Over the past 20 years, the vast majority of Florent Schmitt’s music for piano solo has been rediscovered by a new generation of music-lovers and performers. Moreover, nearly all of this music has been commercially recorded at least one time.
However, one piano composition, Pupazzi, Opus 36 (Puppets), hasn’t been part of the revival, and the work has yet to receive its first-ever recording. This “petite suite,” composed by Schmitt in 1907 and dedicated to the dancer Loïe Fuller (who premiered Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé in the same year), consists of eight short character sketches of Commedia dell’Arte figures, including:
The eight movements are described by Yves Hucher, Florent Schmitt’s biographer, as “light, witty and delightful evocations — more cheerful than those of Schumann’s Carnaval and more tender than Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes.”
Looking at the piano score, it’s a mystery to me why this set of pieces has languished in total obscurity while nearly all of the other piano music by Schmitt has been resurrected, performed, and in some cases, recorded multiple times in the modern era.
It isn’t that the music has been ignored completely; for example, in 1986 French Radio broadcast a performance of this music by the Canadian-born pianist Louise Bessette. It’s just that such outings have been pretty rare.
But recently I was pleased to discover that Pupazzi has, in fact, been presented in recital in more recent years. For that we can thank Linda Ippolito, a Toronto-based pianist who has had an interesting dual career in music and law. (Despite undertaking extensive online research, I know of no other pianists who have included Schmitt’s suite in their performing repertoire since the turn of the present century.)
A classically trained pianist who studied at Juilliard and participated in numerous national and international competitions during the 1980s, for the past 25 years Linda Ippolito has distinguished herself as both a classical pianist (recitalist, soloist with orchestras, vocal collaborator and duo pianist), and as a founder and senior partner at the Toronto-based law firm of Sheridan, Ippolito & Associates. Her activities combine both of her passions, working “at the intersection of music and conflict resolution,” as she puts it.
Upon discovering that Linda Ippolito had included Florent Schmitt’s Pupazzi in a series of concert programs she presented in 2013 in Canada on the theme of Commedia dell’Arte, I got in touch with her to learn more about her experience in introducing Schmitt’s score to audiences. Highlights of our interesting discussion are presented below.
PLN: How did you first discover Florent Schmitt’s Pupazzi score — considering that it’s such a rarity?
LMI: I have long been fascinated by the Commedia dell’Arte and its archetypal characters which have appeared in art and literature across many cultures and centuries. In time, I decided to create a concert event themed around clowns, puppets, marionettes, and these stock theatre characters.
In looking for repertoire, I turned to the Internet and searched for music using terms pertaining to puppets, clowns, marionettes and so forth. This led me to the IMSLP database [International Music Score Library Project] where I came across the Pupazzi Suite by Florent Schmitt. The score consisted of eight short selections and introduced me to some Commedia characters with which I was unfamiliar.
I was very excited to discover this work.
PLN: What other pieces did you present as part of this themed program?
LMI: The program was shaped beginning with pieces that I knew because of my longstanding love of the Commedia, featured in so many musical works from Schumann’s Carnaval to Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka.
The program, which I first presented as a noontime hour recital for the Canadian Opera Company‘s Piano Virtuoso Series at the Four Seasons Centre [Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre], was entitled “Lunch with Punch.” Later, when I did it as an evening recital at Toronto’s Jazz Bistro it was entitled “Send in the Clowns.”
The program was comprised of mostly rare selections, beginning with an opening group including Villa-Lobos’ O Polichinello, Frank Bridge’s Columbine and Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk from The Children’s Corner Suite.
A sort of Pétrouchka suite (Punch, Ballerina and the Moor) in fun form followed Florent Schmitt’s Pupazzi Suite. After that it was Rachmaninoff’s Pulcinella, Cyril Scott’s Columbine, Billy Mayerl’s Puppets Suite, and the concert closed with Pierre-Max Dubois’ Arlequin et Pantalon.
Fittingly, as an encore I played a solo piano version of Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns.
PLN: That’s quite a rich and varied program! What were your initial impressions of Pupazzi when you first read through the score?
LMI: I found it whimsical, fun, lyrically plaintive, and quirky – in short, all of the elements I was looking for in my program.
I also noted a number of challenging technical passages in what appeared otherwise to be a misleadingly straightforward score.
I immediately saw the great potential of this unknown work.
PLN: The suite contains eight movements. Did you present all of them in your recital?
LMI: As each portrait is its own special gem — and nearly all of them are quite short — I decided to present the entire suite instead of just excerpts.
PLN: Thinking about the individual movements of the suite, each of which are named for a particular puppet character, are there any that you find to be particularly winsome — or possibly unique in some ways?
LMI: I’d say that they are all very much unique!
The first movement is Scaramouche, which has a sense of exaggerated villainous mischief. Musically, it and several others in the suite remind me of Grieg.
Aminte, which has a gorgeous opening and closing motif, made me think of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet; it has a melody that I could hear a bassoon playing, surrounded by a crossover accompaniment.
Damis, almost reminiscent of Grieg, has a folk-like rich simplicity, while Eglé has some wickedly tricky passages that made me hold my breath each time I played them. Deceivingly simple, this movement reminded me of Poulenc’s Villageoises — like the Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet, a work composed much later than the Schmitt.
Cassandre is whimsical and fun, followed by Atys which is like a Schubertian ländler.
Clymène is a beautifully lyrical and plaintive barcarole, with harmonies that remind me of one of the British Romantic composers; it became an immediate favorite.
The last piece in the suite is the Arlequin – another folk movement. Very Grieg-like, it captures the Harlequin character perfectly with lots of “flash and dash” — along with a troubadour melody in the middle and at the end, as the bell-like frolic of the climax spins itself out and the troubadour melody disappears into the distance.
PLN: When comparing the pianistic style of Schmitt to other French keyboard composers of the period – people like Debussy, Ravel and Dukas – what aspects of Schmitt’s style are similar … and what are different?
LMI: It’s interesting that you ask this. In actuality, I did not do a lot of research into Schmitt the composer at the time that I discovered the Pupazzi Suite, and I didn’t discern from the musical style of the piece that he was a contemporary of Debussy, Ravel and Dukas.
The music did not strike me as being particularly Impressionistic (either stylistically or harmonically) but rather, more late-Romantic in character — reminiscent of some of the Russians (like Arensky) or German composers of the early 20th century (like Richard Strauss).
Also, I found the music definitely folk-like and seemingly simple in its lines (like Grieg, as well as some Poulenc — who of course came along later).
PLN: Do you recall the audience reaction to Pupazzi when you presented the piece in recital? I’m guessing that no one hearing it was familiar with the music beforehand …
LMI: The suite was very well received by all of the audiences who heard the program. Indeed, they were delighted to hear something new with which they were unfamiliar – a discovery for all of us!
PLN: Since the 2013 events, have you had the chance to present this music on any other occasions?
LMI: I have not repeated this particular themed program, and so I haven’t had the opportunity to perform these pieces since then.
PLN: You’ve had a very interesting – indeed fascinating — professional career. In addition to being a professional pianist, you are also an attorney specializing in Family Law. Please tell us tell a bit about how you came to have this dual career.
LMI: I came to this dual career literally by accident. While studying for an international piano competition, I sustained a hand injury and needed to take time away from the instrument for recovery and rehab. To occupy myself during that time, I decided to follow a friend who was taking the LSAT exam. I then applied to law school myself and was accepted.
During law school in Toronto, I co-founded a musical society at the University and organized concerts with fellow students and professors who were singers and instrumentalists. Since finishing law school and being called to the bar in 1994, I have continued to perform as well as work full-time as a lawyer in private practice. (Our Toronto firm, Sheridan, Ippolito & Associates, has just celebrated its 25th year of practice.)
My musical work was primarily as a collaborative pianist with vocalists but eventually, once fully recovered, I recommenced my solo piano performing.
Being heavily involved in negotiation and settlement-related work in my legal career, my ensemble music-making skills have been very beneficial to those endeavors as well as to my creative thinking. In fact, I consider that these qualities have been hallmarks of my style and approach throughout my professional career as a lawyer.
PLN: What have been some of your more recent musical activities?
LMI: Last year I presented four solo concerts – one in New York and three at different venues in Toronto. Those concerts featured impromptus and improvisations by various composers of the 20th century.
In addition, this year I’ve recorded two compositions by André Previn: his Vocalise and also the Four Songs for Soprano, Cello & Piano.
PLN: Have you found ways to blend your musical and legal expertise through any particular activities or outreach?
LMI: Absolutely. In 2007 I began work on a Masters in Law, researching the role of collaborative music-making as an innovative tool in conflict resolution and peace-building. My research focused on where collaborative vocal music-making, in particular, has been used to bridge lines of divide in armed conflict situations in South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, the Middle East and Northern Ireland, among other regions.
I then continued with my academic studies and completed a PhD in Law in 2015 — again focusing on the intersection of music and conflict resolution. This time, I examined how we might shift dominant culture-disputing metaphors and mindsets from those of war and games to that of the musical ensemble – realizing that no one party can achieve a negotiated outcome without the consensus and full participation of all parties to the dispute.
My PhD research proposed not only reframing disputes and approaches to dispute resolution in this manner, but also explored building creative capacities through the use of music-based teaching and learning modalities.
PLN: What new projects — musical or otherwise — are on the horizon for you?
LMI: My new book, Music, Leadership and Conflict: The Art of Ensemble Negotiation and Problem-Solving [published in the Palgrave Macmillan series of Business, the Arts and the Humanities] has just been released and I am now looking forward to the official launch of that work.
Based upon that output, this fall I will teach a course entitled “Creativity and Collaboration” in the Executive Masters program in Dispute Resolution at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. The course will use an entirely arts-immersed pedagogy.
On the musical front, I am starting to read through some new music with a view to presenting a concert in the spring — stay tuned!
PLN: Will there be other opportunities for music-lovers to see and hear you perform Schmitt’s Pupazzi?
LMI: Hopefully yes! Beyond that, I am now looking into exploring some of Florent Schmitt’s other piano compositions as well.
PLN: In conclusion, are there any additional observations you have about Florent Schmitt and his musical legacy?
LMI: I am very happy to have discovered Schmitt’s piano music. When I was first researching the Commedia program I was completely focused on finding music on that theme. The Pupazzi was a wonderful, whimsical, and musically rewarding addition to the program.
Since then, having learned more about Florent Schmitt and his output, I am intrigued to play through more of his music to see what other hidden gems are there — and to bring these rediscoveries to a new generation of music-lovers.
I love presenting lesser known works and exposing audiences to wonderful composers outside of the mainstream. Schmitt fits that bill perfectly — and he certainly has a large output to draw from. I look forward to exploring it in depth.
Likewise, we are definitely looking forward to Linda Ippolito’s continuing exploration of Florent Schmitt’s piano compositions — and of course we’re particularly grateful for her resurrection of Pupazzi. Now that she has brought the score to light, hopefully more pianists will take a look at this interesting and inventive music and add it to their repertoire.
Moreover, just as he did with so many of his other piano scores, Florent Schmitt orchestrated six of the eight movements of Pupazzi (all but Aminte and Arlequin) for small orchestra. Those arrangements were published by A. Z. Mathot in 1911.
The North American premiere performance of the orchestrated Pupazzi happened in 1916, with four of the numbers — Scaramouche, Damis, Clymène and Cassandre — played by the Symphony Society of New York under the direction of Walter Damrosch. New York City audiences had a further opportunity to hear Pupazzi in 1924, performed at the Henry Miller Theatre by the Little Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georges Barrère.
While the orchestrated version has been presented over the radio on occasion — French National Radio broadcast a performance by Maurice Babin and the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in 1958 as well as one by the Orchestre National de Lyon led by Jean Doussard in 1963 — thus far no commercial recording has ever been released. Fortunately, though, the Maurice Babin live performance has been uploaded to YouTube along with the score and can be viewed here. (Special thanks to George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos and his estimable YouTube music channel for the upload.)
Having looked at the score, in my view there’s no question that these arrangements would be a welcome addition to any concert program. Here’s hoping enterprising conductors of smaller ensembles — Schmitt advocates Frank Braley, David Grandis, David Leibowitz, Julien Masmondet, Elias Miller, Eckhart Preu and John McLaughlin Williams among them — will consider the possibility.
Unfortunately, we don’t have recorded documentation of Linda Ippolito performing Schmitt’s Pupazzi suite … but we do have her eloquent account of Claude Debussy’s L’Ile joyeuse as presented live at Jazz Bistro in Toronto in 2015. You can view that performance here, courtesy of YouTube.
Update (3/7/22): In the past several months the dearth of Pupazzi recordings has been redressed with the release of the first commercial recording of the piano set, played by pianist Biljana Urban.
In addition, the 1958 Maurice Babin broadcast performance of the orchestral version of Pupazzi has now been released by Forgotten Records as part of a recording that also includes three other French Radio broadcast performances of Schmitt’s music from the same period.