Like many composers who came of age during the late 1800s, French composer Florent Schmitt’s formative years were influenced by the prevailing musical currents of the day. In the case of Schmitt, Schumann was an early influence, as was Wagner. But by the time Schmitt entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1888, other influences were making themselves felt as well – including César Franck.
Although Franck was appointed a professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, in many respects he represented a distinct contrast to the other teachers there. The chromaticism of Franck’s music (as well as the music of Franck’s disciples including Ernest Chausson and Henri Duparc), related as it was to the chromaticism of Wagner, held a special appeal to Schmitt and other French composers who shared a general disdain for the Parisian operatic tradition.
The piece by Florent Schmitt which reflects most pointedly a musical debt to Franck is his Piano Quintet, which the composer worked on during his residency at the Villa Medici following winning the Prix de Rome first prize for composition in 1900. The Piano Quintet was created over a six-year period beginning in 1902, and the resulting large-scale composition (nearly an hour in duration) is a work that owes much to Franck’s own essay in the genre, dating from 1879.
Another work by Schmitt that resides in the Franckian mold as well – albeit a much less herculean endeavor — is Quatre pièces, Op. 25 for violin and piano. This composition was likewise composed at the Villa Medici — in 1901 during Schmitt’s first year of residency there. No doubt, Schmitt was positively affected by the rich artistic environment in which he found himself, which inspired him to bring forth a steady stream of new creations ranging from solo and duo-piano music to chamber pieces and orchestral works.
When one examines this body of work, it quickly becomes evident that Schmitt was experimenting with various musical styles as he sought to find his own unique voice — which would come soon enough. In some of Schmitt’s early Prix de Rome pieces, the influence of Massenet and Fauré can be discerned, while in others the writing is more chromatic. Still other works exhibit hints of impressionism.
The culmination of Schmitt’s burst of creative energy in Rome was the monumental Psaume XLVII of 1904, in which the composer created a brilliant work for chorus and orchestra that exploited grandiose musical structures found quite rarely in French music. It’s no wonder that upon hearing the Psaume at its Paris premiere in December 1906, some music critics lauded the composer as “The New Berlioz.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because early on in his Prix de Rome period, Schmitt’s compositions had not yet reached this level of invention and uniqueness. A prime early example is the Quatre pièces — a suite for violin and piano comprised of four movements, as follows:
The musicologist Constantine Carambelas-Sgourdas describes the Lied movement, which was dedicated to Maurice Caplet (an orchestra conductor and brother of the composer André Caplet), as paying tribute to German art songs of the late 19th century, but in a “very French way.” The piano accompanies a gorgeous cantabile violin line that enters in mid-phrase, and whose singing quality is “emphatically lyrical.”
The more ruminative Nocturne, in 6/8 time, pays a musical debt to Gabriel Fauré – Florent Schmitt’s favorite teacher at the Paris Conservatoire – as well as to Chopin. Schmitt dedicated this movement of his suite to the Italian violinist Teresina Tua, a renowned international concert artist who had taken all of Europe by storm (the United States less so).
The dancelike Sérénade that follows, written in 3/8 time, is light and sunny, and it features exchanges between the violin and piano that are reminiscent of Franck’s 1886 Violin Sonata. The Sérénade was dedicated to the Parisian musician Henri Schikel.
Like the Nocturne, the final Barcarolle is a fine example of poignancy and refinement. With its chromaticism and ¾ time rocking rhythm, the music gives the impression of a Venetian boat swaying in the lapping waves. Appropriately, Schmitt dedicated this movement of the suite to an Italian friend, Luigi Monachesi.
Being an early work by Schmitt, it is completely understandable that Quatre pièces doesn’t exhibit the degree of originality that characterizes the music that would flow from the composer’s pen a few short years later. Even so, the four movements of the suite are charming and adventuresome on their own terms.
Are there imperfections in the score? Some think so — and one such perspective comes from British music critic and author Roger Nichols who has written these words about the piece:
“The Four Pieces by Florent Schmitt … belong absolutely to the Franck camp in their thick texture and chromatic habits. Unfortunately, Schmitt did not follow Franck in interspersing such texture with breathing spaces (both instruments play almost all the time), nor does he demonstrate Franck’s wonderful melodic gift. Instead, just as we think we’re arriving at a stopping place … the expected concord turns chromatic à la Wagner, and off we go again.”
[Speaking personally, I am not in agreement with Nichols; in my opinion, the major themes and melodies in Schmitt’s suite are every bit as memorable as what we hear in Franck’s compositions.]
Among the earliest champions of this music was the violinist-composer Georges Enescu, who even performed the piece with the composer at the piano at a Société Nationale concert in 1913. But as an early work in the Schmitt catalogue — and therefore not very representative of the composer’s mature voice — Quatre pièces went for more than a century without receiving its first commercial recording. Then, suddenly there were three recordings that appeared in short order.
What those three recordings reveal is highly attractive music that is also surprisingly meaty – and certainly worthy of the attention that the piece is receiving at long last.
The first two of the recordings were made nearly contemporaneously – so close together that the second one erroneously billed itself as the “premiere” recording when it was released. Actual pride of place for the premiere goes to the recording made by violinist Amanda Favier and pianist Célimène Daudet. Working in collaboration with Palazzetto Bru Zane, they recorded the piece in March 2013 and it was released on the Arion label, coupled with music by a number of other early 20th century composers including André Caplet, Lili Boulanger, Eugène Cools, Lucien Durosoir and several others.
Some months later (February 2014), violinist Beata Halska-Le Monnier and pianist Claudio Chaiquin recorded Quatre pièces as part of an album devoted to violin/piano compositions that Schmitt created over a half-century period, including also Chant du soir (1895), Scherzo vif (1913), the Sonate libre (1919) and Habeyssée (1947). The Halska/Chaiquin recording, released by NAXOS, has benefited greatly from that label’s extensive international distribution.
Most recently, violinist Franco Mezzena and pianist Elena Ballario recorded Quatre pièces in 2019. Coupled with the violin sonatas of Franck and Debussy, that recording was released in 2021 by Odradek Records.
All three of the recorded performances are highly effective interpretations, even as the artists exhibit some variations in their approach. Mezzena/Ballario and Favier/Daudet are a bit more broadly expansive compared to the Halska/Chaiquin reading (particularly in the two middle movements of the suite) – interpretations which may preferable to some listeners. Speaking personally, each recording has its own merits and I wouldn’t want to be without any of them.
Moreover, I’m very pleased that three fine recordings have been made of this music within the span of just six years, finally giving voice to a piece that had been nearly forgotten for so many decades. Its newfound exposure on recordings can only mean that attention will be paid to the piece in the recital hall as well.
… And why not? Quatre pièces is a fine composition, and each of its movements are charming miniatures that work well as a group or played individually. There’s no reason why the music shouldn’t find a place in the violin repertoire.
To give you a taste, here is a link to a live performance of the first movement of Quatre pièces (the Lied), as performed live in 2016 by Beata Halska and Claudio Chaiquin at the studios of France-Musique. The entire suite can also be heard from the Halska/Chaiquin commercial recording here, courtesy of Philippe Louis’ YouTube music channel.