Over a lengthy career spanning more than seven decades, the French composer Florent Schmitt created numerous works that showcased the special qualities of various different instruments — including some that are not so often the “featured celebrities” in scores.
As an accomplished keyboard artist, it’s no surprise that the composer’s catalogue of works contains many entries featuring the piano. But Schmitt also explored the sonorities of the harpsichord. Indeed, one of his best-known chamber music compositions — the Sonatine en trio from 1936 — was originally published in a version for flute, clarinet and harpsichord. (Later versions prepared by Schmitt included one for flute/clarinet/piano and one for violin/cello/piano.)
In addition to possessing a commercial recording of Schmitt’s harpsichord version of the Sonatine en trio, I’ve had the good fortune to see the harpsichord version of this piece performed in concert on two occasions, so I have first-hand knowledge of that version’s effectiveness — both in sight and sound.
A decade following the appearance of the Sonatine en trio, Florent Schmitt returned to the harpsichord for a new work — this time creating a four-movement suite for solo instrument that Schmitt composed for the esteemed French harpsichord soloist and teacher Marcelle de Lacour.
As a student of the great Wanda Landowska and as an artist who would live a full century (1896-1997), Mme. de Lacour was one of the best harpsichord performers and teachers France has ever produced. She was active on the Parisian musical scene beginning in the mid-1920s, as well as serving as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire beginning in 1955.
In the 1940s and 1950s Mme. de Lacour was also active as a performing artist, appearing with the most important Parisian orchestras as well as in recital with other prominent musicians, including members of the Pasquier Trio, the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the oboist Pierre Pierlot.
Naturally, she excelled in music of the Baroque and Classical periods — particularly French repertoire such as Lully, Couperin and Rameau. But perhaps even more consequential was her involvement in contemporary music, including championing new repertoire created for her to perform.
Indeed, the list of composers who created works for Marcelle de Lacour is impressive — some 70 artists, chief among them Bohuslav Martinů, Alexandre Tansman, Jean Langlais, George Migot, Paul Ladmirault … and Florent Schmitt. (In addition, she prepared harpsichord arrangements of the music of Poulenc, Honegger, Ibert, Koechlin, Villa-Lobos, Bartók and others.)
A decade after her passing, the foundation bearing the name of Marcelle de Lacour and her husband, Robert, inaugurated a competition for new harpsichord compositions. The aim of the competition is to continue promoting the contemporary relevance of the instrument as Mme. de Lacour had done in her own day.
As French organist and composer Thierry Escaich, artistic director of the Foundation at the time of the first competition in 2007, has written:
“Like the organ, the harpsichord can aspire to find a place in future creativity, while continuing to set forth the musical heritage of which it is part.”
The piece that Florent Schmitt created for Marcelle de Lacour in 1945 is an absolutely fascinating composition. It is a four-movement suite bearing the tongue-in-cheek name Clavecin obtempérant, Op. 107 (“The Ill-Tempered Clavier”). The title is a riff on Johann Sebastian Bach’s harpsichord magnum opus, the Well-Tempered Clavier — some 48 preludes and fugues that were reintroduced to modern audiences early in the 20th century by Marcelle de Lacour’s celebrated teacher, Wanda Landowska.
[This wasn’t the only time that Florent Schmitt would apply clever or ironic names to his compositions. Another cheeky example is his 1955 quartet Pour presque tous les temps (“Quartet for Almost All the Time”) — a play on Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time — and of a completely different character compared to Messiaen’s creation.]
Marcelle de Lacour gave the first performance of Clavecin obtempérant at a Société National de Musique recital on February 26, 1946 — keeping it in her repertoire in the decades that followed, including performing it at the Festival des Nuits de Sceaux in 1955.
A dozen years after the premiere, the harpsichordist entered the studios of French National Radio and performed the work for national broadcast (on July 11, 1957). More than likely, the by-then-elderly Schmitt was in attendance at that performance, giving it a certain official imprimatur.
Clavecin obtempérant has never been recorded commercially, but fortunately for us the 1957 RTF broadcast performance has resurfaced after more than 60 years and has now been released by Forgotten Records, the classical label that has resurrected many commercial recordings as well as historic broadcast performances — over 1,500 offerings at last count — in addition to releasing newly recorded material.
Having the opportunity hear Clavecin obtempérant at last, I find that it is an utterly amazing composition. The 15-minute piece is in four movements that unfold as follows:
I. Modéré et très rythmé
III. Un peu lent
One could characterize the music as “poly-everything”: It is polytonal and polyrhythmic — rooted in tonality but with things always a little askew. The musical language is muscular yet very “French,” and it’s absolutely fascinating in the way the musical arguments are presented … then broken apart and put back together again.
Even the slow third movement — which in many of Schmitt’s compositions is where he comes closest to capturing the spirit of his teacher and mentor Gabriel Fauré — is one with a distinctly ironic edge to it.
And the final chord in the last movement — a sort of musical stick in the ribs — underscores further the “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” character of the music. This is an “ill-tempered clavier” indeed — but it’s not unlike the ornery relative one finds in nearly every family — you know, the person who is ever-interesting even as he or she continually tests everyone’s patience.
Although I don’t know for sure what kind of harpsichord Marcelle de Lacour played in her 1957 RTF performance, to my ears it sounds very much like the type of full-bodied Pleyel “revival” instrument used by Wanda Landowska when she made her RCA Victor 6-LP complete recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Musicologists may disagree lustily over whether the choice of a Pleyel model for recording Landowska’s Bach works was the “properly authentic” one, but for a piece like the Florent Schmitt Clavecin obtempérant, it seems like indisputably the right choice.
I’ve found that Clavecin obtempérant is a robust composition that pays new musical dividends with each subsequent hearing. There is so much going on in each movement of the suite, it requires multiple auditions for everything to settle in and for the broader narrative of the music to become clear.
Undoubtedly, the piece is a major musical (re)discovery — and one that deserves a place in the repertoire of every serious harpsichord artist.
Marcelle de Lacour’s performance of Clavecin obtempérant is available on a newly issued Forgotten Records release. The recording also contains classic 1960 performances of chamber works by Ravel, Roussel and Schmitt as performed by members of the Marie-Claire Jamet Quintet (those selections were originally released on the Erato label). The disc can be ordered directly from the Forgotten Records website, and the label ships internationally.
My recommendation would be to listen to the recording while following along with the score to Clavecin obtempérant. See if you aren’t surprised and delighted by the rich musical invention in this endlessly fascinating piece of music.
Update (5/31/22): A new live performance of Clavecin obtempérant has now been uploaded to YouTube — and it’s played on the piano rather than harpsichord.
The performer is Clément Canonne, a pianist who is also a researcher at the Analysis of Musical Practices research group of the Centre national de recherche scientifique in France (affiliated with IRCAM).
… And his performance is impressive indeed. While the notes are the same, it’s quite interesting how the “character” of the music changes dramatically when shifting from the harpsichord to the piano. Underscoring this, Mr. Canonne has done an estimable job in bringing a pianistic flair to the proceedings. Indeed, the “flavor” of the music comes across as nearly completely different.
In remarks to me, the pianist further explained his approach to the score as follows:
“I believe that Clavecin Obtempérant is a really great piano suite! In fact, many details in the writing suggest that Schmitt might have also had the piano in mind when writing the music (such as all the precise dynamics markings which are not really doable on a harpsichord, and the slurs in the third movement that suggest that the performer is supposed to let the notes resonate, to name just two examples).
When I starting working on the piece, I chose to treat it as a piano work; I did not try to emulate the sound of the harpsichord. I didn’t even listen to Marcelle de Lacour’s performance, so that I could approach the score with a completely open mind.
I don’t mean to claim that the piece should be played on the piano rather than on the harpsichord; I only wish to suggest that the idea of playing the music on the piano, despite it being officially for harpsichord, is legitimate. I’ve circulated the score to several professional harpsichordists and they tend to share my opinion. A thorough study of Schmitt’s sketches would help provide some answers as well.”
The four movements of Canonne’s performance of the piece are uploaded individually to YouTube and can be viewed here:
III. Un peu lent
I recommend giving them a listen. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t want to be without either version of this music, and hearing the piano version provides fresh dimensions of musical understanding and appreciation. Special thanks are due to Mr. Canonne for bringing his interpretation to YouTube for the benefit of piano music-lovers everywhere.