Investigating the mystery – and promise – of Florent Schmitt’s “Poèmes des lacs” (Les Barques, Demande, Musique sur l’eau, Soir sur le lac, Tristesse au jardin — 1897-1901)

Florent Schmitt 1900 photo

Florent Schmitt, photographed in 1900 around the time he composed the vocal works that he brought together under the broad title “Poèmes des lacs.” (Photo: Eugène Pirou)

Recently, two documents have emerged that point to the existence of a long-forgotten grouping of Florent Schmitt’s mélodies that can stand alongside the song cycles of fellow-French composers Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Maurice Delage and Louis Aubert.

The grouping of Florent Schmitt mélodies carries the umbrella title “Poèmes des lacs,” and some details about them emerge from two historic documents. 

Florent Schmitt Maurice Ravel joint concert Le Havre France 1907

Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt presented their own compositions in a joint concert in Le Havre, France in 1907. In the last work presented on the program, the two composers teamed up to play Schmitt’s Reflets d’Allemagne.

The first document is a program booklet from a 1907 musical event held in Le Havre, France in which Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt presented their own piano and vocal compositions. The first half of the program was devoted to Ravel and his music, in which the composer performed several piano solos and accompanied soprano soloist Hélène Luquiens in three of his songs. 

In the second portion of the recital, Florent Schmitt presented a similar program of his own piano and vocal works, with Mlle. Luquiens also participating.  The final portion of the program featured Ravel and Schmitt performing several movements from Schmitt’s Reflets d’Allemagne, a piano duet suite dating from 1905.

Florent Schmitt Maurice Ravel joint performance 1907 Le Havre

Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt teamed up in 1907 to present a concert of their original compositions in Le Havre, France. This is the title page from the concert program booklet. (Special thanks to Manuel Cornejo president of the Amis de Maurice Ravel organization, for the upload.)

A rare mint-condition original copy of this program booklet was scanned and uploaded to the Amis de Maurice Ravel website by the society’s president, Manuel Cornejo, in December 2020.  As it turns out, the Le Havre concert was one of several that Ravel and Schmitt presented together — including events held in Paris and in London.  But what is particularly interesting about the Le Havre program is that it included a set of three mélodies by Schmitt grouped under the title “Poèmes des lacs,” with the date of composition listed on the program as 1900.

In actuality, the three mélodies in question weren’t published as a formal set.  Instead, each of them has a distinct opus number in the Schmitt catalogue, even though they were composed at nearly the same time.  Here are the details:

  • Les Barques, Op. 8, composed in 1897
  • Soir sur le lac, Op. 9, composed in 1898
  • Musique sur l’eau, Op. 33, composed in 1898

It raises the question of whether or not these three mélodies were grouped together on the 1907 program simply as a matter of convenience or tidiness. 

Florent Schmitt Les Barques score

The first page of the piano/vocal score to Florent Schmitt’s Les Barques, composed in 1897.

Perhaps that was the case, but coincidentally — just a day or two after the Ravel/Schmitt Le Havre program was uploaded to the Internet — a document written in Florent Schmitt’s own hand was offered for sale on eBay in which the composer makes a similar “Poèmes des lacs” reference — embedded within a three-page letter the composer wrote to an unnamed person who had requested names and dates of Schmitt’s compositions.

Florent Schmitt letter

In this letter penned by Florent Schmitt, he lists the “Poèmes des lacs” — a grouping of mélodies — among his orchestral repertoire.

Although the composer’s letter is undated, we can deduce that it was written prior to 1920, as the letterhead stationery displays what was Schmitt’s St-Cloud address at 10 Rue des Girondins prior to moving to a succession of two homes on Rue du Calvaire beginning in 1920. 

Interestingly, in his listing of compositions in the letter, Schmitt cited the “Poèmes des lacs” as dating from 1898 to 1908 and being scored for voice and orchestra.  Moreover, under his overarching title Schmitt wrote down four pieces rather than three.  Two of them match with the 1907 Le Havre program (Les Barques and Musique sur l’eau), while the other two are new entries:

  • Demande, Op. 20 (also known as Sur le lac de Bourget), composed in 1901
  • Tristesse au jardin, Op. 52, dated 1908 but actually composed in 1897
Florent Schmitt Tristesse au jardin score page

The first page of the score to Florent Schmitt’s Tristesse au jardin, composed in 1897.

What this means is that taken as a whole, apparently there are actually five mélodies that comprise Schmitt’s so-called “Poèmes des lacs” — and at least four of them were also orchestrated by the composer.

Florent Schmitt BiographiesIntrigued by the serendipitous discovery of this information from two different sources, I made contact with several conductors who have devoted significant energies to raising the profile of Schmitt’s artistic legacy:  JoAnn Falletta and Fabien Gabel.  Neither were familiar with the grouping of songs – and indeed, such a formal group isn’t mentioned in any of the biographies of the composer as penned by Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1927), Yves Hucher (1953) and Catherine Lorent (2012).

Florent Schmitt Salome Oriane Falletta Buffalo NAXOSRegardless, it would seem that an interesting discovery of some very rare material is at hand.  Of the five mélodies, only one has achieved any degree of awareness:  Musique sur l’eau. That piece recently received its premiere commercial recording by mezzo-soprano Susan Platts and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta (released in November 2020).  The work had been presented in concert by these same performers in March 2019, and it was also slated for inclusion a May 2020 concert by the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec under the direction of Fabien Gabel – a performance that had to be canceled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Florent Schmitt Musique sur l'eau

The first page of Florent Schmitt’s 1898 vocal composition Musique sur l’eau, from the first edition of the piano/vocal score published by A. Z. Mathot (1913).

Florent Schmitt’s biographer, Yves Hucher, notes that when he was creating Musique sur l’eau, the composer was already adopting the frequent bar changes that would soon become such a trademark of his compositional style:

“When Schmitt resumes the first strophe of the poem, one senses that he will also resume the initial melody, as the attack is the same.  But from the fourth note – perhaps by the completely different accompaniment – the voice forgets this reminder imperceptibly, as if with regret.  In this sense, the composer already testifies to his disdain of repetition – of the easy process — even in the ‘false relation’ of the chord which sustains the final rise.”

Florent Schmitt Musique sur l'eau MathotConductor JoAnn Falletta has characterized Musique sur l’eau as a “gleaming jewel” in the Schmitt catalogue, and listening to the piece, it’s easy to see why.  Schmitt’s setting of the words of the Symbolist writer Albert Samain is magical in its effect.  It’s little wonder that since its release, the NAXOS premiere recording of the piece has generated near-universal critical accolades.

Happily, in considering the scores of the remaining mélodies, they appear to be as interesting and inventive as Musique sur l’eau.  In addition to the common theme of “water” across all five of the pieces, it’s also clearly evident that Schmitt took great care in selecting his texts, which surely provided the inspiration for writing such particularly effective musical creations.

In his extensive catalogue of works for the human voice, Florent Schmitt typically relied on living (or recently deceased) writers for his texts.  The five mélodies that make up the “Poèmes des lacs” are no exception, with the authors’ texts being published nearly contemporaneously with the music being composed.

Albert Samain French Symbolist Poet

Albert Samain, French Symbolist Poet (1858-1900)

Albert Samain (1858-1900), who penned the words for Musique sur l’eau, was a famed poet and writer of the Symbolist school.  Starting about 1880, Samain’s poetry began to win a following in Parisian avant-garde literary society, with frequent readings  of his poems happening at the Montmartre entertainment establishment Le Chat noir.  The style of Samain’s poetry was influenced by the verse of Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, with a particular predilection for indeterminate imagery – what the American poet and writer Amy Lawrence Lowell has described as “a nuance … a color … a vague magnificence.” 

Samain died of tuberculosis at a young age, but his artistic achievements were noteworthy – not the least having his literary creations set to music by such prominent composers as Lili (and Nadia) Boulanger, Alfredo Casella, Georges Enescu, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Koechlin, Ottorino Respighi and Camille Saint-Saens in addition to Florent Schmitt.

Henry Gauthier-Villars with Colette 1902

Henry Gauthier-Villars (1855-1931), pictured in 1902 with his wife, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. (Photo: Apic/Getty Images)

Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier-Villars (1859-1931) was the author of the text used in Schmitt’s Soir sur le lac.  Gauthier-Villars was both a writer and a music critic — and some people have contended that a goodly number of his literary creations were actually the work of other writers in his employ. 

Interestingly, one of these assistants was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who would take Gauthier-Villars as her first husband.  Gauthier-Villars was a notorious ladies’ man, it appears that he and Colette practiced an early version of an “open marriage,” including each having an affair with the same woman (the American socialite Georgie Urquhart Raoul-Duval) even as the three of them ventured to the Bayreuth Festival together. 

Robert de Montesquieu French poet

Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921)

Even more eyebrow-raising perhaps was the life of Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921), who penned the words to Schmitt’s mélodie Les Barques.  Variously described as an aesthete, Symbolist poet, art collector and dandy, it’s believed that Montesquiou was the inspiration for the character of Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust’s seven-volume magnum opus novel Remembrance of Things Past.

While he was sufficiently virile to win a bronze medal in the hunter hack equestrian championship competition at the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, aspects of Montesquiou’s personality hinted at other, more intriguing characteristics.  The author William Samson describes him thus: 

“Tall, black-haired, Kaiser-mustachioed, he cackled and screamed in weird attitudes, giggling in high soprano, hiding his black teeth behind an exquisitely gloved hand—the poseur absolu.  Montesquiou’s homosexual tendencies were patently obvious, but he may in fact have lived a chaste life.  He had no affairs with women, although in 1876 he reportedly once slept with the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, after which he vomited for twenty-four hours (she remained a great friend).”

Impressions of a Montesquiou Soiree Sem

Impressions of a Montesquiou Soirée, drawn by Georges Gourat (aka Sem), a French caricaturist (1902).

Ida Rubinstein

Ida Rubinstein (1885-1960), portrayed in a 1913 painting by Antonio de la Gandara, during which time Robert de Montesquiou was the dancer and dramatic actress’ social champion.

Montesquiou had social relationships (and some artistic collaborations) with many celebrities of the fin de siècle period, including the aforementioned Sarah Bernhardt, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Anna de Noailles, Marthe Bibesco, Luisa Casati and – perhaps most famously – the dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein, with whom he toured France during World War I, presenting Offrandes blessées, his paean to France’s fallen soldiers. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Montesquiou’s poetry has sometimes been described as “untranslatable” – but that doesn’t prevent it from being the perfect foundation upon which Florent Schmitt could create an exquisite song.

Florent Schmitt Les Barques score

The score for Florent Schmitt’s Les Barques, Op. 8, composed in 1897 and based on the poetry of Robert de Montesquiou.

Laurent Tailhade

Laurent Tailhade (1854-1919)

A world apart from Montesquiou is Laurent Tailhade (1854-1919), whose text was used by Florent Schmitt in Tristesse au jardin.  Tailhade was a satirical poet, essayist and anarchist polemicist who was active in Paris from the 1890s on.  In two volumes of poetry – Au Pays du mufle (“In the Land of the Oaf”) and Imbéciles et gredins (“Fools and Rascals”), Tailhade’s biting wit and verve blended the street slang of Paris’ faubourgs (suburbs) with the polished language of French culture. 

Originally from Haute-Pyrénées (a region where Schmitt owned a country retreat for many decades), it didn’t take long for Tailhade to make his escape to the “big city” where he took up a quintessentially bohemian artist’s lifestyle – in the process befriending writers and poets such as Verlaine and Samain. 

Florent Schmitt Tristesse au jardin score cover inscribed

A vintage copy of the score to Florent Schmitt’s Tristesse au jardin, inscribed by the composer. (Image courtesy of Daniel J. Mortenson.)

Tailhade was notorious for his anarchist and anticlerical viewpoints, and was even jailed for a time due to his incendiary polemic writings.  (Schmitt, who at times was also wont to push and poke at the sensitivities of “polite society,” seems to have been attracted to fellow-travelers in this regard, including the anarchist writer and cartoonist Charles Sanglier as well as Laurent Tailhade.) 

Tailhade was a colorful character in another sense too, in that he was addicted to opium – an affliction which he proudly admitted, asserting that the substance didn’t cause visions or nightmares, but instead revealed “the less-known parts of the user’s own imagination, memories and personality.”

Florent Schmitt Tristesse au jardin manuscript pages

The first two pages from Florent Schmitt’s original manuscript for Tristesse au jardin, composed in 1897.

Certainly less controversial than Tailhade was the author of the text for the fifth of Florent Schmitt’s works that make up the “Poèmes des lacs” grouping. Actually, comparatively little is known about Jean Forestier, the author who provided the text for Demande (“A Request”) – a piece otherwise known as Sur le lac du Bourget

Robert d'Humieres

Robert d’Humières (1868-1915)

As a mutual friend of Florent Schmitt and the theatre director Robert d’Humières, Forestier is credited with facilitating the introduction of the two men after d’Humières had been favorably impressed by Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII at its 1906 Paris premiere and wished to collaborate with Schmitt on a planned mimed drama at the Théatre des Arts, La Tragédie de Salomé — a development that would turn into a fortuitous collaboration for both artists.

Regarding the text that Forestier provided for Demande, set to music by Schmitt in 1901, the composer’s biographer, Yves Hucher, has stated:

“… The piece is remarkably written for the voice.  The love poem – something found quite rarely in the work of Florent Schmitt – is a cry of passion that, by virtue of its harmonic boldness, easily foresees the great pieces that were soon to come [from the composer’s pen].”

Taken as a group, then, what we have is a series of five fascinating “lake works” created over the period 1897-1901, with four of them subsequently orchestrated by the composer.  Predating Schmitt’s longstanding relationship with Durand et Cie., publication of the pieces were entrusted to four different publishing houses, as follows:

  • Mathot for Musique sur l’eau and Tristesse au jardin
  • Deiss for Les Barques
  • Grus for Soir sur le lac
  • Hamelle for Demande

Durand Salabert EschigResiding at multiple publishers rather than all at a single house has worked against viewing the pieces as a set – and it has also hindered the availability of the scores in the ensuing decades.  The Mathot and Deiss imprints have been folded into Durand-Salabert-Eschig (Universal), while the Grus imprint is now part of Editions Lemoine.  As for Hamelle, it is now part of Editions Leduc. 

What’s even more challenging, only two of the five pieces (both with Universal) appear to be in print today — and as for the other three, they’ve been out of print for decades.

What about Schmitt’s orchestrations of four of the five works?  We know that the parts for Musique sur l’eau are held by Universal, as they were supplied to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for its concerts and subsequent recording session in March 2019.  As for the other three orchestrated pieces, in a comprehensive listing of Schmitt’s compositions compiled in 1961, the orchestrations for those are shown as “unavailable.”

Fabien Gabel French conductor

Fabien Gabel

Undeterred, the conductor Fabien Gabel, one of Florent Schmitt über-evangelists, is undertaking an effort to track down the missing orchestral parts, with the goal of eventually performing and possibly recording the music.  We certainly wish him success in this endeavor. 

And in the meantime … here’s hoping that some of Schmitt’s most ardent champions in the vocal world will also see fit to study and perform these gems in their original versions with piano.  Who’s game for that?

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