Within the extensive catalogue of compositions by Florent Schmitt are a great many works for piano – including solo, duet and duo-pianist pieces. Most of this output dates from the composer’s early years of creativity from about 1890 to the mid-1920s, although several additional sets of solo piano pieces would be published in the runup to the Second World War.
In many instances, Schmitt’s piano compositions make considerable technical demands on players, but this is not always the case. In fact, several of the sets seem to have been created by Schmitt for students and other pianists possessing limited technical capabilities.
Such a work is Schmitt’s Petites musiques, Op. 32, a set of eight short pieces published in 1906 by Eschig, one of the composer’s early publishing outlets (he would later settle on Durand et Cie. as his main publisher).
Collectively lasting fewer than 13 minutes in duration, Petites musiques is made up of the following short movements: Entrée; Bourrée; Pastorale; Fanfare; Ballade; Ronde; Bercement; Ländler.
In fact, only one of the movements – the Ballade – is more than two minutes long, while three others clock in at a minute or less apiece.
Indeed, these are “clean and simple” pieces that are quite far removed from the more florid piano music that Schmitt was writing at approximately the same time – works like Pièces romantiques, Crépuscules, Trois valses nocturnes and the Trois rapsodies.
Regarding Schmitt’s Petites musiques, in some respects we can draw similarities between it and Small Gestures, a set of three short pieces he composed in 1940 for the American music publisher Max Fischer as part of its Masters of Our Day series of pieces designed for piano instruction.
Another clue as to Schmitt’s intended audience of piano players was the fact that the composer dedicated Petites musiques to his newborn son Jean, who was affectionately known as Raton. Several years thereafter Schmitt himself would teach his son how to play the piano, and along those lines it’s likely that the composer created a number of his piano scores with didactic purposes in mind.
In addition to Petites musiques, there are sets of pieces scored for piano duet in which the student “primo” part is confined to a narrow range of five notes and where the student does not need to change positions.
[In contrast, the “secondo” parts in these scores are suitably complex – particularly in a piece like Une Semaine du petit-elfe Ferme-l’oeil, which requires quite a degree of complex “hand choreography” to bring off properly, as can be seen in this video featuring duo-pianists Ivaldi & Pennetier.]
Listening to the eight short movements that comprise Petite musiques, it’s immediately clear that each one is its own special gem. Perhaps surprisingly, the pieces don’t seem to have established much of a foothold in the piano repertoire. For instance, I’ve found just one instance where a live performance of this music has been broadcast over French Radio (in 1986, performed by the Canadian-born pianist Louise Bessette).
It’s something of a mystery because the pieces, utterly unpretentious though they may be, are highly effective in what they aim to communicate. This is amply demonstrated in the only commercial recording that I know of the complete score. That performance was taped in 1985 by the French pianist Alain Raës and was brought out on the Solstice (FY) label. The original release was part of a 2-LP set that included six sets of Schmitt’s solo piano works composed over a four-decade period from the early 1900s to 1940, and it was included again in the 2007 CD reissue of most of the original release’s material.
Mr. Raes’ interpretation is a highly effective one, treating the music with the respect it deserves and without any self-indulgence. It’s no surprise that the original LP release was welcome news — and again at the time of the CD reissue. Praising pianist Alain Raës as a “sensitive player,” music critic Richard Whitehouse wrote in the April 2007 issue of Gramophone magazine of the “relaxed charm” of the pieces that make up the set.
Several numbers from the full set have been recorded by another pianist — Roland Meillier — in an album of music for children. The Pastorale movement from that 2008 Arion recording has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.
Despite its relative obscurity compared to other piano music by Schmitt, Petites musiques is sufficiently admired that it has been treated to several arrangements for other instruments. An early orchestral arrangement of the first four movements of the set was recorded in the late 1920s by the Orchestre symphonique du Luteria Wagram under the direction of Fernand Heurteur, and was released on an English Columbia 78-rpm record (DFX16). I’m not sure who was responsible for preparing this orchestration, as it doesn’t show up in listings of Florent Schmitt’s compositions — either as an arrangement prepared by him or someone else.
In more recent times, an arrangement for saxophone quartet was prepared by R. Stevens, expanding the repertoire of Schmitt’s music for that instrument beyond the three “core” pieces that are well-known to saxophonists the world over (Légende, Songe de Coppélius and the Quatuor pour saxophones).
In addition, Petites musiques has been arranged for accordion by Claude Bertrand, a Québecois musician who has performed and recorded all eight movements from the set. You can listen to the accordion arrangements in separate uploads here, courtesy of YouTube.
What makes Petites musiques inspire artists to prepare new arrangements featuring other instruments? I think the answer comes down to the music’s pure charms. The pieces are unpretentious – yet they radiate warmth while possessing winsome melodies and engaging rhythms. As actor, musician and author Arthur Hoérée has written of this music:
“The composer seems to be seeking relaxation after an intensive effort; the suite comes like an oasis when compared to the rigors of most of his sister works.”
Indeed, the simplicity of Petites musiques is the key to its charm – and it shows us that Florent Schmitt was as adept at creating delicate miniatures as he was in crafting his imposing, dramatic frescos.
The big numbers like the Symphonie concertante, Sonate libre and Piano Quintet may roar while Petites musiques whispers … but in its own modest way this little charmer has something significant to say, too.