from the Russia of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
In the case of Florent Schmitt, while it is true that his music conveys an “epic” sense far more than other French composers of his time, that personal style seems to echo the power, opulence and color of Hector Berlioz or the Russian “Mighty Five” more than it does, say, Richard Strauss.
Schmitt’s large-scale choral work Psaume XLVII, dating from 1904, is a case in point: The contemporary American composer Kenneth Fuchs has noted the special position this piece holds in the French repertoire, writing:
“The Psalm is unusual for French music because it has such a big profile. Even Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, at its largest moments with chorus and orchestra at full throttle, doesn’t quite have the ‘hugeness’ of this piece. The Psalm’s language is not Germanic — but the dimensions somehow are.”
Despite the musical currents and “atmospherics” in Paris at the time, for any serious student of classical music it was impossible to escape exposure to the Germanic tradition completely; indeed, many a budding French composer or musician would make the pilgrimage to Berlin or Weimar or Bayreuth.
Schmitt did the same — sort of.
During his Prix de Rome period, which at four years duration lasted far longer than the tenure of the typical prizewinner, Florent Schmitt traveled all across Europe as well as in North Africa and the Near East.
The fruits of those travels manifested themselves in a noteworthy string of “orientalist” compositions — significant enough that in the several decades that followed, Schmitt would be considered the foremost orientalist composer not only in France, but in the entire world.
Still, Schmitt’s time of travels in Germany and Austria-Hungary around 1900 did result in one striking musical creation: a suite of eight waltzes he composed for duo-pianists in the period 1902-05 which were published as a collection under the name Reflets d’Allemagne, Opus 28 (Reflections of Germany).
With one exception, each of the waltzes in the suite was given the name of a prominent city in Germanic Europe, with shifting moods that combine to create a musically engaging piano set — full of interesting contrasts throughout.
The movements are as follows:
- Werder Island
Far meatier than mere “musical postcards,” these numbers are small gems that put the musical sophistication of Florent Schmitt on full display. They take as their point of departure Schumann (by way of Fauré), but go much further. As the writer and musicologist Michel Fleury has remarked of the eight movements that make up the suite:
“Their discreet smile seems to comment on the composer’s tender amusement at Germanic customs — ceremonious, pompous or, to the contrary, saturated with nostalgia and effusion [as] scenes of Romantic Germany file past.”
Reflets d’Allemagne began life auspiciously, with none other than Maurice Ravel joining Schmitt as the piano duo featured at the premiere public performance of the suite in Paris in 1906 — a performance the two musicians would repeat in Le Havre a year later.
Over the years, Reflections of Germany has achieved greater fame and popularity than many of Schmitt’s other sets of piano music. The composer himself performed the score with some regularity — including new arrangements he made of the music for piano duet and also for piano solo, the latter of which was included in the programs on the composer’s American concert tour in 1932.
Others who have performed the music include the duo-pianist teams of Ginette and Jean Doyen plus Henriette Puig-Roget and Claudie Martinet, whose performances of the music during the 1950s and 1960s were broadcast over French Radio.
More recently, Marie-Claude Chevalier and Xavier Givelet presented a French Radio broadcast performance (in the 1980s).
Likewise, Reflets d’Allemagne has fared rather well on commercial recordings. Among the more recent and most widely circulated renditions are those by Christian Ivaldi and Jean-Claude Pennetier (on the Timpani label), the Invencia Piano Duo (Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn, on NAXOS Grand Piano) and Leslie De’Ath and Anya Alexeyev (on Dutton-Epoch).
The individual movements of the suite pop up on piano recitals with some regularity, too. Numerous excerpts have been uploaded on YouTube and SoundCloud, such as this one featuring pianists Mami Kino and Jean-Roch Lyeuté, this one by the Miravia Duo (pianists Allison Cullen and Edward Rushton), and this one from a piano teachers’ conference recital program in Japan.
As with a number of other Schmitt compositions that began life as piano scores, Reflections of Germany would later be orchestrated by the composer — in this case for a ballet production that was mounted at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique in May 1932.
The new ballet carried a shortened title Reflets (“Reflections”). The choreography was by Robert Quinault — who also danced in the production along with prima ballerinas Mariette de Rauwera and Colette Salomon — with the instrumental ensemble conducted by Élie Cohen.
While the ballet production was generally considered a success, the lack of a storyline was noted by some arts critics, including the musicologist Louis Laloy, who wrote these observations about the staging in the June 15, 1932 issue of La Revue musicale:
“Reflets d’Allemagne — such is the title of a piano collection in which M. Florent Schmitt affirmed both his harmonious ardor and his taste for certain aspects of generous romanticism … Coming to the stage of the Opéra-Comique in the form of a dance entertainment, this work has been enriched by an effective orchestration but has lost its original indication [Germany], and the program merely announces Reflets. It has no effect without a cause — and why pose a riddle to us? Reflections of who? Reflections of what? Reflections of the Opéra, perhaps?
M. Robert Quinault’s virtuosity as a dancer is not in question, nor is the grace of Mlle. de Rauwera. But the choreography that M. Quinault has presented is merely an anthology of inputs, steps and various figures, but without any appreciable meaning. We gladly acknowledge it, but one doesn’t go to the theatre to attend a dance lesson. With music so colorful — so strong in emphasis — was there not a way to find more purposeful gestures and meaning?”
After its staging, the work would be presented in the concert hall by several French conductors including Désiré Inghelbrecht and Eugène Bigot (with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF) and Tony Aubin (with the Orchestre National de Lille).
Actually, it’s interesting to discover that several of the musical numbers for the ballet had been orchestrated by Florent Schmitt some twenty years prior to the stage production taking place. We know this because the New York Symphony Orchestra performed three of them (Nuremberg, Dresden and Munich) in concert in December of 1914. With the outbreak of war between Germany and France being fresh news, the New York Times reported the conductor, Walter Damrosch, making this dry remark about the music’s subject matter:
“German gemütlichkeit with French charm — and hence possibly out of date at the present moment.”
The orchestral version of Reflets has been less fortunate on recordings compared to the versions for piano. Florent Schmitt himself made a recording of the ballet’s final two movements in the early 1930s (“Nuremberg” and “Munich“) in a Pathé release that also featured the composer’s own “vocal autograph” at the end of the recording.
That historic recording is available today on the Timpani label. The two movements have also been uploaded on YouTube as well (links are included in the paragraph above — accessible to American viewers only).
No other commercial recordings exist of the orchestral version of Reflets — either as a complete work or individual excerpts. However, three of the movements (“Dresden,” “Werder” and “Munich”) were performed at an October 1958 memorial concert honoring Florent Schmitt six weeks following the composer’s death — a concert that was also broadcast.
Relegated to the archives of the ORTF for over half a century, the recorded broadcast was finally made available to the public in 2015. Featuring the legendary Désiré Inghelbrecht leading the French National Radio Orchestra, it can be considered a definitive interpretation of one of Schmitt’s most engaging and melodious scores.
The Inghelbrecht/ORTF performance of the three excerpts can be heard here. (Special thanks to Eric Butruille, a faithful reader of the Florent Schmitt blog, for preparing the high-res audio file.)
The entire 1958 memorial concert, which includes a total of five Schmitt compositions, is available for audition on the French INA website and also can be purchased as a high-res download.
[Another Paris performance of Reflets d’Allemagne was given in the months immediately following Florent Schmitt’s death — in December 1958 by the Paris Opéra Orchestra under the direction of Robert Blot, the same conductor who had also led the Paris Opéra Ballet’s revival of Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé in 1954.]
Listening to these historic recordings, it’s immediately evident that the orchestral version of Reflets d’Allemagne deserves a modern (and first-ever complete) recording. Who among Florent Schmitt’s most ardent advocates — Leon Botstein, Lionel Bringuier, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, Sascha Goetzel, Jacques Mercier, Jean-Luc Tingaud, Yan-Pascal Tortelier — is ready to take up the cause?