“What stands out in Schmitt’s work is the hypnotic-impressionist atmosphere, verging on the surreal. Both the atmospherics and the piano writing … hint very strongly at Debussy’s own aesthetic world. It creates a kind of spiritual dialogue that Schmitt conducts with his late older colleague.”
— Tomer Lev, pianist and pedagogue
In late 2020, NAXOS released a new recording of Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy that is the first one to include the full scope of the anthology in addition to the two fully fledged larger pieces that stemmed from it. Interestingly, the new recording appeared exactly a century after the Tombeau‘s original publication.
The Tombeau anthology was a cooperative effort of ten composers who, in 1920, were commissioned by the newly formed French periodical La Revue musicale to create short pieces in memory of the great Claude Debussy, one of France’s greatest composers and who had died two years earlier in the final days of the First World War. The initiative was the brainchild of Henry Prunières, founder and publisher of the monthly magazine.
The ten composers who agreed to participate in the Tombeau anthology represented the “cream of the crop” of composers active at the time:
- Béla Bartók
- Paul Dukas
- Manuel de Falla
- Sir Eugene Goossens
- Gian Francesco Malipiero
- Maurice Ravel
- Albert Roussel
- Erik Satie
- Florent Schmitt
- Igor Stravinsky
The Tombeau was quite a remarkable undertaking for a young publication that had only been launched that very same year. Even though a Parisian-based magazine was spearheading the project, only half of the participating composers were native-born Frenchmen, which made this musical anthology perhaps the first truly transnational one ever to appear.
And while the Tombeau has hovered on the edges of the repertoire — and the original set and quite a few of its individual numbers have been recorded several times — the NAXOS recording is the first one to encompass not just the original anthology of ten short pieces but also the two substantial additional works that subsequently sprang from it, all in one album.
La Revue musicale would commission works from other composers during its consequential 20-year publication run — some 160 compositions in all. But the Debussy tributes remain among the most important of these endeavors. Perhaps it took an equally intrepid personage to follow in Henry Prunière’s footsteps 100 years later by producing and performing the first “fully comprehensive” recording of Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy. That gentleman is Tomer Lev, a pianist and pedagogue who heads the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Israel’s leading conservatory and the main “talent feeder” for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Educated in Israel and the United States, Tomer Lev has had an interesting and versatile career, performing all over the world as both a piano soloist and chamber musician. He is a former member of the Israel Piano Trio and continues to collaborate with all major Israeli orchestras as well as several European ensembles. In addition, he is a well-known and respected author and pedagogue. Working with the musicians at the Buchmann-Mehta School, Mr. Lev has accomplished what might easily have been impossible to realize in the hands of others.
The new NAXOS recording reveals to us some truly treasurable musical moments — one of which is Florent Schmitt’s contribution to the anthology. Titled Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda …, it is one of the brightest jewels in the set — and a work that captures so effectively Debussyian atmospherics without sounding in any way derivative.
Indeed, Schmitt’s own distinctive musical personality is also on firm display — a perfect blending, if you will, of the two artists’ individual musical personas.
Being highly impressed by both the quality of the performances as well as the production values of the recording, I contacted Mr. Lev to learn more about how the project came into being. As part of our interview, I also asked him to share his perspectives on Florent Schmitt’s contribution to the Tombeau. Highlights of our very interesting discussion are presented below.
PLN: When did you first encounter the music of Florent Schmitt, and his contribution to Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy in particular?
TL: The first time I came across Florent Schmitt’s music was while I was studying in New York. On one of my drives to the campus I heard on WQXR radio a magical slow movement for piano and strings that I had never encountered before. The uniquely special sounds I heard included the throbbing effects of muted strings, hypnotic bells, marvelous piano sonorities, ecstatic crescendos, and unconventional combinations between the instruments.
Of course, I had to stay in the car until the end of the whole piece to learn what it was, and then found out that it was Florent Schmitt’s Piano Quintet. It was a complete “knockout” experience. Then and there, I promised myself that one day I would play this piece. Luckily, my wish came true a few years later when I returned to my home country.
Shortly after hearing the Quintet — and still during my studies in America — I also got to know the Tombeau de Claude Debussy cycle. I fell completely in love with the movement that Schmitt had contributed to this very special anthology. Unlike the relatively short pieces created by the other composers, Schmitt’s contribution was marvelous in its extensive dimensions and its pianistic demands.
It’s the enchanted atmosphere of Pan in the moonlit nocturnal fields that draws the listener to a magical and unfamiliar world. I have no doubt that in terms of the scope of the piece — its requirements and its depth — this is one of the biggest highlights of the entire cycle. Speaking personally, it’s a particular favorite of mine.
This is relatively unknown music, but most everyone who listens to the entire cycle responds with astonishment when it’s the turn of Schmitt’s music to be heard.
PLN: What drew you to this particular “omnibus” set of pieces? How did you discover the music, and how long did you research and study the pieces before you decided to program them for the first time?
TL: It began 27 years ago when I was a young doctoral student in New York City. Out of endless curiosity I began to investigate the rich musical archives of the “Big Apple” in order to find rare repertoire discoveries for my instrument, the piano.
During these searches I was pleasantly surprised to encounter quite a number of joint compositions, written by more than one composer, that had been commissioned for special occasions. This relatively rare branch of the repertoire intrigued me, as I found these collective compositions to be fascinating mirrors of the periods and places in which they were created.
Later, these anthologies became part of my formal doctoral research, and I even included some of the pieces in my doctoral recitals.
In 1993, at the New York Public Library I came across a December 1920 issue of the Parisian magazine La Revue musicale, dedicated to the memory Claude Debussy. As a special appendix to this issue I found a faded score of Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy — a set of compositions especially commissioned by the magazine from Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Satie, de Falla, Dukas and others.
It was an immense excitement for me to study the Tombeau score; shortly afterwards I performed the eight solo piano pieces of the anthology in my final graduation recital. This was followed by a performance of all ten compositions of the original collection at Swiss Radio a year later.
Ever since then, I had kept dreaming about creating a commercial album of this rare collection for a major label — to include not just the piano pieces but also the other works. But young people’s dreams are often pushed aside as “real life” intrudes and takes much of their energies and time. This was also the case with me.
PLN: How did the NAXOS recording opportunity come about, then?
TL: A few years ago I realized that the 100th anniversary of the composition of the Tombeau was approaching. This was a signal for me to get into a ‘now-or-never’ mode. I contacted NAXOS and presented my dream to them. To my immense gratitude, I found great partners in making this long-overdue project come to fruition.
But getting a label onboard was only one side of the equation. I also needed 28 other musicians to join with me in realizing the full project.
Luckily, I have dynamic, curious and open-minded colleagues and absolutely brilliant students at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University, Israel’s leading conservatory where I have taught for many years. So it was a relatively easy task to convince additional musicians to join the project — no doubt aided by the high quality of the music itself as well, as the feeling of anticipation and excitement that “we can do something quite original and different here.”
PLN: Thinking about the various musical numbers that make up the Tombeau, which ones do you consider to be the most substantive – the ones that speak to you particularly strongly?
TL: All of the pieces of the cycle are of high quality and it was truly a privilege to be able to perform and record them all. But personally speaking, I’m particularly amazed by the contributions of Paul Dukas and Florent Schmitt. Both of their pieces are exquisite in taste, highly sophisticated in harmony, and positively hypnotic in their atmosphere.
The piano writing is also of the highest order; these two chaps seem to have had a real intimate knowledge of the keyboard and its full potential!
PLN: Regarding Florent Schmitt’s piece, are there any aspects of the musical style and the way that the work is constructed that you find particularly noteworthy — or possibly unique?
TL: What stands out in Schmitt’s work is the hypnotic-impressionist atmosphere, verging on the surreal. Both the atmospherics and the piano writing — as well as some specific references to Pan/Faune and the moonlight — hint very strongly at Debussy’s own aesthetic world. It creates a kind of spiritual dialogue that Schmitt conducts with his late older colleague.
Reflets dans l’eau, Clair de Lune and L’isle joyeuse — all iconic works by Debussy written for the piano — may be the immediate associations evoked by Schmitt in his piece, but he does so without giving up his own personal style which is, by nature, heavier, denser and darker than Debussy’s. The result is a fascinating and attractive stylistic “blend” which illuminates in an unconventional way the familiar world of Debussy – but also in an intriguing new light through the darker, denser prisms of Schmitt.
PLN: Have you performed other music by Florent Schmitt, such as solo piano works or chamber pieces?
TL: As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had the privilege of performing Schmitt’s Piano Quintet several times. I also performed (unfortunately just once) Schmitt’s sophisticated and witty piece for piano, flute, violin and cello titled Pour presque tous les temps [Quartet for Almost All the Time] dating from 1956. In that piece, Schmitt is revealed in a completely different light: clever, light-hearted, and prone to neoclassical textures.
I know that the three works I’ve played by Schmitt are just a drop in the bucket compared to the ocean of compositions he created. I certainly hope to play and teach more of his works in the future.
PLN: Thinking broadly about the music of Florent Schmitt, how would you characterize its artistic importance in its own time?
TL: Schmitt is perhaps the most striking example of a natural synthesis between the French and German aesthetic worlds — a synthesis that most French composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries attempted to achieve, each according to his taste and aesthetic tendencies (and with varying degrees of success).
Debussy, for instance, started out as a Wagnerian, but was then startled by the over-emotionality that “threatened” him and escaped to brighter and more “Gaelic” worlds. Fauré also had a complex dialogue with Wagner, preserving some of Wagner’s chromatic discoveries, but replanting them on more “archaic” modal grounds and in a neo-classical “Parnassian” atmosphere.
Ravel was also attracted to the German, post-Wagnerian harmonic world, but from a very early stage in his career seemed somewhat wary of its Romantic “density.”
Amidst the aesthetic struggles that characterized this generation of French composers, Schmitt seems to hold a unique position in his attempt to successfully merge the two worlds with far fewer inner conflicts — seemingly taking the best of both worlds and more eclectically finding their potential points of connection.
PLN: Can you share a little information with us about your background as a musician?
TL: I am a third-generation musician, and music runs in the veins of both sides of my family — one branch coming from Vienna and the other from Upper Silesia, a German-Polish region which has changed hands many times over the years. I started playing the piano at the age of five and began composing music shortly thereafter. My first composition was performed in public at the age of 12. Later, I focused on the piano and consequently neglected the composition.
After years of playing as a solo pianist, including with many orchestras around the world, I decided to settle back in Tel Aviv, my hometown, and develop a more diverse and versatile musical career that includes performing, teaching, lecturing about music, producing, and directing as well.
PLN: Do you find yourself drawn to certain composers, or certain musical styles and eras? Is there anyone or anything you “champion” in your work, particularly?
TL: I love to play, teach and listen to all types of good music. For me, there are only two types: good and challenging music, and less-good and less-challenging music. As long as there is beauty and challenge in the music that I perform or teach, I do not care at all who the composer is, whether the person is famous or forgotten, what period they are from, or what their nationality is.
My motto is, as the Brits say, “The proof is (always) in the pudding.”
PLN: What are your current activities and positions in music education?
TL: In 2004, together with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, I was one of the founders of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, which today is Israel’s leading institution for higher education in music, jointly run by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Philharmonic. I’ve headed the institution to the present day. Together with Maestro Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, I have the duty and privilege to nourish the next generation of Israel’s elite musicians, and especially a young cadre of players for the IPO.
I always try (sometimes with difficulty!) to balance my activities as a pedagogue and as a concert artist. I also try to find time to perform with my more advanced students, especially within the framework of the MultiPiano Ensemble – a modular group of young pianists that specializes in the rich and fascinating repertoire for several pianos.
In this framework, we have toured on four continents and have collaborated with some of the most important orchestras in the world — among them the IPO, the Royal Philharmonic in London, and the English Chamber Orchestra.
PLN: Do you have plans to perform any of Florent Schmitt’s music in the future? Are there particular works by this composer that particularly interest you?
TL: There are quite a few piano works by Schmitt that I would love to delve into, perform and teach. One of them, the Symphonie concertante for piano and orchestra, attracts me the most. It’s an utterly fascinating and challenging piece that I would love to play at the first realistic opportunity!
PLN: What other notable artistic projects or performances do you have coming up?
TL: At the moment, the big project is the new album dedicated to the Tombeau de Claude Debussy that has just been released by NAXOS.
As for future activities, coming up in April the Hyperion label is planning to release an all-Mozart album featuring our MultiPiano Ensemble with the English Chamber Orchestra. Aside from the two famous Mozart concertos for two and three pianos (K. 242 and K. 365), this release will include the world premiere recording of the 1781 Larghetto and Allegro for two pianos and orchestra. It’s a beautiful fragment that Mozart left unfinished, and I have been privileged to be the one to complete it and orchestrate it.
Then in the summer will be the release of another MultiPiano album — this one with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that will include the Double Concerto of Francis Poulenc as well as new versions that I’ve created of the beautiful Symphonie concertante by Frank Martin (originally for piano, harpsichord, harp and orchestra but now in a new version for three pianos and orchestra), plus the Shostakovich Concertino for two pianos and strings.
To those, we’re adding a specially commissioned Israeli work by Aryeh Levanon for two pianos/eight hands and strings. It will be quite an adventurous voyage into the 20th century treasure-box!
PLN: As we wrap up, are there any other final comments you would like to make about Florent Schmitt and his artistry?
TL: Just this: Florent Schmitt is one of the composers who unfortunately has not received the status he’s entitled to in the concert halls. I salute you and the website you have created for the tremendous effort you are making to bring the music world to a deeper awareness and realization of the attractive and complex world of Schmitt.
Tomer Lev’s words about the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog are very much appreciated, but the real credit goes to musicians like him and others who are actively exploring, performing and recording Florent Schmitt’s extraordinary body of work.
For those interested in learning more about the Tombeau de Claude Debussy project, this 10-minute video produced by the Buchmann-Mehta School and narrated by Tomer Lev is well-worth viewing.
We also look forward to the future prospects of Mr. Lev presenting more of Florent Schmitt’s music — including the remarkable Symphonie concertante.
Update (2/2/21): Shortly after this article was published, I was contacted by Richard Cameron-Wolfe, an American composer, pianist, pedagogue and arts administrator, who reported on several additional pieces that were created as part of the original Tombeau project, but for whatever reason weren’t included in the published anthology.
According to Mr. Cameron-Wolfe, the first performance of the ten works that had appeared in the December 2020 special supplement in La Revue musicale special supplement happened at a Paris concert held on January 24, 1921. That concert also included four additional pieces written in memory of Debussy, as follows:
- Gabriel Grovlez: Sarabande for piano
- Jean Huré: Barcarolle for piano
- Charles Koechlin: La Paix du soir au cimetière for piano
- Leo Sachs : Élegie for string quartet
Cameron-Wolfe also reports that during the inaugural season of the Music from Angel Fire festival, held in 1984, the ten published pieces of the anthology were presented in concert along with the two additional works by Grovlez and Koechlin. (Unfortunately, the scores by Huré and Sachs could not be located, so other representative works by these composers were presented on the program.) At the Angel Fire performance, the soprano soloist in the Erik Satie contribution to the Tombeau was the famed Evelyn Lear.
More insights about the various facets of the 1920 Debussy memorial tribute are included in a 2019 dissertation by Tristan Paré-Morin, titled Sounding Nostalgia in Post-World War I Paris, which can be viewed here.