Florent Schmitt composed just three works for the saxophone, but all three of them hold a place of prominence in the repertoire.
Soloists frequently play the Légende (1918) as well as the Songe de Coppélius (1908). Both of these are works that are Impressionistic and Romantic in style — with more than a hint of Schmitt’s trademark “orientalist” touches in places.
The third work is Schmitt’s Quartet for Saxophones, Opus 102. It was composed in 1941 and lives in a different sound-world — more neoclassical and filled with more daring harmonies even if still rooted in tonality, along with retaining a healthy dose of romantic fervor.
The Quartet is a piece that has grown in popularity over the years. Today, it is known to most every serious classical saxophonist, and many have studied, rehearsed or performed the score.
One such person is Louis-Philippe Bonin, a French-Canadian saxophone player, pedagogue and clinician who has performed Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet numerous times over the past several years. Mr. Bonin performs as both a soloist and chamber musician, including being the youngest Canadian saxophonist to perform professionally on the international stage.
Classically trained by Jean-François Guay at the University of Montreal, Mr. Bonin has also studied extensively with Timothy McAllister as well as with great European saxophonists such as Claude Delangle, Arno Bornkamp and Christian Wirth.
Mr. Bonin has also participated in various international symposia and events including the World Saxophonne Congress, the Londeix International Saxophone Competition, the Sax-Story International Saxophone Festival, the Arosa Saxophone Course in Switzerland and the Université Européenne du Saxophone in France. He is an endorsing artist for Yamaha saxophones and Légère reeds.
He formed his saxophone quartet, Ensemble SaxoLogie, in 2012, and the first repertoire item the group tackled was Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet. Recently, I asked Mr. Bonin to share his thoughts about the Quartet and what makes it such a special composition among the repertoire for classical saxophone. (His comments below are translated from French into English.)
PLN: How did you first become acquainted with the music of Florent Schmitt? What music by the composer did you hear first?
L-PB: I discovered Florent Schmitt when I was a college student in Montréal, Canada. I was 17 years old, and at the time I had in my possession only a tenor saxophone. My teacher suggested that I study Schmitt’s Songe de Coppélius, a short piece for tenor saxophone and piano.
The impressionistic character and harmony used by Schmitt in this piece struck me particularly; I liked the precision and rigor of the rhythmic notation and I was also very impressed at how the music simultaneously possessed a very free and fluid style.
Later, I discovered the Légende (1918) — a magnificent work which, inspired by Schmitt’s penchant for the Orient, possesses a refined harmony along with having a sweet and sensual melody — characteristics that elude many works in the repertoire for saxophone from that time.
To me, even more than the Saxophone Rhapsody of Debussy or the Choral Varié by Vincent d’Indy, this piece marks the point in time when the saxophone truly began to be taken seriously as a solo instrument in classical music.
Even today, the Légende is among the compulsory works performed at the most prestigious saxophone competitions throughout the world.
PLN: Tell us your thoughts about the Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet. What do you find particularly noteworthy about this music?
L-PB: The Quartet for Saxophones is one of many works that were commissioned by the legendary Marcel Mule following the creation of his saxophone class at the Paris Conservatoire. Written by Schmitt during World War II, a real demarcation is set between this work and compositions previously written for saxophone.
From its very first notes, you realize that the Impressionist years have been left well-behind, as here the composer is adhering to a decidedly more neoclassical style of writing.
Some annotations by the composer in the score reveal its anti-dogmatic personality with almost satirical-sounding humorous notes. For example, a note in the first movement states, “With sage decisiveness, fugal movement … almost.”
Each movement has a very distinct personality, but everything comes together as one coherent unit through Schmitt’s vigorous and precise rhythms, vast expressive melodies and phrasing, and very dense harmonies.
PLN: Thinking about the four movements of the Saxophone Quartet, do you have any particular favorites? What makes them so?
L-PB: It is very difficult for me to say which movement I like the most. Each one is so different that I find equal pleasure in playing and listening to all of them!
The first movement presents a fugue subject with accented quarter-notes in perfect, diminished and augmented intervals, giving the work an austere and rigid tone. Listening to this movement, I sometimes think of the military marches written for saxophone ensembles in the early twentieth century. I like the stiffness — the deliberate non rubato — and especially the central portion where all voices join together to mark the climax of the movement.
In my opinion, the second movement [vif] is the most difficult of all to perform. The structure of this movement is more fragile and requires great accuracy on the part of saxophone players. The musical transitions of this movement are among the ones which have given players the most challenges during rehearsal. Like so much of Schmitt’s music, it demands great concentration and patience on the part of the musicians.
Although very different in terms of aesthetics, the use of octatonic scales in the second movement reminds me of the later Saxophone Quartet of Alfred Désenclos.
In my view, the third movement [assez lent] is one of the most beautiful slow movements in the entire saxophone quartet repertoire. As in the second movement, Schmitt opens this one using syncopated rhythms played by the baritone saxophone to camouflage a ternary movement (3/8) in a binary context (4/4).
The dense range and chromatic harmony of this movement give great prominence to the very lyrical and expressive character of the melodic line (cantando, as written in the score). The central part, including the chromatic crescendo, is one of my most favorite moments of the entire Quartet.
The final movement [animé, sans excès] is a virtuoso tour de force for the four instrumentalists. Building on the character and successive entries of the first movement, the singing line is often given to the soprano saxophone while the alto, tenor and baritone players exchange a furious flurry of notes.
The great challenge of this movement, besides the individual parts for each musician, is the almost chaotic virtuosity of the final bars … ending the work in a most spectacular way.
PLN: Tell us about your performing group Ensemble SaxoLogie. When was it formed, who are its members, and how did you come together as a group?
L-PB: I formed this group in 2012 following my studies at the University of Montréal. I wanted to reinforce my chamber music experience because I had focused on the solo repertoire for so many years. Other members of Ensemble SaxoLogie (Stefan Jackson, Audrey Paquette and Jean-Philippe Godard) are fellow graduates of either the University of Montréal or the Montréal Conservatory who joined me in this adventure.
Since our formation, we have presented several recitals and participated in many events and festivals. We also collaborate with emerging composers, studying and presenting new repertoire.
PLN: When did Ensemble SaxoLogie first perform Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet? Is it a standard item in your repertoire?
L-PB: Florent Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet is very special to us because it was the very first piece we worked on as a group. We naively chose this composition because we were all lovers of Schmitt’s Légende, not realizing the later piece’s complexities!
We would work on the Quartet until late in the night at the University of Montréal. One evening a teacher heard us playing the work and asked if we would be interested in performing in a concert of chamber works presented by the music faculty. That event was our official first concert as a group! It was also the source of our “live” recording of the Quartet.
We played the work again the following year at our concert Portraits of France, which also included compositions by Eugène Bozza, Maurice Ravel, Alfred Désenclos, Thierry Escaich and Claude Debussy.
We are always pleased to present the Quartet not only to the musical public, but also for fellow saxophonists who are familiar with Schmitt’s compositions for solo saxophone but who may know much less about his neoclassical period.
PLN: Do you have any upcoming plans to perform the Saxophone Quartet?
L-PB: The piece is most definitely part of our current repertoire — despite the fact that it still demands a lot of rehearsal time every time we program it.
Although we now understand better the shape and style of the piece, the performance itself always requires intense preparation. It is music that calls for the utmost precision and musicality, and we try every time to play this work the way it deserves to be presented.
PLN: Finally, are there any additional comments you’d like to make about Florent Schmitt, his worthiness as a composer, and his contributions to the saxophone repertoire?
L-PB: I am convinced that the unusually good quality of the Saxophone Quartet in terms of expression, musicality and virtuosity means that it deserves its rightful place among the very best works of French chamber music from the twentieth century. Sadly, I feel that had this piece been written for string quartet by a more dominant musical figure of that time (Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel or Roussel), its fame would be far greater.
On the musical output of Florent Schmitt more generally, I believe that its worthiness has been overshadowed by the attention paid to Schmitt’s contemporaries. Moreover, his rather unsympathetic personality and blunders during World War II did not help the cause of his music.
Nevertheless, numerous high-quality recordings of Schmitt’s music have been released recently, including the two Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (2015) and La Tragédie de Salomé by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain (2011).
Listening to Florent Schmitt’s music, we can realize that he was in full control of his artistry — a refined artisan uniquely capable of contrapuntal, harmonic and rhythmic virtuosity. Thankfully, his work is now being rediscovered by musicians and conductors — and everyone must agree on the relevance of this composer and the importance of his legacy in French music.
Louis-Philippe Bonin is certainly correct in his assessment of Florent Schmitt’s renaissance. Each year brings a greater number of performances of the composer’s music by leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists throughout the world, including in Mr. Bonin’s home country. For example, recently the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec announced that it will be presenting Schmitt’s orchestral tour de force Ronde burlesque in two concert performances in May 2017, under the direction of the orchestra’s music director Fabien Gabel.
For those who would like to hear Ensemble SaxoLogie’s live performance of Schmitt’s Saxophone Quartet, all four movements have been uploaded to YouTube:
- Movement #1 – Avec une sage décision
- Movement #2 – Vif
- Movement #3 – Assez lent
- Movement #4 – Animé sans excès
I think you will be impressed.
Something Mr. Bonin said about Florent Schmitt struck me: “I liked the precision and rigor of the rhythmic notation and I was also very impressed at how the music simultaneously possessed a very free and fluid style.”
Born in Lorraine, Schmitt was undoubtedly bicultural, subconsciously if not overtly. And so it’s no surprise we hear a German ‘precision’ and ‘rigor’ underpinning French ‘freedom’ and ‘fluidity.’ You get something special.
Old Austro-Hungarian Italy—that part of northern Italy that was ruled by the Habsburgs for centuries—is today the engine of the Italian economy. I have heard that if you were to sever Italy at the Po River, the northern part of the country would have the highest per capita GDP in all of Europe.
And that’s because, once again, you have a melding of German precision and Mediterranean creativity. Stir ’em up and you get a Ferrari.