During the latter years of Florent Schmitt’s long and illustrious career, the composer turned his creative talents increasingly toward music for scored small instrumental forces. Among the notable achievements of this late creative period are the fascinating (and challenging) String Trio (1944) and String Quartet (1948), as well as a group of compositions that showcase other instruments such as the Quartet for Saxophones (1941), the Quartet for Flutes (1944), the Sextet for Clarinets (1953) and the Quartet for Trombones and Tuba (1946).
Each of these are worthy creations that have attracted their share of advocates over the years — most notably the Saxophone Quartet which is performed frequently all over the world.
Also during this later period, Schmitt devoted significant energies to creating a large corpus of vocal and choral pieces. Many of these remain little-known today and are sorely in need of exploration.
As for orchestral music – arguably upon which Florent Schmitt’s reputation as a composer rests most firmly – such works weren’t the major emphasis of his creative output in his later years, although Schmitt did write three concertante pieces during this period. These include his Introït, récit et congé for cello and orchestra (1948) as well as the Suite en quatre parties for flute (1954) and the Suite en trois parties for trumpet (1955). The latter two were written originally with piano but were also orchestrated by the composer; all three works have been commercially recorded as well.
But along with the Symphony No. 2 (1957), the other purely orchestral piece that Florent Schmitt composed at the end of his career is a four-part suite titled Scènes de la vie moyenne, Op. 124, which was first performed by the Colonne Concerts Orchestra under the direction of Paul Paray in October 1950.
The Suite, which lasts approximately 13 minutes in duration, bears one of Schmitt’s numerous titles that has a double-meaning. To the non-French speaker, the words might seem to translate into English as “Scenes from Middle Age” or “Scenes from the Middle Ages,” but that isn’t actually the meaning of the title.
Instead, Schmitt was probably riffing off of a rather common reference used in other musical and literary titles such as Scènes de la vie parisienne and Scènes de la vie de province (Honoré de Balzac) or Scènes de la vie de bohème (Henri Murger, used by Giacomo Puccini in his opera La Bohème).
But here, the composer is eschewing noteworthy or unusual things — instead portraying mundane “scenes” that would be of no particular interest to anyone.
With this in mind, a more idiomatic English translation of the title of the piece would be “Scenes from the Middling Life” or “Scenes from the Mundane Life.”
Moreover, the names of the four individual movements conjure up visions that validate this meaning of the suite’s title:
I. La Marche au marché (The March to Market) — a play on words, the “marche” being a well-known genre in music. But here it’s only about walking in the streets to shop at the market.
II. Anseatic Dance — a play on the word “Hanseatic,” which would be typical of regional dances often portrayed in music. But in this case, the “anse” is merely the handle of a basket.
III. Castles in Spain — Schmitt’s own English translation of the French expression “chateaux en Espagne,” which refers to something one might dream about but can never obtain … in this case escaping the “mundane life,” perhaps?
IV. Saut périlleux du poulet (Somersaulting Chicken) — the “big event” in the suite: What’s happening with this chicken that’s causing it to make such perilous leaps? Maybe it’s trying to get away from the cook? It’s all very impressive as an athletic feat — but it’s only about a chicken.
The titles of the first and last movements employ the alliteration of the French language that the composer was so fond of employing – but which lose something of their cleverness in their English translations.
The American music critic and onetime Suisse Romande resident, Steven Kruger, posits a number of interesting characteristics concerning this music and its creator, writing:
“The piece is highly entertaining because it deals with Florent Schmitt’s always-ironic observations on the self-important puffery of his contemporaries. His choice of these mundane titles and topics is a slap in the face of grandiosity — just as surely as Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette was.
French artists like Schmitt and Gounod seem to understand the silliness of their own attraction to melodrama, and enjoy parodying it in an endearing way. Making fun of oneself is a levening quality that never quite made its way across the border to Germany; one doubts that Hindemith, Hartmann or Henze would have ever composed a suite about a chicken!
Too, the double-ententre of ‘Anseatic’ surely does refer, at least in some sense, to the stuffy bourgeois seriousness of Hamburg and Bremen’s Hanseatic League and its over-dignified spokesperson, Thomas Mann.”
Taking a look at the orchestral manuscript for the Scènes reveals that Florent Schmitt had more to say about the Anseatic Dance title, adding the following subhead to the title: “Traduction libre: Danse de l’anse (du panier).” (“Free translation: Dance of the Handle — from the Basket.”)
As for Castles in Spain, Schmitt further explains that title as follows: “La phase sentimentale … désir d’évasion — ou simple.” (“The desire for escape — or simplicity.”)
Quintessentially “Schmittian,” these clever names were singled out in Le Monde music critic René Dumesnil’s praiseworthy review of the Scènes de la vie moyenne when the piece was premiered by Maestro Paray and the Colonne Orchestra in 1950:
“If one considered just the titles of these four pieces forming a suite, you’d could guarantee that they were authored by Florent Schmitt – but more surely still, as soon as one listens to the first ten bars of the music. If there is in Schmitt a persistent taste for verbal joking, likewise there are deeply musical lines in which one immediately discerns the mark of a master … who does not disdain laughter, but who also knows its virtues and employs it wisely.”
In his review, Dumesnil characterized the piece as a “playful symphony,” writing:
“The beginning allegro is La Marche au marché – a perky, joyful walk as Chabrier might have put it (and who would have also savored the orchestration, applauding the sparkling spirit and the cackling of the gossips lost in their chattering).
Then comes the rhythmically adventuresome Ancentick [sic] dance of the basket handle, followed by Castles in Spain – dreamy pages where the horns and flute sing deliciously whilst the Basque drum provides discreet accompaniment.
The final Saut périlleux du poulet is full of perilous leaps for the musicians — who performed with all the acrobatic certainty and youthful suppleness the composer’s rhythmic skill bought to these sparkling and colorful pages. Paul Paray spotlighted the piece’s singular merits with marvelous intelligence and care …”
Composer and writer Suzanne Demarquez, the Paris correspondent for Musical Courier magazine, echoed Dumesnil’s feelings about the new work, referring to it as “a picturesque and charming score.”
I have been unable to find evidence of orchestral performances of Scènes de la vie moyenne since the premiere of the work in 1950, and while it is certainly possible that additional performances happened in the years immediately following its creation, it’s unlikely that any have occurred in the past half-century — and almost certainly none outside of France.
As was the case with many of Florent Schmitt’s compositions, in 1952 the composer prepared a piano reduction of the Scènes de la vie moyenne, dedicating it to the noted French pianist Lélia Gousseau.
It was Gousseau herself who gave the first public performance of the piano version of the score in 1953 over French Radio. I’ve heard that broadcast and find it to be a highly idiomatic interpretation — not at all surprising considering the very special talents of this particular artist in performing the French piano repertoire.
Pianist and composer Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst echoes that view, writing:
“The pianist is incredible. What technique! Those devilishly difficult thirds in the last movement are played with ease — the same for octaves and filled-up chords being part of a melody. Pretty crazy!”
And there’s good news in that the Gousseau performance has now been uploaded to YouTube along with piano reduction score — courtesy of van Bronkhorst’s fine music channel — so that you can see and hear the music for yourself.
As with so many works by Florent Schmitt, a look at both scores confirms that no performance of the piano version could ever compare with the color and inventiveness of the orchestral version of the suite. Nonetheless, its charms are substantial. As an example, in his Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire — considered by many pianists an indispensable reference volume — the American author and internationally recognized authority on classical piano literature Maurice Hinson characterizes the music as “a most attractive suite.”
As for the orchestral version, we can surmise that the composer himself was clearly convinced of the music’s worth. One clue is that the Castles in Spain movement was selected to be part of a new ballet featuring Schmitt’s music – Jardin secret – which was mounted in June 1953.
That excerpt from the Scènes was grouped with Schmitt’s 1938 score Suite sans esprit de suite along with some connecting interludes to prepare the new ballet, which was presented at the Casino d’Enghien, featuring the dancer Solange Schwarz and orchestral forces under the direction of Richard Blareau.
It would be fascinating to locate any photos or film footage from the production that might have survived — and it appears that the score was published by Durand, too.
But sadly, as a whole the Scènes de la vie moyenne has failed to gain a foothold in either the piano or orchestral repertoire. Written near the end of Schmitt’s lengthy career, the music didn’t have the luxury of time to build a following, likely suffering in “competition” with his established successes.
As well, following Schmitt’s death in 1958, performances of the composer’s music in general declined considerably, and in such an atmosphere a comparatively unknown later piece like the Scènes would have had even more difficulty gaining traction with players and audiences.
Today however, with renewed interest in Schmitt’s compositions across the entire spectrum of his catalogue, the time seems right for exploration of Scènes de la vie moyenne by pianists and conductors alike. Here’s hoping that several of them will be inspired to bring this worthy score to a new generation of music-lovers.
Update (9/24/22): A new live performance of Scènes de la vie moyenne 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.
Clément Canonne describes Scènes de la vie moyenne as “a bit beefier” than Florent Schmitt’s other later-career piano music. But the technical demands do not seem so daunting to him, as you can see and hear in the four movements he has published as separate YouTube uploads:
Mr. Canonne also reports that he is making plans to record this piece along with four other middle and late-career keyboard works of Florent Schmitt including Trois danses (1935), Chaîne brisée (1936), Suite sans esprit de suite (1937) and Clavecin obtempérant (1945). Needless to say, we look forward to hearing the new recording when it becomes available, as three of the five works have never been commercially recorded up to now.