During his time as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Florent Schmitt had his share of esteemed teachers including Jules Massenet, Théodore Dubois, André Gédalge and Albert Lavignac.
But Gabriel Fauré, who along with Massenet were Schmitt’s two instructors in composition, was his favorite teacher and also arguably the most influential one.
Time and again, we can hear evidence of Fauré’s influence — particularly in the slow movements of various compositions, stretching from Schmitt’s earliest efforts all the way until the end of his long and productive life.
Examples include the piano suite Soirs (1890-96), a set of nocturnes composed for piano and later orchestrated by Schmitt. The second movement of the imposing Piano Quintet (1908) is a later example. And it extends later still to the Janiana Symphony for string orchestra (1941) and to the quartet Pour presque tous les temps from 1956, composed when Schmitt was in his mid-80s.
Faure retired from the Paris Conservatoire in 1920. Two years later, he was feted in an official ceremony led by Alexandre Millerand, president of the French Republic.
That same year, Henri Prunières, chief editor of the French monthly magazine La Revue Musicale, endeavored to pay tribute to Gabriel Fauré by approaching the most esteemed former students of the master to write original piano compositions in his honor.
Florent Schmitt was only too eager to participate in the project. In addition to Schmitt, former Fauré students who contributed works included Maurice Ravel, Charles Koechlin, Georges Enesco, Jean Roger-Ducasse, Louis Aubert and Paul Ladmirault.
The one stipulation imposed by the magazine was for the composers to create their works based on enciphering Fauré’s name to form the musical material.
In order to accommodate all of the letters in the composer’s name, it was necessary to “convert” certain letters to notes according to the following anagram:
GABRIEL-FAURE –> GABDBEE-FAGDE
The Armenian-American pianist Andrey Kasparov has helped to explain the derivation of the anagram, writing:
“Some letters related to note names directly, while others obviously did not. For these exceptions, the alphabet was extended up the keyboard and grouped into three units of seven characters and one group of five … every white key pitch can be represented by three or four letter names in each column … which is how the pitch row GABDBEE-FAGDE was derived.”
The contributed pieces ranged widely in their structure and style. Some of them, such as Ravel’s, Enesco’s and Koechlin’s, eschewed complexity in favor of simplicity, which had always been a hallmark of Fauré’s approach to artistic expression.
By contrast, Aubert’s and Ladmirault’s contributions were remindful of Fauré’s upbeat rhythms and his elliptical harmonies.
The contributions by Roger-Ducasse and Schmitt were substantially more complex … and Schmitt’s could be considered the most complex of all. His piece — a scherzo — made extensive use of the musical anagram for Fauré’s full name. (Schmitt along with Ravel were the only composers who used both parts of the pitch row in their musical creations.)
Upon hearing Schmitt’s composition, one is immediately struck by its modernity. Clearly, it is music that Fauré himself would never have created. It is as if Schmitt is telling us that while he owes much to Fauré, he is his own man in music.
After an opening flourish, the left hand plays Fauré’s last name in octaves, with the motif appearing twice more in the next few bars before the more clearly melodic first-name theme appears in the right-hand part. This theme dominates the piece until a downward jump introduces a new theme based on the composer’s last name, which takes over until the reappearance of the left-hand version.
A brief pause from the acerbic atmospherics provides for a bit of rumination just before the end of the work, when we hear the musical line derived from the first name in the right hand, finally ending with left-hand octaves spelling out the composer’s last name.
I am aware of three recordings that exist of the complete Fauré homages incorporating Schmitt’s Scherzo — performed by pianists Margaret Fingerhut (on Chandos), Oksana Lutsyshyn (Albany) and Vladimir Valjarević (Labor Records).
The individual pieces were published in successive issues of the Revue Musicale magazine. As it turned out, the Fauré tribute was a timely one as the composer would pass away less than two years later … so that the “homages” quickly turned into “memorial” compositions.
A number of years following Fauré’s death, Schmitt completed an orchestral composition in memory of his mentor, the diptyque In Memoriam, Opus 72 in which the 1922 Scherzo, now orchestrated, formed the second portion.
The new piece received its first performance in November 1935 under the direction of Paul Paray, the conductor who would lead more premiere performances of Schmitt’s orchestral compositions than any other director.
The first part of In Memoriam, titled Cippus Feralis, has been described by the British pianist and music educator Lionel Salter as “a long, often-beautiful threnody evoking an austere antique atmosphere.” The music begins quietly but gradually becomes more agitated, rising to a powerful climax before subsiding again, ending with an air of resignation.
To my ears, this rhapsodic movement clearly comes across as a fervent homage Schmitt’s favorite teacher. I find it very moving.
Janus-like, the orchestrated Scherzo couldn’t be more different in mood. To quote the French historian and musicologist Michel Fleury:
“… Schmitt’s highly original approach testifies to the strength of his personality — and to his intransigence.
Unlike many composers, he avoids platitudinous imitations of the style of the ‘composer remembered.’ To the contrary, Schmitt demonstrates his acknowledgement and veneration of Fauré by showing what he has become as a consequence of the master’s instruction … any reference to the spirit of Fauré’s music is quite absent.
Indeed, the pupil vehemently asserts what is most different in his personality — and whose individuality flourished thanks precisely to his master’s teaching.”
I find the Scherzo movement of In Memoriam to be one of Schmitt’s most fascinating scores. Opulently scored, it throws the listener off-balance right from the start, and a sense of unpredictability carries through its entire four-minute duration.
Even the brief plaintive passage near the end of the movement seems unsettled, before plunging headlong into a final orchestral outburst.
Is the movement Dionysian … or diabolical? Perhaps it is a bit of both. But in the end, it’s an extraordinary “inverted homage” to Fauré, offered up by the composer who was perhaps the most anti-conformist of the master’s disciples.
To date, just one commercial recording of the complete In Memoriam has been made. Recorded in the late 1980s on the Cybelia label, it features Pierre Stoll directing the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra. Although the recording appeared in both LP and CD incarnations, it has been out of print for years. However, thanks to Philippe Louis and his superlative music channel, it has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.
As for the Scherzo movement, Sir Neville Marriner included it on a recording featuring music of Fauré along with three of his pupils: Koechlin, Ravel and Schmitt. That recording, released in 1995 on the Philips label, remains available today.
For readers wishing to hear In Memoriam, each of the two movements are uploaded on YouTube, featuring different artists:
- #1 (Cippus Feralis) — a 1970 ORTF concert performance conducted by Jean Martinon
- #2 (Scherzo sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré) — from the 1995 Philips recording by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
If you give In Memoriam a listen, I’m quite sure you’ll find both movements of the piece — highly contrasting though they are — to be equally inventive and intriguing “memorial” music.
Update (3/21/20): Recently, a private recording of Florent Schmitt’s piano reduction of the first movement of In Memoriam has surfaced, and it has interesting historical and artistic value in that it is very likely that the composer himself is playing the music.
The piano in the recording sounds very much like Schmitt’s own, and the ambient outdoor sounds of a rapidly suburbanizing St-Cloud can be heard occasionally in the background. By my reckoning, the piece was probably recorded in the early- to mid-1950s, perhaps at the same time when Schmitt was filmed in and around his home.
The recording has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here. Special thanks to Max Valley and his fine Private VJ music channel on YouTube for finding and uploading this rare audio documentation.