Among the most impressive music channels on YouTube are two that are run by Helen Moritz, who has uploaded a wealth of rare piano performances from yesteryear. Ms. Moritz has painstakingly searched for audio recordings of recitals given by some of classical music’s greatest pianists. Among the artists are Jorge Bolet, Mieszyslaw Horszowski, Raymond Lewenthal, Guiomar Novaes, John Ogdon, Arthur Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin, Joseph Villa, Alexis Weissenberg and Earl Wild — and there are numerous others as well.
What’s additionally gratifying is that some of the performances are of pieces that are genuine rarities rather than the usual recital repertoire. It was just such an upload that was brought to my attention recently by the American conductor and pianist Ira Levin, who alerted me to a 1967 recital featuring duo-pianists Frank Cooper and Martin Marks. The recital was an all-French program of music by Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud … and Florent Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies, Op. 53, presented at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis.
Considering the date of the recital, I realized that Messrs. Cooper and Marks were virtually alone in performing Schmitt’s piece in those times — at least in the United States — and I was more than intrigued.
How had the pianists discovered the Trois rapsodies — which although somewhat familiar to music aficionados today would have been completely unknown to them in 1967?
With Maestro Levin’s assistance, I was introduced to Frank Cooper and we struck up a correspondence. I soon came to realize that, while he might be best-known today as a musicologist and professor of music history, earlier in his career Cooper was very much a performing artist.
A native of Atlanta, he studied piano performance with two masters of the keyboard — Edward Kilenyi and Ernst von Dohnányi — at Florida State University before joining the music faculty at Butler University.
It was at Butler that Cooper established the Festival of Neglected Romantic Music, which soon became recognized for its important role in jumpstarting the Romantic music revival. Harold Schonberg, music critic of The New York Times, praised the artistic excellence of the annual Romantic Music Festivals, which resurrected numerous works that hadn’t been heard in concert or recital since the late 19th century.
It was also during his tenure at Butler University that Frank Cooper made world premiere commercial recordings of several piano concertante works (by Ignaz Brüll, Alexander Dreyschock and Joachim Raff) which were released on the Genesis label in the early 1970s.
After 1977, Cooper transitioned into arts management — first in Indianapolis and later in Miami, where he directed the Dade County Council of Arts & Sciences before returning to teaching — this time at the New World School of the Arts and also the University of Miami. A “second act” of arts management followed in 1994, when Cooper founded the Mainly Mozart Festival, a South Florida summer music series which he directed until 2012.
These days, in addition to being Research Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Frank Cooper is a guest lecturer, presents pre-concert talks at many classical music events in the region, and writes program notes and annotations for recordings. He does all of this while also being the custodian of an enviable personal collection of antique and hand-built reproductions of harpsichords, pianos and other keyboard instruments (including a clavicytherium) at his home in Coral Gables.
Considering that in 1967 Frank Cooper was just one year away from founding the Romantic Music Festival, it seems quite logical that he would have been attracted to Florent Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies. These are early-career numbers that Schmitt composed in 1903-04 during his Prix de Rome period. Although Schmitt’s style would later migrate pretty definitively into polytonal and polyrhythmic realms, at that time he was still very much under the sway of the 19th century musical aesthetics of Schumann, Massenet and Fauré (the latter two had been Schmitt’s composition teachers at the Paris Conservatoire).
The composer was an accomplished pianist himself, and so it comes as little surprise that the technical demands of Trois rapsodies are substantial. Despite their difficulty, Schmitt was able to play them with fellow-composers André Caplet and Maurice Ravel — privately and, in the case of Ravel, performing the piece in concert in Paris and London. Evidence suggests that the third number in the set, Rapsodie viennoise, was the inspiration for Ravel to prepare the first sketches of a piece he called Wien — a work that would later become La Valse following the end of World War I.
Interestingly, the Trois rapsodies were among the works presented by Florent Schmitt during his 1932 American tour. Schmitt’s December 13th concert in San Francisco opened with the rhapsodies, for which he was joined by fellow-pianist Gunnar Johansen. The ambitious program also featured Schmitt playing a movement from the 1920 Sonate libre (with violinist Jascha Veissl) as well as presenting the entire monumental Piano Quintet from 1908.
The three pieces that make up Trois rapsodies (the others are Française and Polonaise), are sophisticated numbers, brilliantly written for two pianos. But beneath their glittery surface lies some truly meaty musical material. Having seen Trois rapsodies presented in concert (part of a recital given by the Invencia Piano Duo in Norfolk, VA in 2013), I can personally confirm that the piece makes quite an impression when performed live — both in the moment and lasting in the memory long after. In this regard, the score is quite extraordinary.
Wanting to learn more about Frank Cooper’s voyage of discovery with Florent Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies, I asked if he would be willing to be interviewed on the topic, to which he generously agreed. Highlights of our very interesting conversation are presented below.
PLN: How did you first discover Florent Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies?
FEC: In 1963, the year I went to Indianapolis to take my first job at Butler University, Harold C. Schonberg’s book The Great Pianists appeared and took my imagination by storm. While in college, I had previously read that book of wonders which is Arthur Loesser’s Men, Women & Pianos, which had primed me for Schonberg’s lively accounts of pianists and their feats.
In particular, Leopold Godowsky’s contrapuntal studies based on Chopin’s Etudes seemed, as described, impossible.
I wanted the see for myself – but nowhere could I find the music. When, for Christmas, I went home to Atlanta, I called on Billy Munn, whose store, the Atlanta Music Company, was downtown – at that time the major source of sheet music for piano teachers and students in the region.
Billy Munn informed me that those volumes were long out of print. However, he knew someone who had them all (along with the rest of Godowsky’s music) – and he reported that she might want to sell them.
I wrote to Mrs. Harry Honeywell — Ruby — who answered. Further exchanges revealed that her late husband’s collection of piano music was far more extensive than just Godowsky’s scores. She thought I should visit her to see for myself.
A friend drove me to her home. There, arranged on her dining room table and on each of its eight chairs — and in stacks on the floor extending into the hall — were scores organized in alphabetical order by composer — each stack topped by a small blue composition book in which she had laboriously listed everything in the pile beneath.
The first thing that caught my eye was a volume of Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the first five Beethoven symphonies. I exclaimed how excited I was to see it — especially the Fifth, famous in its day. Ruby encouraged me to take the music to the piano.
When I had finished sight-reading the first movement more or less in tempo, she said, “You have to have Harry’s collection.”
It took me about six years, sending her whatever sum I could each month — $35 or $50 — and receiving in exchange a package of scores in return, before she wrote that I’d paid enough. The rest of the music arrived in boxes.
Throughout the process, I read through every piece in each package to the degree that I could. The result: first-hand knowledge of the vast range of piano music. Discoveries often sent me back to re-read portions of Schonberg’s book, and my colleagues at Butler were regularly victimized by my enthusiasm for music they didn’t know.
So to come around to answering your question, the Florent Schmitt Trois rapsodies were among the piano scores that made up Harry Honeywell’s collection, but of course I did not know the music before then.
PLN: What were your impressions of the Trois rapsodies when you first looked at the score?
FEC: The notes looked for all the world like they had to sound rhapsodic — as if freely, spontaneously conceived. Reading through the pages of each rhapsody, Schmitt’s originality caused me to think of asking my friend in the next studio, John Gates, to sight-read all three with me.
To his credit, John did — but then declared that he wouldn’t want to learn the music (“It would take too long,” he stated as I recall). I think it’s fair to surmise that he loathed the music because the notes didn’t come right off the page. (John’s resignation from the Butler faculty lay only a few months away, too.)
PLN: So then you needed to find another interested pianist to play and perform them with you. Who did you approach next?
FEC: Initially I stashed the score on its shelf, but the music nagged at me. It was then that I spotted the [Robert and Gaby] Casadesus Columbia LP in the Schwann record catalogue, which I promptly ordered.
Martin Marks, whose studio was down the hall, liked multi-voiced music but was no sight-reader. A good pianist, however, Martin was a tireless worker when he decided to play anything. At the time we weren’t actually planning a recital. But the Casadesus record arrived and we listened to it together in my studio, in all of its splendor. That’s when we decided we had to play it.
It took several months of preparation before we could try playing the Rapsodies together. When we did, both of us really liked how it sounded and the challenges the music presented.
PLN: When compared to other music written for two pianos, were there qualities of this score that you considered particularly noteworthy, or possibly even unique?
FEC: Sensual counterpoint was new to us. That, plus Schmitt’s effective use of the whole keyboard, brought us to a high level of commitment.
As to whether the end result might be good, we could not know, never having had any guide to Schmitt’s piano music before then. The only reference to any other Schmitt was our ears ringing from the only available recording of Psaume 47. (Incidentally, Schmitt’s Psalm impresses me as one of the most splendid choral works of the entire last century, and that first recording with Duval and Tzipine is the one that, in my opinion, has never been surpassed.)
PLN: What inspired you to want to introduce this music to concert audiences, considering how obscure it was?
FEC: Martin was no adventurer when it came to programming — but I was. Together, though, we determined to introduce the suite to the Indianapolis audience. With followers and fans who were keen to attend our concerts, there was little risk that people wouldn’t come to hear whatever we offered them.
We were curious to find out whether we could put across the music — to successfully communicate what we found in it — to the public.
PLN: When you and Martin Marks were preparing the piece, where there any special challenges that you faced during the rehearsal process?
FEC: Certainly. Neither of us liked rigid rhythms — and definitely not in music such as this. One particular problem is that flexing rhythms require would-be performers to have good eye contact. We concluded that each of us had to learn our parts in such ways as to allow for frequent eye contact.
PLN: What was the audience reaction to this music when you presented it in recital?
FEC: Although I don’t recall any particular comments made by audience members following the concert, I think the applause at the end demonstrated that they enjoyed hearing the Rapsodies.
But bear in mind that when we played this piece, no one — literally no one — knew the music. It’s always more of a challenge to wow an audience when people are hearing something for the very first time.
PLN: When you performed this music in recital in 1967, it may well have been the first time the piece had been presented in the United States in decades. Did you include Trois rapsodies in any subsequent recitals with Martin Marks or with another pianist?
FEC: No, that was the only time.
PLN: Beyond Trois rapsodies, have you studied or performed other piano scores by Florent Schmitt?
FEC: I have read through some solo piano pieces by Schmitt, but not with an eye toward performing them.
PLN: Do you feel that Florent Schmitt made an important contribution to the French piano repertoire?
FEC: It’s difficult to reckon such a thing when Schmitt’s music is hardly repertoire material. If more of it were performed regularly by pianists, there’s a chance that it might be. Unfortunately, many pianists and music-lovers, even today, don’t know of his existence. It doesn’t help that the entire field of musicology is being transmuted into ethno-studies now.
But I am pleased to see that there are now several additional recordings of Trois rapsodies since the Casadesus was made; a half-century can make quite a difference.
It is fortunate that we have audio documentation of a live performance of Florent Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies from a time when the music was an extreme rarity, with no performance tradition at all. To be able to dip back more than a half-century in time to listen to that interpretation — and to talk with the pianist who came across the score and resolved to present the music to the public — is a special treat indeed.
You can listen to that 1967 recital here, courtesy of Helen Moritz’s fine YouTube channel featuring noteworthy live piano performances from yesteryear. The Schmitt Rapsodies begin at approximately minute-marker 5:30.