“It was the most thrilling piece I’d heard in years. I was so moved by its unbridled joy that I knew we had to build an entire concert around it …”
— Scott Tucker, Artistic Director, The Choral Arts Society of Washington
On Sunday, May 19, 2019, The Choral Arts Society of Washington will present a concert at the Kennedy Center that features the music of Gabriel Fauré and two of his pupils, Lili Boulanger and Florent Schmitt.
It promises to be one of the major highlights of the cultural season in the nation’s capital. Fauré’s famous Requiem, composed between 1887 and 1890, will be presented alongside two lesser-known choral pieces — but what brilliant works of art they are: Boulanger’s Psaume XXIV, composed in 1916, and Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, Op. 38, composed in 1904 during the final year of the composer’s Prix de Rome stay at the Villa Medici.
In the promotional materials for the concert, the Choral Arts Society notes:
In turn-of-the-century Paris, the lives and music of Fauré, Schmitt, and Boulanger were inextricably linked. Schmitt credited Fauré as his greatest influence and Boulanger knew Fauré as a family friend from childhood. Come explore the musical lineage of these three composers.
Be transported by Fauré’s transcendent Requiem performed alongside Schmitt’s triumphant and declamatory setting of Psalm 47’s “O clap your hands all ye people!” and Boulanger’s exuberant Psalm 24 “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” Fauré’s influence on Schmitt and Boulanger can be heard in their psalm settings and paved the way for future generations of composers.
Reading this description, it seems like it would be the most natural thing in the world to present these pieces together in concert — and yet to my knowledge this has not happened until now.
According to writings by choral music specialist John Perkins that were published in the May 2010 and June/July 2010 issues of Choral Journal magazine, Dr. Perkins notes the strong influence of Schmitt’s Psalm on the young Lili Boulanger, citing her biographer Léonie Rosenstiel who wrote that she “was extremely excited by the premiere … Lili followed every rehearsal with rapt attention.” (At the time, Boulanger was all of 13 years old, and her older sister Nadia was playing the organ part in the Schmitt premiere which was presented two days after Christmas in 1906, taking all of artistic Paris by storm.)
Intrigued by the premise of the program, I made contact with Scott Tucker, the ebullient artistic director of The Choral Arts Society of Washington. Maestro Tucker has headed up the group since 2012, before that being director of choral music at Cornell University in New York. He has done great work with Choral Arts — arguably one of the top two or three choral groups in the nation’s capital, which makes this upcoming concert even more enticing.
Maestro Tucker was kind enough to share his perspectives about Schmitt’s Psalm 47 and how the piece ties together with the other compositions on the May program. Highlights of that discussion are presented below.
PLN: When did you first discover the music of Florent Schmitt, and Psalm 47 in particular? What was your initial reaction when hearing the piece for the first time?
SAT: I had come across Florent Schmitt’s name — mostly in reading about other composers — but had never heard his music. I stumbled across a recording of Psalm 47 [the Tortelier/OSESP/Chandos recording] on Spotify, and was astounded by it.
My first reaction was, “We MUST do this piece!” It was the most thrilling piece I’d heard in years. I was so moved by its unbridled joy that I knew we had to build an entire concert around it.
PLN: How would you characterize Psalm 47 in term of its counterparts in the French choral repertoire of the time — the early 1900s?
SAT: Schmitt is certainly as innovative as Ravel and Debussy, but in a slightly different way. He is, in no uncertain terms, saying farewell to the 19th century — as others were doing — but he is pretty aggressive about it.
Schmitt doesn’t break with tonality, as Schönberg eventually did, but he bends it far enough to be almost unmoored at times. I love that this b-minor work begins with extended fanfares in C major and doesn’t find b-minor for a full 55 measures — and then only briefly.
PLN: Your concert consists of choral music by Fauré and two of his students. What similarities do you see between the two younger composers’ artistry and that of Fauré? What similarities or differences to you see between the two pieces that Schmitt and Boulanger created?
SAT: One doesn’t sense a lot of similarity of style between Fauré and these two students, but what is clear — especially in the case of Schmitt — is that Fauré passed on his deep knowledge of the work of Liszt and Wagner.
The remarkable thing to me is that his students could write with such confidence — following their own creative “North Stars” — and weren’t necessarily beholden to the aesthetics of their teacher. To me, this is the mark of a great mentor.
As for the similarities of the two Psalm settings, I assume that Lili Boulanger was influenced by the success of Schmitt’s Psalm 47 premiered a decade earlier (with her sister Nadia at the organ).
There are some surface similarities — such as the prominent use of brass fanfares — but Boulanger’s texture is more sparse than Schmitt’s and her harmony is filled with open fourths and fifths, giving it a kind of “primitive” sound.
While not quite reflecting the primitivism of Stravinsky, there are shades of his influence in Boulanger’s setting.
PLN: What special hurdles does Schmitt’s score pose for the chorus? Does singing in the French language pose more challenges than other languages such as German or Latin?
SAT: Well, first it has to be said that the piece is physically exhausting for the tenors and sopranos. There is a lot of high and loud singing. So of course, early in the rehearsal process we needed to reduce the volume, and sometimes sing in the lower octave just to get the piece well-established in the ear before trying to put it in the voice.
Then there are the unexpected harmonic progressions, especially in the (gorgeous) middle section, which takes some time to master with confidence.
The French language, with its nuance and shading of vowels, is certainly more difficult than German or Latin, but my musicians are pretty used to it, so that hasn’t been a major hurdle.
The biggest challenge is getting them to hear the music as a whole, and not to get stuck in that “chorister bad habit” of blocking out other sounds — especially the dissonant ones.
PLN: It’s likely that many of the chorus members haven’t sung any works by Schmitt until now. What has been their reaction to this music?
SAT: So far the piece has its supporters and detractors. This is typical with an unknown and difficult work. I am confident that when they have mastered it further — and then have the opportunity to put it together with the orchestra — they will be very enthusiastic about it.
PLN: Speaking personally, what aspects of Schmitt’s score do you find the most interesting or noteworthy?
SAT: Schmitt has packed all sorts of ideas into a 30-minute work, but these ideas never trip over one another. It is really a very sophisticated score, and the more I live with it, the more deeply it affects me.
It is not an easy work to master, but it is a very satisfying challenge. As a choral director, I love that Schmitt is not afraid to leave the chorus a cappella at certain key moments. (The organ part does have cues, just in case!)
PLN: Now that you have had the experience of preparing Schmitt’s Psalm for performance, would you recommend the piece to other choral directors?
SAT: Absolutely! Just a practical warning: Be aware that the Salabert score has no piano reduction — just the choral parts. A piano reduction can be found online, and it is essential that they’d practice with it.
PLN: Are there any closing comments you would like to make about the upcoming concert?
SAT: I am thrilled to be working with Alexandria Shiner, who will be singing the important soprano solo in this work. She is in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program here at the Kennedy Center, and I think she has a great career ahead of her.
To give you a flavor of her artistic excellence, you can listen to her rendition of “Dich teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser here.
For music-lovers in the Washington-Baltimore region, the Washington Choral Arts concert at the Kennedy Center on May 19th is definitely a can’t-miss event. To learn more about the concert and to reserve tickets, visit the Choral Arts website here.