In April 2017, the Delaware-based chamber group Mélomanie presented Florent Schmitt’s Sonatine en trio, Opus 85, an intimate and engaging piece for flute, clarinet and harpsichord the composer created in 1936.
The Schmitt Sonatine was part of a fascinating program that featured seven works stretching from the 1600s (Marin Marais) through to contemporary pieces by Nicolas Bacri, Shulamit Ran and Vittorio Rieti.
Also on the program was the world premiere of Sandstone Peak, a composition commissioned by Mélomanie that was created by New York-based composer and flautist Bonnie McAlvin.
The program was representative of Mélomanie’s mission to present “provocative pairings of early and contemporary works.” The concert was held at the aesthetically and acoustically pleasing performing space at The Delaware Contemporary, Wilmington’s premiere gallery of modern art.
Mélomanie’s core performers include musicians playing flute, violin, viola da gamba, cello and harpsichord, so the inclusion of Schmitt’s Sonatine en trio was an apt choice. The composer himself created three versions of the music: one for flute/clarinet/harpsichord; another for flute/clarinet/piano; and a third one for violin/cello/piano. While they are nearly identical in terms of the notes, they have a very different flavor due to the combination of instruments featured in each version.
The Sonatine is presented in its harpsichord version the least frequently, likely because of the lack of access to that instrument compared to the availability of a piano. Thus, the Mélomanie concert was a rare opportunity to see and hear the music performed in Florent Schmitt’s original conception.
Following the concert, I had the opportunity to interview the three musicians featured in Schmitt’s piece:
Various topics were covered during the 45-minute discussion, which was conducted from the stage for the benefit of the many members of the audience who chose to stay to hear the exchange. Highlights from the interview are presented below:
PLN: Prior to preparing and performing the Sonatine en trio, were any of you familiar with the composer Florent Schmitt and his music?
Joshua Kovach: I was familiar with Florent Schmitt through my parents, who are also musicians. When I started to play in a band, they said they hoped I’d have a chance to perform Dionysiaques, which is Schmitt’s most famous piece for concert band. As it turned out, I did get a chance to play that work during my first semester. It’s quite a piece: very strong writing – very creative – a terrific piece that makes you wish Schmitt had written more for band.
Kimberly Reighley: I was introduced to Florent Schmitt and to this piece by one of my graduate students at West Chester University School of Music who was doing research for his graduate chamber recital. He unearthed it and performed it, which is why I can attest to the fact that the version for flute, clarinet and piano sounds strikingly different. It’s quite a different character than the version with harpsichord – a completely different picture.
Tracy Richardson: I have to confess, I did not know of Florent Schmitt or his music before playing the Sonatine.
PLN: How did you come to select and perform the Sonatine en trio here at Mélomanie?
Kimberly Reighley: As the artistic leaders of the ensemble, Tracy and I made the selection. Being familiar with the piece already, I knew that the keyboard part was not indicated as “piano,” but rather as “clavecin.” Prior to this, Mélomanie had performed a piece for flute, violin and harpsichord by Martinů that is similar in many ways to the Schmitt, so it seemed like an ideal piece for us to present when we invited Josh to play with us at this concert.
PLN: What were your first impressions of the music when looking at the score, or listening to a recording of it?
Tracy Richardson: The piece is very bright and scintillating. It goes by very quickly in terms of its emotional changes. I thought it was very, very witty when I heard it.
Joshua Kovach: My first impression, thinking about the only other piece I knew by Schmitt [Dionysiaques], is that it’s difficult to imagine that the two pieces were composed by the same person! I did listen to a few recordings of the piece, and what struck me was a great deal of lightness – or wit, as Tracy says – that could only come across in the harpsichord version.
Also, there’s a lot of musical information that’s compressed into small phrases, that might otherwise be glossed over with the piano.
I was also struck by how difficult the music was to play! It may sound easy, but it is a little bit awkward to play, so our aim was to try to achieve that lightness in spite of the difficulty of performing it.
PLN: I’d like to know your thoughts on each of the four movements – and anything in particular that you find noteworthy or special. Let’s start with the first movement – the Assez animé.
Tracy Richardson: Since I look at the whole score when I play, I was struck by some interesting aspects of the key signatures. The piece is written in two sharps – what you’d think of as D major or B minor. And in fact, the first movement does start and end in D major.
But in this movement Schmitt has a series of chords followed by an ornamental gesture in the right hand. First it’s a C major chord; then he changes one note in the chord and it becomes C minor. Then, another couple of measures later he adds an A-sharp and it becomes a diminished seventh chord, following by changing one note more in that diminished seventh chord.
So he’s really playing around with our ears. It’s like when you twist a word just a little bit and it changes the meaning – that’s what he seems to be doing musically. By playing with the harmony, he’s playing with the emotional content of the movement, too.
Kimberly Reighley: What I was most struck by, in both the first and second movements, is the way Schmitt writes for the flute and the clarinet — so that if we’re doing our job right, the listener cannot tell when one instrument’s line fuses into the other.
The coloring that this produces is amazing, where sometimes the flute and the clarinet blend together into this new sound which isn’t exactly the flute nor exactly the clarinet, either. I’m particularly struck by this in the first two movements of the Sonatine.
PLN: The second movement, marked Assez vif, I see as a weird little waltz – one that’s just a little “off.” Would you agree with that characterization?
Tracy Richardson: I do see this movement like a waltz as well. To me it’s very graceful, and yet it has some gestures that are very difficult to bring off on the harpsichord. You have to go to distant places on the keyboard. Something like that is not as challenging on a piano, but on the harpsichord it means shifting between manuals, and of course you don’t have the pedal or the percussive touch of a piano to help you.
About the harmony in this movement, the piece begins in F-sharp minor but ends in B major. So it’s another twist – or is it perhaps a joke? Normally, the dominant chord of B major would be F-sharp major, but Schmitt starts with it as F-sharp minor. Starting with a minor dominant is unusual.
And then, ending the movement in B major isn’t what you expect either, because you’d expect it to end in B minor. So I think he’s playing with the performers and listeners here as well – more than simply experimenting with harmony. The ending of this movement always takes me by surprise; it’s so unexpected to be in B major!
Kimberly Reighley: To me, this movement is very much like a dream in the sense that it seems you’re joining something that’s already happening – that’s already been in motion – and then we leave the picture at the end of the movement even though the activity seems to be continuing to go on.
Tracy Richardson: … And that final chord on the harpsichord keeps going as the other two instruments drop out. They’re done with the dream but I’m still in it!
PLN: What about the third movement – Très lent?
Joshua Kovach: To further Tracy’s point about small changes that create added interest, the third movement is quite interesting in that there’s not a lot of musical material – and yet I found it to be engaging all the way through.
Schmitt makes changes by placing the main melody in different registers and creating interest that way: arriving at a cadential section – sort of a Stop sign – and then continuing again with a slight change. I don’t know if he would agree with that characterization, but it seems as though Schmitt is doing something very creative with these very minute changes.
Tracy Richardson: In this movement – which is marked “very slow” – at the end of each phrase the harpsichord has a kind of hand-over-hand gesture that is all open-fifths. We don’t have the thirds in there which would make it explicitly minor or major. But the cadences implied in the music are all over the place – F-sharp, D-sharp, A-sharp; it’s not what you’d expect in tonal or even polytonal music. They’re far-ranging, and yet Schmitt doesn’t wander; he goes there.
Kimberly Reighley: Also, I think “spaciousness” is built into the rhythm of this movement. So you really don’t have to do much with it other than let it stand as the composer wrote it. That spaciousness is there without having to broaden the tempo or anything else.
PLN: For the last movement – Animé – I sense a good deal of humor in the music. Your thoughts on this?
Tracy Richardson: To me, this movement is like a friendly conversation the clarinet and flute are having – but in opposition to the harpsichord! It’s not “all together now” as much as it is “one after the other.” Teasing and ribbing. For the harpsichord, there’s a crazy-fun right-hand tremolo on the last page that I just love, too.
Also, this movement begins in A major and ends in D major, which brings us back to the original key signature of the entire piece. Of course, we go all over the place before we end up there!
Joshua Kovach: I wouldn’t want to attempt to sum up the piece in only a few words, but I’d say the fourth movement is extraordinarily welcome after a first movement that seems like you’re going on this journey, a second movement that has this quirky waltz, and a third movement that exudes nostalgia and longing.
When we get to the finale movement, we have this welcome, upbeat music. But then right at the end in the last few measures, Schmitt brings back some of that quirkiness we heard in the second movement. And you’re thinking, “Wait – what’s going to happen now? He’s already done so many unexpected things!”
But then it’s all over, in predictable Schmitt fashion.
Kimberly Reighley: The one image comes to mind for me in this last movement is … champagne bubbles!
PLN: When you think about the musical style of the Sonatine en trio, do you view it as being in the realm of “French flavor”?
Joshua Kovach: I do find this music to be very French. I hear elements of Debussy and Ravel – and Fauré in the third movement definitely.
Tracy Richardson: I find it very French-sounding also. It has elements of Poulenc in it, too – or perhaps it’s more correct to say that Poulenc was influenced by Schmitt.
PLN: As you know, Schmitt prepared three versions of the Sonatine en trio featuring different sets of instruments. What are your thoughts on how well the voices work together using today’s performance with flute, clarinet and harpsichord compared to the alternate version with piano and the winds, and also the one with piano, violin and cello?
Kimberly Reighley: What I appreciate in the version we’ve performed is that we have the opportunity to hear all of the detail, which I don’t think is quite as apparent with piano. We’re hearing the clear distinction between two instruments that can be very “sustaining” – the flute and clarinet – and one that isn’t – the harpsichord. So we have that contrast, and it all works so well.
Tracy Richardson: I’ve had the chance to listen to several recordings with the piano, flute and clarinet, and I’m struck by how different that version sounds. It’s much smoother – which of course cannot be the case on the harpsichord.
Also, the opportunity for dynamic interpolation of accents and so forth is much greater on the piano – and pianists probably have an easier time playing the music than harpsichordists.
Joshua Kovach: Hearing the piece with harpsichord was how I encountered it first, and I think first impressions are often the ones we continue to favor; I know I’m guilty of that. I try to be open to a version with piano – as obviously the composer was – but I’m quite fond of the “instant response” of the harpsichord as well as the lightness that’s generated when performed that way.
PLN: Was this a fun piece to rehearse and perform together?
Kimberly Reighley: It was great fun! Part of the discovery process in rehearsing the piece was how we used “space and time” so that all the detail within each moment would be heard and be balanced — I don’t quite know how else to say it. I thoroughly enjoyed that part of the process – as well as working on balances and blend, which are always important considerations when performing with the harpsichord.
Joshua Kovach: I had great fun rehearsing the piece as well. There’s the desire to convey the composer’s intent, of course, but I think there were also some moments where we could introduce our own ideas without detracting from that larger goal.
There were places where we felt it would be wise to add a bit more time to allow a certain phrase to come to an end in a certain way, before allowing the next phrase to begin. Basically, it was finding that balance so as not to have one phrase risk running into the other. Our goal was to do that judiciously and tastefully.
Tracy Richardson: For the slow third movement, we have several different colors in our palette on the harpsichord, so I decided to end each of those phrases using the upper manual for a more delicate, more nasal sound — maybe approaching it like an organist might. No directions are in the score, but I felt it was the right thing to do.
PLN: Does the Sonatine en trio make you keen to discover more works by Schmitt for chamber music forces?
Tracy Richardson: Schmitt composed music for a wide range of chamber players, but unfortunately no other pieces are written for the instrumentation of our core ensemble at Mélomanie. So there may not be additional works for us to perform – except to do this one again, and we’d certainly like to do that!
If we don’t have our guest clarinetist with us the next time, perhaps we could substitute our viola da gamba player to perform the clarinet part, which had been re-scored for the cello in the composer’s string instrument version. Viola da gamba would be a bit different from what the composer intended — but why not?
Joshua Kovach: From my standpoint as a clarinetist, I would love to play Schmitt’s Clarinet Sextet at some point. I have a recording of that, and it’s a very interesting piece that deserves to be performed.
PLN: Tell us a little about Mélomanie’s mission and programming strategy – and how the Schmitt composition fits into that picture.
Tracy Richardson: Our mission at Mélomanie is to present music from the baroque era and either side of it, along with music of the 20th and 21st centuries. We call this our “provocative pairings of early and contemporary works.” Nearly all of our programming features this combination of pieces, and so within that mission Florent Schmitt’s Sonatine was perfect for us.
Mélomanie has a core group of instrumentalists, but we like to invite other people to join our performances as guests, which is why, when Kim found this particular piece, we were excited to have Josh join us.
Joshua Kovach: This is actually my second time performing with the group. The first time I was here we performed a piece by Heitor Villa-Lobos – the Choros No. 2 for flute and clarinet – and also a contemporary composition named Fable by David Bennett Thomas.
Tracy Robinson: … To which I’d add, we’re very pleased that in the past 15 years or so, Mélomanie has commissioned and premiered around 45 pieces of new music.
We are indebted to organizations like Mélomanie that do more than their share to give voice to lesser-known music from all eras, in addition to supporting classical music of today through inventive programming and composer commissions.
As an indefatigable champion of contemporary music in France in the first half of the 20th century, undoubtedly Florent Schmitt himself would have approved!