Up until recently, familiarity with the earliest compositions of Florent Schmitt was rather scant. The composer’s first works were created in the decade leading up to his winning the Prix de Rome first prize for composition in 1900. It was the period after Schmitt had completed his music studies at the conservatory in Nancy and was subsequently attending the Paris Conservatoire, where his teachers included André Gedalge, Théodore Dubois, Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré.
Of Schmitt’s early works, only the piano suite Soirs, Op. 5 (composed in 1890-96 and later orchestrated), had gained any kind of currency in the recital hall or on recordings in the years leading up to current times. But in the past few years the situation has changed markedly, and more of Schmitt’s earliest works have been rediscovered. Portions of Trois mélodies, Op. 4 have been performed (and recorded) by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, and several solo piano works (one of the Trois préludes, Op. 3 plus Ballade de la neige, Op. 6) have received their premiere commercial recordings by pianist Biljana Urban on NAXOS’s Grand Piano imprint, released in October 2021.
Similarly, Chant du soir, Op. 7, a piece composed by Florent Schmitt in 1895 for violin (or English horn), has received its first two commercial recordings only in the past few years, accompanied by growing exposure in the recital hall.
The original version of the piece was premiered in 1900 in Paris at the Institut Lamartine (today the Bangladeshi Embassy on Avenue Henri Martin) by none other than the young violin sensation Georges Enescu, joined by pianist Juliette Toutain, Florent Schmitt’s classmate at the Paris Conservatoire.
The work’s dedicatee wasn’t actually Enescu, but rather Armand Parent, a Belgian-born violinist and composer who also served as concertmaster of the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne. Presumably Parent performed Chant du soir at some point, but I have been unable to find documentation confirming when or where that may have happened.
As for the musical characteristics of Chant du soir, the style is inventive as well as attractive. The composition begins with a kind of Debussyian modal phrase — seductive, rhapsodic and rather mystical in character — which then proceeds through several evolutionary stages over the piece’s approximately five minute duration.
The American violinist and musicologist Robert Maxham has characterized Chant du soir as having “a style that occasionally recalls that of Debussy — now elusive, now ecstatic — but [which] projects his language far into the future.”
Chant du soir is very much a piece of its time — although, in keeping with the composer’s artistic development, one can also hear hints of the composer’s individual musical style that was yet to come. At its core, however, it remains a composition rooted firmly in the nineteenth century world of Massenet and Fauré. In that vein, the American music critic Steven Kruger states:
“This is a genuinely bewitching indoor evening piece that repays multiple hearings. It puts cozy arms around you and leads you into a glowing world of gentle affection.”
Although originally created in 1895, Chant du soir was revised by Schmitt several decades later; the later version was published in 1931 by Rouart-Lerolle. It wouldn’t be until 2015 that the first commercial recording of the music appeared, featuring violinist Beata Halska-Le Monnier and pianist Claudio Chaiquin on a NAXOS release showcasing violin compositions by Florent Schmitt.
Interestingly, Schmitt’s revised score assigns the solo part to either a violinist or an English horn player, and in 2021 the second commercial recording of the piece was issued on the Guild Music label — that one featuring Martin Frutiger on cor anglais partnered with pianist Petya Mihneva Falsig.
Decades before the release of the Guild English horn recording, Michel Nazzi, the principal English horn player of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, presented the piece as part of a young people’s concert in January 1938, with the orchestral forces conducted by Rudolf Ganz.
The recent appearance of Chant du soir on two commercial recordings has paralleled its growing presence in the recital hall as well. In April 2018, British violinist Nicholas Wright, concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, performed the piece with pianist Grace Huang at a Music on Main Society event presented at the Fox Cabaret Theatre in Vancouver. Wright’s impressive performance was captured on video and can be viewed on YouTube here.
Similarly, the English horn version of Chant du soir was presented in Switzerland in November 2018 — a performance that has also been uploaded to YouTube. That rendition, played by Fabian Menzel on English horn with pianist Maria Conti Gallenti, imbues the work with a significantly different character.
Considering the increased attention that Chant du soir has received recently, what seems clear that the music’s moment in the sun has finally arrived — even if it’s taken more than a century for it to happen. Furthermore, the piece has attracted the attention of other instrumentalists. As an example, a new version of the piece for transverse flute has been created by Luigi Spina and can be heard in this YouTube upload (allowances need to be made for the rather unappealing MIDI piano sound).
It may be an early entry in the Florent Schmitt catalogue, but Chant du soir is far from being merely a curiosity. Instead, the piece is well-worthy of its newfound position in the repertoire. In my view, the piece is quite the gem — but give the work a listen and see what you think.
Update (6/7/22): Yet another incarnation of Florent Schmitt’s Chant du soir has now appeared, and it’s an arrangement of the music for full orchestra. The orchestration has been created by Francis Gorgé, a Paris-based composer, arranger and performer who has worked in both the classical and jazz/pop music fields, including with the group Un Drame musical instantané (DMI) for many years.
Mr. Gorgé’s idiomatic orchestration of Chant du soir captures the essence of Florent Schmitt’s early compositional style with its late nineteenth century patina of colors. You can listen to the arrangement here, in a MIDI realization that does a creditable job of conveying the atmospherics inherent in the score — but which also whets the appetite for a future recording played on authentic musical instruments.
Incidentally, this isn’t Francis Gorgé’s first foray into orchestrating classical pieces from France’s Golden Age; his orchestrations of the first book of Debussy Piano Preludes were released recently on the Forgotten Records label, coupled with his orchestration of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. Gorgé reports that he is working on the second book of Debussy Preludes now.