In May 1924, a new edition of the French magazine La Revue musicale hit the newsstands — one that was devoted to the artistic legacy of Pierre de Ronsard, among the most celebrated poets in all of French literary history.
The brainchild of Henry Prunières, founder and editorial guiding light of the magazine, the May 1924 edition’s featured topic was “Ronsard et la musique,” including a special supplement titled “Le Tombeau de Ronsard,” which followed the same pattern as an earlier edition of the magazine published in 1920 in tribute to Debussy, also including a special “Tombeau de Debussy” supplement.
The May 1924 Ronsard tribute included contributions by famed music journalists of the day including Marc Pincherle, André Cœuroy (Jean Belime), and Prunières himself. And like the 1920 edition which had featured new compositions written in Debussy’s memory by ten composers — Florent Schmitt included — the 1924 “Tombeau de Ronsard” supplement contained eight new compositions set to Ronsard’s poetry.
This commemoration of Pierre de Ronsard, who lived during 15th century, was fitting. Born into nobility and well-connected socially, Ronsard studied first for a diplomatic career, but those plans were thwarted by the onset of deafness. Ronsard retreated into the world of creative writing, and with the publication of several volumes of poetry and other writings, soon became one of the most famous and popular literary talents of the day in France.
A prodigious talent, Ronsard created a voluminous body of work; a complete edition of his writings published in the mid-1800s runs to eight volumes of material.
Famous and celebrated in his time, Ronsard’s artistic legacy fell into relative obscurity in the decades following his death. Tellingly, after 1630 Ronsard’s work would not be reprinted again for more than two centuries.
But beginning in the 19th century, Pierre de Ronsard was rediscovered, with his artistic legacy increasingly acknowledged as embracing several important qualities of French 16th century poetry — namely, the magnificence of “language for language’s sake” plus the imagery and graceful variety of its meter.
As for the 1924 Revue musicale commemoration, the eight composers who contributed new compositions set to Ronsard’s poetry represented some of the most important talents active on the Parisian musical scene. The sonnets and other poems set to music included:
- Louis Aubert: La Fontaine d’Hélène
- André Caplet: Doux fut le trait
- Maurice Delage: Ronsard à sa muse, plus dur que fer
- Paul Dukas: Ha! Bel-Acueil
- Arthur Honegger: Plus tu connais que je brûle
- Maurice Ravel: Ronsard à son âme, amelette Ronsardette
- Alexis Roland-Manuel: Dedans les près
- Albert Roussel: Rossignol, mon Mignon
Musicologist Helen Julia Minors, writing in the book Historical Interplay in French Music and Culture, 1860-1960 (ed. Deborah Mawer, 2017), makes the following statement about the pieces created by these eight composers:
“They do not reconstruct 16th century music; rather the composers, in various ways, select particular features that act as an active symbol to enliven Ronsard’s text.”
Interestingly, unlike in the 1920 “Tombeau de Debussy” edition of La Revue musicale, Florent Schmitt was not among the composer-contributors to the “Tombeau de Ronsard.” Considering that Schmitt was in the very top echelon of Parisian composers at that time, one might speculate as to why he was not represented. (Moreover, Schmitt was a composer who wrote extensively for the human voice throughout his decades-long creative career.)
I think the answer to this question may be that up to this point — and indeed continuing for several decades beyond — Schmitt’s interests lay with setting modern-day poetry to music. In addition to the symbolists of the late 19th century — some of whom were still alive in when Schmitt was setting their poetry to music — Schmitt was a voracious reader of contemporary poetry and other literary writings, eager to investigate every new publication of material in books or in magazine collections.
Florent Schmitt was personally acquainted with many writers as well — including famous names such as Léon-Paul Fargue, Paul Fort, René Chalupt, Jean Richepin, Georges Jean-Aubry and René Kerdyk — and he loved setting their texts to music.
In short, in the early 1920s Schmitt’s literary inspiration did not align particularly strongly with the creations of a poet who had been active some 300 years earlier. But this would change eventually, and the catalyst may well have been the Second World War. It was then that Schmitt retreated to his country home at Artiguemy, high in the Pyrenees Mountains, to wait out the war while returning occasionally to Paris, mainly for performances of his music.
According to the Anglo-Swiss pianist Edward Rushton, simultaneous with his relocation to the countryside, Schmitt appears to have been drawn to the France of antiquity — much as Claude Debussy had done during the First World War. One result of his growing appreciation for “Old France” was a very special creation that Schmitt composed in 1941: his Quatre poèmes de Ronsard, Op. 100. In this set of mélodies, Ronsard’s poetry — itself alive with references to the culture of classical antiquity — is conjoined with the spirit of the sounds and rhythms of ancient music. (Still, as Rushton notes, “The neoclassical Schmitt remains authentic Schmitt.”)
The set of four poems can be sung equally effectively by a female (soprano) or male (tenor) voice. For texts, Schmitt chose four Ronsard poems — two from Amours de Cassandre (1552), one from Odelette (1554), and one from the second book of Sonnets pour Hélène (ca. 1575).
I. Si … (If …, from Amours de Cassandre XXXIX.) If I embrace a thousand carnations or a thousand lilies, twining my arms all about them …
As the vocalist posits a litany of self-examining queries, the plaintive music mirrors these musings, ending with a love that “flies from me in the midst of my good fortune … like a cloud evaporating in the wind.”
II. Privilèges (Privileges, from Odelette XV.) The grain belongs to Ceres, the forests to the satyrs …
As the vocalist describes the possessions of the Gods, the music is declamatory and dramatic — but contrasted at the end as the vocalist reveals that “cares and tears are sacred to Cythera.”
III. Ses deux yeux … (Her Two Eyes …, from Amours de Cassandre XXV.) Her two brown eyes, twin flames of my life, reflecting their glow upon mine …
Mysterious — even mystical — atmospherics evoke the spare poetry, as the vocalist intones, “My hand can write no other name, and my paper is adorned with nothing but the beauty which I feel in my heart.”
IV. Le soir qu’Amour … (That Evening When Cupid …, from Sonnets pour Helene, deuxième livre, XLIX.) That evening when Cupid bade you take the floor to dance the artful steps of love …
The music captures the spirit of a ballroom — showy and stately along with something else more transcendent: “You did not dance; your foot floated above the ground and your body itself — for that night — became divine.”
Being approximately 11 minutes in duration when sung as a group, the four Ronsard Poems are perfect little gems. They are archetypal exemplars of the French Art Song medium as well, which makes it a pity that they are so little known.
The music did appear occasionally on French radio broadcasts in the first decades following its creation — most notably as part of an hour-long program celebrating of Florent Schmitt’s artistry that was produced and broadcast on the occasion of the composer’s 85th birthday in 1955. That live studio performance, likely made in Schmitt’s presence, featured soprano Yvonne Gessler and pianist Odette Pigault. A digital download of this highly interesting program featuring several prominent performers of the day (including France’s leading classical saxophonist, Marcel Mule, plus the duo-pianist team of Jacqueline Robin Bonneau and Geneviève Joy) was available for a time from INA (the French National Radio/Television archives), but the program appears to be no longer offered.
As for commercial recordings of the Ronsard Poems, for decades there was just one — a 1975 production featuring the Romanian-American soprano Yolanda Marcoulescou (1923-1992) with pianist Katja Phillabaum. While sensitively presented, the recording captured Mlle. Marcoulescou’s performance rather late in her career, and hence the voice sounds a little plummy. Still, it’s an estimable interpretation, and the piano collaboration is first-rate as well.
Originally released on the American-based Orion label, in the CD era the recording was reissued on the Gasparo label as part of a multi-disc set featuring the vocal artistry of Yolanda Marcoulescou (1997). Unfortunately, that reissue was short-lived, and finding a copy of it today is well-nigh impossible. However, the Marcoulescou/Phillabaum reading has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here, along with viewing the score.
Just recently, after 45 years the music has finally received its second commercial recording. Made in Zürich, Switzerland in January 2020, the new recording features a tenor vocalist: Nino Aurelio Gmünder, with Edward Rushton at the piano. It is scheduled for release later this month on the UK-based Resonus Classics label. I have listened to an advance copy of the Ronsard Poems performance and can report that it is a very fine one — indeed, superior in many respects to the Marcoulescou interpretation.
The new recording is already available for pre-sale on the Resonus website, and it will soon be offered by all of the major classical music online retailers as well, beginning the last week of July 2020 in Europe, and in early August in the United States and elsewhere.
The Resonus release happens to be the first recording ever made that is devoted exclusively to the vocal music of Florent Schmitt. As such, it includes a range of vocal works composed during every phase of the composer’s extraordinarily long career. More details about the recording and its contents can be found in this recently published article based on an interview with Edward Rushton.
Although Schmitt’s score was completed in March 1941 in a voice/piano rendition, it appears that the premiere public performance of Quatre Poèmes de Ronsard was given by the Concerts Lamoureux Orchestra under the direction of Eugène Bigot (on March 15, 1942), featuring soprano soloist Marguerite Myrtal. It turns out, as with so many of Florent Schmitt vocal works, the composer had orchestrated the set in addition to creating it for voice and piano.
In keeping with the tone and atmospherics of the poetry, Schmitt’s orchestration here is relatively spare compared to many of his other compositions — consisting of just the following instruments:
- English horn
- 2 Clarinets
- 2 Bassoons
- Bass clarinet
- 2 Horns
To my knowledge, very few if any performances of the orchestrated version of the music have happened since the work’s 1942 premiere — and certainly none in recent decades. Considering the score’s very worthy charms, this is a wholly unacceptable situation that should be rectified immediately!
Here’s hoping that one of today’s leaders of smaller ensembles will consider programming this highly engaging music. Frank Braley, Nicolas Ellis, David Grandis, Jaime Martin, Julien Masmondet, Elias Miller, Daniel Myssyk, Tomoya Nakahara, Eckart Preu, Jean-Luc Tingaud — who’s game?
… And there are many fine vocalists — sopranos and tenors alike — who would do the music complete justice as well.