Over a composing career of seven decades, Florent Schmitt would pen music featuring nearly every instrument of the symphony orchestra in a solo capacity. The cello was no exception.
In fact, Schmitt composed three concertante pieces featuring the cello — one each during his early, middle and late period of creativity. The earliest of the three is Schmitt’s Chant élégiaque, Opus 24, which dates from 1899-1903, roughly overlapping the composer’s Prix de Rome stay at the Villa Medici in Italy.
[Actually, the word “stay” isn’t quite accurate, as Schmitt spent the lion’s share of his Prix de Rome period traveling throughout Europe, across the Mediterranean and in the Near East.]
The Chant élégiaque is an achingly gorgeous piece of music that, to my ears, seems clearly influenced by Schmitt’s teacher and mentor, Gabriel Fauré, who had composed his own Élégie for Cello in the 1880s. In addition to sharing a similar title, the two works are similar in length.
Yet despite these similarities, Schmitt’s piece has its own distinct character and is every bit as much of a gem as Fauré’s essay.
As was customary for many of his compositions, Schmitt scored Chant élégiaque in two versions — the first one featuring cello with piano and a later arrangement for cello with orchestra. The first performance of the orchestral version happened in 1912 at the Concerts Colonne, featuring cellist Jean Bedetti with the orchestral forces conducted by Gabriel Pierné.
More than a century later, it’s hard to fathom how a creation as richly beautiful as the Chant élégiaque has remained virtually unknown. And yet, such is the case.
Early on, the piece had its champions — most notably the cellist Pablo Casals who kept it in his repertoire, performing it in numerous places including at Vienna’s Konzerthaus in a December 1930 recital. But these days it is very rarely performed. Moreover, to my knowledge the piece has been commercially recorded just one time each in its piano and orchestral versions — the former by cellist Philippe Bary and pianist Véronique Roux on the Cybelia label in the 1980s, and the latter on the Eurodisc label in 1980 by cellist David Geringas with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster.
Considering the rarity of the Schmitt work, the Eurodisc issue (two separate LPs in its initial incarnation) carried a rather puzzling title: Berühmte Celloromanzen (Famous Cello Romances). In fairness, a number of the other pieces recorded by Geringas for the collection — selections by Bruch, Dvořák, Glazunov, Saint-Saëns and others — do certainly qualify as “famous” cello pieces.
I have loved the Geringas recording of Chant élégiaque ever since first hearing it in the early 1980s, but no other orchestral recording has came along since then.
Over the years I’ve tried to interest numerous cellists in this score. It hasn’t been an easy undertaking, as the Cybelia recording of the piano version, never given much circulation outside of France, has disappeared without a trace.
The equally short-lived Eurodisc LP release did not appear again until well into the CD era. Even now, the recording is difficult to obtain outside of Europe, and so most cellists had no easy way to hear the music’s charms.
Then in 2016 I was introduced to the American cellist Elisa Kohanski, who would take a keen interest in Schmitt’s piece. A native Rhode Islander who has made her professional career based in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Kohanski keeps up a busy schedule as soloist, chamber music player and member of several ensembles including the PittsburghOpera and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre orchestras.
The two of us met following a concert by the Wheeling (West Virginia) Symphony Orchestra, for which Kohanski serves as the cello section principal. On the Wheeling program was the suite from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande. I was particularly taken with Kohanski’s solo cello passages in the first movement of the suite, which were conveyed with a rare poignancy.
At a post-concert reception, the two of us had an opportunity to converse about our mutual love for Fauré’s music, during which time I spoke with her about Fauré’s pupil Florent Schmitt, and how Schmitt had also composed an elegiac cello piece in a similar vein to Fauré’s masterpiece.
Thus began an exploration of the composer and his music by Kohanski, culminating in presenting Florent Schmitt’s Chant élegiaque in public earlier this year — a performance that she paired with Fauré’s Élégie.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit again with Elisa Kohanski, asking her to share her “voyage of discovery” regarding the Chant élégiaque — along with soliciting her perspectives on the stylistic connections between the Fauré and Schmitt scores. Highlights of our discussion are presented below.
PLN: Before being introduced to Florent Schmitt’s Chant élégiaque, were you familiar with this composer or his music?
ECK: I must admit that I had never heard of Florent Schmitt or his music before you introduced me to several of his compositions in 2016. Since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed my exploration of this composer and his music, along with the informative articles that I’ve read on the Florent Schmitt Website.
When I began to research Schmitt’s scores, I was pleasantly surprised to see the large body of works listed, and I’m equally surprised by how relatively unknown he remains. I know that you and others are trying to change that; I have to think that in time, more people will experience the joy of discovering Schmitt’s music.
PLN: What were your initial impressions of Chant élégiaque when you heard it for the first time?
ECK: I was quite surprised at the beauty of the music in my first hearing which was about two years ago. It is a dramatic and lush piece!
I loved the textures and the colors in the David Geringas recording with orchestra. The cello-and-piano version, which I think is the one that Schmitt composed first, is also rich in texture and full of rhythmic and dynamic variety.
I listened to the piece many times, and finally decided that I had to perform it. And so, earlier this year I paired it with Gabriel Fauré’s Élégie to present during a church service in Pittsburgh — Shadyside Presbyterian Church — on Valentine’s Day. Jack Kurutz, one of my regular piano collaborators in Pittsburgh, joined me in the performance.
The pairing of the Schmitt and Fauré pieces worked very well, and the feedback I received from the members of the congregation was extremely positive. No one had heard of Florent Schmitt, but they all expressed how much they loved the piece. I encouraged them to visit the Florent Schmitt Website to explore more about the composer and his music.
PLN: Florent Schmitt was a student of Gabriel Fauré, and Fauré composed his famous Élégie for Cello approximately 20 years before Schmitt wrote the Chant élégiaque. Do you see similarities in the two scores — or any sort of stylistic debt that Schmitt may owe to Fauré in this piece?
ECK: I was very excited to learn about the connection between Florent Schmitt and Gabriel Fauré as student and teacher, as I absolutely love Fauré’s music. My first experience with the Élégie was in high school when I performed it in a competition for a memorial scholarship in my first teacher’s name, Ruth Trexler.
That first performance was a powerfully emotional experience and I wound up winning the scholarship. The piece became something I’ve treasured ever since for its beautiful and moving melodies — not to mention its significance as music that is inextricably linked to my development as an artist.
The Chant élégiaque definitely has elements and aspects which seem to come from Fauré’s influence. Beyond the obvious fact that both pieces are elegiac in their mood, in both compositions the beginning cello melody has a repeated rhythmic figure in the accompaniment.
There are also sections in both pieces in which three components are present — repeated rhythmic accompaniment in one piano line with a melody in the other, along with a second melodic line in the cello part.
PLN: What about differences between the two pieces?
ECK: Yes, there are differences; Fauré’s Élégie has more static, slow-changing harmonies while Schmitt’s music has a greater rate of harmonic change. Both compositions contain sustained chordal harmonies, but the Fauré utilizes steady eighth notes whereas Schmitt incorporates syncopation. Both pieces also feature a strong rhythmic drive leading up to a climax.
As for some other differences, Fauré uses chromaticism primarily to transition from one section to another while Schmitt incorporates chromaticism as a core element of his thematic material. Perhaps this is due to the later date of Schmitt’s composition; during that era in classical music development, a difference of just 20 years is a pretty significant period of time.
Fauré’s repeated slow rhythms create a bit of a calming effect, whereas in the Schmitt the varied and syncopated rhythmic patterns add tension. Fauré often takes turns with the melody, alternating between cello and piano, whereas Schmitt juxtaposes the melodic lines in the cello and accompaniment simultaneously.
I appreciate both the similarities and the differences, and when all is said and done, I think that both pieces are magnificent cello works.
PLN: Looking at the score to Chant élégiaque, is the writing for cello idiomatic and natural, or are there aspects that seem to be unusual or awkward?
ECK: Delightful as it is to say, the piece is idiomatic for the cello and it feels very natural to play. There is a lot of chromaticism which one would expect during this time period, but the only somewhat dicey moment is a huge leap up to high G#.
For the pianist, the music does present challenges in its sweeping lines and large leaps with dense chords, along with brief dramatic outbursts covering large swaths of the keyboard. I’ve read that Schmitt was quite a good pianist — and you can certainly tell that in the way he constructed the piano part for this piece.
One of the primary gauges for me with music is considering if the technical difficulty is worth the commitment to learn it. Is there a great musical payoff? In this case, I would say, “Absolutely!”
PLN: Please tell us more about bringing Chant élégiaque into your repertoire.
ECK: I’m extremely excited to add this beautiful piece to my repertoire. It’s well-suited for any performance venue and I have requested to play it in several programs. I’m in the process of scheduling the upcoming season along with my repertoire for the concerts, and I hope to include it in at least a few of them.
PLN: Does becoming acquainted with the Chant élégiaque make you interested in getting to know some of Schmitt’s other compositions — instrumental, chamber and even orchestral works?
ECK: It surely does! It’s very exciting to be able to find music that one wouldn’t normally be exposed to in the more commonly performed repertoire.
Of course, we all want to learn the standard repertoire; it’s standard for a reason. However, there is so much incredible music out there that has been largely overlooked. I’m in the process of listening to Schmitt’s other compositions and, of course, I read about them and listen to them when you post new articles on the Florent Schmitt Blog.
I only wish he had written music for multiple cellos!
PLN: You keep up a very busy schedule of concertizing and performing, in addition to teaching. What are some of your current activities?
ECK: In addition to my work with the PittsburghOpera, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, I present solo and chamber music programs in the United States and also overseas. In the first two weeks of August I’ll be at the Music & More SummerFest in Trebinje, Bosnia as a faculty-artist participant — the inaugural year for this program.
I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to perform on all seven continents. Even further afield, I can claim the distinction of having performed the cello on Antarctica — to an audience of penguins (!) — and this past summer I also played on an iceberg in the Arctic Circle. I like to joke that I could be classified as a “bipolar” musician!
I’ll be sure to inform you about the next time I will be performing the Chant élégiaque, so that Florent Schmitt aficionados can make plans to come hear it in concert should they wish to do so.
For lovers of Florent Schmitt’s music — and cello music in general — the prospects of being able to experience the Chant éléqiaque live is a tantalizing prospect, indeed! Grateful thanks to Elisa Kohanski for becoming a modern-day champion of this repertoire — music that’s “rare and well-done.”
[Incidentally, a live performance by Kohanski and Kurutz has been uploaded to SoundCloud and can be accessed via this link.]