On May 29, 2019, the Orchestre Symphonique de Quebéc and its chorus presented the orchestra’s final concert of the season – one that featured French music exclusively. The event was a red-carpet affair at the Grand-Théâtre in Québec City in which local dignitaries were invited guests of the orchestra. Also noteworthy was the centerpiece of the musical program: Florent Schmitt’s blockbuster choral work Psaume XLVII, Op. 38.
Composed in 1904, the Psaume was part of Schmitt’s final envois to the Paris Conservatoire during his time at the Villa Medici in Rome – the result of winning the Prix de Rome first prize for composition four years earlier. The premiere of this composition two days after Christmas in 1906 took all of musical Paris by storm.
The “hugeness” of this piece – large mixed chorus, large orchestra, solo soprano, violin and organ – was noteworthy. Schmitt was hailed as “The New Berlioz” by the press, the Psaume was described as “profound and powerful” by Maurice Ravel, and the poet Léon-Paul Fargue wrote, “A great crater of music is opening up in our midst.”
More than a century later, the importance of Psaume XLVII hasn’t dimmed. It stands nearly alone in the French repertoire as the quintessential grandiose choral work intended for the concert hall rather than for presentation in an ecclesiastical setting.
It’s hardly surprising that the noted conductor, composer and arranger Manuel Rosenthal would say to his students, “If you conduct just one French choral work in your career, it should be this Psalm.”
Likewise, for French conductor Fabien Gabel who serves as music director of the OSQ, conducting Psalm 47 was a dream come true. An indefatigable advocate for Florent Schmitt’s music around the world, Maestro Gabel has presented several of Schmitt’s lesser known orchestral compositions including Le Palais hanté (1900-04), Rêves (1915) and Ronde burlesque (1927).
For Gabel, the opportunity to present the Psaume marks a move into presenting Schmitt’s more famous pieces (Antony & Cleopatra in 2018, while La Tragédie de Salomé is soon to come in the 2020-21 season).
For Karina Gauvin, who was engaged to present the important soprano solo in the middle section of the Psalm, it was the chance to sing one of the most movingly ecstatic solos in the French choral repertoire – as well as an opportunity to showcase her work with the French rep, which has been somewhat overshadowed by her reputation for working with the music of George Frederick Handel and other Baroque masters.
Canadian-born Gauvin has been described as “not only a national treasure, but an international one as well” – and as it turns out, her voice is ideally suited for Schmitt’s composition.
I was fortunate to be able to attend the OSQ concert where Psalm XLVII was presented and can personally attest to the impressive result, with Miss Gauvin, the chorus and musicians turning in an inspired performance under the capable leadership of Maestro Gabel. The resulting ovation, with cheers and applause lasting longer than for any concert I have ever attended apart from operas, reminded me of the words of Le Monde music critic René Dumesnil, who reported on an audience “literally transported with enthusiasm” at a performance of the Psaume at the 1954 Strasbourg Festival.
The day before the OSQ concert I was able to interview both the soprano and the conductor in between the final rehearsal sessions. Highlights of the very interesting and engaging hour we spent together are presented below.
PLN: Maestro Gabel, you are a champion of Florent Schmitt’s music all over the world, but this is the first time you have conducted Psaume XLVII. When did you first become acquainted with the music?
Fabien Gabel: During the time I was Kurt Mazur‘s assistant, I was fortunate to attend a rehearsal of this piece in Paris with Yan-Pascal Tortelier conducting the Orchestre National de France.
At the time I knew several compositions by Florent Schmitt like the Trumpet Suite and La Tragédie de Salomé. But I didn’t know this piece, and in fact I hadn’t planned on attending the rehearsal. But I was in the corridors of French radio, overheard the rehearsal and became curious about it. Musically, I was blown away by the strength and force of the Psaume. In terms of the dynamic range, it was huge.
Even now, 15 years later when I started rehearsing it, it’s been an amazing discovery — and an incredible experience.
In France, except for Berlioz we don’t have much choral repertoire like this as part of our musical heritage. From the time period between Berlioz and Schmitt there are a few masses by Saint-Saëns and Gounod, and the Fauré Requiem. Those pieces are beautiful, but they are not major works compared to the Schmitt — there’s really no comparison.
PLN: What made you decide to program Psaume XLVII as part of this week’s very interesting OSQ program of vocal and choral works? What was the “strategy” behind how the program came together?
Fabien Gabel: The strategy was to build a program around this Psaume because it’s an excellent piece, plus we have a Francophone choir. The chorus is mainly an amateur choir and they typically do standard repertoire like the Mozart Requiem, Carmina Burana or Beethoven’s Ninth. I think it was very interesting for them to do this work — and to sing in French rather than in Latin or German.
It’s likely the Psaume is the most demanding piece the choir has ever prepared for performing with us.
From there I built the program, including Fauré’s early Psaume CXXXVI as well, which is a fantastic piece composed when he was just 18 years old. Fauré was Schmitt’s teacher, and then the Ravel pieces were included because Fauré also taught him. (Ravel and Schmitt were well-acquainted, too.)
Plus, we added the Debussy Claire de lune. I think it was nice to play the music of four of the five major French composers of the period. Roussel is missing, but we didn’t have time to include another piece on the program.
With the Ravel Shéhérazade, the [Klingsor] mélodies are mainstream repertoire, but it was also nice to include the early Ouverture de féerie. I wouldn’t classify that piece as “amateur,” but it is startling to realize the change in Ravel’s output over a period of just five years. In the Ouverture we can see some weaknesses but we can really hear the emerging personality of Ravel. Interestingly, the more we rehearsed the Ouverture the better it sounded.
PLN: Miss Gauvin, were you familiar with the music of Florent Schmitt prior to being engaged to sing the solo in Psaume XLVII? What were your initial impressions of the music when you encountered it? What about the soprano solo part in particular?
Karina Gauvin: I knew of Florent Schmitt and I have some scores of his mélodies at home that were given to me rather recently, but this piece I didn’t know at all. I hadn’t really delved into his music until now.
As for my initial impressions of the piece, it’s probably what many people would say — the music is so lush, and there are so many layers. It’s like this amazing, luscious layer cake! It builds and builds and builds, and it’s certainly very exciting music.
Regarding the soprano solo, it’s fantastic. I think it reflects the fact that French composers of the period really knew how to write vocal music. Composers like Ravel, Debussy and Florent Schmitt were taught how to write for the human voice.
Sometimes when we encounter music that came later on, we might get the impression that those composers hadn’t learned how to compose for the voice and to make it singable. A voice is not a keyboard or some other instrument — but for many composers, that’s something they don’t grasp.
In the Psaume‘s solo part, even though it’s very demanding, it’s very singable. It has a big tessitura with high jumps and it goes quite low as well, but the way it’s written, the lilting vocal line is very flowing. It’s a testament to Schmitt’s talent as to how effective it is, but it also underscores what the Paris Conservatoire instructors were teaching at the time.
PLN: Thinking about the Psaume, how would you place it within the French choral tradition — and French music in general? What characteristics does it share with other music of the time in Paris … and what is different about it?
Karina Gauvin: Generally, I think of French music of this time period as more delicate. By contrast, the Psaume is very opulent — and this is what sets it apart. We have all of this lushness, but then in the middle section with the soprano we have this big contrast. In the vocal line the text is repeated numerous times [He hath chosen in his inheritance the beauty of Jacob, whom he loved”], and as it keeps going in this vein, it begins to feel more and more like an ecstatic trance.
As it builds, the soprano is kind of like an angel messenger — at least, this is what I sense. It’s a kind of elevation. And when the big climax with the chorus comes, you really feel like there’s a direct channel between earth and heaven. It’s an ascension of sorts.
Fabien Gabel: If you ask me to compare the Psaume to any other choral piece in the French repertoire, I can’t think of anything that quite compares. The Psaume has three parts. The first part I’d say is more academic. The second part is much “newer” in terms of the harmonies and so forth, and the third part takes us back to the flavor of the beginning.
When I say “academic,” it’s because Schmitt includes two fugues — and we can imagine that those might have been included because this composition was one of the envois that Schmitt composed during the time of his Prix de Rome stay at the Villa Medici. Even so, the dance we have in the first part is in 5/4, which is certainly forward-looking.
In the middle section where we have the soprano, the choir and the orchestra are quite stunning — and it’s the most beautiful part of the piece where we are in heaven, so it seems. Transitioning to that middle section we have the violin solo, where you could say that suddenly we have left the nineteenth century and are in the avant-garde of the early twentieth century.
In the later transition after the soprano’s solo, with the organ and harps, this is where time is suspended. You might say it’s quite Debussyian. The ending of the Psaume is very exciting as well because of the dance rhythms and the huge orchestra, but in the middle part we are clearly in time-travel — into the future!
PLN: What has it been like for the orchestra and the chorus to rehearse this piece in preparation for the concert? What special challenges did the musicians encounter with the music?
Fabien Gabel: Always when I program Florent Schmitt, the musicians are freaking out. Their first reaction is to say, “It’s so complicated! We don’t know where it goes!” I think success with Schmitt is a matter of preparation, and the musicians are extremely well-prepared because they know the music is challenging to play. Our chorus members have worked on the piece since last January.
But then when we rehearse it, it’s like Ravel: everything automatically fits together. Each note is at the right place – no more and no less. With Schmitt, the music is so well-written; even though it’s difficult, it sounds wonderful.
Contrast this with Debussy where you have to work at making the sound come out right — you have to work on precision. With Schmitt as with Ravel, it sounds right more effortlessly. In Central European music, it’s similar to the differences between Richard Strauss and Mahler scores: With Strauss it automatically sounds as it should, but with Mahler you have to work at making it sound good.
Today, I can immediately recognize the writing of Florent Schmitt just like I can the music of Ravel. Of course, later on in his life — even when Ravel was still alive — Schmitt went beyond in his harmonic system. Some of his later music sounds almost atonal.
PLN: Now that you’ve had the opportunity to prepare this piece for performance, would you recommend it to other orchestras and choruses? What words of advice would you give if they chose to program it?
Karina Gauvin: Yes, of course! This music is quite demanding for the chorus — especially if you’re working with a group that’s mainly amateurs. They are going to need extra forces to propel them — along with extra rehearsal time — because it isn’t easy music. It has a big tessitura — especially for the sopranos and tenors — and it’s going at full throttle in many key moments.
For the soprano solo, ideally I think it should be a voice with a light touch in addition to having strength. It requires the full gamut. For me, I’ve studied French repertoire from the time I was quite young and in my years at the Montréal Conservatoire. I’ve always loved singing it, but in my early career you could say I was nabbed by the Baroque community. I’ve been doing a lot of repertoire like Handel. The Baroque period suits my voice well, but that same sort of agility lends itself well to French repertoire.
Several years ago, I was fortunate to sing in Saint-Saëns’ rarely heard opera Ascanio, which was also recorded, and it rekindled my interest in the French repertoire. This is the first time I’ve worked with Fabien and yesterday when we were rehearsing, he asked me if I’d perform more of this kind of repertoire. Obviously, I would love to do so.
Fabien Gabel: Quite simply, the Psaume is a great piece of music. For anyone thinking about performing this piece, they should listen to a recording a few times to become acquainted with it. And then they just need to be daring — to be brave enough to do it. Be curious and be audacious!
As I’ve mentioned already, the music is physically very demanding. Harmonically it’s difficult for the chorus. It’s challenging for everyone, including the orchestra and me. At the same time, this is music that’s super-accessible to the audience. There are so many colors you can bring to the performance, and as a conductor you can work with the orchestra on many of those aspects during preparation.
Frankly, if you want to introduce something new to audiences instead of always playing the same blockbusters, I can’t think of a better composition than the Psaume.
PLN: Miss Gauvin, does singing the solo soprano part in Psaume XLVII make you curious to investigate other vocal scores by Schmitt, seeing as how he composed many sets of songs along with much choral music?
Karina Gauvin: For sure. In addition to his mélodies, I would love to sing the Psaume again as well. But organizations need to have the resources to mount a piece that’s this big.
PLN: Maestro, do you have plans to perform Psaume XLVII in the future?
Fabien Gabel: I don’t have firm plans at the moment, but definitely I will. For me, I thought this first time to conduct this music might be the only time in my life to do so. It’s so intense, but it’s such a pleasure. Now that I’ve had the experience, I would love to do it in the future — as many times as I can.
Of course, I must be offered the opportunity to perform it because it also requires important contributions from the choir and the vocalist. I’d like to explore presenting this work alongside one of the psalms of Zemlinsky, which would be a tremendous program. Perhaps something like this can be assembled sometime.
PLN: In closing, are there any additional observations you would like to make about Psaume XLVII or Florent Schmitt’s music in general?
Karina Gauvin: When I think of French music of the period, it comes down to Debussy, Ravel and Schmitt. With these three composers, you have the entire palette of French musical expression — and without any of them it wouldn’t fully cover the range of French musical artistry in those times.
Of course, these composers share similarities because they were living and working in the same period – and so we hear some of the same colors in the music. But the music of each possesses its own unique qualities, too.
As for Psaume XLVII, I’m excited to see how it all comes together in the concert. Our rehearsals up to now haven’t been in the hall but in a space that’s more like a gymnasium, and so it’s hard to know how it’s actually going to sound. But we’ll have the opportunity to find out in our dress rehearsal later on today.
Fabien Gabel: More and more, I am trying to promote Florent Schmitt’s music. I talk to young musicians and suggest that they explore his output. I talk to soloist friends of mine, trying to interest them in Schmitt’s concertante works. As a result, more people are now aware of the value of the music.
This is how it works — and slowly but surely Schmitt’s music is reclaiming its rightful position, whereas it had been a missing part of the French repertoire for too long.
It’s true that Schmitt can be a challenging “sell” when I am guest-conducting orchestras, but the successes are happening more frequently now. For instance, I’ll be conducting Rêves in Perth, Australia in October. That opportunity came about when I sent a link to a recording of the music and the orchestra responded, “OK, let’s do it.”
That’s the process; I send some links, ask people to listen carefully, and hopefully it falls on fertile ground. It is certainly worth it to make the effort — and doubly satisfying when it results in more performances of Schmitt’s extraordinary music.
We are fortunate that consummate musical artists like Karina Gauvin and Fabien Gabel are doing their part to bring the artistry of Florent Schmitt to more audiences. For sure, It would be wonderful if they are able to present Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII in more places.
Even more importantly, they seem like the natural musicians to explore Schmitt’s vocal scores, many of which the composer orchestrated as well. Worthy compositions like Quatre poèmes de Ronsard, Trois chants, Musique sur l’eau and others await new champions in the modern era.