Throughout his long composing career spanning from the late 1880s to the late 1950s, Florent Schmitt would return again and again to the human voice. While he never composed an opera, he wrote voluminous pages of music in every other form that features solo and mixed voices.
Tellingly, the composer’s Opus 1 and his final Opus 138 are both choral works.
Schmitt derived inspiration from diverse sources for his vocal compositions — sometimes religious themes but also contemporary poets, ancient texts, and even his own verse. This kind of diversity informs Schmitt’s Chansons à quatre voix, Op. 39, a set of six pieces for four solo voices (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) and piano four-hands which he composed between 1903 and 1905.
Chansons à quatre voix is a fascinating piece of music that consists of six contrasting movements, as follows:
Three of the movements (I, III and VI) are set to the words of the poet Alfred de Musset, while movement V is set to an ancient Arabic verse. The two remaining movements are likely the composer’s own verse (there is no attribution in the score to other writers).
The Chansons à quatre voix is not a well-known work — in fact, it’s a genuine rarity. And yet it has fervent admirers.
Indeed, it isn’t an exaggeration to claim that anyone who encounters this music is immediately smitten by its charms — and by its depth.
The French musicologist, organist, composer and teacher Guillaume Le Dréau considers this score to be a very significant one in Schmitt’s catalogue of compositions, writing:
“The piece follows directly after Psaume XLVII  and can be seen through the same Prix de Rome filter. It is written for four voices along with piano four-hands — very much in the tradition of the text choirs in the Prix de Rome composition competitions as well as the pieces of music which were typically dispatched from Rome to Paris by the prizewinners — Debussy’s Printemps, for example.
I hypothesize that there is something ironic and mocking in the music’s setting. The poetry is Romantic and in some ways rather innocuous. And yet, the first movement is titled “Véhémente” as if to announce that respect for traditions is only relative — just as in the beginning of Psaume XLVII [which Maurice Ravel characterized as nearly shattering the concert hall].
Besides this, the sequence of chansons, all written in 3/4 time, is eminently ravishing at times. The “Nostalgic” movement makes use of a motif that we hear much later in Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) and Daphnis et Chloé (1913). But remember, Schmitt’s piece was created in 1905!”
Along those same lines of “Schmitt the forerunner,” the American conductor JoAnn Falletta has said this about Chansons à quatre voix:
“The composer is always surprising. At first the music sounds like Stravinsky, and then becomes Romantic. In both, so amazingly original — and in this regard I continue to be astonished by Florent Schmitt.”
Guillaume Le Dréau notes Schmitt’s “very orchestral use of the voices and the two pianos” in the score, which makes it no surprise at all that the composer orchestrated this piece as well.
Unfortunately, no recorded document exists of the orchestrated version, but we do have one commercial recording of the music (made in 2002) with a four-part chorus and piano four-hands. It features the Chamber Choir of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland under the direction of Pascal Mayer, which can be heard here.
In more recent years, this music has been championed by Edward Rushton, a British-born pianist and accompanist who has resided in Switzerland for the past two decades while performing and recording throughout Europe.
Together with fellow pianists and vocalists, he has presented Schmitt’s score in recitals throughout Switzerland. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Rushton how he came to know and love this music. His comments are presented below:
PLN: When did you first become acquainted with Florent Schmitt? What was the first music of his that you heard?
ER: I first heard La Tragédie de Salomé on BBC Radio 3 as a teenager — I was maybe 13 or 14 — and it completely bowled me over!
The next piece I became addicted to was Dionysiaques. I had a cassette tape of it, recorded off of the radio I think; I wore out the tape listening to it so many times. It thrilled me every time, as I would be whooping and cheering at the end!
PLN: As a pianist, what drew your attention to Florent Schmitt, and what inspired you to prepare his music for performance?
ER: For a long time I was content to listen to whatever orchestral and choral works of Schmitt’s I could obtain on CD. I didn’t really know much of his piano music, except for Reflets d’Allemagne (Op. 28), which if I remember rightly I once tried playing through with my father.
Later on, when I was looking for repertoire to perform with one of my groups of singers I was delighted to come across Schmitt’s Chansons à quatre voix. And when I formed a piano duo last year we decided to learn and program Reflets d’Allemagne.
I was also fortunate to find some instrumental partners last year to present Schmitt’s late chamber work Pour presque tous les temps (Op. 134), which I think is such a remarkable piece in so many ways.
The Vocalise-Étude (Op. 30) has also been in my repertoire for a long time. I play it often with my American saxophonist colleague Harry White. We also recorded that piece on our CD called “23 Vocalises,” released on the BIS label last year.
PLN: You have chosen to focus much of your endeavors on Schmitt’s music featuring piano with voices. How did this interest develop?
ER: I was looking for repertoire for four voices and piano four-hands to program with a group of singers here in Switzerland. We needed something to pair with the classic works by Brahms and Schumann. We considered some pieces by the Swiss composer Hans Huber, but found them rather heavy-handed.
Imagine how thrilled I was to discover a work by Florent Schmitt for this same combination of musical forces — the Chansons à quatre voix. And what a great piece too, which, being all in 3/4 time, complements the Brahms Liebesliederwalzer so perfectly.
It also shares some of the “orientalisms” of Schumann’s Spanische Liebeslieder.
On top of this, I was attracted by the fact that some of the texts are Schmitt’s own.
PLN: How would characterize the musical style of this work?
ER: The titles of the individual pieces give good indications both of the attitude of the words and of the musical style Schmitt uses to portray those moods. But what binds them together is a great deal of wit and charm — even in the most savagely dissonant and biting moments of the “Boréale” movement, for example.
Schmitt is constantly playing with wild chromaticism, even slipping in some whole-tone shenanigans in the “Naïve” movement. There’s so much pure sensual beauty too, verging on kitsch.
One of the singers in our ensemble characterized the “Tendre” movement perfectly when she remarked that it seemed as if all four singers were dreamily singing to themselves about something only of interest to them. But the sound of all four voices together — seemingly by random coincidence — is totally harmonious and unified. Isn’t that the very definition of good polyphonic music?
A mixture of playfulness, sensuality and brutality, such as is implicit in the idea of the hunt (in the first movement “Véhémente”), is perhaps a good way of imagining it. And this is a typical combination for Schmitt, I think.
PLN: What pieces of music does this work emulate, and what compositions does it presage?
ER: I’m rather sure its “grandfather” was Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer, as it’s composed for the same rather rare combination of musicians. Also, all six chansons are in 3/4 time — but Schmitt’s composition is much less “well-behaved,” shall we say, than the Brahms.
There is also a lot of longing for far-off places — Italy, Arabia — that we encounter so often in French poetry and song.
PLN: Where and when have you performed Chansons à quatre voix?
ER: I have performed it numerous times in the last couple of years all around Switzerland, both in “house-concerts” and in public venues. The most recent performances were on New Year’s Eve in the Monastery of Fischingen, and in February 2017 at the Chateau de Grandson.
I have programmed the music only with solo voices. I know it has been performed as a choral piece, but personally I can’t imagine it working as well with chorus, as the parts are really tricky and need flexible voices.
It could be interesting to hear it done by a very good professional chamber choir, but I think I will always prefer the freedom and flexibility that solo voices can give it.
PLN: How have audiences responded to the music?
ER: Audiences like it; often there’s even a smattering of applause and laughter following the first movement. But I also feel that audiences are a little thrown off by it — maybe not knowing what to expect because the composer is so little-known.
I suspect many would need to hear it again to fully enjoy it. After all, the piece is a bit of a whirlwind; so much information and it’s over all too soon.
PLN: Was it easy to find willing vocal partners who were as interested as you in investigating this unfamiliar repertoire?
ER: It was easy to convince my colleagues to take part in the Op. 39 project. They were immediately won over by the quality and the charm of the music!
So far, my piano partners have included Fabienne Romer and now Alison Cullen (with whom I formed the Miravia Duo last year and with whom I also perform Reflets d’Allemagne). The singers have been Sybille Diethelm, Barbara Erni, Annina Haug, Jakob Pilgram, Raphaël Favre, René Perler and Marcus Niedermeyr.
All of them are fans of the music.
PLN: Are there aspects of Schmitt’s style of writing for piano and voice that you find particularly interesting or noteworthy? Do you sense certain influences on the part of Schmitt’s teachers Théodore Dubois, Jules Massenet or Gabriel Fauré?
ER: In my view, the composer whose influence one can hear most in Schmitt may be Paul Dukas. But in general, I love the synthesis of what one might characterize as “French” and “German” influences.
You could say that Schmitt was fascinated with the pure-sound qualities of certain extended harmonies — one might call that a “French” quality.
But he was also interested very much in what Wagner achieved in German music, rhythmically and in terms of Wagner’s virtuosic mastery of polyphony.
That being said, Schmitt is so completely individual! No other French composer wrote with so much bite, and so orgiastically. Perhaps only Ravel — but then Ravel is worlds apart from Schmitt temperamentally.
PLN: In your opinion, does Schmitt write idiomatically for the voice and for piano?
ER: Absolutely! Schmitt’s music is gorgeous to sing and play.
PLN: Are there other vocal or piano works by Florent Schmitt that you would like to perform in the future?
ER: Most of my work as a pianist is with singers. It is only natural to want to find repertoire by my favorite composers! I am very keen to do some of Schmitt’s other songs, such as Trois chansons (Op. 4) and the Quatre poèmes de Ronsard (Op. 100).
I have played the song Il pleure dans mon coeur (Op. 4, No. 2) in a recital program focused on Verlaine’s poetry that I’ve presented with the mezzo-soprano Annina Haug.
But all of Schmitt’s songs are worthy of investigation, because they all look and sound so enticing! I am working on persuading some of my singer colleagues to learn and program more of them.
One challenge, however: It is very difficult in the German-speaking part of Switzerland to program French music — particularly works by lesser-known composers.
Even superstars like Debussy and Ravel have a relatively hard time of it here. I think the German Swiss seem to have a collective trauma stemming from having to learn French at school; it is a great pity and something I cannot relate to at all.
I’d also like to perform more of Schmitt’s piano duet music, and after doing the Reflets d’Allemagne, Alison and I will start working on Humoresques (Op. 43).
We are very grateful for the evangelism of musicians like Edward Rushton who are tireless champions of Florent Schmitt’s lesser-known works. Thanks to the efforts of him and others, more of the composer’s output is making the transition from “rarity” to “repertoire we know” — not least the captivating Chansons à quatre voix.