It’s quite likely that many music-lovers who know of French composer Florent Schmitt are most familiar with his “big” pieces scored for large orchestral forces, overlaid with sparkling orchestration in the grandest post-Rimsky tradition. And it’s true that many of Schmitt’s best-known works are just those kinds of compositions — pieces like La Tragédie de Salomé, Antoine et Cléopâtre, Salammbó, and Dionysiaques (the latter one scored for wind ensemble).
But throughout his 70+ years of composing, Schmitt also created many works for smaller forces, including vast amounts of piano music and, beginning in the early 1940s, a string of noteworthy chamber music pieces. In addition to composing a string trio (1944) and a string quartet (1948), Schmitt didn’t neglect wind instruments, writing a quartet for saxophones (1943), a quartet for flutes (1949) and a sextet for clarinets (1953).
And there is one additional chamber music offering which is probably the least-known among them: the Quartet for Trombones and Tuba, Op. 109.
This work, which was composed in 1946 and premiered by the Tulout Quartet in Paris the following year, is particularly interesting in that it’s one of few quartets in the repertoire that is scored for this combination of instruments; certainly there isn’t anything comparable from a composer of the acknowledged artistic stature of Florent Schmitt.
The music critic René Dumesnil was present at the premiere performance of the Quartet, writing these observations in the newspaper Le Monde:
“The composer has not spared the difficulties of execution — no doubt thinking that the musicians of the Tulout Quartet wouldn’t be embarrassed for all that. But it is not the exercises of virtuosity that form the essence of a work in which [Schmitt] has been able to make the most surprising use of the extended register of the instruments and the character of their sound.
The Andante, with its serene gravity, contrasts with the movements that precede and follow it and the clashing rhythms that hold sway … Therein lies all the wealth of invention which we are so accustomed to hearing from this composer.”
Considering the relative paucity of repertoire for these instruments created within “classical” forms, it’s unfortunate that the music isn’t better-known. The Tulout Quartet appears to have kept the piece in its repertoire at least for a time, including presenting it at the Concerts Oubradous in March 1949.
But one likely reason for the lack of awareness of the music is because the Quartet is one of just a handful of opus-numbered works by Schmitt that weren’t published during his lifetime. Instead, the music would not be brought out by a publisher (Billaudot) until 1982. Shortly after the score was published, musicologist Niall O’Loughlin wrote these words about the piece in the pages of the U.S.-based magazine The Musical Times:
“Within each of its four movements there is a great contrast of thematic material which produces some surprises. It is fairly demanding technically.”
Sometimes musicians and audiences become aware of pieces through recordings, but the Quartet hasn’t been very fortunate in this respect, either. To my knowledge, there has been just one commercial recording made of this music, waxed in 2000 and released on the Hungaroton label.
That recording, part of a collection of music for tuba by eight French composers (joined by trombones in some instances), is a release that has never been particularly easy to obtain. I searched online for years before finally being able to find a copy of the CD available at a somewhat reasonable price from an Australian source in 2014.
Fortunately, the Hungaroton recording of Schmitt’s Quartet is a good one, featuring trombonists Ferenc Kóczías, Peter Bálint and Sándor Balogh joined by József Bazsinka on the tuba. The piece is in four movements, as follows:
I. Frondeur, empressé et pésant — Starting out with a menacing unison statement from all four instruments, the movement soon segues into a stately processional of sorts. But to my ears, it sounds like a procession of clerics that’s just a little “off” — as if they too know that they’re being just a little overly pompous to be convincing to the congregation …
II. Vif — Characteristic of Schmitt’s skittering, scampering second movements in the Saxophone Quartet and Flute Quartet, here we have playful banter between the four instruments, replete with near-constant changes of rhythm and meter. It’s hard to keep up with the musical gymnastics — and it’s a pretty thrilling ride all along the way.
III. Lent — As in the first movement, this one seems to have religious overtones as well, but there’s no sense of mockery or sarcasm whatsoever. Instead, this intensively chromatic music conjures up a reverential atmosphere that’s characteristic of the musical style of Gabriel Fauré, Schmitt’s teacher and mentor at the Paris Conservatoire nearly a half-century before.
IV. Animé — In the final movement, Schmitt brings us back into the bright atmosphere of cheerful high spirits — along with lardings of humor thrown in for good measure. The chattering dialogue between the four instruments is ever-pithy — and at times a little cheeky and even razzy. The tessitura is high for the trombones, low for the tuba — and all over the map for the listener. Every time I hear this movement, it puts a smile on my face.
Those are my personal observations about the movements of the Quartet. For another take on the music, we have these comments from arts critic Steven Kruger:
“There’s always something sarcastic — even a bit rebellious — we encounter in Florent Schmitt before too long. This is the sort of piece that should be programmed alongside something like Gustav Holst’s Hammersmith; it seems to convey a similar grim-yet-optimistic progression through life.”
A more technical analysis is provided by the musicologist Éva Nagy in her notes for the Hungaroton recording:
“The Quartet is a genuine chamber piece in four movements. Its genesis is highly complex; Schmitt reworked all its parts, now transposing the four movements by a half- or full-note lower, then dividing the solo parts between the first two trombones and combining them again into a single part.”
Her analysis isn’t something I understand particularly well, but whatever …
There’s likely little disagreement over one other attribute of the Quartet that should be mentioned — and that is its virtuosity. More than one musician I know has told me how challenging the piece is to play well — not that this characteristic is anything particularly out of the ordinary for a Florent Schmitt score!
As alluded to above, for years the only commercial recording of this piece was elusive, but recently it has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here. I think you will find the music to be quite inventive. It’s also a score that holds up well under repeated listening. I’ve known this piece for a number of years now, and each time I listen to it, I’m hearing new nuances that have eluded me before.
Interestingly, one movement of the Quartet actually was published during Schmitt’s lifetime — and it’s two arrangements of the third movement that the composer made several years after he composed the original piece. In 1950, Durand published Schmitt’s arrangement of the “Lent” movement for four cellos under the title Andante religioso. The following year, the Andante religioso was brought out by Durand in a subsequent arrangement by Schmitt for string quartet (or string ensemble).
This latter arrangement was commercially recorded back in the late 1980s by the strings of the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of James Lockhart. Originally released on the Cybelia label and out of print for years, recently the rights to the recording were acquired by French actor and narrator Vincent Figuri, who has generously made the music available again for everyone to enjoy.
You can hear the RSPO recording of the Andante Religioso in this YouTube upload, which provides ample proof that this exceptional string ensemble miniature deserves much wider exposure.
One other personal note about this particular arrangement: I feel fortunate (and honored) to have been given my own opportunity to hear the Andante religioso live in 2014, played by the strings of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in a “private” performance at the conclusion of a musicians’ rehearsal during a summer workshop event. My only regret is that the microphones didn’t capture that special moment for posterity …
Update (1/30/21): Low brass musicians of the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany have explored Florent Schmitt’s Quartet and their performance has now been documented on video, thanks to one of the players, Douglas Murdoch.
Mr. Murdoch was gracious enough to share the following report about the journey he and his fellow Jena musicians undertook with Schmitt’s Quartet:
“This was our 2020 “COVID-challenge”: small-bore instruments playing French music. The mission was very much inspired by our tuba player, who is French.
The Schmitt is a great piece — but demanding in many ways. It is written very much for French players, with a very high tessitura and requiring a smaller sound. This made intonation and mixing the sounds of the instruments much harder to achieve! The piece also has some rhythmic passages that required hours of work for minimal gain, but we definitely learned something through the process and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the music.”
The Jena players’ performance of the Quartet has been uploaded to YouTube and can be accessed here. I think you’ll agree that they do a superlative job bringing this endlessly fascinating score to vibrant life. Moreover, the four artists have been interviewed about their voyage of discovery regarding this piece; you can view that article here.