Many music-lovers I know are under the mistaken impression that Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 137 was the last piece the composer created. It’s a reasonable supposition because the Symphony received its premiere performance in Strasbourg on June 15, 1958, by the French National Radio Orchestra under the direction of Charles Munch, just two months before the composer’s death.
But in actuality, there is another piece that Schmitt completed after his Second Symphony: the Messe en quatre parties, Op. 138. It’s a work that Schmitt began composing in mid-August of 1957 while on holiday in Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden (located in Lapland near the Arctic Circle).
This was to be Florent Schmitt’s last journey outside France for an intrepid traveler who had visited countless countries far and wide over many decades. (Schmitt’s last passport, issued when he was 85 years old, contained more than 40 visa stamps at the time of his death.)
Despite the notable reception of the Second Symphony as praised by musicians and critics alike — not to mention its growing popularity in recent times thanks to advocacy on the part of conductors as diverse as Leif Segerstam, Leonard Slatkin, Fabien Gabel, JoAnn Falletta and Sakari Oramo (the latter of whom made a prized Chandos recording of the music with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2018) – as a composition I feel that the Mass is every bit as worthy as the Symphony.
Indeed, the Mass is a significant piece in several respects. First, vocal and choral music had always been an abiding interest of the composer, who would return to the human voice again and again throughout his seven decade-long composing career.
Without doubt, today’s audiences are most familiar with Schmitt’s monumental 1904 setting of Psaume XLVII, but there are many more choral works along with countless mélodies that came from the composer’s pen. Thankfully, more of them are beginning to come to light after decades of neglect.
The Mass is different from many of Schmitt’s compositions for voices in that the piece was clearly intended for presenting in an ecclesiastical setting. The score calls for a four-part mixed chorus and organ, and consists of the traditional setting of the Mass (Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus + Benedictus and Agnus Dei). The language is traditional as well – Latin rather than French – making it more universal and more accessible to church choirs around the world.
But there’s something else that’s noteworthy about Schmitt’s Mass. For the most part it is an introspective piece, and in many ways its reverential “spirit” is remindful of the sacred music created by Schmitt’s beloved teacher and mentor, Gabriel Fauré.
Of course, Florent Schmitt penned other choral pieces intended for ecclesiastical settings – such as the Cinq motets (1917), Trois liturgies joyeuses (1951), Laudate pueri, Dominum (1952) and Psaume CXII (1956). But it is in the Mass that the composer achieved a perfect blend of the sacred with the passion and fervor that we often associate with his more “red-blooded” compositions.
The result is a piece that is endlessly fascinating – and also a score that absolutely belies the advanced age and declining health of a composer who was by then suffering from the emphysema that would take his life within mere months.
Schmitt’s manuscript for the Mass has May 12, 1958 marked as the date when he put the last notes to paper, mere weeks prior to the premiere of his Second Symphony. By then quite ill, Schmitt was able to make one last out-of-town journey to Strasbourg to see his symphony premiered there, but thereafter would be able to receive only a few close friends at home during the final weeks of his life.
One poignant visit was from the esteemed conductor Paul Paray who presented a copy of his new recording of La Tragédie de Salomé to the composer. (It was the first stereophonic recording of Schmitt’s most famous piece — one that would go on to win the coveted Grand Prix du Disque award for best orchestral recording of the year.)
Florent Schmitt would finally succumb to his illness, dying on August 17, 1958 at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sue-Seine. Three days later, his Messe en quatre parties received its first performance at the composer’s own Requiem Mass held at St-Jacques Church in Neuilly. The private service was attended by approximately 200 family and friends.
Two months later, the first formal public performance of the Mass would be presented at Église St-Pierre de Chaillot in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris (October 10). Composer, conductor and music critic Henri Büsser was present at that performance, and wrote these words about it in the November 15, 1958 issue of La Revue musicale:
“By composing this pure music, which came as much from his heart as from his pen, Florent Schmitt recalled that he was the disciple of Gabriel Fauré rather than that of Massenet. No search for “effects,” but instead a sobriety that touches — that moves. We can feel the breath of joy in the first two sections, Kyrie Eleison and Gloria in excelsis Deo. This contrasts with the character of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, both imbued with a serenity that attains the greatest beauty.”
The following May, the Mass was presented as part of the opening concert of the Nuits de Sceaux Festival, held at St-Jean-Baptiste church in Sceaux. The performers were the Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur with Henriette Puig-Roget at the organ. Also on the program was another late-career choral piece by Schmitt, the Laudate pueri, Dominum from 1952.
Yves Hucher, Schmitt’s biographer who was present at both early performances, described the music of the Mass in poetic terms, writing:
“Here, the musician gave vent to his soul … and as the wonderful score-master he was, he entrusted the organ and the human voice with his last message.
There is a moving moderation [to the music]. A breath of cheerfulness is still in the Kyrie and the Gloria; a poignant solemnity in the Sanctus and in the Agnus; all the serenity of an artist who never failed to do his duty – the dying strains of a man always sustained by his ideal.
Indeed, the final testimony of his genius.”
Knowing the piece well, I concur completely with Hucher’s characterization. To my ears, the Mass sums up the spirit of the composer succinctly. There is a complex beauty about the music that reminds us that, in the end, Florent Schmitt was as much about “inner substance” as he was about “glistening sheen.”
… But for years it was nearly impossible for people to hear the evidence for themselves, because Schmitt’s Mass has never been commercially recorded.
It is true that the Mass has received a number of French Radio broadcast performances over the decades — the earliest ones featuring choral groups led by Elisabeth Brasseur and Jean-Paul Kréder, but also one dating from July 1974 led by Marcel Couraud and another from June 1988 directed by Michel Tranchant.
In the 1960s and 1970s the French Broadcasting System in North America issued a series of transcription disks for use by classical music radio stations in the United States and Canada. The Messe en quatre parties was among the offerings, but it’s safe to assume that few people ever had a chance to hear the piece that way.
Besides, that particular French Broadcasting System performance (dating from 1958 or 1959), featuring organist Christiane de Lisle and vocal forces directed by Jean-Paul Kréder, couldn’t do the music full justice, what with a dry acoustic and the tepid sound of an underwhelming electric organ.
Far better is a broadcast performance emanating from the BBC that was aired in 1994 and 1995. That one featured the BBC Singers and organist Andrew Parnell under the direction of veteran choral conductor Simon Joly.
It’s a performance that is wonderfully full-bodied, with a resplendent organ and a warm acoustical ambiance supporting a top-notch choir.
And now, we can be grateful that this fine BBC performance has finally made its way to YouTube where it can be accessed and enjoyed by people all over the world.
Not only that, the audio upload is enhanced by the score which is presented in tandem with the music. Grateful thanks go to musician and composer Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst for preparing the YouTube upload, which happens to be the 900th one of these posted to van Bronkhorst’s estimable music channel.
You can listen to the Mass here. I think you’ll be struck as much by its musical inventiveness as by its quiet fervor and beauty. The ability to follow along with the score will add measurably to your appreciation of the music as well.
… And let the last measures of the Agnus Dei simply wash over you — the poignant final music Florent Schmitt left for us as he departed this world.
Here’s hoping that the new visibility the Messe en quatre parties is receiving today will heighten interest and lead to more performances – particularly by some of Schmitt’s most ardent advocates in the world of choral music. Ákos Erdös, Jerrad Fenske, Laurent Grégoire, Maud Hamon-Loisance, Sofi Jeannin, Marieke Koster, Teresa Majka-Pacanek, Pascal Mayer, Timothy Pahel, Gilbert Patenaude, Jérôme Polack, David Rompré, Scott Tucker, David Wordsworth … who’s game?