“So dense, so many notes, so many double-stops. So hard to play in tune together, so tricky to balance and to make it sound natural. But what special notes they are!”
— Michiel Weidner, Prisma String Trio
In the latter part of his career, the French composer Florent Schmitt turned his attention to musical creations for chamber ensembles, including quartets and trios featuring instruments as diverse as flutes, saxophones and trombones.
More conventional but no less extraordinary in musicality are the String Trio and String Quartet that Schmitt composed during the 1940s.
The String Trio, Op. 105 was composed in 1944-45 and received its first performance in 1946 by the Pasquier Trio, made up of renowned siblings Jean, Pierre and Étienne Pasquier. Reportedly, the musicians spent an entire year studying the score before premiering it.
Writing in the pages of Tempo magazine about that premiere performance, the French musicologist Roland de Candé had this to say about the String Trio score:
“Feline music this: incisive, full of wit, and always of a perfect musical quality. It is a great work, worthy of the best masters of the past — particularly in the scholarly instrumental and rhythmic development of the first movement and the striking muted effects in the slow movement.”
… And the musicologist Antoine Goléa, in his article for Esprit magazine (April 1946), noted the String Trio‘s “freedom, suppleness, and masterful counterpoint.”
The Pasquier Trio felt strongly enough about Schmitt’s score that they took the music beyond the borders of France, including a tour of the United States during which the String Trio was featured on several programs including one in Portland, Oregon presented on March 8, 1947.
The Pasquier ensemble also performed the piece at the Coolidge Auditorium of the U.S. Library of Congress on two separate occasions — February 1956 and December 1967. Audio recordings of both of these performances held in the archives of the Library of Congress.
Many people I know who are acquainted with the music contend that Florent Schmitt’s String Trio is a fascinating and complex composition. It’s one that demands concentrated listening — but the musical rewards are many. As the American violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams has stated:
“I find it interesting that Arnold Schönberg and Florent Schmitt have much in common in their mature works. The first composer used a system (more or less); the other went where his imagination took him — and yet musically they are not far apart at all. Listen to both of their late string trios and you’ll hear what I mean.”
The musicologist Eric Berman extols the virtues of the String Trio like this:
“The themes, the harmony, the rhythm, the counterpoint, the variations: All are dazzling for their richness and their perfection.”
Looking at the music, one is immediately struck by the copious number of notes (many of them 16ths and 32nds), that make this a big score close to 75 pages in length.
There are double-stops throughout all three parts, so that the piece often sounds more like a quartet or quintet than a trio. Moreover, the rhythmic complexity is noteworthy as are the frequent time changes.
As for the harmony, the piece is rooted in tonality — yet polychromatic in the extreme.
In all, it’s a rich brew that poses supreme challenges in technical skill for any musicians who attempt to play this music.
Perhaps because of its complexity, Florent Schmitt’s String Trio has been recorded commercially just two times. The Pasquier Trio made a recording of the music the same year that it was premiered in recital (1946). This premiere recording was released on the French Pathé label as a 4-disk 78-rpm set.
In his praiseworthy Le Monde review of the premiere recording, music critic René Dumesnil wrote:
“One can hardly imagine that three bows are enough to obtain such richness or sounds and to translate musical thoughts that are so deep and so varied … it is in turn malice and nostalgia, dreams and humor that this marvelously constructed Trio offers us, and which will remain as one of the centerpieces of our contemporary music.”
Unfortunately, the Pasquier recording has never been re-released in LP, CD or download form. But fortunately, we now have its vibrant performance available to hear on YouTube, courtesy of the endlessly interesting Shellackophile music channel.
The only other commercial recording of the String Trio was made in the 1980s by the Albert Roussel String Trio — an ensemble made up of violinist Eric Alberti, violist Pierre Llinares and cellist Georges Schwartz. Another fine performance, this was a short-lived LP release (on the Cybelia label) that has never been offered in CD or download form, either.
And then … silence for three decades until a plucky ensemble based in Amsterdam, the Prisma String Trio (PRISMA Strijktrio), discovered Florent Schmitt’s String Trio and decided to make it a musical “calling card.”
Simply put, the members of the Prisma String Trio — violinist Janneke van Prooijen, violist Elisabeth Smalt and cellist Michiel Weidner — were more than captivated by the inventiveness of the music, even as they were determined to master its technical challenges.
In my research, I have been unable to identify any other ensemble in the world today that has the Schmitt String Trio in its repertoire. So I reached out to the Prisma players to learn more about how they discovered this piece, and what makes the music so special for them.
Cellist Michiel Weidner generously agreed to the interview (which was conducted in English). His insightful comments are presented below.
PLN: When did you first become acquainted with the music of Florent Schmitt? Had any of you ever performed any music of his prior to the String Trio?
MW: For me personally, my first exposure to Florent Schmitt was in the 1970s when I was still in my teens. The conductor of the Leiden Youth Chamber Orchestra, of which I was a member, was fond of excavating lost compositions and neglected composers. He was eager to find music by Florent Schmitt for us to perform, but before he was able to find suitable music I had left Leiden (and the orchestra) to start my conservatory studies in Amsterdam.
Had there been an easily accessible source of information about Florent Schmitt and his works in those times, I might well have played his music before the age of 20.
PLN: How did you discover Schmitt’s String Trio? What inspired you to investigate this particular piece of music, and then to perform it?
MW: Towards the end of my conservatory studies I had formed a string trio ensemble. We were looking for extra repertoire for an upcoming concert and discovered the Florent Schmitt Trio.
Unfortunately, we decided it was too difficult to master in the short time we had before the concert. Soon afterwards our trio fell apart, and then it took some 20 more years before our Prisma String Trio took up the challenge.
With Prisma, we had recently experienced success with the String Trio of Jean Cras — both in concert and on our first CD release in 2014 — and so we wanted to explore more French repertoire.
PLN: What were your first impressions of the music when you first began to study and rehearse it?
MW: When we played through the piece for the first time, I was thinking to myself, “My God, why did Schmitt write this music for a trio and not for a quartet or quintet?” So dense, so many notes, so many double-stops. So hard to play in tune together, so tricky to balance and to make it sound natural.
But what special notes they are!
All three of us were delighted with the uniqueness and the musical qualities of the piece. We felt obliged to give it a try — but to be honest, I had my doubts that we would succeed!
PLN: Thinking about each of the four movements of the String Trio, can you comment on each one and tell us what you find particularly noteworthy or perhaps unusual about it?
MW: Overall, it strikes me that Schmitt uses very moderate descriptions to characterize the movements — phrases such as “sans excès,” “sans exagération” or simply “lent” — even while all the movements are quite extreme in character.
I think Schmitt does this on purpose — and it certainly helps to approach the music as any other music and not as something weird or experimental.
The first movement [Animé sans excès – 3/4 time] is maybe the most “festive” one. Schmitt manages to modulate almost every other bar and still tell a comprehensible story. It is a bit like the works of Schönberg — but whereas Schönberg was searching for how far he could go inside the tonal environment, Schmitt seems to be using these frequent modulations as a way of coloring the music.
It is, in my view, a bit like harmonic progressions in jazz music. I doubt if Schmitt thought about a tonal schedule beforehand; rather, it seems to me intuitive and spontaneous. (Of course this is my notion as a musician; what a musicologist would say, I don’t know!)
The second movement [Alerte sans exagération – 5/4 time] certainly swings. In the classical sense it is a dance movement, with the A-B-A form of a scherzo or minuet. It is light — with a twist due to the irregular and often changing time signature — and it is quite short compared to the epic first movement.
The third movement [Lent – 4/4 time] has a simple title, but this is hardly simple music. Harmonically, in form and in sound I would say it is somewhat like a short version of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht or Pelleas & Melisande — and equally beautiful.
The fourth movement [A l’allure d’une ronde animée – 9/8 time] is quite meaty for a last movement of a trio composition. It is also quite serious stuff for a rondo! It’s quite a challenge for the players to keep up a playful mood while tussling with so many notes and dense harmonies at such a dazzling tempo!
PLN: When you were preparing this piece for performance, did you listen to either of the two commercial recordings of the music?
MW: We did not. It is our conception based only on exploring the score.
PLN: Florent Schmitt’s compositions are known for being challenging ones. How long did you work on preparing the String Trio for performance?
MW: We decided to take an entire year to master the music, and we were also fortunate to have the opportunity to perform at a special venue called Splendor Amsterdam. This is a place run by 50 adventurous musicians, and it is our “home” stage.
At Splendor, we could perform each single movement of the Trio for a small but engaged audience and receive valuable feedback each time, which was especially worthwhile for a work as challenging as this one.
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes one wonders why Florent Schmitt didn’t write a quartet or even a quintet with these same notes. The real challenge is to play it like a genuine string trio — that is, to find the lightness and the openness, to give every voice sufficient attention and space, and to make those special moments emerge and shine.
That is why we were so happy to study the music in different stages — each time adding an extra movement, and each time gaining more confidence. After a year of building, we presented our first complete performance of the Trio.
PLN: Tell us about that first performance. What was the audience reaction?
MW: Listeners were overwhelmed — even flabbergasted — at the fullness of the sound, the passion in the music, and also the music’s warmth. We heard no comments from anyone about being unable to “connect” with the music or finding it difficult to comprehend.
Indeed, some highly informed and musically astute members of the audience were absolutely astonished that they had never heard this music before — and generally were quite unaware of the quality and beauty of Florent Schmitt’s music.
PLN: Do you consider this String Trio to be an important one among the repertoire of 20th century string trios? In what ways do you see it as a particularly significant piece?
MW: This trio is a true bridge between French and German musical style. It has characteristics of both styles, but at the same time it also possesses its own completely authentic style.
It’s very individual, indeed — and “nicely stubborn,” one could say!
PLN: Please tell us about the Prisma String Trio. When was it formed, and what is its mission?
MW: We started our trio in 2002. String trio ensemble is a special chamber music formation — very cohesive yet “solistic” at the same time. In contrast to a string quartet, there is always light and air between the voices.
One of the aims of our trio is to see how far we can go beyond the usual borders of classical chamber music. Alongside the “golden oldies” like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, we perform an extensive amount of new music and unknown or neglected music — so long as it is good music!
In our repertoire, we cover all musical styles from the 1600s to contemporary, and we also try to incorporate some of our own arrangements as well as non-classical works in our programs.
Like most performing groups, we continually face an environment where it is difficult to convince programmers to allow us to include unknown composers or pieces.
But whenever we have the chance to play it, it is never difficult to convince audiences of the worth of that unknown music. It’s why we consider this a special mission of the Prisma String Trio.
PLN: Is the Schmitt composition representative of the kind of repertoire the Prisma String Trio focuses on in concerts?
MW: As Schmitt’s Trio is very fine music, and at the same time neglected and thus unknown, it fits our repertoire like a glove.
PLN: Had the three of you worked together as musicians prior to forming the Trio?
MW: Yes, we worked together in different ensembles, varying from chamber orchestras to gypsy bands. It is how we came to recognize each others’ strengths as musicians, and discovered our shared beliefs about repertoire and programming.
As for our musical activities outside of the Prisma String Trio, I play in the Amsterdam Sinfonietta which is a string orchestra, and I am also one of the 50 musicians of Splendor Amsterdam, a self-run music organization with 1,250 members.
Beyond the cello, I am also a cimbalom player, which is an instrument best-known as part of Hungarian gypsy ensembles. I play the instrument mainly for classical music, although I confess that I love to play csardas music just for the fun of it, too!
Janneke van Prooijen, our violinist, is very busy with a variety of performing groups in Holland. In addition to the Prisma Trio, she is first violinist of the Atlantic Trio as well as the Lunatree ensemble. She has also performed as a soloist with ensembles all over the country. Like me, her artistic interests range from classical and romantic to contemporary music in addition to jazz, pop and improvisation.
Elisabeth Smalt is our violist. In addition to being a highly active chamber musician, her interest in period performance led her to form the ensemble Eruditio Musica with fortepiano player Riko Fukuda.
Elisabeth is also a member of the Brussels-based chamber group Ensemble Oxalys, which recorded works of Reger and Mahler recently. She also plays experimental music using unusual tuning systems and instruments such as the viola d’amore and the “adapted viola” of Harry Partch.
PLN: What major plans or upcoming projects does the Prisma String Trio have at the moment?
MW: We are in the midst of a major tour in Holland — an audiovisual project of Merijn Bisschops, with projected photos of Icelandic landscapes accompanying his original composition Textures.
In April we’re performing three concerts with the Dutch Vocal Ensemble in a program featuring contemporary vocal and instrumental music.
A French tour this summer is also taking shape.
PLN: Do you have plans for performing Florent Schmitt’s String Trio in the near future?
MW: At the moment we have no fixed dates to perform the String Trio again, but our goal is to program the piece as often as we can. And if there is ever a proper recording we make of it, we will certainly let you know!
Hearing the remarks of Michiel Weidner, it is obvious that he and his fellow musicians are very passionate about the String Trio of Florent Schmitt. As one of the few (the only?) ensembles active today who have studied and performed this work, here’s hoping that they will soon have the opportunity to give the Trio its first recording in more than 35 years.
Update (4/16/21): At long last, the Prisma String Trio’s much-anticipated recording of Florent Schmitt’s Trio à cordes has now been released on the Cobra Records label. Not only is the performance itself incredible, but the audio engineering is also superb.
Click here to read an interview with the three musicians, in which they explain the process by which they studied, performed and recorded this endlessly fascinating composition. You can also order the Prisma String Trio’s new recording from the Cobra Records website, from the Prisma Trio website, or via various online music retail outlets such as here and here.