Feuillets de voyage: French composer Florent Schmitt’s musical travel diary (1903-5).

Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt, photographed at about the time Feuillets de voyage was published by Durand et Cie. (1913).

Often, composers “favor” instruments that they themselves know how to play.  Florent Schmitt’s own instruments were the piano, organ and flute, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that a significant number of this composer’s creations would feature these instruments.

In particular, Schmitt was a highly proficient pianist, which helps explain the expressiveness and effectiveness of his piano compositions – not forgetting their technical challenges as well.

Florent Schmitt complete duo-pianist music Invencia Piano Duo

Florent Schmitt’s complete works for duo-pianists — a 4-CD set recorded by the Invencia Piano Duo in 2011-13.

While Schmitt composed piano works throughout his long creative career (70+ years), early on we encounter a goodly number of pieces he wrote for two pianists. Indeed, those compositions are enough to fill out a 4-CD set – which is precisely what the Invencia Piano Duo did in 2011-2013, with four volumes of material released on NAXOS’ Grand Piano imprint — a number of the pieces recording premieres.

One of the most delightful of these works is Feuillets de voyage, Opus 26.  This “travel diary” is a set of ten pieces for piano duet that was published in 1905 by Berlin-based Schlesingerische Buch- und Musikhandlung – two livres of five numbers each.

Florent Schmitt LeRoi-Nickel Piano Duo Arsis

The LeRoi-Nickel Piano Duo recording on the Arsis label (2008).

The composition was begun in 1903 when Schmitt was rounding out his four-year Prix de Rome tenure.

Considering that the score was completed and published within two years of its inception, why it took nearly a decade longer (1913) for the music to be brought out by Durand, Schmitt’s regular publisher in Paris, is anyone’s guess.

Florent Schmitt Feuillets de voyage score

A vintage copy of the score to Florent Schmitt’s Feuillets de voyage (1903-5), one of several sets of piano pieces he composed for piano duet. This transcription for solo piano was prepared by the composer in 1926.

Laurent Coulomb French composer

Laurent Coulomb

How best to describe these ten pieces? To begin with, they’re utterly charming numbers – miniatures that typically last only a few minutes each (just two of the ten numbers clock in at longer than four minutes).  Contemporary French composer Laurent Coulomb notes that one can discern the spirit of Robert Schumann — but also of Emmanuel Chabrier — in these pieces which are by turns whimsical, lyrical, and robustly dynamic.

Emmanuel Chabrier

Emmanuel Chabrier (1822-1897)

The entire set is meaty musical material – far more than salon pieces, even if they are reminiscent of the “salon style” in some respects. As for the Chabrier influence, decades later Florent Schmitt, when asked in an interview to name the most pathfinding French composers, cited Chabrier alongside Debussy and Fauré, while crediting Chabrier for his harmonic and rhythmic research “because it was Chabrier who, before Debussy, shook up this harmony, rigid as a prison gate, and revived our moribund rhythms.” 

Florent Schmitt Ivaldi Pennetier Timpani

The Ivaldi-Pennetier recording on the Timpani label (2008).

Unlike Reflets d’Allemagne, another piano duet set of pieces that Schmitt composed at roughly the same time and where each movement was named after a city in the Germanic world, for the most part the individual movements that make up Feuillets de voyage aren’t descriptive of any particular place.  Instead, the titles the composer gave to the numbers are as follows:

Book 1

  • Sérénade
  • Visite
  • Compliments
  • Douceur du soir (Twilight)
  • Danse britannique (Dance of Brittany)

Book 2

  • Berceuse
  • Mazurka
  • Marche burlesque
  • Retour à l’endroit familier (Return to Familiar Surroundings)
  • Valse

Book 1 begins with an elegant serenade in three-quarter time. There follow three movements that are introspective in mood, and the set concludes with an energetic Dance of Brittany.

Florent Schmitt Beyer Dagul Four Hands Music

First recording: Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul on the Four Hands Music label (1998/2000).

Book 2 starts quietly with a lilting lullaby that is followed by a stately mazurka and then a biting, sarcastic march-burlesque. A delicate and whimsical flavor informs the Returning Home movement, but that doesn’t end Schmitt’s travel diary.  Instead, the composer finishes up with a rumbustious waltz — a highly infectious number that gathers up the listener in its swirl of excitement. During his career, Schmitt was known for penning some highly effective compositions in waltz-time … and this one from Feuillets de voyage is one of the very best examples.

Beyer Dagul

Isabel Beyer and Harvey Dagul

Considering the wit and charm of these pieces, it’s a wonder that they aren’t well-known and that more pianists don’t perform them — but arguably Feuillets de voyage is even more obscure than Reflets d’Allemagne.

Even so, we are fortunate that four commercial recordings have been made of this music – although the first one didn’t appear until the late 1990s — nearly a century following the music’s composition:

Ivaldi Pennetier

Jean-Claude Pennetier and Christian Ivaldi

All four of these interpretations have their own special qualities, and each of them is well-worth getting to know. Certainly, there are some contrasts in the approach each of the duo-pianist teams take with the music — with several of the interpretations emphasizing lyricism while others being more rhythmically incisive — but to my ears each of them is thoroughly valid.

LeRoi-Nickel Piano Duo

LeRoi-Nickel Piano Duo

The release dates of the commercial recordings suggest that Feuillets de voyage has been growing in visibility only in the past decade or so.

At the time that the Beyer/Dagul premiere recordings appeared on the Four Hands Music label, the CD liner notes reported that the pieces “seem to be totally neglected at the present time.”  Happily, those circumstances have since changed; beginning in 2008 there were three additional commercial recordings released in quick succession.

Invencia Piano Duo

Invencia Piano Duo

Heightened interest in Schmitt’s score is also borne out by several live performances of this music that have been uploaded to YouTube and SoundCloud in recent years. You can view one such example here.

In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised at the emergence of this music — even if it’s late in the game. Not only are they thoroughly enchanting pieces guaranteed to please an audience, the fact that they were created for performance on a single piano makes the “logistics” of presenting them in recital easier as compared to a work like Schmitt’s Trois rhapsodies (1903-4) which requires two instruments.

In another parallel to Reflets d’Allemagne, Schmitt orchestrated seven of the ten numbers that make up Feuillets de voyage (all except for Visite and Douceur du soir from Book 1 and the Mazurka and Valse from Book 2).  This practice wasn’t unusual for Schmitt, who orchestrated many of his creations for piano and also for voice.  (It’s a double treat for us, too, considering Schmitt’s dazzling orchestration abilities in the grandest post-Rimsky tradition.)

Theatre Femina Paris

A view of the Théâtre Fémina from about the time of the premiere performance of Florent Schmitt’s orchestral version of Feuillets de voyage (1913). The theatre was located on the Boulevard des Champs-Élysées in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

The orchestral version of Feuillets de voyage was premiered in 1913 at the Théâtre Fémina in Paris conducted by Joseph-Eugène Szyfer (1887-1947).  (It is conceivable that the occasion of this orchestral premiere might have prompted Durand’s publication of the piano score in the same year.)

Interestingly, whereas Schmitt’s biographer Yves Hucher lists seven of the ten original numbers as being orchestrated by the composer, the published orchestral score by Durand includes just five, presented in the following sequence:

  • Sérénade – from Book 1
  • Retour à l’endient familier – from Book 2
  • Danse britannique – from Book 1
  • Berceuse – from Book 2
  • Marche burlesque – from Book 2
Lucien Garban Roger Branga

Lucien Garban (1877-1959) orchestrated four numbers from Florent Schmitt’s piano duet suite Feuillets de voyage, which were published under the pen name “Roger Branga.” Garban also served for many years as the trusted editor of Maurice Ravel’s scores. All three musicians were fellow members of Les Apaches.

But taking up the slack are orchestrations of the “missing” numbers along with several of the others that were prepared by Lucien Garban and Hubert Mouton.  Garban, who published his orchestrations under the nom de plume Roger Branga, was a fellow member of Les Apaches, so presumably his orchestrations were sanctioned by Florent Schmitt.

Jacques Houtmann conductor

Jacques Houtmann

Unfortunately, no commercial recording of the orchestral version of Feuillets has ever been made, nor do we have audio documentation of any live orchestral performance available to hear.  Indeed, I have been able to find just one instance of this music being performed by any orchestra in the postwar period – in the 1990s by the Orchestre Philharmonie de Lorraine conducted by Jacques Houtmann.

Wagner Pierne Brahms Schmitt Chabrier Lorraine Houtmann

Intriguingly, the Jacques Houtmann performance of Florent Schmitt’s Feuillets de voyage has appeared on a “private issue” CD prepared by the Orchestre Philharmonie de Lorraine (now Orchestre National de Metz) in 1994. Coupled with works by Wagner, Brahms, Chabrier and Pierne, this elusive recording carries no official label or catalogue number.

… Which is a situation that should definitely be redressed.  Here’s hoping that more conductors will investigate this music and bring it to today’s audiences.

Even better, how about giving us a first-ever commercial recording?  Alain Altinoglu, Lionel Bringuier, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Yan-Pascal Tortelier … who’s game?

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