Chant du soir (1895): An early composition by Florent Schmitt comes into its own — 125 years after its creation.

Florent Schmitt French composer early 1900s

A very dapper Florent Schmitt, photographed at about the time he composed Chant du soir.

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 subsesquently 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.

Georges Enesco

Romanian violinist and composer Georges Enescu (1881-1955).

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.

Juliette Toutain pianist

Pianist and composer Juliette Toutain (1877-1948), was a classmate of Florent Schmitt at the Paris Conservatoire. Encouraged by the Conservatoire director, Théodore Dubois, to compete for the Prix de Rome composition prize in 1902, Toutain was unable to secure a change in the rules barring women from entering the competition. (That change would happen the following year, enabling Lili Boulanger to compete and win first prize in the 1913 competition.)

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.

Armand Parent Belgian violinist

Armand Parent (1863-1934). (Portrait by Odilon Redon, 1913)

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.”

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger

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.”

Florent Schmitt Chant du soir score cover

A vintage copy of the score cover to Florent Schmitt’s Chant du soir, written in 1895. The composer later revisited the score, and the revised version of the piece was published by Rouart-Lerolle et Cie. in 1931. Founded in 1904, this publishing firm — which was co-owned and managed by Jacques Lerolle, nephew of the French composer Ernest Chausson — would bring out music by some of the most important French and Spanish composers of the time including Isaac Albéniz, Henri Duparc, Vincent d’Indy, Charles Koechlin, Paul Ladmirault, Francis Poulenc, Guy Ropartz and Joaquín Turina in addition to Florent Schmitt. Rouart-Lerolle was acquired by Salabert in 1953.

Halska Chaiquin Schmitt NAXOS

First commercial recording: Beata Halska-Le Monnier and Claudio Chaiquin (violin version, 2015).

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.

Martin Frutiger French English horn music Florent Schmitt Guild

Second commercial recording: Martin Frutiger and Petya Mihneva Falsig (English horn version, 2021).

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.

Nicholas Wright Grace Huang

Violinist Nicholas Wright and pianist Grace Huang play Florent Schmitt’s Chant du soir at Vancouver’s Music-on-Main concert at the Fox Cabaret Theatre. (Photo: Jan Gates, April 2018)

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.

Fabien Menzel Maria Conti Gallenti

Fabien Menzel (English horn) and Maria Conti Gallenti (piano) perform Florent Schmitt’s Chant du soir in recital. (November 2018)

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.

Luigi Spina flute

Luigi Spina

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).

Florent Schmitt Chant du soir score first page

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.

Leave a Reply