Something borrowed, something new: Exploring the recurring musical themes and passages in Florent Schmitt’s catalogue of works.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

It isn’t uncommon for classical composers to create alternate versions of their musical creations.  Many have prepared piano reductions of their orchestral works, or done the opposite by orchestrating pieces originally written for piano.

Edouard Lalo

Édouard Lalo (1823-1892)

We also have numerous examples of pieces that began life as chamber music that were later orchestrated by their creators; the middle movements from Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat Major, Op. 20 (1825) and Édouard Lalo’s Piano Trio No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 26 (1880) are representative examples of those.

But it would seem that French composer Florent Schmitt was more active than most other composers, as a surprisingly large portion of his 138 opus-numbered works exists in orchestral garb in addition to piano or chamber renditions.  Indeed, there are dozens of examples.

Schmitt was also known to “borrow” particularly memorable themes from some of his works and incorporate them into other compositions — although he did this far less frequently.  In my investigation of the Schmitt catalogue, several examples stand out in particular.

Florent Schmitt: Ombres

Visual and aural attraction: Much of Florent Schmitt’s score for Ombres (1912-17) is written on three staves.

Schmitt’s suite for piano Ombres, Op. 64, which was composed between 1912 and 1917, is a monument of French pianism of the early 20th century.  In terms of both its complexity and its artistic import it has been compared to Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit — and deservedly so.

The middle movement of the set – Mauresque – is the shortest of the three numbers, and the one where the music’s inherent drama is a bit more understated. The second major theme in this movement is particularly winsome – so much so that the composer decided to include this theme in the fanfare movement of his two Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites, Op. 69.  These suites began life as incidental music to André Gide’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s eponymous play, mounted on the Paris Opéra stage in 1920 by dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein.

Antony & Cleopatra program 1920

The program booklet for the Gide/Rubinstein production of Antony & Cleopatra (Paris, 1920).

Ida Rubinstein Cleopatra Gide Schmitt 1920

Ida Rubinstein as Cleopatra in the Gide/Paris Opéra production (1920).

The Gide/Rubinstein stage production lasted all of five performances, but Schmitt extracted two suites from the music he had written for presenting in between the acts of the play.  In the fanfare movement of the first suite, titled Le Camp de Pompée, we hear a direct quotation of the second theme in the Mauresque movement of Ombres, written five years earlier.

In this YouTube upload that also displays the score, you can see and hear this piano passage beginning at minute marker 14:40, marked as “un peu plus lent en commencement.”  The 18 measures that follow present the identical theme used in the Antony & Cleopatra Suite No. 1, which you can also see and hear for comparison purposes in this YouTube upload of both suites beginning at minute marker 12:20 where the score is marked “mystérieux.”

It is a testament to Schmitt’s genius that the same theme that sounds so amiable in the Ombres suite comes across as actually quite sinister in the Antony & Cleopatra score — but it’s all of apiece with Schmitt’s considerable talents as a composer and orchestrator.

Salammbo

Salammbô (Artwork by Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse, 1886.)

Five years later, Florent Schmitt was asked to create music for the silent film Salammbô, a two-hour epic produced by Pierre Marodon that aimed to present the major scenes from Gustave Flaubert’s novel of the same name.  The extremely tight timeframe within which Schmitt was required to prepare and deliver the music score necessitated recycling some material from several other “orientalist” works that he had composed earlier.

As with Antony & Cleopatra, the film production was deemed a failure — soon disappearing from theatres and revived just one time since (more than 65 years later).

Florent Schmitt Salammbo program book cover 1991

The cover of the 98-page program book that was published in conjunction with the restoration of the Salammbô motion picture in 1991, and its presentation with live orchestra featuring the music of Florent Schmitt.

Florent Schmit Salammbo score cover Durand

A vintage copy of the score to Florent Schmitt’s Salammbô suites, published by Durand in 1925.

Among the criticisms of the film was the overacting of the leading stars which was considered borderline-histrionic.  (In a notable understatement, Schmitt himself described the manner in which the film presented Flaubert’s storyline as “rather incoherent.”)

The music itself was praised, however, and Schmitt soon prepared three orchestral suites (one with chorus) out of the “new” material he had created for the film (Salammbô, Op. 75) …

… with one exception.  A theme that Schmitt had borrowed from an earlier composition was incorporated into the third suite – in this case taken from a piece for wind ensemble composed by Schmitt during World War I titled Marche du 163e régiment d’infanterie, Op. 48, No. 2.

Florent Schmitt Marche du CLXIII

The first page of Florent Schmitt’s transcription of his Marche du 163e régiment d’infanterie for piano duo, published by Durand in 1918.

Schmitt’s wind band score for the 163rd Infantry March, which he composed in 1915-16 while garrisoned at Toul in eastern France, has been lost, but an alternate version he prepared for piano duo was published by Durand in 1918.

In the 1925 Salammbô Suite No. 3, the middle theme from the March appears in symphonic garb in the section of the score titled Cortège d’Hamilcar, which you can see and hear beginning at minute marker 46:00 in this YouTube upload of the entire set of three suites.  A side-by-side comparison with the March (the duo-piano version published in 1918), beginning at minute marker 2:10 in this YouTube upload, reveals that the borrowed theme is  presented with no alteration.

Desire Dondeyne

Désiré Dondeyne (1921-2015)

[In recent decades, a replacement version of the March was prepared by the French wind ensemble specialist and conductor Désiré Dondeyne, which can be heard on this YouTube upload.  While not Schmitt’s own orchestration, it is interesting to compare the Dondeyne arrangement with the surviving version we have by Schmitt which was scored for symphony orchestra; the passage begins at approximately minute marker 2:30.]

A third example of borrowed themes in Schmitt’s music brings us to the mid-1930s – and in this particular case he included the same theme in two compositions he was preparing simultaneously.

Chaîne brisée, Op. 87 is a piano suite composed in 1935-36 in which the third movement (Branle de sortie) contains an irresistibly lush and velvety passage.  You can listen to the theme beginning at minute marker 11:00 in this YouTube upload of the music, while also viewing the score.

Paris Exposition 1937At the time he was composing Chaîne brisée, Schmitt was simultaneously hard at work on a commission from the organizing committee of the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life (Paris Expo), which had engaged 18 Parisian composers including Arthur Honegger, Jacques Ibert, Charles Koechlin, Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud and others to create new works for  the nighttime fêtes de la lumières sound, water and light shows to be presented on the banks of the Seine River during the fair’s five-month duration (June-November 1937).

Florent Schmitt’s particular contribution to the Fêtes de la lumières was a large-scale work – one of the longest compositions in the Schmitt catalogue – which was lavishly orchestrated for huge instrumental forces including ondes martenot along with several solo vocalists plus an eight-part mixed chorus.

Paris Exposition Festivals of Lights 1937

The Festivals of Lights events at the 1937 Paris Exposition.

Schmitt’s Fête de la lumière, Op. 88 was presented more than any of the other featured compositions — and fortunately for us the studio recording used in those presentations survives to this day.  You can hear the orchestrated theme from Chaîne brisée beginning at approximately minute marker 7:50 on this YouTube upload, including the ondes martenot doing the honors as the featured solo instrument.  It’s a magical moment in the score – and one that is repeated several times in the course of the work’s 30+ minute duration.

Florent Schmitt Fete de la lumiere Honegger Mille et une nuits Forgotten Records[A transfer of this recording to CD has also been prepared by Forgotten Records — one that features superior sonics for those who might wish to indulge more completely in the fabulous “wallow of sound” that characterizes this endlessly fascinating composition.]

These are the most prominent examples that I’ve found of “borrowed themes,” but perhaps there are more that other listeners may have discovered within the extensive catalogue of Florent Schmitt’s compositions.  If you are aware of any, please share your information in the comment section below.

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