Within the vast catalogue of music created by the French composer Florent Schmitt are a great number of vocal compositions. Indeed, throughout his 70+ year composing career, Schmitt would return again and again to the human voice — writing works for solo voice as well as for chorus.
The choral pieces are particularly interesting in that Schmitt’s creations are quite varied in their scoring. Some of the choral pieces feature large orchestral forces as well — the best-known being the stunning Psaume XLVII (1904) but also others such as Danse des Devadasis (1908), Fete de la lumière (1937), L’Arbre entre tous (1939) and Cinq chœurs en vingt minutes (1951).
Other choral creations by Schmitt feature all-male or all-female voices, scored with piano, organ or orchestra. And still others are a cappella pieces. Some are sacred works but many others have secular inspirations. One of the most fascinating of those is A contre-voix, Op. 104, which dates from 1944 when Schmitt was 74 years old and entering into his final period of composition.
Schmitt’s full description of the piece published on the cover of the score is “six chœurs mixtes ou quatuor a cappella.” From its very title “a contre-voix”, Schmitt is playing with double meanings — something he was to do often in his music. On one level a contre-voix translates as “contrasting voices” … but more colloquially it can also mean “on the wrong track.”
… And the track that Schmitt is on is driven very much by the sounds of the words and syllables he has put to music. To that end, four of the six movements are set to texts written by the composer himself, while the final two numbers are set to poetry by Pierre de Ronsard and Paul Arosa.
In a move that’s somewhat reminiscent of the Dame Edith Sitwell’s poetry in Sir William Walton’s Façade, much of the phrases in A contre-voix are nonsensical — drawing on syllables simply for the sake of how they sound. As the French musicologist and author Jean Gallois explains:
“The wordplay continues throughout the first four texts [these are the ones written by Schmitt]. The music, too, is imbued with wit — couched as it is in top-sided rhythms, onomatopoeia, and impudent jokes. But behind these deceptive masks there lurks a sublime tenderness along with a dazzling compositional mastery.”
The six movements that make up A contre-voix are of a contrasting character, and taken together are around 15 minutes in length. The numbers in the set are:
I. Retour à la terre (Back to the Land)
II. Si mes poches (If My Pockets)
III. Les trois goëlettes (The Three Schooners)
IV. L’Arche de Noé (Noah’s Ark)
V. … Pour vous de peine (If I May Trouble You) (words by Pierre de Ronsard)
VI. Bonnet vole (Bonnet Flies) (words by Paul Arosa)
The music could easily be described as “poly-everything” — polytonal, polychromatic, polyrhythmic — and it is endlessly fascinating. I find that the music is most effective when listening to the overall effect rather than attempting to work through its numerous complexities on a micro-level.
The first performance of A contre-voix happened in January 1947, performed by the Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur, one of the finest choral ensembles in Paris that would also be featured on the world premiere recording of Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII made in 1952.
The physician, author and music critic René Dumesnil, who was present at the premiere performance, wrote these words about A contre-voix in the pages of the newspaper Le Monde:
“This music, which is very much of our time, joins the tradition of our polyphonist masters of the Renaissance. Make no mistake about it … humor is only a mask behind which lurks a deep science, a gift of invention, and a powerful originality.”
In the ensuing years, A contre-voix would gain a certain level of awareness thanks to periodic broadcasts over French Radio, including several performances by the Marcel Couraud Vocal Ensemble. But the first commercial recording of the work didn’t happen until 1964, when Erato released an LP titled Chansons a cappella featuring the Ensemble Vocal Philippe Collard. That recording has been re-released several times, but never in the CD or download era.
Then in 1977, Hungaroton released an LP of 20th century choral music featuring the Chamber Chorus of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest directed by the esteemed choral conductor István Párkai. That recording, which remains one of the best interpretations of this music, has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.
At about the same time, the French/Canadian choral director Jean-François Sénart was performing the music with his Choeur A Capella and at least one of the numbers (Pour vous de peine) was released on a Radio-Canada International LP.
In more recent times, several additional commercial recordings of A contre-voix have been released:
- A 1991 EMI recording featuring the Groupe Vocal de France (an organization active from 1976 to 1995) directed by the famed English chorus-master John Alldis
- A 1996 recording by the Wiener Konzertchor directed by Gottfried Rabl and released on the ORF (Austrian Radio) label
- A 2000 recording on the ATMA label featuring Les Chantres Musiciens (voices from Le Jeune Opéra du Québec) under the direction of Gilbert Patenaude
- A 2018 recording containing two excerpts (III Les trois goëlettes and VI Bonnet vole) performed by the choral group Arsys Bourgogne and directed by Mihály Zeke, released on the Paraty label (click here for a brief interview with Maestro Zeke about the music on this recording, titled Naissance de Vénus)
In addition to these commercial recordings, a fine 1988 live performance of A contre-voix is now available that features the Vocal Group of Philadelphia directed by Seán Matthew Deibler. Maestro Deibler was a protégé of István Párkai in Budapest during the 1970s, and very likely became acquainted with Florent Schmitt’s score there — perhaps even singing as a member of the chorus on the 1977 Párkai recording.
The VGoP performance is available as a digital download item — part of the Seán Deibler Choral Legacy series of performances being released for the first time since the director’s death in 2000.
The environmental conditions under which the tapes were stored over the past three decades were not ideal, causing some of the recorded documents to be damaged and therefore unusable. Unfortunately, the final movement of the A contre-voix performance was so affected and is therefore not included, but the first five movements of the set can be heard in fine audio-fidelity here, along with the ability to purchase a high-definition digital download.
These days, several choral groups keep A contre-voix in their repertoire. One is the Choeur de chambre Calligrammes. This group presented five of the six movements in two concerts in Paris in July 2017, and plans to present the music in concert again in 2021. Speaking about the piece, Estelle Béréau, co-founder and director of the Calligrammes ensemble, states:
“I took great pleasure in meeting this composer through his vocal music. Florent Schmitt’s a capalla works are formidable but of such richness — and they’re very well-written for vocalists.”
For those who would like to follow along with the score to A contre-voix, the István Párkai recording has been synchronized to the score and is uploaded to YouTube — thanks to Anthony Mondon and his valuable music channel. Each individual movement is a separate upload and can be accessed via these links:
II. Si mes poches
III. Les trois goëlettes
IV. L’Arche de Noé
VI. Bonnet vole
Listening to these fascinating a cappella pieces with the added benefit of viewing the score concurrently contributes even more to their effectiveness and appeal, I think. Check out the links above and see if you don’t experience it the same way.