Late last year, several clips quietly appeared on Facebook — each of them featuring a movement from Florent Schmitt’s Quartet for Trombones and Tuba, Opus 109, a fascinating piece that the composer created in 1946.
This quartet is a composition that, despite its creativity and inventiveness, remains one of the least-known of Schmitt’s scores. Indeed, it is hardly ever performed and has been commercially recorded only once — more than 20 years ago on the Hungaroton label. That recording is long out-of-print and nearly impossible to find for even the most dauntless sleuth. (Speaking personally, it took me five years of searching before finally locating a second-hand copy of the CD from an Australian vendor that, combined with shipping, set me back a cool US$50.)
[To read more about the Quartet for Trombones and Tuba and its interesting history, this article contains details.]
I came across the Facebook audio/video clips of the Quartet purely by chance. Upon listening to them, I realized immediately that these were performances that truly do justice to Schmitt’s score, giving full measure to Schmitt’s vision and allowing the music to shine brightly.
As it turns out, the four musicians featured on the Facebook clips are members of the low brass section of the Jenaer Philharmonie (Jena Philharmonic Orchestra) in Germany, and they’ve been playing together as a section for the past four years. The musicians include:
- Martin Zuckschwerdt, solo trombone, member since 2001
- Carl-Philipp Kaptain, assistant solo trombone, member since 2017
- Douglas Murdoch, solo bass trombone, member since 2016
- Bruno Osinski, solo tuba, member since 2014
This current constellation of Jena low brass players came together in 2017, at which time the four musicians began to rehearse together on upcoming orchestral repertoire along with working on general brass ensemble skills. As Douglas Murdoch, one of the musicians, quips, “Aware that we might be colleagues for the next 30 years, we wanted to iron out any kinks at the beginning!”
As the musicians played and rehearsed together, they also searched out music for trombone quartet (old and new, original and arranged), uncovering a rich and varied seam of repertoire — from Beethoven and Bruckner to Derek Bourgeois, Saskia Apon, Daniel Schnyder and others. It was music that worked well for their instruments and for their playing styles.
The players were soon being asked to perform at a range of municipal events, culminating in presenting their first full chamber concert in 2019 as part of the Jena Philharmonic’s concert series.
Interested to learn about the journey of discovery that led the Jena low brass musicians to Florent Schmitt’s Quartet, I initiated contact with Douglas Murdoch, the trombonist who had posted the Facebook clips. Mr. Murdoch graciously agreed to be interviewed, and he facilitated the participation of his three colleagues as well. Highlights of our interesting discussion are presented below. (Note: Some of the remarks have been translated from German into English.)
PLN: How did you become familiar with the music of Florent Schmitt?
Bruno Osinski: I was the one who brought Florent Schmitt’s Quartet to the attention of my colleagues. My first exposure to Schmitt’s music was in 2007 when I participated in making a recording of his Antoine et Cléopâtre suites and Mirages with the Orchestre National de Lorraine under the direction of Jacques Mercier. This music made a very good impression on me, but I didn’t follow up on it immediately because my interest at the time was more with the Austro-German repertoire.
Then in 2015, I played a large choral work by Schmitt [Psaume XLVII] in Fulda with the Jenaer Philharmonie. This inspired me to start listening to his music all over again — and my enthusiasm kept growing. I found a long list of his compositions and stumbled upon his Trombones and Tuba Quartet quite by accident. I was very surprised that Schmitt had composed a work for such an ensemble — and that it was unknown.
Today, I am totally in love with this piece!
PLN: How did Florent Schmitt’s Quartet end up becoming part of your group’s repertoire?
Douglas Murdoch: Trombone quartets come with a number of issues facing a lower brass section made up of both trombone and tuba players. Often, the best original scores are written with a bass trombone timbre in mind — in which case substituting a tuba to play the part won’t work adequately. Or, the upper three tenor trombone parts are written with equal importance, spreading the high solos out across the players while leaving the bass player flying too close to the sun!
Interestingly, considering that four trombone/tuba players have been used in the orchestra as a self-contained grouping since the mid-nineteenth century — think of composers ranging from Berlioz and Wagner to Shostakovich and Britten – there is actually surprisingly little original music that’s been created for this kind of ensemble.
So, with relatively little repertoire to choose from, our group played through a variety of original compositions, but we were largely disappointed with how they sounded.
I must say, our first attempt at the Florent Schmitt Quartet was likewise not very successful. The modern trombone and tuba are designed to fill a large concert hall with deep, sonorous sounds, but intricate music can be easily overwhelmed by their power. With our modern, large instruments, Schmitt’s Quartet music seemed too heavy and thick, and we gave up on it all too quickly.
PLN: It all sounds rather discouraging …
Douglas Murdoch: One might think so. But at this point in the story, Simon Gaudenz, our music director at the orchestra, enters the picture. In recent seasons, he has asked us to play on small-bore instruments in the classical and romantic repertoire in order to achieve a more transparent sound. Although we enjoyed this challenge, we hadn’t always found it easy — and had talked about working more diligently to fully exploit the possibilities of this unfamiliar (at least to us) sound palette.
Then when the COVID crisis hit in March of last year, we decided to take the newly available time to experiment with our small-bore instruments. We attempted the Florent Schmitt composition again, and instantly recognized the potential of the piece. It is clearly a masterpiece of writing for the ensemble — although it requires a lot of work to master!
PLN: Regarding Schmitt’s piece, what are your general impressions of the music? In what ways is it similar to other compositions for lower brass instruments, and in what ways different?
Carl-Philipp Kaptain: My overall impression of Florent Schmitt’s Quartet is that it presents a dense sound-world of the highest order. By contrast, other works for our combination of instruments are noticeably simpler, with clear discernible differences between the melody and the accompaniment.
Another notable characteristic of Schmitt’s compositional technique is the way he divides the upper melody between the first and second trombones — in the process creating a kind of “stereo effect” within the shortest of phrases.
Even though it resides very much within the free-tonal harmonic style of contemporary French music encountered at the time , the piece also signals the coming of future compositions such as Eugène Bozza’s Trois pièces for trombone quartet which appeared in 1964.
Unique to Schmitt’s piece is the seriousness in which the composer approached writing for this combination of instruments. Schmitt’s structural complexity, his strong expressive contrasts, and the subtle-yet-highly effective harmonies stand in stark contrast to the typically light and less demanding brass ensemble works that other composers were writing in the mid-twentieth century.
PLN: Can we talk a bit more about the issue of fully exploiting the coloristic possibilities of the trombone and tuba?
Carl-Philipp Kaptain: This is an intriguing topic. As Douglas states, three trombones and tuba are a characteristic idiom from the traditional symphonic literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century — where we typically find that the instruments are often employed as an addition to the tutti orchestral color. Or they’re used for choral or organ-like passages when they’re given a noticeable role.
The moments in which they’re allowed to emerge from the musical background tend to be in the grandest musical climaxes. As such, they rarely play the most integral roles in compositions.
PLN: With that kind of backdrop, it must have posed an interesting challenge for composers who sought to write pieces featuring these instruments solely.
Carl-Philipp Kaptain: Precisely. To contemplate a work spotlighting such “periphery” instruments, a composer must abandon the conventional idiom — and in this instance Schmitt does just that. He pushed the technical requirements and compositional norms beyond even the most demanding solo literature of 1946. The duration of the Quartet — almost 15 minutes of playing at the extremes of the first trombone’s upper register with little opportunity for rest or recovery — makes any live performance a big challenge.
PLN: What about rhythmic complexity?
Carl-Philipp Kaptain: That’s a challenge as well. The rhythmic complexities and offset interjections in the second and fourth movements are – even today – quite atypical of the brass literature. Even with intensive rehearsing, some passages can be realized only in “style” rather than in “accuracy.”
A close look at the score reveals that Schmitt used the traditional roles of the lower brass sparingly — notably in the passages of grand proclamation and, in contrast, choral figurations in the first movement unison passages and in the slow third movement. The rest of the composition appears, from its musical and technical demands, to hew more closely to the expectations of a string quartet!
Douglas Murdoch: The Schmitt is a great piece — but so demanding in so many ways. It is written very much for French players, with a very high tessitura and requiring a smaller sound. This makes intonation and mixing the sounds of the instruments much harder to achieve. The piece also has rhythmic passages that required hours of work for minimal gain, but we definitely learned something through the process and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the music.
PLN: What are your impressions of the individual movements of the Quartet — things that strike you as particularly interesting or novel for the listener as well as the players. Let’s start with the first movement, described in the title as “eager and heavy” …
Martin Zuckschwerdt: For me, a special aspect of the first movement is how Florent Schmitt toys with the audience’s expectations for a composition written for low brass instruments.
And what is expected does happen at first — until it doesn’t. As you listen, it soon becomes clear that the composer has no intention of treading the same well-worn path of other composers in their works.
Thus, the movement begins with a short fanfare-like melody, set in wide octaves and performed with great emphasis — exactly as one would expect a brass chamber music piece to sound. But then Schmitt begins to focus more and more on the lyrical and harmonic development of the music. Repetition of the beginning motif seems aimed at preventing the movement from developing in this direction — but it cannot prevail. And so the movement ends, following a longer, increasingly harmonically more complex lyrical part with soft, fading chords.
It’s also a clear message that the remaining movements will be equally unpredictable!
PLN: So, what tricks does the composer have up his sleeve in the second movement?
Martin Zuckschwerdt: The second movement is titled “Vif,” and it exhibits a much different character. True to form, Florent Schmitt doesn’t dwell on conventional expectations for long. Rhythmically complex, lively, exciting and virtuosic, sometimes the music leaves the listener in the dark as to what its main focus is or where it’s heading!
Significantly, the second movement is notated in 6/8 time even though the interaction would be much easier for players if the composer had chosen to notate the music in 3/4 time. But as we discovered during our rehearsals, had the composer done this, it would have resulted in a completely different effect. The entire character of the movement — its liveliness and lightness — would have been lost.
PLN: In other words, the score’s complexity is intentional in achieving a purposeful musical result — not because it was clumsily written?
Martin Zuckschwerdt: Exactly.
PLN: The third movement, marked “Lent,” is of a completely different character. What kind of mood does it convey?
Douglas Murdoch: This is the movement that seems to adhere most closely to what we’d normally expect to hear in a trombone quartet — namely, richly harmonic music with sonorous baritone melodies. In fact, this was Schmitt’s favorite movement of the piece — so much so that he later transcribed the work for string quartet [and also prepared a version for four cellos].
As brass players, we’re used to playing arrangements and transcriptions derived from more familiar instrumental combinations. That an original work for a trombone/tuba quartet would make the transition in the other direction speaks directly to the high quality of the music, I feel.
PLN: And the final movement, marked “Animé” — any special comments that you’d like to make about this one?
Carl-Philipp Kaptain: I mentioned earlier that Schmitt’s Quartet places us in a dense sound-world. This is particularly the case in the final movement, which reaches a level of polyphony that is, for brass compositions, quite rare.
I’m speaking here of the close imitation between the instruments, as well as polyrhythms within a single bar (sixteenth-notes against triplet-eighths against eighth-notes) that sometimes cover each other in their complexity.
PLN: It’s wonderful that we have recorded documentation of your fine vision of Schmitt’s Quartet. How did that recording come together?
Douglas Murdoch: Our original plan had been to perform the Quartet in front of an audience this past December as part of a concert by our orchestra in Jena. Unfortunately, that presentation was cancelled due to the continuing COVID pandemic, but luckily, we were still able to record the piece live for broadcast on MDR Radio [Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk] in Germany.
An upload of us playing the Quartet can be seen on YouTube, combining into one upload the four Facebook clips that were made during our rehearsals working towards the December concert.
To prepare, we asked Martin Dressler, a student at the Tonmeister-institut Detmold, to be our recording engineer. The project was intended more to focus our preparations for the planned December concert than to produce a polished “official” audio documentation.
But the end-product greatly surpassed our expectations! This was in no small part thanks to Martin, who did a top-notch job in his first-ever recording of a brass ensemble. We’re particularly pleased with the clarity and depth of the recorded sound. Each instrument can be placed precisely, while retaining the warm, natural sound acoustic of the Jena Volkshaus.
PLN: Looking ahead, what plans do you have for performing Florent Schmitt’s Quartet?
After such intensive work on the Quartet during 2020, we think we’ll be taking a break from the piece for the moment — but we’re absolutely sure we’ll return to it in the future!
We are indebted to the accomplished low brass musicians of the Jena Philharmonic for devoting such passion and energy to prepare one of Florent Schmitt’s most musically rewarding scores and giving it the artistic attention it deserves. Having listened to their YouTube upload, available here, it’s my personal view that they have captured the spirit of the music completely convincingly, making it the new “go-to” performance of this piece.
As an aside, the Jena Philharmonic has future plans to perform more Florent Schmitt — the ballet La Tragédie de Salomé — during the orchestra’s 2022-23 season, led by its music director, Simon Gaudenz. More information about that concert will be shared as details become available.