One of the most fascinating pieces of music featuring the French horn is Florent Schmitt’s Lied et scherzo, Op. 54. Originally composed in 1910 for double wind quintet in which one of the horns plays an important solo role, subsequently the composer prepared three other versions of this music: one for horn and piano; another for cello and piano, and also a version for two pianos.
Schmitt dedicated his composition to his fellow French composer Paul Dukas, who had composed his own work featuring the French horn — the Villanelle — just a few years before.
To date, all of Schmitt’s iterations except the cello version have received at least one commercial recording. But the original instrumentation for double wind quintet remains the most popular and oft-performed one, and that version has also been the subject of a variety of scholarly studies – most recently a DMA dissertation by Dr. Eric Shannon published in 2015, which can be viewed here.
Dr. Shannon, who is now a professor of music at Lamar University, speaks for many musicians when he refers to this composition as “a musical tapestry woven from a diverse assortment of both progressive and familiar musical techniques, traditions and ideologies.”
Further, Shannon contends that the Lied et scherzo is a work that “arguably approaches the stature of such cornerstone works as the Mozart Serenades, the Beethoven Octet, the Strauss Serenade in E-flat or the Stravinsky Octet.”
Considering its noteworthy qualities, the music isn’t particularly well-known – especially in the United States. And yet, it’s music that elicits very a positive reaction from musicians and audiences alike whenever it is encountered.
That was certainly the case with Corbin Wagner, a notable horn soloist and educator who for 35 years was a member of Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Recently retired from that post, Mr. Wagner is now a prominent music educator at Michigan State University as well as a solo performer.
Wagner did not know the Lied et scherzo until recently, when he was introduced to it by a music colleague. Recognizing its worth, he immediately set about studying the score and readying it for performance. That performance took place on October 27, 2016, when Mr. Wagner was joined by members of the MSU Wind Symphony in a program of music of Claude Debussy, Henri Tomasi, plus Dionysiaques, Schmitt’s 1913 tour de force for wind ensemble.
Mr. Wagner’s rich and idiomatic performance of the Lied et scherzo was uploaded to YouTube immediately following the concert, where I had the pleasure of encountering a very special performance — indeed, one of the finest interpretations of this music I have ever heard.
Realizing the obvious love Corbin Wagner has for the Lied et scherzo, I asked him to share his thoughts and perspectives on the music. His observations are presented below:
PLN: What aspects of the Lied et Scherzo score do you find particularly noteworthy in terms of their musical inventiveness?
CW: I love the use of the double quintet. The weight of this ensemble supports the horn well. Schmitt then uses the extended instruments like piccolo and English horn to broaden the colors to mix with the horn.
Also, Schmitt was clever in how he uses the second horn. Sometimes the second horn is reinforcing the soloist or playing as call-and-response, sometimes spelling the soloist, and sometimes playing a texture role in the ensemble.
PLN: When you contrast Schmitt’s piece in comparison with horn concertante works of other French composers such as the Villanelle by Dukas and the Larghetto by Chabrier, what stylistic similarities or differences do you find?
CW: Schmitt wrote a beautiful, tuneful and sometimes haunting melody for the horn – similar to those other two compositions. However, I believe the Allegro sections are more similar to the writings of Jean Françaix; secco, happy, light and cute.
This piece emphasizes the melodic sections more than the technical sections. The role of the horn is truly to be the prominent voice in the dectet, while never overriding the ensemble’s chamber music feel.
PLN: How would you characterize Florent Schmitt’s writing for the horn? Is it idiomatic? Does it “lay well” for performers? Are there any particular technical challenges musicians face when preparing this music for performance?
CW: Schmitt wrote this piece beautifully for the horn. Some low jumps may be difficult – or perhaps playing the delicate articulation sections – but overall, Schmitt understood the horn very well.
PLN: Is the Lied et scherzo a fun piece to play?
CW: The Lied et scherzo is a delightful piece to perform. It is an enjoyable collaboration with a chamber group as opposed to a large ensemble. The piece is also more playable, reasonable in its demands, and less “frightening” than other solo compositions.
PLN: Schmitt composed this piece originally for double wind quintet with one of the two horns playing a solo role, and this is the version you chose to play in your recent concert with members of the MSU Wind Symphony. What was it like to prepare and play this music with student musicians? Were there any special challenges of ensemble, or other hurdles to be overcome?
CW: The French style of performance was difficult for these students at first. The players must learn how to be extra-flexible with tempos, and extra-expressive on the phrasing.
This music also requires an energized sound without becoming too sonorous. Vibrato is also a nice touch.
PLN: Have you ever performed the Lied et scherzo in the composer’s alternative arrangement for horn and piano?
CW: This was the very first time I had played the Lied et scherzo – and actually I have never seen another arrangement of this music.
PLN: Briefly tell us about your musical background and activities as a performer and as a professor of music. What special projects are you working on at present?
CW: The “big highlights” include earning Bachelors and Masters of Music degrees from the University of Michigan. From there, I become a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. I retired after 35 years with the DSO and began teaching at Michigan State University.
Other milestones include receiving first prize in the American Horn Competition [now the International Horn Competition of America] and third prize in the Munich Competition [ARD International Music Competition]. Notable upcoming activities include recording a CD of music featuring horn, soprano and piano – my second one inside of the past year.
We are very fortunate to have Corbin Wagner’s superlative interpretation of Florent Schmitt’s Lied et scherzo accessible for all to hear. You can listen to his performance via this YouTube link; see if you don’t agree that his is a singularly noteworthy realization of this extraordinary score.
Incidentally, Corbin isn’t the only member of the Wagner family who has studied and performed the music of Florent Schmitt. In 2015, his daughter Jacquelyn Wagner, a well-known star of opera houses in Europe and the United States, joined with conductor Marek Janowski and Berlin RSO musicians to present Schmitt’s blockbuster 1904 choral masterpiece Psalm XLVII in concert at Berlin Philharmonie Hall. You can listen to her thrilling interpretation of this monumental work here.