Simplicity, elegance and wit: Florent Schmitt’s piano suite Small Gestures (1940).

Florent Schmitt piano music Kaltchev GegaAlthough he played the flute and the organ, French composer Florent Schmitt’s main instrument was the piano. So it should come as little surprise that when we look at Schmitt’s extensive catalogue of 138 opus numbers plus several additional creations, piano works comprise the largest single component of his output.

On the other hand, Schmitt’s most famous compositions are ones that feature the orchestra — he was a brilliant orchestrator in the grandest post-Rimsky tradition — but as it turns out, his piano pieces are every bit as inventive and worthy.

As Schmitt’s career moved into its latter phase beginning in the mid-1930s, the composer would devote more of his creative energies to works for vocalists as well as smaller groups of instruments. But Schmitt also brought out several sets of works for solo piano during this period, including:

Ivo Kaltchev pianist Bulgaria USA

Ivo Kaltchev

The last two in particular are interesting in that they are more intimate in their conception. Of these two works the Bulgarian-American pianist Ivo Kaltchev has written, “[They display] a quite different aspect of Schmitt’s creative explorations, which is his fascination with the child’s world.”

And of Small Gestures in particular, Kaltchev notes:

“With their simplicity, elegance and wit, Small Gestures is not only a fine example of contemporary neo-classical style but also an insightful counterpart to Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Debussy’s Children’s Corner and Fauré’s Dolly Suite.”

Carl Fischer Music logoInterestingly, Small Gestures is the only composition of Florent Schmitt’s whose title is in English.  Whereas at first blush this may seem curious, the explanation is actually quite simple:  The suite was created at the request of the New York City-based Carl Fischer music firm, which published the score under the English title as part of its Masters of Our Day series of pieces designed for piano instruction.

If ever there was an apt title for a piece of music, it’s this one. Indeed, these “small gestures” are perfection personified.  Collectively taking fewer than six minutes to perform, each of the three pieces in the suite describes a particular motion or action:

I.    Rocking

II.  Waltzing

III. Pacing

Within the three movements, Schmitt employs a masterful economy in conveying the “essence” of each gesture, trimming his oftentimes complex pianism down to the barest minimum. The effect is extraordinarily effective.

To my ears, the first movement (“Rocking”) has a bit of a Slavic flavor to it, while the second movement (“Waltzing”) is reminiscent of Schmitt’s waltz sequences in other compositions such as Trois rapsodies, Feuillets de voyage and A Tour d’anches.

The final movement (“Pacing”) suggests similar walking/marching characteristics that crop up in other Schmitt compositions as diverse as Chansons à quatre voix, Trois trios, and even the first movement of the Symphony No. 2, the composer’s penultimate creation.

The simplicity of the writing in Small Gestures happens to make these pieces accessible to pianists of only modest technical acumen.  For that reason, their relative obscurity is difficult to understand.  Certainly, these winsome pieces should be “standards” in the piano student repertoire as much for their technical approachability as for their charming musicality.

Ivo Kaltchev pianist 2001

Pianist Ivo Kaltchev, photographed for the release of his recording featuring solo piano music of Florent Schmitt (2001).

The obscurity of Small Gestures extends to its presence on recordings — or lack thereof.  To my knowledge, there has been only one commercial recording ever made of the music — part of a program of Schmitt solo piano works recorded in January 2001 by Ivo Kaltchev at the Bulgaria Concert Hall in Sofia and released on the Gega label.

As a pianist who has also made very desirable recordings of the music of Claude Debussy and Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Mr. Kaltchev’s interpretation is a thoroughly idiomatic and winsome one, which you can hear for yourself via this link (courtesy of Philippe Louis’ fantastic YouTube music channel).

I encourage you to give Small Gestures a listen.  See if you aren’t completely captivated by these little gems.

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