Living and working as he did throughout the entirety of France’s “Golden Age” of classical music, Florent Schmitt was well-acquainted with all of the significant composers of the day in Paris. Among the most famous of them — Achille-Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel and Paul Dukas — the latter three were particularly close friends of Schmitt, so it must have been a poignant loss when all three of them passed away within only a two-year span (1935-37).
It is also a measure of the importance of these composers that La Revue musicale, the respected arts magazine founded and led by Henry Prunières, would commemorate these composers in the pages of the magazine.
In particular, Paul Dukas was the subject of a special May/June 1936 issue of the magazine that was devoted exclusively to the composer’s artistry. As had also been done with Revue musicale editions honoring Debussy and Gabriel Fauré, Prunières asked group of composers to contribute short piano pieces written in tribute to their musical colleague and mentor.
In addition to publishing Florent Schmitt’s contribution, the music supplement to the May/June special issue of La Revue musicale included piano pieces written in tribute by eight other composers, including:
- Tony Aubin
- Elsa Barraine
- Manuel de Falla
- Yulian Krein
- Olivier Messiaen
- Gabriel Pierné
- Joaquín Rodrigo
- Joseph-Guy Ropartz
The choice of the nine composers was an interesting mix; Dukas’ longtime friends and musical colleagues (de Falla, Pierné, Ropartz and Schmitt) were joined by five younger composers who had studied with the master (Aubin, Barraine, Krein, Messiaen and Rodrigo).
Just as he had done with his commemorative piano pieces written for the Revue musicale‘s special tributes to Debussy (1920) and Gabriel Fauré (1922), Florent Schmitt integrated his Dukas tribute into piano suites that he had published soon thereafter. The Dukas tribute became the first piece of a three-part set that was published by Durand in 1937 under the collective title Chaîne brisée, Op. 87.
The name is significant in that it refers to a proverb describing how the loss of a prominent member of a group is akin to a chain whose links have been broken. This characterization fits perfectly with Paul Dukas and the how the loss of his talent was felt among his family of fellow-composers.
While Schmitt wrote the majority of his solo piano music relatively early in his career, Chaîne brisée is one of a quartet of sets he composed between the ages of 65 and 71 — the others being Trois danses (1935), Small Gestures (1940) and Enfants (1941). The latter two are compositions written about (or for) children, whereas the other two are perhaps more representative of Schmitt’s mature compositional style.
Three three movements that make up Chaîne brisée unfold as follows:
I. Stèle pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (Stele for the Tomb of Paul Dukas) — Derived from a Latin word, a stele is a wooden or stone slab which during ancient times was erected as a monument — often for funerary purposes and often adorned with an inscription or ornamentation. The version of this piece that was published by Durand was an expansion on the original music that was included in the Revue musicale Dukas anthology.
The Stèle begins with the repeated tolling of a note, above which a chordal theme rises and falls. A second theme, introduced with passion and freed from the incessant tolling, proclaims the glory of the late composer. But the death knell creeps in again, insidiously, reminding us how those who mourn cannot easily break free from their grief, and instead will shiver long in their sorrow and regret. The piece is a moving tribute to a composer who was only a little older than Schmitt but whose death came far earlier in life, as Schmitt would survive Dukas by nearly 25 years.
II. Barcarolle des sept vierges (Barcarolle of the Seven Virgins) — Described by musicologist Arthur Hoérée as “fluid and flexible,” this movement of the set, which was dedicated to the pianist Micheline Moris-Therion, begins with a softly lyrical undulating first theme. After an ascending scale, this gives way to a second theme that develops to a loud climax before ending with a quiet coda. I have been unable to locate the literary source or other inspiration behind this movement.
III. Branle de sortie (Final Dance) — Built on a country line dance popular through history in France, Schmitt may have been inspired by the folk dances of the Burgundy region — or perhaps by the Haute-Pyrenees region where the composer had a country house in Artiguemy and where this movement was penned. The piece begins with a boisterous rhythmic theme in three-quarter time. A contrasting soft, lyrical middle theme provides a notable contrast with the strongly accented rhythms that begin and end the dance.
Interestingly, that same middle theme was employed by Schmitt in his large-scale orchestral work Fête de la lumière — a piece composed at about the same time and which was presented eight times at the evening Festivals of Lights events held on the banks of the Seine River during the 1937 Paris Exposition. Here, the theme is played by the ondes martenot rather than piano — but with either instrument, it’s one of those unmistakably Schmittian themes that are equal parts delirious and ecstatic. (Trust me on this.)
Chaîne brisée is not as well-known as most of Florent Schmitt’s other sets of pieces for solo piano. Following its premiere at a Société nationale de musique concert in Paris by pianist Pauline Gordon in 1937 (she was also the dedicatee of the final movement of the suite), the composition did not achieve the kind of play that the nearly contemporaneous Trois danses attained in its early years.
However, during the 1950s and 60s Chaîne brisée was championed by the pianist Henriette Puig-Roget, who also included it in several recital performances that were broadcast over Radio France.
Similarly, whereas Trois danses was commercially recorded as far back as 1957, the first complete recording of Chaîne brisée wouldn’t happen until a half-century following its creation — in 1985 in a recording by pianist Alain Raës that was released on the FY label (later reissued on CD).
Its original LP release was welcome news — and again at the time of the CD reissue. Praising pianist Alain Raës as a “sensitive player,” music critic Richard Whitehouse wrote in the April 2007 issue of Gramophone magazine of the “harmonic subtlety” of the first movement and the “rhythmic velocity” of the final Branle de sortie.
Since then, there has been just one additional complete recording made of the music, released in 2008 on the Claudio label that features pianist Ray Luck (appropriately coupled with piano music by Paul Dukas).
In addition to the two commercial recordings of the complete suite that exist, the Stèle movement was recorded separately in 1975 by the pianist Annie d’Arco. Pre-dating the first complete recording by a decade, the d’Arco reading was released on a Calliope LP that also included music by Dukas and Roussel.
While there are some interpretive differences between them, all three pianists do justice to Florent Schmitt’s score with sensitive and idiomatic performances of the music.
I am particularly enamored with Annie d’Arco’s interpretation of the Stèle movement, while Alain Raës’ performance of Branle de sortie is impressive — particularly the intoxicatingly gorgeous middle section.
The Ray Luck recording has been uploaded to YouTube along with the piano score, courtesy of George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos and his estimable music channel.
But there’s more to the story: As was so often the case with Florent Schmitt, the composer orchestrated the music — or in this case the first and third pieces of the set. The orchestrated works were premiered by Charles Munch and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in December 1938 (Stèle) and Jean Morel with the Paris Symphony Orchestra the following month (Branle de sortie).
To read descriptions of the orchestrated pieces is to make one eager to hear them. In the Stèle movement in particular, the repeated death knell is consigned alternatively to the horn, clarinet and bassoon, and ornamented by the harp and celesta. Knowing as we do Schmitt’s unfailing abilities at coaxing magnificent colors from the orchestra, the overall effect must be extraordinary.
Unfortunately, we have no audio documentation of the orchestrated movements — nor any clear evidence that they have even been performed in the years following their premieres.
What’s more, it isn’t evident that the orchestral parts are readily available from the publisher. They weren’t included in a comprehensive listing of Schmitt’s orchestral scores that was published by Durand in 1961, nor do the parts appear to be available from Universal/Durand today.
However, in my research I have discovered that the Fleisher Collection in the United States possesses the instrumental parts for the Stèle movement in its Philadelphia archives. As those parts are available for study, here’s hoping that several enterprising conductors will see to it to investigate the music and bring it to glorious life in the present day; perhaps Schmitt evangelists Leon Botstein, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel or Jacques Mercier might be so inclined.
Unfortunately, I can find no trace at all of Schmitt’s orchestration of the Branle de sortie movement. However, things have been set right on that score by the young Tunisian composer, arranger and orchestrator Jawher Matmati. Matmati is also part of group of music specialists who are heavily involved in the Durand Typography Project — a transnational initiative spearheaded by orchestrator Michael Feingold that also includes music engravers Matthew Maslanka and Wesselin Christoph Karaatanassov on the work team.
Related to his current studies and participation in Anthony Girard‘s senior orchestration class at the Paris Conservatoire, Jawher Matmati has just completed preparing an orchestral version of Branle de sortie as part of his Orchestration Lab work this year.
As Matmati tells it, “I find the music for this suite to be sublime, and I’ve always regretted that the score has been so cruelly ignored. The harmonic language in this piece is very, very special.”
He goes on to say, “The second theme in the movement is THE reason I chose to orchestrate the piece.” Considering the almost-addictive qualities of that theme, I can easily see how Mr. Matmati could be so completely smitten by it.
On June 1, 2021, Pieter-Jelle de Boer and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra recorded Matmati’s orchestral arrangement. Seeing as how Florent Schmitt’s own arrangement of the music appears to be lost, it is gratifying that we now have an alternative version as the “next-best thing.” Even though it is non-commercial audio documentation, here’s hoping that the new recording will be made available for music-lovers everywhere to hear.
Update (4/11/22): A new live performance of Chaîne brisée has just been uploaded to YouTube, performed by Clément Canonne, a pianist who is also a researcher at the Analysis of Musical Practices research group of the Centre national de recherche scientifique in France (affiliated with IRCAM).
Canonne’s primary area of scholarly investigation focuses on the question of improvisation, both as a practice and as a paradigm, and his writings have been published in journals such as Cognition, Empirical Musicology Review, Music Theory Online, Revue de Musicologie, Psychology of Music, and Journal of New Music Research.
Here’s what Clément Canonne reported to me about his Chaîne brisée performance:
“I made these live recordings at my home in Burgundy this past summer, when I had a bit of time to work on my piano playing and to learn some new pieces. This Florent Schmitt suite is a kind of “first rough draft” after a few days of work. But I decided to upload it because there aren’t enough recordings of this music out there – so better something than nothing!
Plus, it can give professional pianists exposure to the suite – and hopefully the idea to play it.”
What is particularly edifying about Canonne’s performance of Chaîne brisée is that we can “see and feel” the emotional arc of the music in addition to merely “hearing” it. The three movements of the set have been uploaded individually and can be accessed via these links:
III. Branle de sortie