In his later period of creation, French composer Florent Schmitt would turn to the sonorities of wind instruments for a goodly number of his creations.
This may seem surprising for an artist who had made his reputation on his numerous “big orchestra” compositions along with a noteworthy collection of “orientalist” creations. But if we recall that one of Schmitt’s own three instruments was the flute (along with the piano and organ), coupled with his widely acknowledged mastery of wind instrument sonorities in his orchestral compositions, an emphasis on writing for wind instrumentalists makes complete sense.
As well, considering that Schmitt’s later compositional style transitioned to a more spare, less fin de siècle approach to writing, that he would create compositions for small groups of wind instruments was only natural.
Among the highly interesting pieces written by Schmitt for winds during the last two decades of his life (the composer passed away in 1958) are these works:
- A tour d’anches, Op. 97 for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano (1939-43)
- Quatuor, Op. 102 for four saxophones (1943)
- Quatuor, Op. 106 for four flutes (1946)
- Quatuor, Op. 109 for three trombones and tuba (1946)
- Chants alizés, Op. 125 for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn (1951-55)
- Sextuor, Op. 128 for six clarinets (1953)
- Suite en quatre parties, Op. 129 for flute and piano (1954)
- Suite en trois parties, Op. 133 for trumpet and piano (1955)
Of these eight compositions, Chants alizés, Opus 125 features the most diverse group of musicians — four different woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) plus a French horn.
Loosely translated, the work’s name means “Trade Winds”; it’s yet another one of Schmitt’s trademark “wordplay” titles that we see crop up so often in his catalogue of compositions. Along these lines, French conductor Fabien Gabel discerns a joke being played on the terms “chants alizées” and “Champs-Elysées,” where just one slightly altered syllable changes the meaning of the title completely.
We know that Schmitt worked on this piece beginning in the early 1950s, although sources vary on the exact years of its composition. Yves Hucher cites the year 1951 in his 1953 biography of the composer, but then augments this information in his 1960 book about Schmitt’s catalogue of music to indicate 1955 as the year of publication. And indeed, “April 1955” is shown on the score as published by Durand.
[To confuse matters further, the CD booklet for the Prague Wind Quintet’s 2000 recording of Chants alizés lists the composition’s years of creation as 1952-57 — none of which matches the other documentation.]
One thing we do know is that the piece was composed for the wind quintet of the Orchestre National de l’RTF, whose names are listed on the score:
- Fernand Dufrène (flute)
- Jules Goetgheluck (oboe)
- Maurice Cliquennais (clarinet)
- René Plessier (bassoon)
- Louis Courtinat (French horn)
Fittingly, the premiere performance of the piece was made by these gentlemen in a broadcast over French National Radio on March 28, 1952. The first concert performance was made by the same musicians at the 1952 Besançon Festival. Writing for the French newspaper Le Monde, the physician and music critic René Dumesnil summed up the premiere as follows:
“The title of the piece sums it up well, with a pun very much characteristic the composer. A characteristic of trade winds is to blow regularly and continuously … strains which similarly blow through the whole composition, inspiring the musicians with the most unforeseen discoveries and the most amusing details — and all of it masterfully constructed. But these Chants alizés are too complex to reveal all of their secrets right away …”
As a composition, Chants alizés is indeed impressive. In the span of fewer than 20 minutes, Schmitt takes us on quite the inventive journey — one that touches on many moods. Its four movements are as follows:
I. D’un gravité quelque peu martiale (“With a Somewhat Martial Solemnity”) — exhibiting what some sense as a Versailles-like pomp (or at the very least a feeling of noblesse — or is it hauteur?)
II. Scherzo — very characteristic of Schmitt’s skittering, humorous dialog between groups of instruments — in this case the chattering of the flute, oboe and clarinet contrasted with the bassoon’s sidebar “commentary.”
III. Lent — conjuring up a pastoral scene with a poignant cantilena given to the oboe.
IV. Ronde en losange (“Round Diamond”) — characteristic of the final movements of so many of Schmitt’s set pieces (Suite en rocaille, Hasards, Enfants, A Tour d’anches, Pour presque tous les temps, etc.), this particular scene evokes the progressive leaps of children playing hopscotch and finding themselves au ciel, “feet together” at the end. Or, could it be dancing a round in a circle? The explanation is intriguingly obscure, considering that a diamond shape isn’t a circle. Either way, rather than clocking in at two or three minutes as in those other compositions, at nearly six minutes in duration the final movement of Chants alizés is the lengthiest one of them all.
Considering the complexity of so many of this composer’ works, it isn’t surprising that Chants alizés is also a challenging piece for performers to tackle. According to musicologist and author Pierre Barbier, the work is considered one of the most difficult scores in the wind repertoire. (One is reminded of the remark by American violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams who has performed numerous pieces by the composer: “There is no easy Schmitt!”)
One group of musicians that keeps Chants alizés in its active repertoire is the Stanislaus Ensemble — which is fitting because the ensemble’s home base of Nancy isn’t far from Florent Schmitt’s birthplace of Blâmont. In addition to keeping up a robust performing and touring schedule, the Stanislaus Ensemble has made many recordings of instrumental music for a variety of French-based labels — but not one of the Chants alizés yet.
While Chants alizés has not fared as well on recordings or in recital as Florent Schmitt’s 1938 work A tour d’anches for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano, we are fortunate that several quality commercial recordings have been made of this score, including:
- USSR Wind Quintet (Valentin Zverev, flute; Anatoly Lyubimov, oboe; Vladimir Sokolov, clarinet; Sergei Krasavin, bassoon, Anatole Demin, French horn) … released on the Melodiya label (recorded ca. 1975)
- Quintette à Vent de Paris (Jacques Castagner, flute; Robert Casier, oboe; André Boutard, clarinet; Paul Hongne, bassoon; Michel Bergès, French horn) … released on the Adès label as part of a 4-LP set of wind compositions from the first half of the 20th century written by 15 French composers (recorded in 1980)
- Prague Wind Quintet (Jan Riedlbauch, flute; Jurij Likin, oboe, Vlastimil Mareš, clarinet; Miloš Wichterle, bassoon; Vladimira Klánská, horn) … released on the Praga label (recorded in 2000)
Unfortunately, only one of these recordings remains in print today — the very fine rendition by the Prague Wind Quintet dating from 2000. You can hear just how good that performance is by listening to it here, courtesy of Philippe Louis’ YouTube music channel.
Even better, this same performance has been synced to Florent Schmitt’s score and can be seen and heard on the fine George Gianopoulous YouTube music channel here.
… And while the 1980 Adès recording may no longer be available, a 1985 live performance by the Quintette à Vent de l’Orchestre National de France (which might be the same ensemble — I’m not quite sure), has been uploaded to YouTube recently and can be heard here. Interestingly, although just five years separate the commercial recording from the live performance, none of the actual performers are the same (in the 1985 live performance they’re Patrick Gallois, flute; Michel Croquennois, oboe; Guy Dangain, clarinet; Régis Poulain, bassoon; and Michel Cantin, French horn).
As for future recordings that may be in the works, word on the street is that a new recording of Chants alizés by the Initium Ensemble will be released by Timpani Records, hopefully in the coming year.
I first wrote about this news several years ago, but recent correspondence confirms that the recording project is slated for completion later than anticipated due to delays caused by the international touring schedules of several members of the ensemble. We look forward to hearing the new Timpani recording with anticipation — and indeed, to hearing more of this fascinating composition in the recital hall.