Florent Schmitt’s three instruments were the piano, organ and flute. But during his lengthy career as a composer he would write music featuring nearly every instrument of the orchestra — including several pieces for the harp.
More specifically, Schmitt wrote for the chromatic harp. In this regard, the composer was following the same path as several other prominent French composers of the early 20th century including Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and André Caplet.
Developed in the late 19th century to accommodate increasing chromaticism in music, the chromatic harp (also known as a cross-strung harp), differed from the traditional pedal harp in that it removed impediments imposed by the double-action pedal system then in use.
The chromatic harp featured two sets of strings — one tuned to C major and the other tuned to F-sharp pentatonic — making it possible for performers to play any note from either side of the instrument. The two sets crossed near the midpoint of the strings, thereby enabling the player’s hands to reach both sets of strings at the point of greatest resonance. The result was smoother playing without the awkwardness or distractions of constant pedaling action.
The chromatic harp was introduced by the Parisian firm of Pleyel Wolff et Cie. — the same company that resurrected the harpsichord in an über-robust version championed by Wanda Landowska — a model that paid very little heed to historical precedents.
The Pleyel chromatic harp gained early acceptance in France and Belgium, where it was taught at the leading music conservatories of both countries. Graduates of those harp programs would go on to champion the chromatic harp throughout Europe, and even in the Americas.
One of those specialists was Lucile Adèle Wurmser-Delcourt. One of the gifted pupils of Alphonse Hasselmans at the Paris Conservatoire — a renowned teacher of many prized French harpists including Marcel Grandjany, Pierre Jamet, Lili Laskine and Marcel Tournier — not only did Mme. Delcourt concertize widely, she authored a respected book on chromatic harp performance practice, as well as taught the instrument — first in France and later at the Mannes School of Music in New York City.
Moreover, Mme. Delcourt was the dedicatee of several important pieces written expressly for the chromatic harp. These commissions came through the Pleyel company, which enlisted the efforts of a wide range of composers to write music for the instrument. The list of luminaries who answered the call included the aforementioned Debussy, Ravel, Caplet and Schmitt, along with other significant composers such as Alfredo Casella, Georges Enescu, Reynaldo Hahn, Joseph Jongen, Paul Le Flem and Jean Roger-Ducasse.
The two works created by Florent Schmitt were the Andante et Scherzo, Op. 35 for chromatic harp and string quartet (composed in 1903-6) and the Deux pièces, Op. 57 for solo chromatic harp (composed in 1911 and published by Durand in 1913).
Deux pièces, which was dedicated to Mme. Delcourt, consists of two numbers:
I. Lande (Heathland): A musical landscape that likely portrays the section of Nouvelle-Aquitaine (Gascony) located along the Atlantic coastline in southwestern France. It was a region no doubt known to Schmitt, who owned a country retreat not far away in the Haute-Pyrénées.
II. Tournoiement (Twirling): “Motion in music,” featuring repetitive pirouetting rotations.
Taken together, the Deux pièces lasts approximately 12 to 14 minutes in performance, which is rather lengthy compared to many other solo harp compositions.
In penning this work in addition to the Andante et Scherzo, Schmitt demonstrated an effable affinity with the sonority and colors of the harp, while in the process conjuring up magical atmospherics. In this regard, one could speculate that the composer may have been inspired by another of Adolphe Hasselman’s star pupils, the harp virtuoso Carlos Salzedo (born Charles Moïse Léon Salzedo).
Despite there being a difference of 15 years in age, Schmitt and Salzedo were acquaintances. Interestingly, the two musicians would later find themselves serving in the same military regiment during World War I, making them comrades-in-arms as well as comrades-in-music.
In a letter to Igor Stravinsky, Schmitt later described his wartime experience as “two less-than-amusing years of militarism,” so one can only imagine the lively discussions about music that must have happened between Salzedo and Schmitt — no doubt a refreshing respite from the toll of war at the front.
Schmitt and Salzedo would remain in contact with one another following their military service — even after the latter’s permanent move to the United States in the early 1920s. But beyond the possible influence of Salzedo, there’s no question that Schmitt’s chromatic harp pieces found a worthy interpreter in Mme. Delcourt, who would perform these and other newly-created chromatic harp pieces throughout Europe as well as on her first visit to the United States in 1920.
That tour was an opportunity to present Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra — a piece written for her some 16 years prior and which Delcourt had also presented in the work’s London premiere in 1909 at Bechstein Hall (now Wigmore Hall).
In addition to the NYPO Danses performance, among other Delcourt appearances in the United States was a chromatic harp recital she gave at the Princess Theatre in New York City. The Musical America reviewer who attended that event wasn’t wholly convinced of the chromatic harp’s special qualities, writing:
“Prettier quality has been heard in recitals by other harpists. In this respect at least, the chromatic harp does not appear to be an improvement over the more familiar pedal instrument.”
But the chromatic harp was easier to play — particularly in new harp compositions. In an April 1920 interview for Musical America magazine conducted just before Delcourt’s return to Europe after her three-month American sojourn, journalist John Alan Houghton reported on several interesting outcomes of Mme. Delcourt’s visit — including the news that she would be returning to the United States the following year at the invitation of the Mannes conservatory to establish a harp performance program there.
According to Delcourt, she had come to America with just one performance engagement — the NYPO concert — on the books:
“I knew absolutely no one here except Walter Damrosch. But I have always found that if you — how do you say it? — ‘take a chance,’ things always turn out all right. And so I came — and I was right. I have had practically all the work I could do this time, and I have a number of appearances booked for next season. Besides that, I am to teach at the Mannes School.”
About the chromatic harp, Delcourt explained:
“Yes, my harp differs from the ones you are used to. It is not a question of the sound; that is just the same as a pedal harp. But the technique is entirely different, and music must be especially written for it. Debussy, Ravel and Florent Schmitt have composed things for me. As far as ‘looks’ are concerned, it is certainly more agreeable to watch a person play who does not have to be shifting their feet every instant. The harp is a quiet instrument and one should be respectful while playing it — not always wriggling around.
One of the big harp makers in this country is investigating the instrument and it seems certain that, before long, chromatic harps will be made in America.”
In this prediction Delcourt turned out to be mistaken. Despite its star-studded introduction and the attention lavished upon it by important composers, the chromatic harp would prove to be something of a flash in the pan. Within a few years, significant improvements in the design of pedal harps reestablished their preeminence as the “instrument of choice” for solo performers and in symphony orchestras.
But the good news is that music composed for the chromatic harp hasn’t been lost to us. Indeed, it can be arranged for pedal harp — and this has happened with various scores. And that’s now the case with Florent Schmitt’s Deux pièces as well. The American harp player and instructor Saul Davis Zlatkovski is currently working on preparing a new pedal harp arrangement and is nearing completion of the project.
With a career as a performer that stretches back to his teen years, Zlatkovski is also a respected private instructor in Philadelphia, where he teaches and coaches Curtis Institute students as well as players of all ages and levels of proficiency.
He is the founder and guiding light behind the HarpMusicFest gatherings in Philadelphia, in which participants learn through master classes, lectures and discussion while being exposed to little-known harp repertoire. Four such gatherings have been organized to date that have attracted students and performers from across the United States as well as other countries.
Zlatkovski is also a specialist in the life and artistry of Carlos Salzedo — who developed the harp program at Curtis as well as maintained an association with the Juilliard School of Music for a number of years. Zlatkovki’s preface in the book Pentacle, Marietta Bitter’s biography of Salzedo, contains a wealth of information about the Salzedo Method of teaching, notation and performance.
And beyond all that, Zlatkovski is a composer and arranger who has had a keen interest in chromatic harp repertoire over many decades. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask him about his work on the Florent Schmitt arrangements. Highlights of our discussion are presented below.
PLN: What are your impressions of the two movements that make up Florent Schmitt’s Deux pièces?
SDZ: They are remarkable works — very broad in scope, yet with such specific ideas generating them. Lande, which I interpret as a place where one comes from — like a homeland — has many fifths and octaves. There’s a sense of great openness which I think is remindful of the Landes department of southwestern France and its landscape and wide horizons.
The emphasis is on expressivity, and the substantial technical demands are related to this expressiveness. There is a cadenza-like passage, but it expands on the thematics rather than simply being a display of technique.
The Tournoiement movement suggests turning — and returning. The notes turn over and over incessantly, with the focus being on intervals of thirds. While the metronome marking in the score is 125 for a quarter-note tempo, it may not be possible for most harpists to play it — even at a tempo of 96 — because the score is so demanding.
PLN: What sort of obstacles or other challenges have you encountered in preparing a new edition of this music for the pedal harp?
SDZ: It has taken much time — years, in fact — to figure out not only the pedaling and what strings to use (as many notes need to be played enharmonically), but also which fingering fits the phrasing best. There are also pitfalls of encountering certain notes in the score that may be misprints or miscalculations.
More broadly, I’ve found the pieces to be challenging because their scope is so broad. What’s terrifically challenging is the layering of ideas that Schmitt engages in — often three ideas at a time if not more. As a result, the pedaling for the harp is very complex, as are the progressions of harmony. It’s restless and ever-changing, and in this I sense the strong influence of Gabriel Fauré, who had been one of Schmitt’s composition teachers.
PLN: How you’re describing the complexity makes it understandable why Schmitt and his publisher Durand billed the score as written for harp or piano performance! Are there any additional insights you’d like to share about the music?
SDZ: What I’ve found is that in many scores like Florent Schmitt’s Deux pièces, you cannot go by the printed metronome tempi. They always seem to be marked faster than what is possible with the harp. Instead, they represent a mental ideal. As a composer it happens to me, too: In thoughts, the music flows because the physical effort is removed. But it’s a reality that players face in performance.
Mr. Zlatkovski aims to complete his pedal harp arrangement of Deux pièces, with plans to publish the score thereafter. When the new score is ready, it will be made available for purchase on the HarpColumnMusic website, where large number of harp arrangements are currently offered. For harp players, it is a music resource well-worth exploring.
As for recorded performances of Deux pièces, there has been just one ever made — and of the Lande movement only. It’s a 1989 recording by the harpist Frédérique Cambreling that was released on the ADDA label. Unfortunately, that recording, which also features harp compositions by Caplet, Roussel and Saint-Saëns in addition to transcriptions of five Debussy works originally written for piano, never had wide circulation and has been out of print for years, making it very difficult (and very costly) to obtain a copy. But with the future publication of the Zlatkovski edition, here’s hoping that new recordings of the complete work will follow soon thereafter.