Vocal music comprises an important component of Florent Schmitt’s catalogue of works. Throughout his long career the composer would return again and again to the human voice, creating many sets of songs along with a wide range of secular and sacred choral music.
One of the most intriguing of these works is the a cappella choral composition Hymne à l’eté, Op. 61, written in 1913. This beautiful — even ecstatic — piece was created for the conductor Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht and his Association chorale professionnelle de Paris.
The A.C.P. had been co-founded by Inghelbrecht and a music colleague, Fernand Lamy, in 1912 at the suggestion of the impresario Gabriel Astruc, responding to criticism from a number of Parisian singers that Astruc had been importing foreign choral groups to employ in his Grandes Saisons Gabriel Astruc productions. In his defense, Astruc noted that there was no organized choral group in Paris for him to book, but that he’d be happy to enlist the services of such an organization if one could be formed.
Inghelbrecht was a logical choice to head up the new group, as he had recently been named music director and conductor at Astruc’s new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées — and had led the very first concert performances at the theatre in April 1913.
Inghelbrecht and Schmitt were friends and colleagues; in fact, Inghelbrecht had premiered the original version of Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé in 1907. So it’s little wonder that Schmitt would be asked by Inghelbrecht to pen a new a cappella choral composition for the inaugural concert of the A.C.P.
The composer went to work quickly, and the new piece was ready in time for a January 1914 program that also included the Chansons et madrigaux of Raynaldo Hahn plus works by Claudio Monteverdi, Modest Mussorgsky and others.
The inaugural concert, held at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, was a commercial and artistic success, with most of the music press hailing the A.C.P. as signaling a promising future for choral artistry in Paris. (A few detractors at the concert appeared to suffer from “a cappella indigestion,” however.)
Among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders was none other than Claude Debussy, who offered praises in effusive tones that were quite unusual for this composer:
“In the past month, a significant event has happened: We now have a professional choral society — whereas for too long we have had to content ourselves with merely noting such an existence from abroad.
Travelers have recounted the great English [choral] festivals, where 300 respectful voices have sung the glories of Handel, Mendelssohn and Elgar … [The A.C.P.], despite being formed only recently, has already performed very beautiful pieces – almost all of them at its first concert. What must be noted is the difficulty of these very different works. However, nothing was missing [and there was] a perfect homogeneity …
From every perspective, this endeavor at choral renewal must be encouraged.”
In Hymne à l’eté, Florent Schmitt chose the verse of Paul Armand Silvestre, a poet, librettist and choreographer who was also a decorated official in the world of finance. (He had been inducted into the Legion d’honneur in 1886 in recognition of his commercial accomplishments.)
Equally successful as a man of letters, Silvestre’s literary creations were set to music by an impressive list of French composers – among them Camille Saint-Saëns, Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré, Léo Delibes, Emmanuel Chabrier, Jules Massenet, Ernest Chausson, Cécile Chaminade, Philippe Gaubert, Gabriel Pierné, André Messager, Louis Aubert and Lili Boulanger in addition to Florent Schmitt. Other composers who set Silvestre’s verse to music included the German Eugen d’Albert and the American Amy Marcy Cheney Beach.
Reflective of the fin de siècle period in which it was written, Silvestre’s paean to summer is so over-the-top descriptive as to be almost mawkish in its flowery language. The verse (translated from the original French into English by the music critic Steven Kruger), is as follows:
Behold, what living gold the sickles pile up from the wounded,
While heaven’s gold streams down the brow of the overpowering oaks,
Everywhere light is celebrating and smiling at us.
And in the radiant cloudless sky that shines upon the completed harvest,
Everywhere brightness spills out in divine waves,
Glory, glory, glory to summer!
Under the sun’s bite all sap shatters bark and comes into bloom,
Its strength in the purple of ruddy fruits,
Throughout the wooded plain, life overflows like a full cup and the blood of the earth rises to the heavens,
Glory, glory, glory to summer!
Under these silent noons, in the burning ardor that passes by,
It is said that the heavens and the earth
Exchange in space a kiss of love,
Glory, glory, glory to summer!
It seems only natural that music set to poetry of this kind would reflect the boundless joy inherent in the words and phrases — and in this sense the text was tailor-made for such an imaginative master of sonority as Florent Schmitt. Writing for the expert singers of the A.C.P., Schmitt spared nothing in exploiting what were then the outer limits of choral expression, scoring his nearly eight-minute piece for eight-part mixed chorus along with soloists (two sopranos, altos, tenors and basses each).
The result is, in a word, stunning. As contemporary Scottish composer and Kaikrosu Shapurji Sorabji specialist Alistair Hinton has written:
“Schmitt’s composition is a prime example of an instrumental piece written for choral forces that nevertheless works — a worthy companion to Richard Strauss’ two later (and equally challenging) choral masterpieces Deutsche-Motett and An den Baum Daphne.
It also strikes me as yet another piece of evidence that Florent Schmitt seemed incapable of ever getting it wrong …”
Expanding on Hinton’s view, the American choral composer Mark Hayes observes:
“The piece captures beautifully many moods and timbres, and it’s easy to imagine this being transcribed for orchestra. I’m struck by its lighthearted, lilting feel as expressed in the triple meter and high, ornamented lines in the solo parts. The use of ‘la’ throughout allows the listener to have a purely instrumental experience as opposed to concentrating on what the meaning of the words might be.
But as Florent Schmitt introduces lyrics about a third of the way through the piece, the mood seems more serious and less dance-like. I can sense how Schmitt created images of light and ‘heaven’s gold streams’ in the melodic fragments that he wrote. There is certainly an ethereal quality to the music that is expressed in the poetry of the lyrics — with phrases that speak of things ‘spilling out, rising upward, overflowing, and streaming down.’ The ascension of melodic lines and the rise and fall of harmonic progressions, coupled with the tension and release of consonance and dissonance, bring these poetic images to brilliant life.
At times, the active and ornamented solo lines seem to shimmer above the blocks of choral sound, content to be in the brightness of E major, whereas the lower choral sounds hint at a dissonant alternative. Schmitt’s use of tension and dissonance is quite effective as he builds toward multiple climatic moments throughout the piece. The last section especially echoes some of the techniques Schmitt used, where solo lines rise and fall to meld with the choral beds below them.”
And American violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams sums up in this way:
“The piece is unbelievable — a vocal symphony, literally. It’s more evidence that when people utter the names Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen, the name Florent Schmitt should inevitably and effortlessly follow.”
What is also readily acknowledged about this music is the work’s undeniable challenges for singers. American contemporary composer Kenneth Fuchs notes as much in his comments on the piece:
“In a remarkable and highly unusual work, Florent Schmitt executes a virtuosic large-scale contrapuntal vocal vision conjuring the sumptuous imagery of Armand Silvestre’s impressionistic French text. The technical challenges that Schmitt has created for the vocalists are considerable — including wide vocal leaps, effusive and ecstatic melismatic lyrical lines, and quick-changing chromatic harmony — but the musical results, nearly symphonic in proportions, are stunning.
Simply put, Hymne à l’eté is a major work deserving of serious listening and study by vocal connoisseurs everywhere. I can also easily imagine how impressive this work would be within a setting of strings, winds, and harp.”
Mark Hayes further observes:
“As one who has made my living arranging, composing and orchestrating for over 45 years, my practical and pragmatic side reacted after hearing this work — first thoughts being, ‘This is extremely challenging! Who could perform this with excellence and musicality? How would one maintain good intonation? Would it be destined to have only a few performances and then be relegated to music that is too hard to perform?’
I struggle constantly with the tension of writing music for art’s sake (no matter how challenging) and writing music that is accessible to a larger market; as a commercial composer, that makes all the difference since I depend on that for my livelihood. But I’m also glad that Florent Schmitt wrote something like this to offer a prime example of what choral music can be with absolutely no restraints.”
Schmitt’s unrestrained choral writing as characterized by Hayes, Fuchs and Hinton is underscored by the fact that Hymne à l’eté is virtually unknown in the world of choral music. It has never been commercially recorded in its more than 100 years of existence, and I have found evidence of only one choral group that has performed the piece in recent decades – the Stockholm-based Eric Ericson Chamber Choir.
Fortunately for us, a 1983 Ericson Chamber Choir performance is now available on YouTube; even better, it has been uploaded with the score so that we can “see as well as hear” the music. Special thanks to Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst for preparing the upload and adding it to his estimable YouTube music channel. His own observations about the music are insightful as well:
“It’s such a unique choral work — almost symphonic in nature — with a penchant for creative word painting that brings to life a joie de vivre so typical of the French bucolic mindset of those days. One wonders if Frederick Delius was influenced by Florent Schmitt in his equally marvelous Two Songs to be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water, dating from 1917.”
If you give Hymne à l’eté a listen, I predict that its gorgeous sonorities will transport you. And with its renewed exposure today, we can only hope that more choral groups will now be ready take up the challenge of Florent Schmitt’s extraordinary a cappella composition and present the piece in concert for the benefit of grateful audiences everywhere.