Florent Schmitt may be best-known for his opulent orchestral scores, most of which were written in the first three decades of the 20th century. But Schmitt’s compositional career, which spanned more than seven decades beginning in the late 1880s, contains so much more than just those creations.
Taking a look at the composer’s extensive catalogue — some 138 items plus additional works without opus numbers — we notice a preponderance of vocal and piano music produced early in the composer’s career. The large quantity of such scores shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the piano was Schmitt’s own primary instrument.
In these early works, the composer’s unique style isn’t fully on display, and influences of other composers — most notably Schumann, Chopin and Fauré — are certainly evident. Still, these works are full of musical imagination and are highly rewarding taken on their own terms.
Two winsome sets of piano miniatures that date from this early period are the Musiques intimes. The composer created two “books” of pieces, each made up of six numbers. They were well-received when they appeared — not just in France but also across the English Channel, where the British music critic Edwin Evans described them as “possessing great charm.”
Book 1 was composed between 1891 and 1900 and was published by Heugel in 1901. As such, the music pre-dates Schmitt’s Prix de Rome period (1900-04), during which time the composer traveled extensively throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, gathering up new musical influences along the say.
The six movements of Musiques intimes (Book 1), Op. 16 are as follows:
- Aux Rochers de Naye (At Rochers de Naye Mountain)
- Sur le chemin désert (On a Desert Road)
- Silence troublé (Troubled Silence)
- Promenade au Lido (Walk to the Lido)
- Dans la forêt ensoleillée (In a Sunny Forest)
- Chanson des feuilles (Song of the Leaves)
In the words of the Ivo Kaltchev, the Bulgarian-American pianist who has made the only commercial recording of Book 1, these six pieces fall firmly within in the 19th century tradition of pianism. Kaltchev writes:
“The focus of these miniatures, influenced by Faure [who was] Florent Schmitt’s composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, is on Romantic sensitivity, expressive harmony, and Schumannesque pedal effects.”
The subject matter of each of the movements in Book 1 seems completely in keeping with the character of so many “salon” piano pieces being published at the end of the 19th century. In describing them, the words of the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud (and Schmitt’s student) have particular resonance:
“… Refreshing reveries in the midst of a peaceful nature from which cares are missing … where there is no trouble for the morrow, when life is easy, eventless and happy.”
Collectively, the six pieces that make up Book I of Musiques intimes are fewer than 12 minutes in length, and for the most part the music poses few technical challenges for performers.
Although historical documentation is somewhat sketchy, it appears that the famed pianist Marguerite Long performed these pieces as early as 1907, but whether her presentation was actually the premiere outing of this music is difficult to ascertain. It is possible — even likely — that various numbers in Book 1 received other public performances prior to when Miss Long took them up.
Several years were to elapse between the publication of Book 1 and the appearance of a second set of pieces under the name Musiques intimes (Book 2), Op. 29. The six pieces that make up Book 2 were composed between 1898 and 1904, meaning that several of the numbers in this set were created during Schmitt’s time at the Villa Medici in Rome.
The six pieces that make up Book 2 are as follows:
- Cloître (Cloister)
- Sillage (Sea-wake)
- Brises (Breezes)
- Lac (The Lake)
- Poursuite (Pursuit)
- Glas (Knell)
As in Book 1, these pieces are introspective in their mood (with the exception of Poursuite) … and yet, as Ivo Kaltchev has written:
“The coloristic harmonic language marks a further stylistic development into impressionism. Here, in addition to the familiar impressionistic devices such as modality, parallelism, ostinatos, shimmering arpeggio figurations, etc., one can easily notice the characteristic features that would become a signature of Schmitt’s piano idiom: contrapuntal textures, an orchestral approach to the instrument, and complex rhythmic designs.”
The greater musical complexity of the six pieces that make up Book 2 contributes to the length of the composition — 16 minutes as compared to 12 for Book 1. Moreover, the music is more technically challenging for pianists — and more virtuosic in places.
Book 2 of Musique intimes was published by Mathot/Salabert in 1912, nearly a decade following the work’s completion. In the meantime, its various movements were premiered by different pianists such as Marthe Dron and Ariane Hugon.
Florent Schmitt was known for dedicating his piano pieces to fellow artists, and most of the numbers in both sets of Musiques intimes were no exception.
In Book II, the Brises movement was dedicated to Maurice Ravel, Poursuite was dedicated to Marguerite Long, and Cloître was dedicated to William Molard, at whose painter’s studio and salon Schmitt and other musicians spent many an animated evening of convivial discussions during the early years of the century.
Three other numbers from both sets were dedicated to the Comtesse de Chaumont-Quitry, to whom Schmitt, Roussel and Saint-Saens would dedicate a number of their piano compositions.
The two sets of Musiques intimes haven’t achieved the same degree of renown or popularity as Soirs, another early Schmitt collection of piano pieces. Part of the reason may be that while the composer orchestrated Soirs — as he did much of his other piano music — he did not do so for either set of Musiques intimes.
Despite its relative obscurity, thankfully we do have several fine recordings of this music. The French pianist Alain Raës recorded Book 2 in 1985. It was released on the FY label as part of a 2-LP anthology of Florent Schmitt’s piano music.
Unfortunately, while most of the original recording’s music was reissued in the CD era, the Musiques intimes Book 2 wasn’t among them, due to space constraints on the compact disc. As a result, this recording of Book 2 isn’t easy to find.
Ivo Kaltchev recorded both Book 1 and Book 2 of Musiques intimes in 2001. His highly idiomatic performances were released on the Gega label, and both sets have also been uploaded to YouTube. Book 1 can be heard here, while Book 2 has been uploaded along with displaying the sheet music, so listeners can follow along with the score.
In 2006, the French pianist Angéline Pondepeyre recorded both sets of the Musiques intimes, in a recording released on the Belgian-based Talent label which also includes several other sets of pieces for solo piano that are likewise relatively less-known (Trois Valses nocturnes and Pièces romantiques).
In addition to these commercial recordings, a number of French pianists have made it a point to include various numbers from Musique intimes as part of their recital programs. One such pianist is Anne Queffélec. Her 2014 performance of the final piece in Book 2 (Glas) at Oji Hall in Tokyo, Japan was captured on audio and is available to hear on YouTube.
But even given the advocacy of some pianists, there’s no question these miniatures deserve to be better-known — and championed by more pianists. Each of the pieces in both sets is its own special gem, and collectively the music represents pianism on a high level. Hopefully, more performers will add the Musiques intimes sets to their recital repertoire and present the music’s considerable charms to audiences around the world.