During his lengthy career, the French composer Florent Schmitt would periodically turn to the subject of children for musical inspiration – often involving pieces written for piano.
In the early 1900s Schmitt composed four collections of piano duets featuring easy primo parts for young pupils. Sur cinq notes (1906); Trois pièces récréatives (1907); Huit courtes pieces (1907-8); Une semaine du petit-elfe Ferme-l’oeil (1912): These charming (as well as musically substantive) collections have been recorded in their entirety by the Invencia Piano Duo and are available on the Grand Piano label in a boxed set or as separate CDs.
All of them are well-worth investigating. Florent Schmitt played these duets with his son, Jean, no doubt deriving great pleasure from those shared experiences.
One of the collections – Le petit elfe – was even turned into a ballet, similar in manner to Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. In both instances, the composers orchestrated their original piano duet scores in an opulent post-Rimsky style, adding transitions between the movements (and in the case of Schmitt, adding a prelude at the beginning of the ballet).
Le petit elfe was mounted at the Paris opera in 1923, where it made quite a splash. Resurrected in recent years by the conductor Jacques Mercier, the ballet received its recording premiere by Maestro Mercier and the Orchestre National de Lorraine in 2013, and was released on the Timpani label to widespread critical acclaim.
Following the publication of Schmitt’s four piano duet collections, nearly 20 years would go by before the composer returned to the topic of children. This time, it was the creation of a suite for solo piano he titled Enfants, Op. 94.
Schmitt began work on the piece during the “dismal summer of 1939.” By this time, son Jean was no longer the little boy; he was serving in the French military – soon to be captured by the Nazis at the outbreak of World War II and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany for the duration of the conflict.
None of the uncertainty of the times is evident in Schmitt’s composition, which the pianist Laurent Wagschal has described as “a new escape to the world of childhood” by the aging composer – by then 70 years old.
Schmitt dedicated Enfants to the French pianist Monique Haas. Eight short movements make up the set of pieces, which taken together last fewer than 15 minutes. Each miniature – the lengthiest movement is less than three minutes in duration – bears a descriptive title that gives clear clues as to what the listener will be experiencing:
- Enfant de chœur (Choir Boy)
- Enfant de troupe (Soldier Boy)
- Enfant gâté (Spoilt Child)
- Enfant turbulent (Rowdy Child)
- Enfant do (Tender Lullaby)
- Enfant moustique (Mosquito Child, the Little Pest)
- Petit Moïse, sauvé des eaux (Little Moses, Saved from the Waters)
- Enfant terrible (The Little Terror)
The music is by turns tender, lively, whimsical – and always fresh. Actor and composer Arthur Hoérée speculated that the last movement, which he described as “prickly as a cactus,” might well be “a portrait of the young Florent himself.”
Indeed, that movement ends the piece in a characteristically “Schmittian” manner with a wink, a nudge – and a big, fat raspberry.
As an interesting side-note concerning Enfants, this music was among the last of his pieces that the composer was able to witness in concert. As recounted by Schmitt’s biographer, Yves Hucher, the occasion was an evening at the Cité internationale universitaire de Paris, where sitting amidst an audience of young people, Schmitt heard his Enfants performed alongside the poetry of Jacques Prévert. It was in May 1958 – less than three months before the composer’s death.
In the years following its composition, Enfants was performed by a number of prominent French pianists, such as Henriette Puig Roget, one of whose performances was broadcast over French Radio in 1970.
Despite the music’s obvious charms, Enfants has been blessed with only a few commercial recordings. To my knowledge, the first recording was made in 1985 by the pianist Alain Raës and was released on a double LP album presenting six of Schmitt’s sets of solo piano pieces. Most of the contents of that recording, originally released on the FY label, was later reissued on CD by Solstice (including Enfants).
Two decades later, in 2005 the pianist Laurent Wagschal recorded Enfants for the Saphir label, in a stunning interpretation that has now been reissued by Timpani, a classical label which, along with NAXOS, has done much to bring Schmitt’s music to the public.
Happily, both the Raës and Wagschal interpretations are idiomatic, atmospheric, and technically flawless, and both are supported by quality recorded sound.
But there’s more to the story of Enfants. As he was to do with many of his scores, Schmitt orchestrated this music. The composer once noted that the piano was “a convenient but disappointing substitute for the orchestra,” so it is hardly surprising that he was inspired to create a version of Enfants for symphonic forces.
This version was premiered in 1943 by the Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra under the direction of Eugène Bigot, and the orchestral score was published in 1951 by Durand. Thereafter, performances appear to have been somewhat, spotty, although the archives of broadcast performances by French Radio reveal that a number of conductors besides Maestro Bigot were presenting the music in the 1950s and 1960s, including Louis de Froment and Tony Aubin.
In 1970, the conductor Pol Mule, son of the legendary saxophone player Marcel Mule, led the Orchestre de Chambre de Nice in a performance of the piece.
Unlike the piano score, hearing the orchestrated version of this music has, until recently, required a good amount of sleuthing. Fortunately, we now have a broadcast performance available to hear courtesy of SoundCloud, in a performance that features the Netherlands Radio Promenade Orchestra conducted by Jan Stulen.
But to the best of my knowledge, Enfants has been commercially recorded in its orchestral version just once. The recording came from an unlikely source – the Soviet Union — and featured the Moscow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anatoly Knorre.
Recorded in the 1960s, the Knorre/Moscow reading was available in the West on a 10-inch Melodiya LP, coupled with music by Schmitt’s fellow French composer Henri Tomasi. I possess this recording and can report that it is a very decent one – both interpretively and in its sonics (quality audio not always a “given” with Soviet releases of this period).
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that this orchestral recording of Enfants has ever been released on CD or as a digital download. That’s a pity, because the music is fresh, always interesting, and completely worthy of being brought to a new generation of music-lovers.
Indeed, it’s high time for today’s eminent conductors who advocate for the music of Florent Schmitt to investigate Enfants and give the world a modern recording. Alain Altinoglu, John Axelrod, Leon Botstein, Lionel Bringuier, Jonathan Darlington, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, David Grandis, Jacques Mercier … who’s interested?