Recently, audio documentation one of Florent Schmitt’s most interesting (and elusive) choral compositions has emerged – and it’s come from an unlikely source. It is a 1987 live performance of Schmitt’s Le Chant de la nuit, Op. 120, a work that carries the subtitle Ode à Frédéric Chopin.
The performance is by the Chiba University Singers as recorded at the 1987 All-Japan Choral Competition, an annual program held under the auspices of the Japan Choral Association. The 1987 event was the 40th anniversary for the national competition, which began in 1947.
Le Chant de la nuit is one of the most intriguing of Florent Schmitt’s choral compositions. The piece was commissioned by the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to commemorate the centenary of the death of the composer Frédéric Chopin, who was born in 1811 and died on August 17, 1847.
Florent Schmitt’s new piece was one of ten musical compositions presented in the gala concert — the other contributions being created by Alexandre Tansman, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Jacques Ibert, Oscar Espla, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Bohuslav Martinu, Sir Lennox Berkeley, Carlos Chavez and Andrzej Panufnik.
Il fait nuit – Voici que s’élève plus haut la voix des fontaines jaillissantes … Et mon âme, elle aussi, est une fontaine jaillissante.
Il fait nuit – Voici que s’éveillent tous les chants des amoureux … Et mon âme, elle aussi, est un chant d’amoureux.
Il y a en moi quelque chose d’inapaisé et d’inapaisable qui veut élever la voix … Il y a en moi un désir d’amour qui parle lui-même le langage de l’amour.
Je suis lumière – Ah – si j’étais nuit … Mais ceci est ma solitude d’être enveloppé de lumière.
… which translates to English roughly as follows:
It is night — Here is the voice of the gushing fountains rising higher … And my soul, too, gushes like a fountain.
It is night — Here are all the songs of lovers … And my soul, too, is a love song.
There is something in me that is uneasy, and that wants to raise its voice … There is in me a desire for love, which itself speaks the language of love.
I am light — Ah, if only I were night … But this is my loneliness, to be enveloped in light.
Characterized by Yves Hucher, Schmitt’s biographer, as a “moving tribute” to the older composer, Le Chant de la nuit is scored for solo voices or a mixed chorus and piano. One of the themes used by Schmitt in the piece comes from the thirteenth Nocturne (Op. 48, No. 1) of Chopin, and the way this motif is employed is sheer genius – simple yet highly effective. Beyond this direct quote, there are numerous phrases and textures that are remindful of other Chopin pieces, such as the Raindrop Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15.
The new work had its premiere at the gala UNESCO concert in Paris in October 1949, exactly 100 years after the death of Chopin, presented by the Marcel Couraud Vocal Ensemble along with pianist André Collard. In reporting on the UNESCO concert, the newspaper Le Monde extolled the virtues of the French works performed, writing:
“Without any chauvinism, we can say that French music shone with the most vivid radiance at this concert of remembrance.”
Speaking of the Chant de la nuit itself, Le Monde‘s music correspondent René Dumesnil wrote of the forceful nature of Schmitt’s music in capturing the true essence of Chopin:
“All music is a mirror in which one strives to reveal the features of the composer. So many mediocre pianists strive to reflect in their performances … the ‘charming’ Chopin — the effeminate musician who easily seems such when one emasculates a virile music whose suppleness and grace easily lends itself to these betrayals.
The ‘real Chopin’ isn’t that — and for the proof we can look to the paraphrase of the Thirteenth Nocturne in Schmitt’s Chant de la nuit. Too often, people reduce Chopin to a mere reciter of sentimental anecdotes; it was good for a musician to raise a protest — and to do it with such persuasive eloquence.”
In February 1951, André Cluytens and the St-Eustache Choir led by Jean Gitton presented Schmitt’s orchestral version of the piece at a Paris Conservatoire Orchestra concert, where it received glowing reviews from the musical press.
But then after that … silence for several decades. I have been unable to find evidence of the piece being presented again until the 1987 All-Japan Choral Competition done by the Chiba University Singers, performed at Hitomi Memorial Hall on the campus of Showa Women’s University in Tokyo.
We can thank choral director Fumiaki Kuriyama, one of Japan’s best-known and highly regarded choral conductors, for resurrecting the piece. Famed for championing contemporary Japanese works, Maestro Kuriyama has also been an advocate for neglected choral compositions from other countries.
Kuriyama has led performances all over the world, including at the Oregon Bach Festival in the USA. A portion of his musical training was in Europe, where not only did he win top prizes at international choral competitions in Tolosa (Spain) and at Arezzo (Italy), Kuriyama also explored the choral output of numerous European composers – some of it quite rare. In addition to introducing Le Chant de la nuit to Japanese audiences, Kuriyama has directed other choral works by Florent Schmitt as well.
Listening to the well-prepared Chiba University choral ensemble, the singers do a very commendable job negotiating the sometimes-tricky challenges of Florent Schmitt’s score, and they’re joined by the able contribution of pianist Yoko Tanaka.
The musicians’ artistic achievements are even more clearly evident when following along with the score to the piece, which we can now do thanks to George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos and his estimable music channel on YouTube. Click here to “see as well as hear” this music in all of its endlessly fascinating splendor; I think you will be impressed.
With the welcome emergence of this 1987 live performance from Japan, the music world now has a renewed opportunity to become acquainted with this piece, with future performances hopefully to follow.
In addition to the 1987 Japanese live performance, I am aware of two other groups that have performed this music. One is a French-based ensemble known as Opus 37. In fact, Le Chant de la nuit is included on a self-published CD by this choral group titled “Chante la poésie” that also includes music by Jules Massenet, Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saens, Francis Poulenc, Jean Françaix and César Geoffray. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate a copy of the recording to be able to hear this interpretation.
In 2019, another French-based group — Ensemble Exprîme — programmed Chant de la nuit as part of a concert themed “Claire de lune.” Developed around “music for the evening” and led by the ensemble’s choral director Jérôme Polack, the program included a wide-ranging assortment of music from French and other composers.
But going beyond the piano version of the piece, it would be fortuitous if one of Florent Schmitt’s ardent champions in the conducting world would see fit to investigate the orchestral version of Le Chant de la nuit. If so, rich musical rewards would be in store for us all!