Throughout his extraordinarily long and productive life, the French composer Florent Schmitt would return again and again to the human voice. His earliest catalogued compositions dating from the 1880s were various mélodies, and his final work was the Messe en quatres parties for mixed chorus and organ, completed just a few months before his death in 1958.
In between is a wealth of vocal and choral music including a number of sets that Schmitt penned for a cappella chorus. One of these is En bonnes voix, Op. 91 (In Good Voice), a set of six secular choruses composed in 1938 and that had its premiere later that year, presented by the Choeurs Elisabeth Brasseur in a Société Musicale Indépendente concert in Paris.
For this piece as with numerous of his other vocal sets, Schmitt turned to a variety of texts – including several of his own – in creating the six pieces that make up the set. A brief synopsis of each vignette is as follows:
I. On dist que … (text by Jéhan Froissart, 13th century writer) — I’m said to be conceited – proud of my virginal youth and charm — but my suitors beg me not to be so stubborn.
II. Prince et bergère (English folk text) — A gentleman courts a girl but when he finds out that she is a mere shepherd lass and has no dowry besides her youth and beauty, he no longer desires her. “No one cared anyway, dear sir,” the girl replies.
III. Le Passant de Passy (text by Florent Schmitt) — Immersed in thought, a poet on a bicycle collides with a pedestrian. The police officer takes him to the constable for an interrogation. Afterwards the poet, immersed in thought, steps out of the station — and collides with a motorcar.
IV. Tournez s’il vous plait (text by Florent Schmitt) — Keep on dancing, for life is short. With those tiny feet, go after your dreams. Fill the air with laughter; shimmer and shine.
V. La Mort du rossignol (English folk text) — A nightingale is killed by a vulture. The spider spins a death shroud and other birds join in the funeral ceremony.
VI. La Mode commode (18th century text) — A shepherd knows just the right methods to teach his girl how to kiss.
The music writer Alain Patrick Olivier has commented on Schmitt’s selection of texts, observing:
“Besides the ‘lost property’ that are the popular songs … there are compositions based on texts by ‘Yks,’ a mysterious pseudonym for an anonymous author who was most likely none other than the composer himself. These veer between practical jokes and trivial poetry, and are largely devoted to research into the sounds of language.”
The American music critic Steven Kruger goes a step further, writing:
“This piece would be perfect for irreverent college choral groups in an intimate setting. Schmitt had the unusual ability, which Stravinsky didn’t, of making neoclassic harmony coexist with sexiness, snark, remarkable irony, and that particular French obsession with civic rules which here turns a cyclist’s traffic accident into song.”
Collectively, the six pieces that make up En bonnes voix run approximately 12 to 15 minutes in duration depending on the interpretation, but because there is no overarching narrative tying the them together, the individual movements can also be performed separately.
Moreover, a “further description” printed on the original score of En bonnes voix (published by Durand in 1938) points to the versatility of performers that the composer envisioned when creating the music: “Six triolets (or their multiples) either of women (or children) or of men — or both together — for a cappella choir.”
However, evidence also points to a second version of the score that the composer prepared shortly before the end of his life for performance by a mixed chorus, in which the vocal assignations are more explicitly spelled out. This 1955 version of the score leaves out one of the six numbers (Tournez s’il vous plait), and the order of the others is changed so that Le passant de Passy comes last. This alternative version of the score was premiered in 1955 at the Concerts Oubradous in Paris, performed by the Robert Planel Chorus.
Live performances of En bonnes voix appeared in concerts broadcast over French radio during the 1950s and 1960s, often featuring the Ensemble Madrigal de l’O.R.T.F under the direction of Jean-Paul Kreder and Jean Gitton. The piece was also one of the works featured in a concert organized in 1959 by Les Amis de la musique de chambre in memory of Florent Schmitt, who had passed away the previous fall. That performance featured Yvonne Gouverné and the Maîtrise de Radio France women’s chorus. At the same memorial concert Schmitt’s late-career quartet Pour presque tous les temps (composed in 1956) was also performed.
Yves Hucher, Schmitt’s biographer, was present at the memorial event and commented afterwards, “For the first time he was not there, hiding somewhere in the concert hall — and the emotion of everyone was very deep.”
As a composition, En bonnes voix has been described by Eric Banks, founder and director of the choral group The Esoterics, as “French fascination with stanza and style.” This Seattle-based group presented the 1955 mixed chorus version of the piece in concert in 2004.
Other performances of the 1955 version in recent years have included Ensemble Solistes XXI, a choral group of young singers performing under the direction of Rachid Safir, presented at a concert in Paris in 2010. In Canada, the Vancouver Chamber Choir under the direction of Jon Washburn presented the music in performances in Winnipeg and Vancouver in 2016.
Most recently, excerpts from the set were performed in 2019 in Pantin, France by a women’s chorus under the direction of Leila Galeb (1938 version). A May 2020 planned performance by Canada’s Ensemble Vocal Del Segno led by Guillaume St-Gelais has had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Other choral directors who have presented En bonnes voix in whole or in part include Maud Hamon-Loisance in France (Choeurs Métaphores), Nicolas Fink in Germany and Portugal, and Akos Erdös in Hungary. (Of the six pieces in the set, Le passant de Passy and La Mort du rossignol appear to be the ones performed separately most often.)
As for commercial recordings, the first one was released in 1968. Emanating from an unexpected source, it features the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus under the direction of Ján Maria Dobrodinskỳ performing the 1955 version for mixed chorus. Released on the Supraphon label as part of an LP album titled “Modern French Music for a cappella Choir,” En bonnes voix was featured along with compositions by Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Milhaud.
The Supraphon recording is quite lush, with the chorus delivering a full-bodied “Central European sound” replete with well-rounded edges and aided by the resplendent acoustics of the Protestant Church of Bratislava.
As technically proficient as the performance is, I’m not convinced that the interpretation quite captures the flavor of the music and the texts in the most idiomatic way. (But you can judge for yourself, as the Supraphon recording has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.)
More successful, in my view, are two recordings made more recently – both of them using the 1938 version of the score.
One is a recording by Le Jeune Opéra du Québec (a chorus made up of women and girls aged 8 to 21) under the direction of Gilbert Patenaude and released in 2000 on the Canadian ATMA label. This is the swiftest recording of the piece that I’ve heard — clocking in at around 12 minutes — and to my ears it is a very successful interpretation. In its musical character, it very much reflects Mr. Patenaude’s own description of these mélodies:
“Schmitt employs powerful musical techniques with precision and humor: largely expanded tonal or modal harmony, unusual melodic intervals, diversified and complex rhythmic figures, use of humming and vocalization, sudden changes in nuance and tempo. These delicately etched miniatures evoke a story, a fable, or a flirtatious song with a definite French flavor.”
The most recent commercial recording of the complete set was made the following year — in 2001 — and features the Choeur de femmes Calliope led by Régine Theodoresco. This recording offers all the music that Florent Schmitt created for female (or children’s) chorus. A finely crafted performance, this En bonnes voix is somewhat different in flavor from the ATMA recording since the Calliope singers are women rather than young girls. Originally released on the Calliope label, in subsequent years this recording has been reissued by Timpani Records.
As for excerpts from the complete set, La Mort du rossignol was recorded in 2016 by the Octopus Chamber Choir under the direction of Bart van Reyn (released on the Etcetera label as part of a recording titled “Birds of Paradise“).
On the basis of recent history, for En bonnes voix the trajectory appears to be positive. As the score becomes better known to choral directors, my expectation is that its various movements will be performed with greater frequency. Musically rewarding for performers, they will also appeal to today’s audiences who are better accustomed to the harmonic surprises that exist within the music’s tonal framework.
At the same time, En bonnes voix reflects Schmitt’s own love of literary inspiration — a composer who, according to Alain Patrick Olivier, “savored with equal taste, independence and ironic detachment the broadest array of musical and literary references.”