For students of history, the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life — colloquially known as the Paris Exposition of 1937 — is one of those events that’s been the subject of much sociological dissection, seeing as how it was the last great transnational gathering held on the European continent prior to the onset of World War II.
As such, the Paris Expo served as a backdrop for the dueling political ideologies of the time — with fascist and communist nations in particular spotlighting themselves via Tarzanesque displays of strength as they vied for the attentions — and affirmation — of fairgoers.
Of course, the Paris Exposition was about more than technology, commerce and politics; there were generous lashings of cultural offerings that were part of the Expo experience as well.
From a musical standpoint in particular, the Paris Exposition is best remembered for the Fêtes de la lumières (Festivals of Lights), which consisted of evening choreographed spectacles of water, lights and music held on the banks of the Seine River. Those multimedia events are described in detail in this article on the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog — and the story makes for fascinating reading.
Less known is a more modest musical undertaking that involved the Parisian publisher Raymond Deiss (whose catalogue would be acquired by Salabert in 1946 following the publisher’s death as a result of his Resistance activities during World War II).
This particular Deiss project consisted of a set of eight piano pieces written to commemorate the Paris Exposition as well as to honor the famed French pianist and pedagogue Marguerite Long. Eight piano pieces were commissioned and gathered together as a collection of “illustrations musicales” under the overarching title à l’Exposition.
The compositions created for the Paris Exposition’s Festivals of Lights were large-scale orchestral works (some with chorus) — the longest of them running well over 30 minutes in duration. By contrast, the piano pieces penned for the Deiss project — the eight composers personally selected by Mme. Long herself — are relative trifles; only one of the pieces lasts more than four minutes. First presented at the inauguration of the Pavillon de la femme, de l’enfant et de la famille at the Paris Exposition, the collection includes:
- Georges Auric: La Seine, un matin … (The Seine, One Morning …)
- Marcel Delannoy: Diner sur l’eau (Dinner on the Water)
- Jacques Ibert: L’Espiègle du Village de Lilliput (The Rapscallion of the Lilliputian Village)
- Darius Milhaud: Le Tour de l’Exposition (Touring the Fair)
- Francis Poulenc: Bourrée au Pavillon d’Auvergne (Bourrée at the Auvergne Pavilion)
- Henri Sauguet: Nuit coloniale sur les bords de la Seine (French Colonies Night on the Banks of the Seine)
- Florent Schmitt: La Retardée (The Late One)
- Germaine Tailleferre: Au Pavillon d’Alsace (At the Alsace Pavilion)
Writing about the set of pieces some 50 years after their creation, the composer Henri Sauguet remembered how the project had come about and how it was first presented to the public:
“The choice of composers was made by Mme. Marguerite Long, and it was her students — many of whom are now famous pianists — who gave the first performance of the pieces, one after the other, at a concert given at the time of the Exposition.”
No doubt in light of her central role in the project, the piano compositions in the set were dedicated to Marguerite Long — all of them except for Florent Schmitt’s, that is. Schmitt’s piece was dedicated to the American-French pianist and pedagogue Aline van Barentzen instead.
One might wonder how this came about, and there are several clues to the answer. As it turns out, Schmitt’s original submission to the publisher was a far more substantial work than the pieces contributed by the seven other composers. In fact, Schmitt’s entry was a five movement work of nearly 20 minutes in duration that ended up being published in 1939 as his Suite sans esprit de suite, Op. 89 in both piano and orchestral versions.
Asked to supply an alternative composition that would be more in keeping with the scope of the other works in the collection, Schmitt delivered the short piece La Retardée, Op. 90, which already bore a dedication to Mme. van Barentzen. The title of the piece — “The Late One” — may well refer to the last-minute changeout of music, rather than to any specific Paris Expo reference. An alternative explanation of the title has been posited by the American music critic Steven Kruger, who writes:
“The title of the piece displays the insouciance of a good-looking woman who knows she is worth waiting for …”
In retrospect, we can be happy that the publisher insisted on an alternative submission from Schmitt, because when weighing the musical merits of the eight compositions that make up the collection, Schmitt’s piece is noteworthy in its effectiveness and appeal.
The English music editor and critic Lionel Salter, for one, declared Schmitt’s La Retardée to be a “brilliant” composition and “perhaps the best piece” in the set.
As for the other works in the collection, Salter characterized them as follows:
“Milhaud offers a lolloping jaunt in his characteristically personal harmonic idiom. Tailleferre has a tongue-in-cheek waltz, with some alien digressions. Sauguet rambles past the Expo’s [French] colonial [possessions’] pavilions, picking up whiffs of their exoticism, while Poulenc contents himself with an Auvergnesque folk-dance …
Listening to all these miniatures one after the other is a bit like trying to dine off cocktail snacks, but taken individually there is much to enjoy …”
The à l’Exposition collection is not widely known among either pianists or the listening public, and to date the complete set has received just two commercial recordings — both released at nearly the same time to correspond with the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Paris Exhibition. Both are interesting in that they include not only the set of eight piano pieces published by Deiss, but also a second set of piano works penned by nine other composers — a collection that was gathered together by a different Parisian publisher (Eschig) and introduced to the public the following year.
The second project was spearheaded by the composer Alexandre Tcherepnin and once again involved Marguerite Long, who arranged for one of her star pupils — a then very-young Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer — to premiere the set in a recital at the Salle Gaveau in Paris in 1938.
At the time Mlle. Henriot was just 13 years old, but she had already won the top prize for piano performance at the Paris Conservatoire — the first of numerous awards she would garner as her budding career as a concert pianist began to blossom.
The 1938 Eschig collection differs from the Deiss set in that the nine contributors hailed from countries other than France — although all of the composers were then working in Paris:
- Ernesto Halffter (Spain)
- Tibor Harsányi (Hungary)
- Arthur Honegger (Switzerland)
- Bohuslav Martinu (Czechoslovakia)
- Marcel Mihalovici (Romania)
- Federico Mompou (Spain)
- Vittorio Rieti (Italy)
- Alexandre Tansman (Russia)
- Alexandre Tcherepnin (Russia)
Moreover, the inspiration for the compositions in this new collection was concentrated more specifically on the Expo’s funfair and circus installations, with the pieces sporting titles such as At the Roller-Coaster, The Whirly-Gig, The Train Ride, The Lion Lady, The Romanian Dancer and The Giant.
The Etcetera recording of both collections was released in 1988 by the Dutch/Belgian label Etcetera and featured the American pianist Bennett Lerner, who served up artistically sensitive performances that presented the music in the best possible light.
While CD copies of the Etcetera recording aren’t easy to find these days, the individual pieces have been uploaded to YouTube as separate videos and can be accessed there.
Owning the Etcetera recording and knowing the pieces that make up both sets, I heartily agree with Lionel Salter’s opinion that Florent Schmitt’s contribution is among the most brilliantly effective of the 17 works. To judge for yourself, you can listen to La Retardée here on YouTube.
I have not yet had the opporrtunity to hear Belgian pianist’s Daniel Blumenthal‘s rendition of the set, which came out just prior to the Lerner recording, but I would imagine that it is a very fine interpretation as well, considering Mr. Blumenthal’s considerable reputation for idiomatic interpretations of French piano music. Indeed, he has also performed Florent Schmitt’s Ombres, one of the most significant (and challenging) masterpeices of the French piano repertoire.
It has now been 35 years since both commercial recordings of this music were made. Surely, younger performers of today can find much to discover in these two collections — piano miniatures that are so reflective of the musical styles that were in fashion in mid-1930s Europe …