Even before the onset of World War I, Florent Schmitt was already known as a pathfinding composer. Indeed, such works as Psaume XLVII (1904), La Tragédie de Salomé (1907) and the Piano Quintet (1908) had already cemented his reputation as one of the most influential voices among his generation of French composers.
But it was during the First World War when Schmitt would begin stretching polytonality to its outermost limits. We already notice it in such pieces as Rêves (from 1915), but it became even more pronounced in the piano set Ombres, completed in 1917, as well as the Sonate libre from 1918-19.
These works represented a clear evolution away from the late-Romantic or Impressionistic flavor of Schmitt’s earlier oeuvres; even 100+ years later they strike many listeners as surprisingly modern in their conception.
It was during this same period that the composer began working on what would turn out to be one of the most daring compositions in the entire Schmitt catalogue — penning the first of the three mélodies that ultimately became his vocal set Kérob-Shal, Op. 67. The score (bought out by Durand) carries a publication date of 1925, but the earliest of the pieces actually dates from 1919 while the other two numbers were penned in 1924:
- Octroi (Customs House — 1924 — dedicated to Charles Hubbard)
- Star (1919 — dedicated to Madeleine Greslé)
- Vendredi XIII (Friday the Thirteenth — 1924 — dedicated to Claire Croiza)
What might seem at first blush to be a musical work of Eastern or Oriental inspiration due to its exotic-sounding title turns out instead to be a mash-up of the last names of three writers whose verses were used by Schmitt in the pieces: René Kerdyk, G. Jean-Aubry and René Chalupt.
And this is only the beginning of the strangeness. Pianist Edward Rushton, who in 2020 participated in the first-ever commercial recording of Kérob-Shal, calls the three pieces “astonishing songs” where “harmonies defy categorization.” Rushton adds:
“This is a world of nightmares and fantastical visions, typical of Schmitt’s predilection for weird and savage exoticism … saturated in harmonies augmented and diminished to [a] tonally uncategorizable breaking point … pitilessly obsessed with death and the death of love. In these dangerously alluring songs, violent actions are performed against a placid backdrop.
[As] my favorite of all the works we present in our recording, it’s so manic and changeable — where Schmitt goes completely crazy!”
“Manic and changeable” is certainly an apt way to describe these mélodies. The first of the three — Octroi — is set to verse by the Belgian poet René Kerdyk (1885-1945), who was also a musician who had been a classmate of Maurice Ravel.
Kerdyk’s poem depicts an empty landscape on the outskirts of Paris at dawn. Impassive calm returns after the violence suggested in the verse, which has been translated from the original French into English below (special thanks to Steven Kruger and Nicolas Southon for providing the English translations for this article):
An entire landscape of white lines,
The custom inspector’s take on Paris is a Foujita,
With a bird on the branch of a tree
Such as there are heaps of them.
A streetlight is yet illuminating
On the railings that hide the daylight,
And in this little muted dawn
Is the pathway of Jerusalem artichokes.
A whole drowsy world advances
In this scaffold-like light,
While the toll collector with his lance
Discovers the dumpster’s secret.
Rushton makes particular note of the bird-song in the piano part of the score — and how this anticipates Messiaen gesturally and harmonically but not conceptually, being descriptive of a banal sort of birdsong “such as there are heaps of.”
The second piece — Star — is set to verse by G. Jean-Aubry (1882-1950). Better-known as an arts critic and biographer, Aubry contributed literary criticism to numerous journals in France and Belgium including Le Petit Havre, Le Correspondant l’art moderne plus his own publication, Le Prisme. Aubry resided in London between 1919 and 1930, during which time he also edited the English-language music periodical The Chesterian.
Aubry’s own poetry was set to music by some of the most prominent Parisian-based composers of the day including Louis Aubert, André Caplet, Manuel de Falla, Jacques Ibert and Albert Roussel in addition to Florent Schmitt. Passing away at the comparatively young age of 67, Aubry’s funeral was attended by a great many musical personages including Schmitt, Arthur Honegger, Maurice Delage and others.
In Star, the sight of a brilliant light streaking across the dark sky generates excitement in the eyes of one observer — but quiet dismay in the other:
I hear your laughter peal out
As I was awaiting your avowal,
In the evening when I sigh …
A star passes by.
“A wish! …
Make a wish quickly, for an angel is waiting over there!”
“A wish, but … haven’t you got one spare?”
The star disappears forever.
We are silent,
But an angel passes in vain.
It passes, in fact, to search through space,
For the wish you didn’t make.
In terms of where the significance of the shooting star ends up for these two people, Rushton points to the final bar of the score “where all twelve notes sound in close proximity — an astonishing and obliterative gesture.”
The third number — Vendredi XIII — is set to the poetry of René Chalupt (1885-1957). Like Aubry, Chalupt is known for the many mélodies that French composers created using his verses. According to a listing compiled a dozen years before Chalupt’s death, 83 of his poems had been set to music by 27 composers such as Louis Aubert, Georges Auric, Maurice Delage, Darius Milhaud, Jean Rivier, Albert Roussel, Erik Satie and Germaine Tailleferre in addition to Florent Schmitt.
Similar to Aubry in another respect, Chalupt was an author who also published his own liverary journal — from 1911 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
In Vendredi XII, the fatal attraction of four ruined fountains in the Jardin de Luxembourg brings out the worst in the four people who come into contact with them:
In the Luxembourg Gardens
Under the bowers which have already shed their blossoms,
In the Luxembourg Gardens
Four fountains have dried up.
The nuncio untied his mask
In order to admire himself
In the first basin, one evening
on his way back from the festal ball.
The princess of Trébizonde,
Walking by the water,
Let her ring fall
And it disappeared in the second.
They say that in the third, one day
The daughter of the king of Poland,
Within sight of the whole court
Bathed without any shame.
And — dreadful fate predicted
In the cards of a fortune teller,
Next Friday the Thirteenth,
I must drown myself in the fourth.
Listening to Kérob-Shal confirms that its modernity is actually quite astonishing when we’re reminded that Florent Schmitt composed its three numbers between 1919 and 1924. Indeed, considering the entire catalogue of Schmitt’s mélodies, the daring harmonic language of Kérob-Shal is rivaled only by his Trois poèmes de Robert Ganzo — a vocal set that wouldn’t be published until some 30 years later (1951).
I have been unable to determine when or where the first performance of the complete Kérob-Shal was presented, but it’s more than likely that Star was premiered before the other two because the score was first published by Durand as a standalone piece.
We also know that the set received its American premiere at a program of new music performed on December 27, 1925 at Aeoilian Hall in New York City. Offered under the auspices of the International Composer’s Guild, the concert presented Fritz Reiner as conductor of the chamber music pieces, while the other works featured a variety of soloists. For Schmitt’s Kérob-Shal the soloist was Colin O’More. Music critic Olin Downes was present at the concert and filed his review with the New York Times the next day, in which it’s pretty clear that Mr. Downes was somewhat questioning of the effectiveness Schmitt’s new stylistic experimentations:
“Three songs by Florent Schmitt were sung with taste, finish and an agreeable quality of tone by Colin O’More. They are not simple songs to perform. They represent Florent Schmitt in a new aspect as a composer because of their poems and their manner of workmanship.
The poems … are in a genre Schmitt has usually avoided. They are ironical, fantastical, subtly compounded of sadness and whimsy. Star is the most concrete and probably the best of the songs, for a veiled or enigmatic mood is not characteristic of Schmitt who is primarily direct — even brutal — in his expression and very much a man for definite forms. It were easier to imagine a Ravel setting such poems, and the disparity between Schmitt’s temperament and his subject matter is borne upon the listener not easily convinced by this excellent, serious, but nevertheless-questionable attempt in the direction of a different style.”
Also in America, Star was presented separate from the rest of Kérob-Shal as part of Florent Schmitt’s Town Hall recital in New York City in November 1932, during his only trip to the United States.
Kérob-shal was also included in the final program of music put on by La Spirale, a music society active in Paris between 1935 and 1937 that is considered the precursor to Jeune France. The May 4, 1937 program featured soprano Claire Dinville-Guillemet singing Schmitt’s Kérob-Shal as well as his early vocal pieces Musique sur l’eau and Il pleure dans mon coeur, with the composer accompanying the singer on the piano.
As for more recent performances of this music, they appear to have been few and far between. Prior to soprano Sybille Diethelm and pianist Edward Rushton going into the Zürich studios of Swiss Radio to record the work in January 2020, I’ve found evidence of just one public performance of the music in recent times — presented by baritone Siwoung Song and pianist Lauriane Follonier in Europe about a decade ago.
The Diethelm/Rushton reading is the first (and so far only) commercial recording of the music, released on the Resonus Classics label in 2020. It is a fine interpretation that captures very effectivelythe “quiet desperation” inherent in the poetry.
To hear for yourself, the individual numbers from the Resonus Classics recording have been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard via these links:
If the original voice-and-piano version of Kérob-Shal is little-known, a version for voice and small orchestra that Schmitt prepared a number of years later is a complete rarity. Intriguingly — but perhaps unsurprising considering the tone of the poetry and the music — the orchestration is uncharacteristically spare for Florent Schmitt, consisting of just two clarinets plus a flute, piccolo and strings.The premiere performance of the orchestrated version was presented at a Concerts Pasdeloup program on January 17, 1931, featuring soprano Elsa Ruhlmann with the orchestral forces conducted by Rhené-Baton.
I have been unable to find evidence of even one additional performance of the orchestrated Kérob-Shal since its 1931 premiere, but hopefully this state of affairs will be redressed in the coming years, now that at least the voice-and-piano version of the music is available for artists to finally get to know. Who’s willing to step up to the podium and make it happen?