A seductive austerity: Florent Schmitt’s Quinque cantus (1952)

George Nick Gianopoulos composer

George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos

Recently, an upload appeared on American composer George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos‘ estimable YouTube music channel that features Florent Schmitt’s late-career choral work Quinque cantus, Op. 121, presented along with the score.

It’s one of more than 2,300 score-with-audio uploads that Mr. Gianopoulos has assiduously prepared for the benefit of performing artists and music-lovers the world over — with a major emphasis on new classical music along with little-known rarities from yesteryear.

[The worthiness of the channel is underscored by the fact that it has attracted a subscriber base of more than 26,000 people.]

“Rarity” is certainly a term that can be applied to Quinque cantus, a piece which is little-known even among those choral directors who pride themselves in seeking out and performing unfamiliar repertoire.

Jean-Paul Kreder French Choral Director

Jean-Paul Kreder

To my knowledge, the piece has never been commercially recorded, and for that reason Mr. Gianopoulos has had to rely on a 1963 broadcast performance that features the Chorus of French Radio & Television directed by Jean-Paul Kreder.

Interestingly, Quinque cantus isn’t an isolated work in Florent Schmitt’s catalogue of compositions.  In fact, during the last decade of his life the composer wrote a goodly number of sacred compositions for choral forces.  They include the following seven creations:

  • Trois liturgies joyeuses, Op. 116 (1951)
  • Psaume VIII (Domine, Dominus Noster), Op. 119 (1956)
  • Quinque cantus, Op. 121 (1952)
  • Laudate, pueri, Dominum, Op. 126 (1952)
  • Oremus pro Pontifice, Op. 127 (1952)
  • Psaume CXII (Cantique de Siméon), Op. 135 (1956)
  • Messe en quatre parties, Op. 138 (1958)

With the exception of the 1958 Mass (Schmitt’s final composition), all of these sacred works were written for a cappella chorus, with most also including ad libitum organ parts in the score.  As such, they differ from Schmitt’s significantly more flamboyant choral pieces with sacred texts that he had composed earlier in his career (Psaume XLVII, Op. 38 from 1904 being the most famous example, but also the Cinq motets, Op. 60 from 1917).

Florent Schmitt 1953 photo

Florent Schmitt seated at the doorway to his study at his home in St-Cloud. This photograph was taken shortly after the December 1952 premiere of Quinque cantus. (Photo: © Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

It’s intriguing to speculate on why Florent Schmitt may have been drawn to creating such a copious amount of sacred choral music during the final years of his life.  Was it a newfound sense of spirituality developed in his twilight years … or was the inspiration more practical, such as fulfilling commissions to bring forth the pieces?

I can find no evidence of the latter, so perhaps the notion of a man coming face to face with his own mortality may be a plausible explanation. But we should also remember the fact that Schmitt created vocal music throughout his seven-decade career — where we find him returning again and again to the human voice.

As for the Quinque cantus from 1952, the piece carries the subtitle Ad benedictionem sanctissimi Sacramenti (“to the blessing of the most holy Sacrament”).  The five items that make up the set, scored for mixed chorus with ad libitum organ, are as follows:

I.    Ave verum

II.   Sub tuum

III.  Tu es Petrus

IV.  Tantum ergo

V.   Benedictus Dominus

Florent Schmitt Quinque cantus score first page

The first page of the score to Florent Schmitt’s Quinque cantus. The composition was premiered in December 1952 in Paris and was published by Durand the following year.

Taken as a whole, the piece is approximately 12 minutes in length, during which the composer employs an unusual and rather remarkable use of chords that, while not polytonal in the classic sense, do not possess the logic of conventional tonality, either. For this reason, it is music that may not reveal itself completely to the listener initially, but rather reveals its substance and beauty over successive hearings.

The Tantum ergo is perhaps the most immediately accessible number, comparatively straightforward in its musical argument. By contrast, the other four items take us on more complex journeys — that also happen to be richly seductive ones despite their serious and sometimes austere nature.  (Note also the use of contrapuntal, fugue-like writing in various places in the score.)

Speaking personally, I found that the music settled into my head after about the third hearing — helped along by focusing on the sacred Latin text as well.

Eglise St-Eustache Paris

Église St-Eustache, Paris

Completed in December 1952, Quinque cantus had its first public performance during the Christmas season that same year. The premiere was at Église Saint-Eustache in Paris, where the piece was sung by Les petits chanteurs à la Croix de Bois (The Little Singers of the Wooden Cross), to whom the score was dedicated. As one of the leading youth choirs in all of France, these young men and boys were surely capable of mastering the musical challenges of Schmitt’s complex score, but in reality it would be far more typical for the piece to be presented by (seasoned) adult singers.

Les Petits chanteurs a la Croix de Bois 1955 Montreal

Members of Les petits chanteurs à la Croix de Bois, photographed in Montreal during a concert tour of Canada in 1955, three years after premiering Florent Schmitt’s Quinque cantus in Paris.

But even among adult choirs, I’ve found scant evidence of Quinque cantus being performed in the years since its creation. Underscoring this, the 1963 performance by the RTF Chorus led by Jean-Paul Kreder appears to be the only time the work has been broadcast over French Radio, and I haven’t found even one performance done by the BBC Singers — an ensemble that has presented a number of other sacred choral pieces by Florent Schmitt over the years.

2008 Harmony Festival Brain CD cover

One of several CDs issued on the Brain label that feature prizewinning performances at the 2008 Harmony Festival (61st All-Japan Chorus Competition). I have been unable to confirm that the Quinque cantus excerpts were included in the 2008 series of recordings.

More recently, excerpts from Quinque cantus have been presented by several Japanese choral groups, including the Chugye Madrigal Singers and the Mitsubishi Shoji Chorus Club, both in 2008.  (The latter group won a Silver Award at the 2008 Harmony Festival [61st All-Japan Chorus Competition] for its performance of the Ave verum, Tu es Petrus and Tantum ergo portions of the score.)

Jerome Polack

Jérôme Polack directing Ensemble Exprîme (France).

In the present day, I am aware of just one choral group that keeps Quinque cantus in its repertoire — Ensemble Exprîme in France.  Led by its intrepid music director Jérôme Polack, this group has made it a special mission to present numerous rarities of the choral repertoire in addition to standard offerings. As a further example of its exploration, Ensemble Exprîme has sung Le Chant de la nuit, Florent Schmitt’s tribute to Frédéric Chopin, in concert as well.

Ensemble Exprime Jerome Polack

Members of Ensemble Exprîme led — figuratively and literally — by their director, Jérome Polack (r.)

David Wordsworth

David Wordsworth

Additionally, David Wordsworth, music director of the London-based Addison Singers, has been long-interested in presenting Quinque cantus along with several other late choral works by Schmitt — but to my knowledge no performances have materialized to date.

Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons for Quinque cantus’ obscurity has been the lack of any recordings to help give the piece exposure. The new upload of the music along with the score — which can be viewed here — now provides that exposure. It’s an important first step; hopefully, additional performances (and perhaps a commercial recordings) of this very worthy musical creation will follow.

One thought on “A seductive austerity: Florent Schmitt’s Quinque cantus (1952)

  1. In a time of pandemic, listening to a recently released work of a religious nature is something touching. The five parts of this choral piece form a special set for meditation. I am also excited about the news that other choral works by Florent Schmitt may be released.

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