Florent Schmitt’s powerful choral work Psalm XLVII may have been composed in 1904, but it took more than a century for the piece to receive its premiere performances in Poland, in February 2016.
That’s when French conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud and the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra joined forces with the Krakow Philharmonic Choir, directed by Teresa Majka-Pacanek and soprano soloist Ewa Biegas, star of the National Opera in Warsaw, to present the work in two memorable performances at Krakow Philharmonic Hall.
The Psalm shared billing with another rare choral work, the 1888 symphonic poem Psyché by César Franck — it too a Polish premiere.
Having the good fortune to be able to attend the premiere, I took the opportunity to speak with Maestro Tingaud, Miss Biegas and Ms. Majka-Pacanek about what it was like to prepare and perform Psalm 47. It was an interesting and lively hour-long roundtable discussion, and it underscored the respect and affection all three artists have for Schmitt’s score.
Highlights from the discussion are presented below.
PLN: To many people, Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47 is a surprising discovery. They are amazed that such an impressive choral piece is so little known and so rarely performed. What was your initial reaction the first time you ever heard this music?
Jean-Luc Tingaud: I had heard about this piece through my master, Manuel Rosenthal. When I first looked at the score my reaction was, “Oh my God, this is amazing!” I could not believe that such music existed, actually. It was like discovering a new world in music. Eventually I listened to recordings, but I made my own idea of the piece by looking at the score first.
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: When I first encountered Psalm 47, I knew that it would not be an easy task to prepare the choir, for three reasons. First, the very high register for the sopranos and the tenors. Second, the very rich and demanding harmony. Third, the importance of the big emotional melodic lines.
Ewa Biegas: In my first encounter with this piece, I immediately sensed that the music was so beautiful — just magical for me. I also recall thinking that I must explore Schmitt’s art songs as well, as surely they must be just as beautiful.
PLN: What is it about the Psalm that you find particularly engaging? What do you think of its big profile? Are there stylistic elements that appeal to you most especially?
Jean-Luc Tingaud: What I like most in the Psaume is the space that it gives to the music — the way the music breathes and moves in the space. Also the quality of the sound — it is like we have something big, but at the same time very delicate.
It’s quite unique in French music, actually. It certainly has qualities that we find in French music — the transparency like we have in Debussy, for instance. But at the same time it has this deep breadth and line of Richard Strauss and of those big orchestrations.
To have both of these contained in one work, it’s quite rare. As a Frenchman, I’m very proud that we have such music in our national repertoire.
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: Maestro says it well. Psalm 47 is very dynamic, yet a striking feature is the use of the Impressionistic language. I think it’s deeply rooted in the traditional French language, and the text is also treated with much care in this piece.
Ewa Biegas: For me personally, it’s all of the colors and dynamic ranges that are in the soprano part: fortissimo, forte and pianissimo. Its range is two octaves up to high C. The soprano solo is just ten minutes, but in that short span the singer can show all the voice that she has.
PLN: For some listeners, the middle section with the soprano solo is the emotional high-point of the piece rather than the two outer sections. What is it like to sing those passages?
Ewa Biegas: I agree that the middle section is the most beautiful part of the piece. Between the choir, the soprano solo and the violin, it is magical sounding. Not really religious in the conventional sense — more like a fantasy.
Jean-Luc Tingaud: You could say that this piece is religious in its most ancient sense — the passion that it evokes. It’s in the roots of ceremonies that express feelings about earth and life.
PLN: How difficult was it to prepare this music before all of the parts could be performed together in the dress rehearsals? Were there aspects of preparing this music that were more challenging than usual?
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: The chorus began working with this piece in multi-stage preparation. We started with sectional rehearsals, then went to the combining of voices and then preparing the proper tensions in the melody line. It was really hard work! After that, Jean-Luc came to us and it was the second big step up.
Jean-Luc Tingaud: To do such a piece you need a team that you can trust. Teresa and I knew each other from several years of working together, and the Psaume was a piece we had been discussing for a long time. So I was completely sure of the preparation of the chorus — I had no doubts they could do it. When I arrived in Krakow last week and heard the chorus singing it, it was a joy because I knew that everything was in place.
Ewa Biegas: I studied my part for about one month. The challenge was finding the most suitable timbre for this piece. I approached it like a painter, trying to envision a beautiful picture in my imagination. I did not listen to recordings; it was my own conception of how it should sound.
Jean-Luc Tingaud: That’s true. You start from the score — from the composer’s intentions. I didn’t study this Schmitt piece with Rosenthal, but he told me that if I could perform just one piece of French repertoire for chorus and orchestra to do this Psaume.
Teresa and I had exchanged e-mails a couple of years ago after having done some mainstream repertoire like Berlioz. We were exploring doing some other French repertoire, and it was actually this piece plus the Franck Psyché that I had proposed to her then.
Another very interesting aspect of this piece is the organ — and in particular the organ transition between the soprano solo and the final section of the work. It is simply magical the way it is done. It shows how Schmitt gives moments to the audience where they can breathe — where they can relax. It would be too much otherwise to have this big forte all the way through.
Having the soprano at the middle of the piece is also quite interesting. It makes us relax. This piece is physical and demanding for the audience as well as the players. But it’s actually no stress because things arrive very naturally. We enter the piece, and when the soprano enters, it’s after the way has been prepared by the violin solo. And then we move on to the last moments with the frenetic dance.
PLN: What did the members of the Krakow Philharmonic Choir think of this music? How difficult was it to prepare a piece in the French language?
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: In our first rehearsal with the chorus, all anyone was thinking about were all of the many different voice parts. But later, the people who were concerned about learning this new music had changed their minds completely!
The French language was also a challenge, because it is not done as often as German or Italian. But the chorus members have a very good sense of listening — I call it the melody of language — which enabled them to sing the French properly.
Jean-Luc Tingaud: As a native French speaker, I am very happy to report that the French was perfectly understandable — and even good! I work a lot with the French repertoire, and even in France it’s often not as good as here, thanks to Teresa.
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: Thank you very much, Maestro!
PLN: What portions of the Psalm do you find the most impressive or unique? What did the orchestra members think of the music?
Jean-Luc Tingaud: With orchestras, first impressions about choral music are often not so positive. We don’t have much time for rehearsals, and more importantly, the players don’t have a full picture of the music from the very start.
For this program, I’m sure they were probably thinking that their part is very chromatic, that the harmonies are unusual, and that the piece is very tricky to play. We had two difficult pieces on the program — the Schmitt and the Franck — that no one knew before. It was hard work, and all-new for them.
But everybody is very professional and we work very quickly. They soon understand their place in the music. What I’m constantly telling them is to “play less and listen more.” Every individual part has to find its own place in this big architecture.
And so they did — and then the sound started to be constructed — like a tapestry. If they had attempted to play everything like a solo, it wouldn’t have made sense.
In the concert, it all came together and was fabulous. All of the musicians were enjoying it, I think. They knew where they were in the middle of this huge world — playing with Ewa, playing with the chorus.
The part I prefer most in the piece is Dieu est monté, which begins the third section of the work. The melody and the rhythm are simple. Harmonically it’s simple — eight bars in harmony and then eight bars in another one. But the effect is fabulous.
For a conductor to build this, it’s very exciting but it is also very challenging because it must be built carefully so that you don’t ruin the effect.
I also like the frenetic dance in the 5/4 rhythm — very similar to Ravel’s Daphnis which came almost a decade later. At that time, this 5/4 dance rhythm was not often used in French music. So this is very interesting as well as very spectacular.
And then I enjoy very much accompanying the soprano solo because you breathe with the music — it’s a fabulous moment. The combination of the solo voice with the chorus is absolutely stunning.
What’s interesting is that when you become familiar with the piece, it’s one where you feel very good about performing it. You can really enjoy playing it and you don’t have any stress going into it.
To play music well you have to be both relaxed and precise. And breathe together. And this is what this particular music allows you to do.
PLN: In your minds, how unique is Psalm 47 in French music? What sets it apart from other French scores of the time? Conversely, what aspects of the music keep it as part the French “orbit”?
Jean-Luc Tingaud: Within the orbit, it has the colors and the transparency and the details of French music when you think about the other great masters of that time like Debussy, Ravel and Fauré. The Psaume has all of those elements. But it has something unique as well. It has modernity — the writing for the brass is very modern.
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: That modernity is particularly present at the beginning, and also in the final minutes of the piece.
Jean-Luc Tingaud: We speak of Ravel and Stravinsky being influenced by Schmitt, but also I also think Messiaen was influenced by him as well. Think about the brilliant writing for brass and compare that to Messiaen’s pieces for organ and orchestra, the Turangalila Symphony, and all of this other bright music. I think it’s clear that he borrowed a lot from Schmitt.
Moreover, the rhythmic aspects of the Psaume are so very interesting.
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: That’s very true. In the chorus, we find places where different voices are moving across one another rhythmically. One must be very careful in those challenging passages!
PLN: These Krakow performances were the very first ones of this music in Poland. Did you enjoy the opportunity to perform the Polish premiere? Would you like to program the music again if given the opportunity to do so?
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: At first we did not realize that these were the Polish premiere performances, but then we found this out from Jean-Luc. It’s difficult to know if we will be able to program this music again, but it’s important to have it in the repertoire. So many people came up to tell me how fantastic the piece is, so we can be hopeful.
Ewa Biegas: I hope I can perform it again! And I’m so happy about the reaction of the public to these concerts.
PLN: Could you say a word about the strategy of performing César Franck’s Psyché in the same concert as Florent Schmitt’s Psalm? Instead of balancing the program with a famous work like a Beethoven or Tchaikovsky Symphony, another choral rarity was chosen …
Jean-Luc Tingaud: It was a special strategy. I was really thinking about the chorus for this program. I wanted to choose interesting pieces to perform with a chorus with which I’ve worked in the past and that I enjoyed very much.
Psyché is not a piece that gives full impact, because the basses and baritones aren’t singing. So I didn’t want to propose including just the Franck on the program; that would be frustrating. The Psaume is a great piece for the chorus as we know, and I thought having Psyché in the first half of the program would be a nice introduction to music with chorus and orchestra — and a more relaxing moment for us and for the audience — before encountering the splendor of the Psaume.
I am very thankful to the Krakow Philharmonic because they said ‘yes’ to such a crazy program! Where else could I perform something like this? It’s so rare to find an orchestra and a chorus where you can propose such a program.
PLN: Are there any other comments you would like to share about Florent Schmitt and Psalm 47?
Ewa Biegas: Just that it was such a pleasure to perform this beautiful piece, and I’m really very, very happy to be able to sing it with a great Maestro, a great choir and a great orchestra.
Teresa Majka-Pacanek: I’d like to say that Florent Schmitt is a very interesting composer whose music is well-worth a closer look — especially here in Poland where we have no performance tradition of playing him. What a pleasure it was to get to know this piece. So thank you, Maestro!
We can only echo Ms. Majka-Pacanek’s remarks: Florent Schmitt’s music is highly interesting and well-worth getting to know. Because of Maestro Tingaud and all of the other artists involved in this production, Polish audiences were finally able to experience the power and splendor of Psalm 47 in a live concert setting.
It may have taken more than a century to happen … but all’s well that ends well.