In 2008, 50 years following the death of Florent Schmitt, a recording featuring all of the repertoire written by the French composer for wind ensemble was released on the Corelia label. The recording featured the Orchestre d’Harmonie de la Région-Centre joined by the Ensemble Vocal Universitaire de Tours — all under the direction of Philippe Ferro.
Maestro Ferro is one of the most important conductors active in France in the realm of concert band music. In addition to being the music director of the Region-Centre Wind Ensemble since 1992, he also directed the Musique des Gardiens de la Paix in Paris from 2000 to 2008. He is the chairperson of AFEEV, the French symphonic band association.
Keenly interested in promoting new as well as classic works for symphonic band, Maestro Ferro has commissioned new musical works from some of Europe’s most promising younger composers.
The director has also had a relationship with the music of Florent Schmitt for decades, having first performed compositions by the composer as a flute player and later as a leader of wind ensembles.
Eight years ago, Maestro Ferro realized a personal dream to pay tribute to Schmitt’s musical legacy by recording all of the composer’s published repertoire for wind ensemble on a single CD.
In addition to the Corelia release being the first and only recording to feature Schmitt’s entire concert band repertoire, the program also contains two world premiere recordings: The March for the 163rd Infantry Regiment, composed during World War I, and the Hymne funèbre for tenor solo, chorus and wind ensemble, created in the 1890s and revised several times by the composer in the ensuing decades.
Both premieres represent the culmination of some detective work. In fact the 163rd Infantry March is performed in an orchestration prepared from Schmitt’s piano reduction score by Désiré Dondeyne, the famed French wind music specialist and music director (and one of Philippe Ferro’s teachers), due to the fact that the composer’s original orchestration had been lost.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Philippe Ferro to share his views about the wind ensemble repertoire of Florent Schmitt and what he finds compelling about it, as well as about the Hymne funèbre in particular. (His observations below are translated from French into English.)
PLN: How did you become acquainted with the music of Florent Schmitt, and what were the first works of his that you performed?
PF: I first discovered the music of Florent Schmitt as an instrumentalist by way of his Quartet for Flutes, which I presented several times in concert with various different flautists. Later on I had the opportunity to play flute in the First Suite from Antoine et Cléopâtre as part of the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under the direction of Leif Segerstam — a very memorable event!
After that, I discovered Schmitt’s superlative concert band piece Dionysiaques. In doing so, I benefited from the insights and advice of Désiré Dondeyne, the famous wind ensemble leader who knew composer personally in the 1950s.
PLN: What aspects of Schmitt’s style of writing for wind instruments do you find most compelling, inventive — and possibly unique?
PF: Florent Schmitt’s lush orchestration is incomparable. It is as if it is chiseled in the image of a jewel worked from a precious stone. Indeed, it is the same kind of refined beauty that we find in Ravel’s orchestrations.
The genius and precision in which Schmitt uses orchestration to wrought his finely drafted phrases is a signature characteristic of this composer.
PLN: In 2008, you made a recording of the entire works of Schmitt for wind ensemble with the Orchestre d’Harmonie de la Région-Centre, released on the Corelia label. Can you tell us how this project came about?
PF: This project was borne out of my desire to pay tribute to this great composer on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his death (1958-2008). Not only did I wish to record for the first time the entire body of work that Schmitt composed for wind ensemble, I wanted to go back to the original orchestration Schmitt had penned for Dionysiaques, including all of the instruments of the saxhorn family as well as other instruments (ad libitum).
Having researched and then led this music in its original orchestration, I cannot imagine conducting this music in any other way now. To me, it is like a painting in which we can enjoy the full range of colors, as compared to the “pale copies” which is how I characterize more recent instrumental arrangements.
As an interesting corollary, in 2006 I commissioned the composer Alain Louvier, the last Prix de Rome composition prize-winner and an honorary director of the Paris Conservatoire, to create a work with exactly the same original orchestration as Schmitt’s Dionysiaques. The name of Louvier’s piece is Archimède, and it proves how aesthetically effective these original instrumentations can be.
PLN: What can you tell us about Hymne funèbre, one of Schmitt’s least familiar works but one that I particularly love?
One of the tracks on the Corelia recording is the Hymne funèbre for tenor, chorus and mixed winds, which was the world premiere recording of this piece. It was Désiré Dondeyne and the musicologist Frédéric Robert who introduced me to this score.
PLN: How challenging was it for the players and singers to perform the Hymne funèbre when there was no recording to turn to for reference?
PF: We did not have a professional choir available to us, so one particular challenge was finding an amateur choir able to sing this piece well, because the scoring by Schmitt is quite delicate. Hervé Magnan, the choirmaster on the recording, did very commendable work in achieving very tight ensemble. Of course, we spent much time preparing for the recording.
PLN: There seem to be discrepancies regarding the date of composition of the Hymne funèbre. Some sources cite 1893, others 1899 and 1916, and some as late as the early 1930s. What have you learned about the circumstances of its composition?
I learned from Frédéric Robert that Schmitt’s first version for male choir and wind ensemble was composed between 1897 and 1899. A later version for mixed choir was presented in 1933 by the Garde Républicaine along with the mixed choir of the Church of St. Gervais at a memorial service for mathematician and former French prime minister Paul Painlevé.
I have in my possession a copy of the manuscript from this second version, but no date of composition is shown. All we know is a filing date to SACEM (the French version of ASCAP) in May of 1936.
The editors at Durand [Schmitt’s major publisher] were also kind enough to provide us the earlier manuscript material parts for the male chorus. We had to edit or even redo portions of the material for mixed choir from Schmitt’s manuscript score.
PLN: What special challenges, if any, did the musicians have in preparing and recording the Hymne funèbre?
PF: As is often the case with choruses, it was necessary to be very vigilant about the balances between the vocal parts as called for in the score. From a technical standpoint, the music is not as difficult as what we find in Dionysiaques, but the intonation needed to be perfect in order to achieve the necessary transparency.
PLN: In your opinion, how does the music of Florent Schmitt compare to other composers active on the Parisian musical scene during the period 1900-1940? Does his music deserve to be considered on the same plane as the works of Debussy and Ravel?
PF: As we all know, this period was one of the richest in the entire history of French music. It’s true that the two giants — Debussy and Ravel — somewhat overshadowed other composers whose music also deserves our interest and our attention. Florent Schmitt was certainly one of them, along with Roussel, Koechlin and others.
Fortunately, today many performers now value what too few musicians programmed previously.
PLN: You have an interesting background and career as an instrumentalist as well as a leader of wind ensembles. What particular initiatives or recording projects are you working on now?
PF: There are many! In November of this year I will be releasing a documentary titled «Ce qu’il faut de silences« that traces the genesis and process of a cello concerto commission to Richard Dubugnon.
Coming up in 2017 is a disk of concerti for various brass instruments — including David Gillingham’s Trumpet Concerto featuring Clément Saunier, Marc Lys’ Concerto for Tuba played by Francois Thullier, and the Trombone Concerto by Jean-Pascal Beintus performed by Fabrice Millisher.
Then in 2018 I will be recording a disk featuring concertante works by Frank Ticheli and Philippe Geiss with Claude Delangle and the Diastema Quartet, as well as a work by Guillaume Connesson featuring clarinetist Florent Héau.
PLN: Are there any other observations you would like to make about Florent Schmitt and his music?
PF: It is gratifying to see that the music of Schmitt is finally escaping the “prison” in which it was confined for too long. It is never too late for great music to shine. I am impressed — and rejoice — in the missionary work you are doing for this French composer.
Of course, it is the work of musicians like Philippe Ferro who are doing the real work of bringing the artistry of Florent Schmitt back into the limelight. His important recording of the complete wind ensemble repertoire of Schmitt — including two world premieres — has become the “reference” recording for scholars, musicians — and lovers French classical music in general.