It was a dream come true for the three Prisma musicians, who prepared for nearly a decade before venturing into the recording hall to document their interpretation of Florent Schmitt’s stunning creation: “a string trio with sextet ambitions.”
Music-lovers who are familiar with Florent Schmitt’s artistry are most likely to know his big orchestral compositions, augmented in some cases by large choral forces. But in the latter part of his career, the composer increasingly turned his attentions to writing music for chamber ensembles. Among the most impressive (and challenging) of these pieces are his String Trio, Op. 105 (1944) and String Quartet, Op. 112 (1948) — works he composed when he was in his mid-70s.
They’re challenging pieces for some audience members because they reside in a sound-world that is polyrhythmic and polytonal in the extreme. As the American violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams has written:
“I find it interesting that Arnold Schoenberg and Florent Schmitt have much in common in their mature works. The first composer used a system (more or less); the other went where his imagination took him – and yet musically they are not far apart at all. Listen to both of their late string trios and you’ll hear what I mean.”
Moreover, the String Trio isn’t a challenge just for audiences; it poses more than its share of hurdles for the players as well. (Indeed, one could argue that the Trio may well be more audience-friendly than musician-friendly!)
Schmitt wrote the piece for the Pasquier Trio (made up of siblings Jean, Pierre and Étienne Pasquier). Reportedly, the musicians devoted an entire year of preparation before performing and recording the music, which was released on the EMI/Pathé label.
This 78-rpm recording was the only one of the music until the 1980s, when the second commercial recording appeared – another French production featuring the Albert Roussel String Trio (Eric Alberti, Pierre Llinares, Georges Schwartz) that was released on the Cybelia label.
Both of those recordings were short-lived in the catalogue, and neither of them has been reissued since their initial release. But now after a hiatus of more than three decades, we finally have a new recording on the horizon.
For the members of the Netherlands-based Prisma String Trio (PRISMA Strijktrio), their relationship with Schmitt’s composition dates back nearly a decade. Fully aware of the piece and its reputation long before taking it up in 2013, the piece’s difficulty gave them pause.
As a result, the Prisma musicians have taken their time with the Trio, presenting it in full only within the past few years.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst that finally set the wheels in motion for recording the piece, which happened in July 2020. The recording is being released internationally in May 2021 on the Cobra Records label, coupled with music by Darius Milhaud that dates from the same year as the Schmitt (1944), but which is far more intimate in character.
In announcing its plans to record Schmitt’s work, the Prisma String Trio had these words to say about the piece and its creator:
The string repertoire possesses no other composition with such unique lyricism and such rich harmonies, going beyond French Impressionism. The flamboyant Florent Schmitt … was a strong source of inspiration for Stravinsky and Messiaen. In the Paris of the 1910s he was a member of the anarchist artists’ society Les Apaches along with Ravel, Stravinsky and other like-minded people. He remained a rebel all his life.
The String Trio is swinging and sometimes megalomaniac: a work of symphonic allure for a string trio with sextet ambitions. The music excites and inspires us to push ourselves to the limit; it awakens the artist within each of us. We expect the listener to experience the same emotions.”
I have been in regular touch with the Prisma musicians – violinist Janneke van Prooijen, violist Elisabeth Smalt and cellist Michiel Weidner — since 2018, and during that time I have followed their journey with Florent Schmitt’s String Trio with keen interest. Now that the release of their recording is imminent, I approached them about participating in an interview to explore this chamber music masterpiece and why they find it to be such a compelling work.
All three musicians generously agreed to be interviewed. Highlights of our very interesting discussion (which was conducted in English) are presented below.
PLN: When did each of you first learn about the composer Florent Schmitt?
Elisabeth Smalt: In the 1990s I became friends with the late saxophone player William Raaijman, and discovered that we shared an interest in obscure or unknown composers. He was always raving about Florent Schmitt. Then at the Hortus Festival, for which William was serving as artistic leader, I heard him play Schmitt’s piece Légende on a vintage saxophone instrument. I was quite taken by the beautifully soft and diaphanous sound in that piece.
Later on I had the opportunity to play Schmitt’s Piano Quintet, which really opened my eyes as to how fantastic a composer he was. This was truly a masterpiece, including a really wonderful viola part. The Quintet definitely made me a “fan” of Schmitt’s music.
There’s an interesting story I can tell about playing the Quintet on tour, which we presented in the orangery buildings of various botanical gardens. We were playing on an Erard piano along with gut-string instruments. This brought up an issue of the proper mutes to be using, as we didn’t want to use our modern mutes. The old-fashioned wooden mutes sounded nice, but they had a tendency to fall off the bridge in the more passionate musical passages.
I had inherited an old leather viola mute that worked very well, but in those days — 2006 I think – leather mutes like that were quite difficult to find. Our cellist, Jan Insinger, arrived at rehearsal the next day wearing a different pair of shoes. As it turned out, he had taken the leather from his old shoes and fashioned mutes from them — and they worked perfectly!
Michiel Weidner: I first heard about Florent Schmitt at the age of fourteen when I played cello in the youth orchestra in Leiden, my hometown. Our conductor at the time was always seeking out special repertoire that was just as fine quality as the standard fare but off the beaten track. He talked about programming Schmitt, but wasn’t able to get hold of any orchestral parts.
Later, when I was at the Conservatory of Amsterdam I played in a string trio with fellow students. Of course we played a lot of Beethoven and such, but we wanted to find interesting unusual repertoire as well. Unlike the reams of string quartets, scores for string trios were few and far between at the music store around the corner from the Concertgebouw. Stopping by that shop one day, the owner pushed the music for Florent Schmitt’s String Trio under my nose and exclaimed, “This is interesting — you have to play this!”
So, our trio got to work, but we soon had to give up. The music was simply too complex and time-consuming to study in addition to doing our preparations for final exams. And then after our exams, everyone went his own separate way.
Janneke van Prooijen: For me, I found out about Florent Schmitt when the Prisma Trio was established in 2002. I asked a music friend for suggestions on repertoire. Among the pieces mentioned was the name of Florent Schmitt, along with the remark, “His music is like Ravel but more crazy – and extremely difficult!” That only piqued my curiosity more!
PLN: Whose idea was it to investigate and ultimately perform the Schmitt String Trio?
Elisabeth Smalt: I think it was Janneke’s idea. I was immediately for it when she mentioned it because I was so curious about this composer. I love to discover unknown music; it is very exciting for me — like a sort of musical archeology. It also helped that I had had a happy experience with the Piano Quintet.
Michiel took longer to warm to the idea. He wasn’t sure if it was “worth it” in terms of the technical demands.
Michiel Weidner: That’s correct. It took some persuading, because I knew how difficult the piece would be to master.
Elisabeth Smalt: We researched more information about Schmitt — including some interesting stories and photos about the composer that we found on your website — and gradually the picture of the composer began to came alive. We discovered that Schmitt had been a founding member of the artists’ group Les Apaches, and that was something we could all relate to. So in 2013 we began to work on the piece.
PLN: What were your impressions of the Trio when you first encountered it?
Janneke van Prooijen: For me it was the atmospherics of the music. It struck me as very “French.” Very rich in color. Impressionism of course — but also more. I loved it!
But the piece was also difficult to decipher — not only the notes, but also the rhythms and time signatures. It was pretty hard to put our parts together.
PLN: Had you listened to either of the two recordings of the music before looking at the score?
Elisabeth Smalt: No, we didn’t have either recording when we started learning and practicing the piece. In fact, we didn’t even know about the Roussel Trio’s 1985 recording until later on — and the 78-rpm recording by the Pasquier Trio even later still.
Besides, to my mind, listening to other interpretations at an early stage generally isn’t a good idea. There is much joy in discovering a piece by studying the written material, where the score can speak to you in a very direct way. It keeps your ears fresh to make your own interpretation.
Michiel Weidner: Like Elisabeth, I prefer not to listen to recordings before I’ve played and studied the music first. It’s my way of discovering the interpretation that feels right to me.
Janneke van Prooijen: The same with me. I hadn’t listened to it before, and I usually prefer to learn a new piece from the score and develop my own ideas about it.
Elisabeth Smalt: When the Pasquier Trio’s recording appeared on YouTube in 2017, I was happy to hear it then. The famous Pasquier players commissioned many pieces, including this composition. According to what I’ve read, they spent a full year practicing the piece, and I assume that they worked on it with Florent Schmitt himself, which makes it even more fascinating to hear their interpretation.
In an interesting coincidence, the French translator of our CD booklet notes told us that his mother had been a personal friend of the Pasquiers. The three of us visited his house recently and he showed us letter and photos — it was very intriguing.
PLN: What technical challenges did you encounter when you began rehearsing the music?
Michiel Weidner: The technical demands are very high. In fact, it often sounds like a string sextet even though it’s just three players with only ten fingers each! At one of our early rehearsals we heard a deep sigh coming from Elisabeth’s corner: “Oh, if only I had one more finger …”
And then, on top of the technical demands you have to make it sound easy — just as you would with music of normal difficulty.
Elisabeth Smalt: A big challenge is the grand scale of the piece overall. You could say that there are no “easy bits” anywhere in the piece. To figure out the fingerings was quite a challenge because of all the double-stops. I could spend an hour to solve just one bar! And once you’ve figured it out, you then have to ingrain the fingering into your system.
Some chords seemed impossible at first sight — but the solutions presented themselves during the process. Then after a while I would realize, “Hey, I can do it. This is working!”
PLN: How about artistic challenges?
Michiel Weidner: Artistically, I think the piece “plays itself.” It’s very clear what Florent Schmitt is meaning to express, I think. In that regard I find him similar to Mozart.
Elisabeth Smalt: For me, the expression of the music came more gradually. It’s like opening a present from the composer. First there’s the hard work — we’re in the mists and can’t see that clearly where we’re going. But gradually this absolutely wonderful piece emerges. For a musician, that is such a rewarding experience. It’s like climbing the Himalayas and finally reaching the summit where you see the wonderful view in all directions!
But like with all excellent scores, the artistic vision will keep evolving. Even in the studio when we were making our recording last summer, I was still discovering new things in the score, and I’m sure we’ll develop the piece further in the future. That’s just how the artistic process works — it never ends!
PLN: How long did you study and rehearse the String Trio before you presented it in performance?
Michiel Weidner: Starting in 2013, I think the whole process took us four or five years. We divided it into bite-sized chunks.
Janneke van Prooijen: We studied and performed the movements one by one. In one of our first programs, we played one movement from the Schmitt Trio in a program that also included music by Jean Cras and Georges Enescu.
Elisabeth Smalt: We decided to learn one movement at a time and ignore the common practice of presenting an entire piece. It was the only way for us to approach it and do justice to the music.
One program we presented was called Belle époque. It included music by Schmitt and other composers such as Satie, Massenet and Ravel, but also a player piano with Schmitt and other piano rolls operated by Max Lakeman along with a silent movie compilation prepared by vintage film collector and archivist Yvo Verschoor. In addition, we had made several arrangements for string trio and piano of a few early pieces by Schmitt, and in that concert we also performed several movements from the String Trio.
But it was only in 2018 that we dared to present the entire piece in a single concert – five years after we first started working on it!
PLN: Let’s take each of the four movements of the String Trio individually. Tell me your impressions of what makes the music special. First, the Anime sans excès movement …
Michiel Weidner: The first movement starts with a wake-up call. It almost makes you think of the announcement of a circus show, where all sorts of colorful people and animals parade around — each having their own role, style and character. It’s very joyful — but also a bit dangerous!
Janneke van Prooijen: Michiel is right — it’s an energetic journey, but there is also a very sensual second theme.
Elisabeth Smalt: I think this movement is very unique because Schmitt makes a string trio sound “symphonic.” Already in the first bars he creates this imposing column of vertical sound, with many overtones. It starts the piece in a most magnificent way!
The shape of the movement is quite stretched out. I count three main themes, and the way Schmitt uses those themes is very imaginative and playful — always fresh and surprising.
There’s much ecstatic energy. One might hear echoes of Debussy, Brahms, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht — but also a bit of jazz and a bit of Hollywood. And yet, it couldn’t have been written by anyone other than Florent Schmitt.
Picking up on Michiel’s circus reference, I hear a certain chord progression that is so typical of Schmitt — a kind of Trugschluss [fallacy] where you think a phrase is ending … but at the last moment it continues on and there is a twirling motion as if you’re on a carousel at the fair. For audiences it can be quite overwhelming — and the only option is for them to simply surrender to it and go with the flow.
Michiel Weidner: In the title of this movement Schmitt includes the term “without exaggeration.” That’s a pretty weird description.
Elisabeth Smalt: Yes, in our rehearsals we had a good laugh about that because despite the description, this movement and others are quite “excessive” in character! Schmitt seems to be toying with the performers — but then again it might mean something like “just play musically; the metronome marking is a suggestion but don’t overdo it.”
PLN: How about the second movement — Alerte sans exagération?
Janneke van Prooijen: To me, it brings to mind a swinging dance — alternating between naivety and a wry samba.
Michiel Weidner: I likewise think of it as a kind of nervous samba, which is an apparent contradiction. It’s restless, yet it has a beautiful intermezzo.
Elisabeth Smalt: There’s a rich rhythmic structure that the composer uses, weaving different patterns through the music — 3 against 4 against 5, and so forth. It’s vintage Florent Schmitt, and it makes me wonder if this is part of what inspired and influenced Stravinsky in his Sacre du printemps 30 years earlier – indulging in that freedom with mathematical structures.
PLN: And turning to the third movement — Lent?
Janneke van Prooijen: It’s a movement of great depth and with amazing colors. I have never encountered another movement in a string trio that builds so effectively as this one does.
Elisabeth Smalt: This one is my favorite. It’s a true masterpiece where Schmitt does this wonderful thing of “painting” with notes. He’s layering different materials and forming chords that move like clouds. Echoing what Janneke says, I haven’t found any other composer who does this in quite the same way.
The cello starts the journey, very solemnly. Then comes the landscape of watercolors that fade into one another to form new colors, with gradually changing chords: sounds layered over other sounds, with no clear corners. The long melody is nearly hidden but moves along — singing on and on — until again the cello brings us to an arrival point. To me, it feels like being on a mountain where I can see both ways.
Then we descend into a musical valley reminiscent of Debussy’s Pelléas, which is a piece that meant much to Schmitt from an early age, so I’ve read. In this passage I really admire Schmitt’s ability to make a string trio sound like a symphony orchestra. It’s like magic, and it takes us to a climax of a glorious brass-like melody.
And then the cello returns us to the landscape of the beginning — but transformed and different. Finally the theme, this time in octaves in the violin, comes to a shining climax and the coda, trembling with emotion, fades to silence.
Michiel Weidner: Very simply, this movement is beautiful — and a cellist’s dream!
PLN: How about the final movement, which bears the intriguing title À allure d’une ronde animé?
Michiel Weidner: Intriguing, yes — like all of Florent Schmitt’s music. This is a “grand finale” in every sense of the term. Gloriously complex chords along with a lot of movement and drive. It’s simply fabulous.
Janneke van Prooijen: The final movement is exceptionally difficult. One could title it “Tarantella: Dance ‘til You Die!” We spent quite a bit of time figuring out how the rhythms should be interpreted and played. The movement also has a great second theme that builds to a magnificent climax, where the three instruments sound like a big symphony orchestra.
Elisabeth Smalt: In some ways this movement is the most difficult one because of its structure and the fast tempo. The title is indeed intriguing; the wild and crazy dance element is there right from the start — and it’s at a crazy tempo as well. The rondo-like theme emerges a bit later; it seems happy — but not completely. It’s fast and feverish, like a dream or delirium.
Amidst the rondo theme there are contrasting passages where Schmitt is so inventive and ecstatic. It seems almost like an escape into another world – a paradise, perhaps. It becomes more and more transformed when moving forward to the conclusion, such that when it ultimately ends in an optimistic E-major, it is glorious!
PLN: How many times have you presented the String Trio in concert? How have audiences responded to it?
Michiel Weidner: We’ve played it about ten times.
Elisabeth Smalt: We even presented it twice in one day because of coronavirus rules allowing a maximum of just 30 listeners in the room …
Janneke van Prooijen: Audiences are overwhelmed by the music whenever they hear it. Because it is complex, people have told us afterwards that they wanted to hear it again to understand it better.
Elisabeth Smalt: It has gotten an enthusiastic reaction. People don’t perceive that the piece is long and they aren’t bored, even for a moment.
Michiel Weidner: That’s true. The piece lasts more than a half-hour, but people are on the edge of their chairs the entire time.
PLN: How did the new recording come about?
Michiel Weidner: For a long time we hoped that we could make a recording of this music to share with the world. But it’s been a challenge to realize this. The effort is all-consuming and we need to earn a living; to record a piece like this is a big sacrifice!
Elisabeth Smalt: This was a long-time wish. There are a few “big pieces” for string trio like the early Beethoven trios, Mozart’s Divertimento, Schubert, and a few other pieces from composers like Hindemith, Roussel and Jean Cras. The Florent Schmitt absolutely deserves to be on the list, too — which is one reason why we wanted to record it.
Janneke van Prooijen: The corona lockdown provided us with a golden opportunity: Suddenly there was time to prepare the piece for recording!
Michiel Weidner: In that sense the lockdown was a blessing in disguise. Suddenly our diaries were blank, so we started right away to prepare.
Janneke van Prooijen: We were very happy that Tom Peeters of Cobra Records, who I already knew from other collaborations, was open to our proposal to release the Schmitt Trio on his label, along with Darius Milhaud’s La Muse ménagère. That piece is an ideal disk-mate: intimate music to balance against the monumental Schmitt.
Elisabeth Smalt: The Milhaud is a work of 15 short movements for solo piano, all on “household” subjects. The composer, who was ill at the time, worked on them in secret and gave them to his wife, Madeleine, as a thank-you present for her birthday.
For me personally, this piece was very special. My longtime partner, Bob Gilmore, prepared six of the movements for string trio towards the end of his life — we were together for 14 years and he died of cancer at age 53 in 2015. As Milhaud had done, with these six arrangements Bob thanked me for caring for him during his illness.
Then Janneke and Michiel suggested that we arrange the remaining Milhaud movements as well. It was truly a family affair as Janneke’s brother and her husband, along with Michiel’s wife — all musicians and arrangers — prepared the nine remaining movements. So this is how the rest of the recording came to fruition.
PLN: Can you share any interesting anecdotes about the Schmitt recording session, or preparing for it?
Janneke van Prooijen: I remember one rehearsal in the month before the recording session. We were practicing slowly a particularly difficult passage for what must have been the 100th time when Elisabeth suddenly exclaimed, “Ah, but it is possible after all!”
Elisabeth Smalt: I recall that at the end of the recording session, it felt like my arms were going to fall off my body. We were completely drained, physically and mentally. In the photo that was taken at the end of the session, you can see that we look like happy ghosts!
Michiel Weidner: We recorded the Schmitt String Trio this past July, in the midst of the corona lockdown, in Schiedam which is a cute little town near Rotterdam. It’s thoroughly Dutch — famous for its historic town center with canals (as well as for its Dutch gin). It also has the tallest windmills in the world. Basically, you cannot be any more “Dutch” than Schiedam.
At lunchtime, we were strolling along the deserted canals and saw a late-1940s model Peugeot car parked on the brick pavement. We recognized it as the same model of car in a photo taken of Florent Schmitt’s wife, Jeanne Schmitt. It reminded us that the life of the Schmitts is relatively recent history — just like the life of the Milhauds, with Madeleine living until 2008 and the age of 105!
PLN: Do you have future plans to perform Florent Schmitt’s String Trio in concert?
Elisabeth Smalt: We hope to embark on a CD release tour here in the Netherlands and abroad, if the corona situation improves and allows us to do so …
Janneke van Prooijen: It would be wonderful to tour in the USA as well, if possible. If you are aware of any institutions that could support this endeavor, please let us know!
Michiel Weidner: Of course we plan to perform the piece, and we expect that the recording will help generate more interest from programmers at the major concert venues.
We’ll do a release tour as soon as circumstances allow us to play in front of live audiences again. In the meantime, our first concert will be a streamed one — at Splendor Amsterdam, our home base. It’s scheduled for May 23, 2021, and it will be broadcast worldwide.
PLN: The Prisma String Trio may be the only ensemble in the world that keeps Florent Schmitt’s Trio in its repertoire today. Should other groups explore this music and perform it as well?
Janneke van Prooijen: Of course! Everyone should play Schmitt’s beautiful music. My advice would be to practice slowly and work at finding the wonderful harmonies.
Elisabeth Smalt: Absolutely. I hope our recording will encourage others to take it up as part of their repertoire. For me, the mark of a great composer like Florent Schmitt is when their music invites different interpretations. Our recording is but one way to play this piece, and I look forward to hearing other interpretations.
Michiel Weidner: Two words: “Do it!”
PLN: In conclusion, do you have any additional observations you’d like to make about Florent Schmitt and his artistry?
Janneke van Prooijen: For me, I just enjoy playing Schmitt’s music so much. I like to drift away in the colors and into the fantasy world he creates.
Elisabeth Smalt: For some people, the story of Florent Schmitt is somewhat complex because of his activities during the Second World War. But if you read the recent biography of him by Catherine Lorent, there emerges the portrait of a composer whose overriding goal was to preserve opportunities for new music in France, which he was able to do as head of a foundation.
The Vichy government and the Germans were clever to use the foundation as a way to pass themselves off as being open to the avant-garde in music. Schmitt, who spent most of the war years in the Pyrenees, wasn’t aware enough to discern that he was being “used” in a political way. We see that he advocated for new music and he continued to write music himself — the String Trio dates from the last years of the war — and he also used his position to advocate on behalf of some Jewish musicians.
After the war Schmitt was investigated, but contended that he never promoted Nazi ideas in any way. Arnold Schoenberg and others came to his defense. He appeared in front of a special tribunal and the verdict was that he is rehabilitated — a one-year ban on performances of his music issued retroactively to the date. I think it’s important for people to realize that Schmitt wanted to focus purely on music, but in the process naively got caught in the wheels of history at a time when politics was consuming everything in its path.
Michiel Weidner: I like to say that to play and record Florent Schmitt, you almost have to be a lunatic. Of course, as musicians we know which music is good (and which is bad). We’re ready to put a lot of effort into great music, but it is very encouraging to find allies among music-lovers and audiences around the world who are ready to be our advocates — our ambassadors — in this endeavor.
We’re so grateful that we found in you a passionate Schmitt defender. You and your fellow Schmittians may be even more passionate than we are! I sometimes wonder if we could have been successful in our endeavors if not for the realization that you were out there, eagerly awaiting the finished product and cheering us on.
Michiel Weidner is correct when he talks about the growing ranks of music-lovers who appreciate — and advocate for — Florent Schmitt and his musical legacy. Of course, none of that advocacy would matter were it not for the effort and energy of performers who make the commitment to bring Schmitt’s endlessly fascinating creations to life.
Through their many years of study and preparation relating to Florent Schmitt’s String Trio, all three Prisma musicians have proven themselves to be among the most dedicated artists on behalf of the composer. We’re grateful to them all.
To learn more about the Prisma Trio’s efforts to raise funds to take Florent Schmitt’s music on tour in Europe and hopefully beyond, you can check out the crowdfunding campaign page here.