Stretching tonality to the breaking point: Florent Schmitt’s weird and daring Kérob-Shal (1919-24).

Florent Schmitt French composer 1870-1958

Florent Schmitt, photographed at about the time he was composing the vocal set Kérob-Shal.

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.

Florent Schmitt Kerob-Shal score

A vintage copy of the score to Florent Schmitt’s Kérob-Shal, Op. 67.

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)
Florent Schmitt Charles Hubbard 1924

Florent Schmitt (l.) pictured with Charles Hubbard, the American-born singer who was active in Paris during the 1920s. In 1921, Hubbard performed the first music by Aaron Copland presented without Copland himself participating (instead, Nadia Boulanger did the honors at the piano). Schmitt dedicated Octroi from Kérob-Shal to Hubbard; this photo, taken at Schmitt’s home in St-Cloud, dates from the same year as the piece’s composition (1924).

But what about the name Kérob-Shal?

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.

Edward Rushton pianist

Edward Rushton

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!”

Francis Poulenc French composer

In addition to writing poetry, René Kerdyk was a music critic. Perhaps his most notorious commentary was about the composer Francis Poulenc (pictured above). Writing in 1938, Kerdyk referred to Poulenc as “having the personality of a jokester” and contended that Poulenc’s success resulted mainly from the triviality of his music and his desire to write works with a primary goal of pleasing the public. Poulenc was, Kerdyk argued, a composer “attached to homages, to gossip, and the superficial elegance of the society that surrounds him” — indeed, a materialistic entertainer who “only agrees to perform in concert if he is very well-paid, like a diva.”

“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):

Tsuguharu Foujita

Tsuguharu Foujita (1888-1968), a noted and sometimes-controversial Japanese-French painter and printmaker, applied Japanese ink techniques to Western-style paintings. A scene or a landscape referred to as a “Foujita” in writings of the period would have been understood as easily by people in France as “Modigliani eyes” are to people around the world today.

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,

Jerusalem artichokes

Jeusalem artichokes — a member of the sunflower family.

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.

Florent Schmitt Octroi Kerob-Shal score page

The first page of the score to Octroi, from Florent Schmitt’s Kérob-Shal.

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.”

G. Jean-Aubry

G. Jean-Aubry (Jean-Frédéric Émile Aubry) (1882-1950)

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.

G. Jean-Aubry Maurice Ravel

G. Jean-Aubry (r.) pictured with Maurice Ravel. (1926 photo)

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.

Florent Schmit Star Kerob-Shal

The first page of the score to “Star”, from Florent Schmitt’s Kérob-Shal.

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.”

Florent Schmitt letter to Madeleine Gresle ca. 1920

A letter from Florent Schmitt to the soprano Madeleine Greslé, written at about the time of the composer’s dedication of Star to her (ca. 1920).

Rene Chalupt

René Chalupt (1885-1957) (Portrait by Roger de la Fresnaye, 1921)

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:

Claire Croiza French soprano

Claire Croiza (1882-1946), to whom Vendredi XIII was dedicated. Mme. Croiza championed the vocal music of composers such as Roussel, Honegger, Milhaud and Florent Schmitt. Of Schmitt’s vocal music she once said famously, “It’s as though someone said to you: ‘Throw yourself from a fourth-floor window — and mind you, fall gracefully.’” (1934 photo)

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.

 

Durand letter to Rene Chalupt 1924

This letter dated September 29, 1924 from M. Maquaire, managing director of Durand et Cie., was sent to René Chalupt regarding authorization to reproduce the words to Vendredi XIII in Florent Schmitt’s score. The letter references payment of the 50 Frs. that Chalupt had requested in exchange for the authorization. (Courtesy of Mario Ishiguro)

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.

Florent Schmitt Vendredi XIII Kerob-Shal score page

The first page of the score to “Vendredi XIII”, from Florent Schmitt’s Kérob-Shal.

Florent Schmitt Trois poemes de Robert Ganzo score cover

A vintage copy of Florent Schmitt’s Trois poèmes de Robert Ganzo, composed in 1951.

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 written until some 30 years later (1951).

Florent Schmitt Kerob-Shal Star score cover inscribed to Rita Sebastian

The score to Star was published by Durand earlier than the rest of Kérob-Shal — originally as a standalone composition. This vintage copy was inscribed by Florent Schmitt to the American mezzo-soprano Rita Sebastian, who sang the piece as part of the composer’s Town Hall recital in New York in November 1932.

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 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.

Lauriane Follonier Siwoung Song

Lauriane Follonier and Siwoung Song

As for later 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.

Sybille Diethelm soprano

Sybille Diethelm

The Diethelm/Rushton reading is the first (and so far only) commercial recording of the music, released on the Resonus Classics label in 2020It is a fine interpretation that captures very effectivelythe “quiet desperation” inherent in the poetry.

Florent Schmitt Melodies Rushton Romer Diethelm Haug Gmunder Perler Resonus

The premiere commercial recording of Kérob-Shal, released on the Resonus Classics label in 2020.

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.

Rhene-Baton French composer and conductor

Rhené-Baton (René-Emmanuel Baton), French conductor and composer (1879-1940), led the first performance of the orchestrated version of Kérob-Shal in 1931, with soprano Elsa Ruhlmann and the Concerts Pasdeloup Orchestra. (Photo: Nadar [Gaspard-Félix Tournachon], ca. 1908)

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?

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