The French composer Florent Schmitt was known for creating multiple versions of many of his compositions. Throughout his lengthy career, time and again the composer would produce additional arrangements of his works featuring different sets of instruments.
To illustrate, many of Schmitt’s orchestral works were also published in piano reduction scores (solo, duet and/or piano duo versions). The converse was true as well: piano and vocal pieces that Schmitt would also orchestrate.
And it was the same with his chamber works, too.
A representative example is Schmitt’s Légende (1918), which the composer published in separate versions featuring solo saxophone, viola and violin in both piano and orchestral garb. Likewise, the Sonatine en trio (1935) exists in composer-created versions for flute/clarinet/harpsichord (the original scoring), flute/clarinet/piano and also violin/cello/piano.
But it is Schmitt’s Andantino, Op. 30, dating from 1906, that is perhaps the composer’s most versatile composition of all. Originally conceived as a vocalise for soprano and piano, the piece has achieved its fame primarily as a work for clarinet rather than the voice.
The origin of the music is an interesting story in itself. Schmitt’s composition was his contribution to a collection of vocalises and etudes assembled by Amédée-Landely Hettich, who was a respected voice instructor at the Paris Conservatoire.
Hettich approached nearly all of musical Paris (and points beyond) to commission new musical works — featuring the vocal line sung on vowels throughout — that he could use for instruction in the ultimate test of a singer’s rhythm and intonation. Hettich wished to offer singers something better than monotonous scalar exercises for developing the voice — indeed, musical selections that could stand as works of art in themselves.
Hettich’s project began in 1906, and Schmitt’s contribution was one of the pieces created and delivered that same year for publication in Hettich’s first volume of vocalises. Ultimately, the project would extend over a period of nearly 30 years and amass more than 150 works from composers both famous and (now) obscure.
The Andantino is one of the best examples of a vocalise composition I’ve ever heard. In the span of a little more than three minutes, Schmitt produced a perfect gem featuring a gorgeously fluid vocal line encompassing just the right blend of color and warmth. It’s little wonder that Schmitt would see its potential as a musical creation featuring various solo instruments in lieu of the voice.
And indeed, the Andantino was ultimately published in no fewer than six versions — four of them prepared the composer. They included:
- Bassoon (arranged by Fernand Oubradous)
- Horn (arranged by Émile Vuillermoz)
- Oboe (there is also a version for oboe and strings, arranged in the 1940s by the American composer Hershy Kay at the suggestion of Harold Gomberg, then-principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra)
- Voice (soprano — original version)
Despite the plethora of arrangements, to my knowledge the Andantino has been commercially recorded in just two of its versions: clarinet and saxophone … and there’s no question that the clarinet arrangement dominates in both recordings and performances on stage.
The first commercial recording of the Andantino was made in 1961 by clarinetist Gervase de Peyer with pianist Cyril Preedy. Released on the L’Oiseau-Lyre label, that classic recording has been reissued in the CD era — as well it should be.
Twenty-five years later, de Peyer would return to the microphones to record the piece a second time — the new recording accompanied by pianist Gwynneth Pryor and released on the Chandos label in 1987.
While the two de Peyer performances could well be considered benchmark recordings, there are a number of other fine recordings of the clarinet version of the Andantino that have been made — among them:
- Claude Faucomprez (with pianist Alain Raës — Harmonia Mundi, 1982 and René Gailly, 1996)
- Murray Khouri (with pianist Rosemary Barnes — Continuum, 1989)
- Ralph Manno (with pianist Alfredo Perl — Arte Nova, 1998 and Oehms, 2010)
- Duo Rivier (Stefan Zillmann with pianist Randolf Stöck — perc.pro, 2013)
Beyond commercial recordings, numerous other clarinetists have featured the piece in their recitals — among them Michel Lethiec, Ricardo Morales, Joshua Anderson, Wilfried Berk, Peter Koetsveld and Jerry Rife, to name just some.
While performances of the Andantino featuring other instruments (or voice) are rather rare, we do have a live performance of Schmitt’s oboe arrangement, featuring Fabian Menzel with pianist Maria Conti Gallenti, that has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.
As for the newer arrangements of the piece — regarding the one prepared by saxophonist Harry White just a few years ago — we have a stellar recording of it made by Mr. White himself with pianist Edward Rushton that was released on the BIS label in 2016. Well-worth hearing, the recording should win new converts to the piece among the burgeoning classical saxophone community throughout the world.
Similarly, the recent arrangement by Luigi Spina for transverse flute is a charmer. There’s no question that the Andantino is one of those little gems that charms anyone who encounters it. Here’s hoping that even more musicians will take it up — particularly in some of its lesser-known instrumental arrangements.