Throughout his lengthy career as a composer, Florent Schmitt would return again and again to the human voice when creating his compositions. Although Schmitt distanced himself from operatic projects (he created no operas of his own although he prepared piano-reduction scores of several of Frederick Delius’ operatic scores), Schmitt lavished attention on sorts of other kinds of vocal and choral music, producing an extensive trove of mélodies over a seven-decade span.
Considering that Schmitt’s first creations date from the late 1880s — and as a composition student of Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré, among others — it isn’t surprising that the composer’s earliest songs exhibit a voluptuous late-Romantic musical style so prevalent during those times.
But even in these youthful efforts, Schmitt was “pushing the envelope” in his choices of verse — setting the words of writers such as Paul Verlaine, Camille Mauclair (Séverin Faust), Maurice Ganivet and Henri Gautier-Villars to music — even as he was also breaking free in noticeable ways from accepted conventions regarding the “rules” of composition.
By 1910, Florent Schmitt had broken definitively from the style and manner of his early mélodies. The British pianist Edward Rushton (resident in Switzerland for the past decade), who has studied, performed and recorded numerous vocal pieces by Schmitt, describes Schmitt’s evolution as follows:
“[Florent Schmitt’s] astonishing songs of the 1910s and 1920s are suffused with darker expressionistic sounds which underscore the cryptic and fathomless poetry. This is a world of nightmares and fantastical visions, typical of Schmitt’s predilection for weird and savage exoticism.”
The pieces that make up Quatre lieds, Op. 45, composed in 1912 and published by Philippo (Éditions S. Chapelier), are certainly an exemplar of these darker atmospherics. As Rushton characterizes them:
“The Four Lieds … are saturated in harmonies augmented and diminished to a tonally uncategorizable breaking-point. They are all pitilessly obsessed with death and the death of love.”
Commenting on the specific literary inspirations behind the music, the contemporary English composer and lecturer Robert Hugill states:
“… The songs are a musical reflection of the darker aura of Symbolism. The songs are short and concentrated — intense and with a wonderful sense of period. The lush harmonies [are] balanced by the sometimes sparse accompaniment and the almost expressionist cast to some of the vocal lines.”
The first two mélodies are set to words by the French poet, novelist and dramatist Jean Richepin. Born in Algeria in 1849, Richepin was considered a brilliant if undisciplined genius who worked variously as a journalist, actor, sailor and stevedore — all while finding his artistic outlet in creative writing.
Settling in Paris’ Latin Quarter in the 1860s, Richepin became acquainted with such personages as Léon Bloy, Paul Bourget, Maurice Rollinat and Raoul Ponchon. He was also a close friend of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, and during the 1880s Richepin was rumored to have had an affair with the famed Sarah Bernhardt — probably the most famous actress of the day in France.
Inspired in particular by the literary works of Paul Baudelaire and Jules Valles, Richepin rejected the so-called “yoke of cultural conventions” in favor of celebrating “virility and instinct.” His first published work, La Chanson des Gueux, landed Richepin in jail under the charge of “insulting good morals” — which only had the effect of guaranteeing his success and fame.
Remaining a writer until the end of his life, Richepin was eventually accepted into “polite society”; when he died in 1926 it was at his home located in the fashionable 16th arrondissement of Paris. But Richepin never fully gave in to social convention; in fact, he never stopped employing the crude slang, popular language and display of an often-vulgar or grotesque sensuality that was very clearly designed to provoke or scandalize.
Richepin’s output attracted musicians of various stripes, and his poetry and libretti were set to music by French composers ranging from Massenet and Chabrier to Gabriel Dupont and Florent Schmitt.
The first of the two Richepin verses selected by Schmitt for his Op. 45 set is Où vivre ? . Its three stanzas are unremittingly sullen in their atmospherics:
Where should I live? … My sadness is darker than the night.
Where should I die? … My sorrow is deeper than the sea.
Where should I flee to? … My pain is stronger than death.
In keeping with the poetry, Schmitt’s music, which is spare bordering on stark, has a yearning quality to it. But in the end, there is no real resolution; instead it is more like “resignation.”
The second Richepin verse set by Schmitt in Quatre lieds is Evocation. This poem deals with the disillusionment of “love found and love lost”:
Do you remember the first kiss that I came to claim? You did not know how to refuse it, but you did not dare return it.
Do you remember the last kiss that I came to claim? You did not dare refuse it, but you did not know how to return it.
Here as well, the music has a sorrowful poignancy, tinged with a sense of hopelessness.
For the third piece in the set, Florent Schmitt selected a poem by Catulle Blée (the nom de plume of Jules Le Roy), titled Fleurs décloses. Comparatively little is known today about this writer and theatre director, who was born in 1869 and who seems to have spent most of his time living and working in the Rouen region of northern France. Catulle Blée’s best-known work is probably a volume of poems titled Rimes tendres, published in Rouen in 1888.
Interestingly, Quatre lieds was not the first time that Schmitt had selected the words of Catolle Blée to set to music; the composer’s Chanson, Op 2, No. 2, written in 1894, also incorporates Blée’s poetry. While that earlier song may have been more joyful, in Fleurs décloses the idea of love is revealed as an undertaking that is doomed to failure:
What is the use of our loving … because before autumn arrives our hearts will be tired, for love is so monotonous.
Winter will come; and we will forget closed flowers … past loves.
In this song, the piano has an extended solo passage in between the autumn and winter sections of the verse– as if predicting the final despondency.
For the fourth and final number in the set — Ils ont tué trois petites filles — Florent Schmitt turned to the work of the Belgian-born Symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck, the best-known of the three writers. For someone who was prone to bouts of depression at various periods during his long life (he died at age 86), Maeterlinck’s main themes in his works are wholly predictable — death and the meaning of life — making them important contributions to the writings that came out of the Symbolist movement.
Moving to the Passy District of Paris’s 16th arrondissement in 1895, Maeterlinck and his then-romantic partner, the singer and actress Georgette Leblanc, became friends with other important artists of day including Octave Mirbeau, Jean Lorrain (né Paul Alexandre Martin Duval) and Paul Fort, while also drifting into left-wing political advocacy.
Although he wrote poetry and dramas throughout his life, Maeterlinck is best-known now for his early plays published before 1900. Significantly, Maeterlinck came to believe that no human actors could adequately portray the lean, spare symbolic figures of his plays due to the hindrance of physical expressions and mannerisms — concluding that employing marionettes would be a better alternative. “Poems die when living people get into them,” he was fond of asserting.
Maeterlinck’s writings attracted the attention of numerous composers in addition to Florent Schmitt — the most notable being the libretto to Debussy’s opera Pélleas et Mélisande (Fauré, Schönberg and Sibelius were likewise inspired to pen orchestral works based on the same story).
Other composers inspired by the writings of Maeterlinck were Paul Dukas (the libretto for his 1908 opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue) and the Alsatian-American Charles Martin Loeffler for his symphonic poem La Mort de Tintagiles (along with Vaughan Williams and several lesser-known composers being inspired by the same story) — not to mention other notable composers including Honegger, Rachmaninov, Lili Boulanger, Cyril Scott and Maximilian Steinberg.
The Maeterlinck verse that Florent Schmitt selected for the final number in Quatre lieds — which translates to English as They killed three little girls — is the third entry in a set of Symbolist poems Quinze chansons group under the broader umbrella title of Serres chaudes (Hothouse Blooms). (The first edition, published in 1900, contained just twelve poems, while later editions expanded the number of poems to fifteen.)
In this particular poem, Maeterlinck paints a bleakly sorrowful landscape, which translates to English roughly as follows:
They killed three little girls to see what was in their hearts:
The first was full of gladness … and three snakes hissed there for three years.
The second was full of sweetness … and three lambs grazed there for three years.
The third was full of sadness … and three archangels kept watch there for three years.
Indeed, Edward Rushton observes that in this song, “Even the archangels … bring no elevated illumination.”
Yves Hucher, Schmitt’s biographer, has written further:
“What singer, in recital, could decide on this mélodie as compared to Debussy’s carol Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison [Christmas for children who are homeless]? The knell of the first stanza, the arabesques of the second or the chords of the third? It’s all there with a simplicity of means, enveloped in a poignant melodic line: all the lamentation of human suffering.”
The Quatre lieds is an important “transitional” piece in Florent Schmitt’s catalogue of vocal music. Performed together as a group, the set of four songs clocks in at just eight minutes, but each of those minutes is imbued with a quiet intensity that inexorably draws the listener in and captures the emotions. Resolutions never quite come, but we can’t help but care about the people caught up in the desperation of these private, quietly intense dramas.
Florent Schmitt dedicated Quatre lieds to the French soprano Madeleine Bonnard, who was then a member of the Quartette vocal de Paris. This quartet was formed in 1911 with a mission to perform vocal music from earlier times in addition to contemporary works written for four voices. Its members included mezzo-soprano Camille Chadeigne, tenor Gabriel Paulet and bass Paul Eyraud in addition to Bonnard. It is likely that Mlle. Bonnard gave the premiere public performance in 1912 or 1913.
Writing in the pages of the November 7, 1912 edition of Comœdia magazine about the new score, the French composer and music critic Louis Vuillemin observed:
“Florent Schmitt has written four new songs. We have spoken often of the composer of La Tragédie de Salomé, and we will talk about him again because he is such a great creator. It is unsurprising that the pieces we are talking about today are full of flavor, embued with the qualities specific to their author who is, among contemporary musicians, one of our most gifted.“
Quatre lieds is barely known, unfortunately. I can find little evidence of the piece being championed by vocalists, although we do know that the Swiss-born dramatic soprano Lucienne Brèval studied the score and likely presented the songs in recital towards the end of her career (she retired from the stage in 1918), as well as taught the music to her voice students thereafter.
It would be more than a century before Quatre lieds received its first-ever commercial recording (released in 2020 on the Resonus Classics label). Featuring Swiss tenor Nino Aurelio Gmünder and pianist Fabienne Romer, the premiere recording does these mélodies proud in interpretations that could hardly be bettered — except perhaps delivering a little more “authenticity” in the French diction.
The four movements of the Resonus Classics recording of Quatre lieds have been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard individually via these links:
In music critic Lynn René Bayley’s October 2020 review of the Resonus release that appeared in the online journal The Art Music Lounge in which she characterized the recording as “an excellent presentation of Schmitt’s songs, one that needs to be heard by anyone who admires this excellent composer,” Ms. Bayley offered these further observations about Florent Schmitt’s vocal scores and their place in the French repertoire:
“This is truly extraordinary music of a sort that no one writes anymore … Although they bear some resemblance to the songs of Ravel and Debussy, these have a profile all their own. Schmitt uses much more pentatonic movement which he mixes in with chromatic movement. Like so many French composers of his time, he is also loath to resolve his chords — sometimes even at the ends of songs.”
To experience for yourself what Bayley is getting at, give Quatre lieds a hearing. If you’re like me, you’ll recognize that the mélodies possess a sort of mesmerizing intensity. The songs draw listeners in, holding them prisoner by their emotional force for those eight spellbinding minutes.
The 2020 release of the premiere commercial recording of Quatre lieds gives hope that its newfound visibility will result in presentations of the music in the recital hall. If so, that would be starting from zero at the present time, as online research reveals no such performances in recent times with the exception of a 2016 presentation of one of the four pieces — Fleurs décloses — as part of The Opus Project (and that performance featured a flute in lieu of the vocalist).
Beyond the hope for future performances of this music is an even more intriguing proposition: In the catalogue of Florent Schmitt’s compositions as compiled by Yves Hucher in 1960 and published by Durand, Quatre lieds is listed as scored for “voice and orchestra or piano.” Evidently the composer prepared an orchestrated version of Quatre lieds, just as he did with a number of his other vocal sets such as Kérob-Shal, Trois chants and Quatre poèmes de Ronsard.
According to information unearthed recently by Manuel Cornejo, president of Association des amis de Maurice Ravel, the orchestrations of three of the mélodies — Où vivre ?, Fleurs décloses and Ils ont tué trois petites filles — were premiered on April 5, 1914 at the Palais des Fêtes in Paris by soprano Jane Bathori at the 78th program of the Orchestre des Concerts Sechiari led by Pierre Sechiari. Florent Schmitt was present at the concert.
Thereafter, the orchestrated version of Quatre lieds appears to have been lost; no trace of it could be found by Hucher in 1960 and I haven’t been able to uncover any newer information about the whereabouts of the elusive score. But with persistence and luck, perhaps it will surface someday …