Exploring dance forms down through the ages: Florent Schmitt’s Trois danses (1935).

Florent Schmitt 1937 photo

Florent Schmitt seated at the piano in his study. This photo dates from 1937, two years following the creation of his Trois danses for solo piano. (©Boris Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

Florent Schmitt’s two instruments were the flute and the piano. Arguably the piano was the one he preferred most — at least based on the quantity of music he created — for within the catalogue of Schmitt’s compositions are vast swaths of music written for the piano solo, piano duet and duo.

The large majority of these compositions appeared earlier in Schmitt’s musical career — from 1890 to the early 1920s. But Schmitt’s middle and later period would also produce a number of important solo piano scores — notably these four sets:

  • Trois danses, Op. 86 (1935)
  • Chaine brisée, Op. 87 (1937)
  • Small Gestures, Op. 92 (1940)
  • Enfants, Op. 94 (1941)

Among them, the Trois danses, Op. 86 is particularly interesting.  This set of pieces explores different dance styles down through the centuries.  Schmitt dedicated each of the movements to notable French pianists of the time.

Composed in 1935 and published by Durand the following year, the three movements in the set are as follows:

I.  Monferrine: Subtitled Bourrée lombarde, this movement is based on a folk dance from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, which appears to have originated in the second half of the 18th century. The monferrina is a three-part dance similar to a tarantella.  Schmitt dedicated this first movement to the famed French pianist Marguerite Long (1874-1966).

II.  Bocane: This movement is named after a social dance of the early Baroque period. Popular during the period 1580-1655, it is similar in form to a courante.  Interestingly, the inventor of the bocane was Jacques Cordier, a dancing master to Queen Anne of Austria and numerous other European noblewomen.  Cordier has been described as “absolutely illiterate — and even ignorant of music.”  His physique wasn’t much better — gouty and crook-shanked, with distorted hand and foot features.  Despite these infirmities, he was prized for his violin playing and his ability to compose “charming airs.”  Indeed, in addition to the bocane, Cordier is credited with creating the pavane dance style.  Florent Schmitt dedicated this movement of the set to the pianist and teacher Lucette Descaves (1906-1993).

III.  Danse de corde:  The final movement of Trois danses translates roughly in English as a “rope dance” — although I cannot find any specific reference to this particular dance type.  To my ears it has the feel of a passepied, a brisk minuet popular in the 17th and 18 centuries — but one with considerably more “bite and abandon.”  Schmitt dedicated this movement to Hélène Pignari, a pianist who was later to become famous for her concertizing and recording collaborations with the violinist Louis Kaufman.

Francoise Gobet Florent Schmitt Trois Danses Vega

The original Véga LP release (1957).

For a number of years following their composition, the movements of the Trois danses were the solo piano pieces of Schmitt’s performed the most often.  In 1957, the pianist Françoise Gobet would make the first — and to-date only — commercial recording of the music.

It is a fine, idiomatic reading from a consummate musical artist who studied under Marguerite Long, Jean Doyen and Fernand Oubradous. Born in 1929, Mme. Gobet made her professional debut at the Paris Exposition of 1937.  She has been associated with contemporary music throughout her career, championing in particular the works of Jacques Ibert and Henry Barraud.

Francoise Gobet French pianist

Françoise Gobet

Released on the Véga label, Mme. Gobet’s recording of Schmitt’s Trois danses shared billing with piano music by four other French contemporary composers (Georges Auric, Claude Delvincourt, André Jolivet and Jean Rivier).

Long out of print, for decades the Véga LP was one of the most elusive of rare recordings. But in 2011, the industrious French-based Forgotten Records label prepared a digital remastering using a mint-condition LP pressing — thereby making the recording available to the public for the first time in nearly 40+ years.

Francoise Gobet Florent Schmitt Trois Danses Forgotten Records

The Forgotten Records CD reissue (2001).

I own a copy of the original Véga LP as well as the Forgotten Records CD reissue, so I can attest to the fine quality of the transfer. The CD rendition can be ordered easily from the Forgotten Records website.

These days, Trois danses no longer holds the distinction of being Schmitt’s most frequently performed solo piano work.  And yet, considering its inspiration, inventiveness and appeal, there’s no reason why pianists of today shouldn’t investigate this music and introduce it to a new generation of music-lovers.

Paul Paray, French orchestra conductor

Paul Paray (1886-1979) premiered more orchestral works of Florent Schmitt than any other conductor. Trois dances was first performed in 1939.

What’s more, this score was also orchestrated by the composer — just as Schmitt would do with many of his other piano suites.

In early 1939, the orchestral version of Trois danses was premiered by the Colonne Concerts Orchestra under the direction of Paul Paray.  It would be quite interesting to hear the music in that form as well.

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