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.
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.
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.
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). One can definitely discern the spirit of Robert Schumann — but also of Chabrier — in these pieces which are by turns whimsical, lyrical, and robustly dynamic.
The entire set is meaty musical material – far more than salon pieces, even if they are reminiscent of “salon style” in some respects.
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:
- Douceur du soir (Twilight)
- Danse britannique (Dance of Brittany)
- Marche burlesque
- Retour à l’endroit familier (Return to Familiar Surroundings)
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.
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.
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:
- Isabel Beyer & Harvey Dagul (Four Hands Music, 1998/Book 1 and 2000/Book 2)
- Timothy Nickel & Nancy LeRoi (Arsis, 2008)
- Christian Ivaldi & Jean-Claude Pennetier (Timpani, 2008)
- Invencia Piano Duo (Andrey Kasparov & Oksana Lutsyshyn) (NAXOS Grand Piano, 2011)
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.
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.
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 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.)
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
If the remaining two orchestrated numbers – Compliments from Book 1 and particularly the terrific Valse from Book 2 – are now lost, that would indeed be a shame.
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 2002 by the Orchestre National de Lorraine conducted by Jacques Houtmann.
… 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 recording? Alain Altinoglu, Lionel Bringuier, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Yan-Pascal Tortelier … who’s game?