This month, the French conductor Fabien Gabel revealed his plans to lead the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in a December 2016 performance of Florent Schmitt’s tone picture Rêves, Opus 65 (Dreams), composed just over a century ago.
In subsequent discussions with the Maestro, I discovered how much he is doing to program French repertoire from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how his interest in Schmitt’s music ties in with that larger goal.
Maestro Gabel’s entire 40 years of life has been wrapped up in classical music. His father played trumpet at the Paris Opéra for 37 years, and he himself started out as a trumpet player as well (from the age of six), studying with esteemed teachers such as Roger Delmotte and Reinhold Friedrich.
Entering the Paris Conservatoire early, he won first prize in trumpet performance at the age of just 20. It was during this time that he studied the score of Florent Schmitt’s Trumpet Suite (1955).
But Maestro Gabel found himself drawn to conducting as well, which eventually became his main musical endeavor. His career was launched upon winning the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in London in 2004, which was followed by several seasons at the London Symphony Orchestra as assistant conductor.
Today, Maestro Gabel is music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec while also keeping up a busy schedule of guest appearances with orchestras in the United States, London, France, Germany and other European countries.
All along, he has been a tireless champion of French repertoire — including presenting less-performed works of composers such as Paul Dukas and Ernest Chausson.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Fabien Gabel about his efforts on behalf of French music — and more specifically to ask him about his interest in the artistry of Florent Schmitt. (His observations below are translated from French into English.)
PLN: How and when did you become acquainted with the music of Florent Schmitt? What were the first compositions of his that you knew?
FG: I was young enough! At my home we had a recording of 20th century brass music. One of the selections on that recording was a fanfare called “Pompey’s Camp” from the Antony & Cleopatra Suite #1 of Florent Schmitt.
I remember also the wonderful and famous recording of La Tragédie de Salomé by Paul Paray that was in our home.
Later on, I had the opportunity to direct a student performance of Schmitt’s Lied et Scherzo.
PLN: When you attended the Paris Conservatoire, did you study any of Schmitt’s music with your instructors?
FG: Actually, no — with the exception of the Trumpet Suite. Schmitt’s name was well-known of course, but his music was taught very little — except perhaps pieces for wind instruments.
However, towards the end of my studies at the Conservatoire I had the opportunity to study harmony and counterpoint with a wonderful teacher, Alain Margoni. Florent Schmitt himself had encouraged Margoni to become a composer, who went on to win the Prix de Rome — just as Schmitt had done.
PLN: You were a trumpet player before you became an orchestra conductor, and it is my understanding that you performed Schmitt’s Trumpet Suite. Please tell us your impressions of that music and what it was like to study and perform it.
FG: This was a very difficult work to master because Schmitt’s virtuoso writing is closer to composing for the clarinet. For this reason, it is extremely difficult technically!! But despite its complexity and brevity, it is the only work for trumpet written by a major composer in the 20th century.
Harmonically, the Trumpet Suite is quite interesting, and the version Schmitt wrote with orchestra is absolutely dazzling.
PLN: Since becoming a conductor, which pieces by Schmitt have you directed?
FG: None up until now, before Rêves. The main reason is because it is extremely difficult to convince orchestra managers to program any Schmitt. That’s the case for mercantile reasons: It is far easier to fill a concert hall when performing Mahler or Shostakovich!
Indeed, any widespread knowledge of French music seems to be limited to a number of works by Debussy and Ravel plus a little Berlioz — and then some Massenet and Gounod for opera.
Albert Roussel is gradually disappearing from the concert halls, and other French composers like Jean Cras and Charles Koechlin are almost never played.
PLN: As you noted, you will be programming Schmitt’s 1915 tone picture Rêves with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra this coming December. Why did you decide to program this piece? What do you find particularly noteworthy about it?
FG: Rêves is an extraordinary piece of music — a composition that is completely hallucinating as well as brilliantly orchestrated. I also find it very sensual and very free-form.
Moreover, the piece is quite short, making it possible to insert it between other, more famous works.
The challenge for the conductor is how to deliver a convincing performance in such a short time-span. But despite its complexity and modernity, I consider it to be a wonderful introduction to Florent Schmitt’s music.
I must say, I’m more optimistic every time I present an unusual French work such as this one, because I find that the musicians as well as the public are always receptive — and indeed, wanting more.
PLN: Thinking about the Trumpet Suite, Rêves and other Schmitt compositions, what is it about these scores that you find distinctive — especially in relationship to other French composers of the period such as Ravel and Debussy?
FG: Like Roussel, I think of Schmitt as an independent voice. Despite this, we cannot deny the fact that Debussy paved the way for modernity in France, and to some extent Schmitt, like others, was susceptible to that influence.
I’d also say that Schmitt uses a “Ravelian” orchestra, but his music doesn’t sound like Ravel! The only common denominator is that there is a “French” sound; that is undeniable.
PLN: Do you have future plans to conduct Rêves elsewhere beyond Berlin? Are there other compositions by Schmitt that you would like to perform as well?
FB: I do intend to program Rêves in other places — probably in North America, in England, and certainly in Germany again. I would also like to present La Tragédie de Salomé, which has become an undeniable “classic” of the French repertoire — one that any serious orchestra needs to play.
If there is an additional Schmitt composition that I would really like to present to the public, it is his Second Symphony. Dating from 1957, it’s one of his very last works — a breathtaking piece positively brimming with creativity, freshness and modernity.
That it came from the pen of a composer who was well past the age of 85 is absolutely incredible.
PLN: In your music-making in Europe and North America, you are known as being a keen advocate of French music. In recent and upcoming concerts you are programming works of Poulenc, Dukas, Debussy, Ravel, Chausson and other French composers in addition to Schmitt. What is the “strategy” behind how you develop these concert programs, and how do audiences respond to them?
FG: Actually, I believe that the musical pubic is far more open to unfamiliar repertoire than many people want us to believe!
My programming strategy is quite simple: I combine very popular works with these rare ones. Seeing how the orchestra musicians react to the unfamiliar repertoire is always exciting.
Often, it’s one of amazement.
Recently, I directed Chausson’s Soir de fête with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, Germany. The musicians considered it a masterpiece and asked me why the piece was never played. They couldn’t believe such a composition was unknown. Their enthusiasm and passion for the music really touched me.
PLN: Tell us briefly about your current career activities. Where are you based, and which ensembles do you conduct on a regular basis?
FG: Since 2012, I have been music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec in Canada. I also conduct in the USA — Houston, Detroit, Washington and Rochester — as well as in Germany (Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin, Frankfurt).
I return to London often to direct orchestras there including the BBC Symphony, Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony, as well as to Paris where I conduct the Orchestre National de France and Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio-France.
PLN: Are there any additional comments you would like to make about Florent Schmitt — and French music more broadly?
FG: I’d caution again that French music in general is in jeopardy because it isn’t played regularly. But I feel that the French repertoire should not be “owned” by French musicians exclusively, and I humbly encourage artists all around the world to study, understand, appreciate and disseminate this wonderful repertoire.
About Florent Schmitt specifically — for too long his music has been unjustly neglected. It is high-time that his name be placed in the pantheon of the greatest French composers, right alongside Berlioz, Massenet, Fauré, Debussy and Ravel.
We owe a debt of gratitude to conductors like Fabien Gabel, who go beyond the call of duty to perform the music of Florent Schmitt and other neglected repertoire of the French school. We can only hope that his dreams to program Salomé, the Symphony #2 and other Schmitt scores will come to fruition in the near future.
Update (1/27/17): In early 2018, Fabien Gabel brought Rêves to American audiences for the first time in many decades, leading the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in two performances of the work on January 26 and 27.
Arts critic Elaine Schmidt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel was effusive in her praise for the music and the performance, writing:
“This fluid, engrossing piece — part programmatic and part cinematic — stirred the imagination. Gabel and the MSO created a huge palette of colors and effects.”
Having attended one of the two performances, I can attest that her description is completely accurate. What an incredible piece of music this is when experienced live! The reality is, no recording can do it complete justice.
In the run-up to the Milwaukee Symphony performances, conductor Fabien Gabel spoke on camera about the importance of Florent Schmitt in French classical music, and the renaissance of interest in the composer that is happening today. You can view his remarks here.
Update (10/6/19): Fabien Gabel has now brought Florent Schmitt’s Rêves to a third continent, presenting the piece with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in a weekend of concerts titled “Dreams and Visions” that also included Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
Reviewing the Schmitt performance for Limelight, Australia’s classical music and arts magazine, the critic Laura Biemmi wrote:
“Hearing WASO breathe life into [Schmitt’s] 1915 work Rêves was a rewarding experience. As Schmitt sought to musically realize the quasi-intangible, mysterious experience of dreaming, Gabel masterfully guided WASO through the ebbs and flows of the score. Every swell was expertly fashioned, every entry controlled to maximize intensity, and the halting, stop-start gestures towards the end – reminiscent here of someone gradually awakening from a dream – were integrated seamlessly into the overall flow of the piece …
Gabel and WASO brought equal measures of shimmer and warmth to the score. Particularly well-realized were the slightly sinister brass tones and the restless wind figurations that underpinned many of the swells.”
And in the pages of The West Australian newspaper, arts critic David Cusworth had this to say:
“Florent Schmitt’s Rêves (Dreams) introduced Gabel, a deft hand in command of a big orchestra. Complex harmonies of the early 20th century – this was premiered within a week of the 1918 Armistice – settled gently on a Romantic base. Expansive gestures summoned the ebb and flow of vast waves of sound, operatic in dynamic variation.”
Update (6/1/22): Fabien Gabel continues to champion Rêves around the world. He has now performed the piece in four countries — including his most recent performance with the Orchestre National de France at Maison de la Radio in Paris, a concert I was privileged to attend on May 12, 2022. I found that this particular Rêves performance benefited from the fact that the conductor has now “lived with” the music for nearly five years — and with each subsequent performance his interpretation gains from fresh insights into the score.
The ONF performance is noteworthy in another respect as well: It was filmed by France-Télévision — the first video documentation ever for this composition — and that video has now been released and can be viewed here. Having the opportunity to “see as well as hear” the music being made adds even more to being enveloped in the extraordinary landscape of Schmitt’s Rêves.