“It’s as if someone said to you: ‘Throw yourself from a fourth-floor window — and mind you, fall gracefully.’”
— Claire Croiza, French mezzo-soprano, on Florent Schmitt’s vocal music
Music-lovers who are familiar with Florent Schmitt’s catalogue of works know that vocal compositions comprised an important part of his creative output over a seven-decade creative career.
In fact, his very first opus-numbered piece was an 1891 work for voice and piano (O Salutaris), while his final composition was the Messe en quatre parties for mixed chorus and organ, completed in May 1958 just a few months before his death at nearly 88 years of age.
In between these bookend compositions is a rich trove of music created for solo voice or groups of vocalists — as well as for male, female and mixed choirs — based on sacred and secular texts alike. We can literally trace the trajectory of Schmitt’s artistic development via these vocal scores — beginning with mélodies that are very much in the “salon” style of the late nineteenth century (reminding us that Jules Massenet was one of Schmitt’s composition teachers), then moving into far more “modern” and complex idioms in the ensuing decades.
Illustrating this evolution, in 2020 a recording was released on the Resonus Classics label that offered a representative sampling of Schmitt early, middle and late-period works for voice and piano. Several of them are world-premiere recordings, thereby helping to fill some significant gaps in the discography of the composer’s works. Still, there remain a goodly number of vocal scores by Schmitt that await their first-ever commercial recordings.
On the 2020 Resonus recording is a particularly fascinating set of three mèlodies dating from 1919-24 titled Kérob-Shal. The exotic-sounding title of this work is, in reality, just a mash-up of the names of the three poets whose texts were selected by Schmitt to put to music (René Kerdyk, G. Jean-Aubry and René Chalupt). More significant than the work’s unusual title is its startling modernity. It’s easily the most harmonically complex of all the works on the Resonus release, which covers a span of nearly 50 years of Schmitt’s creativity.
Is Kérob-Shal actually the most radical example of Schmitt’s musical style among his mélodies? In a word, no. Or at least it’s fair to contend that the composer created a second trio of pieces some 25 years later that exhibit a similar degree of harmonic complexity and daring. That vocal set, composed in 1949 and published in 1951, is Trois poèmes de Robert Ganzo, Op. 118.
In choosing texts for his secular vocal works, typically Florent Schmitt drew on inspiration from contemporary poets rather than writers from yesteryear (there were exceptions, of course). Moreover, the composer was often attracted to writers with leftist/anarchist predilections. In this regard we find Schmitt setting the verse of writers such as Charles Vildrac, Laurent Tailhade, Charles Sanglier (Charles Vallet), Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore-Lucien Ducasse) and others.
Robert Ganzo was in the same mould as these writers. Born in Caracas in 1898 to an Egyptian father and a French mother, in 1910 Ganzo and his family departed Venezuela due to financial difficulties and ended up settling in Belgium. There, he exhibited an early talent for writing; a youthful play of his was even presented to an audience that included the Belgian king.
Migrating to Paris in 1920, Ganzo worked as a bookseller while slowly building his reputation as a poet and writer, along with translating the works of others — his fluency in Spanish being a major asset in this regard.
Ganzo was also known for his pro-communist sympathies. This plus his Jewish heritage placed him in considerable personal danger during the German occupation of Paris in World War II. For a time Ganzo worked with the French Resistance, which ultimately led to his arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo. But in a fortuitous twist of fate, one of Ganzo’s captors who recognized the literary figure and knew his writings helped him escape from detention.
In the postwar period, Ganzo shifted away from poetry and other creative writing; by the 1960s he was focusing his energies almost exclusively on exploring the period of time before recorded history.
Blessed with an extraordinarily long life, Ganzo died in 1995 at the age of nearly 97. In accordance with his wishes, the Robert Ganzo Foundation was established under the aegis of the Fondation de France, which in turn established the Robert Ganzo Poetry Prize to be awarded to “a French-speaking poet of importance, an adventurer of the word and of life, a ferryman of emotions and challenges, a surveyor of the open sea and the unknown.”
Since 2007, a prize of 10,000 euros has been given annually to recipients who are, in the words of the award criteria, “in touch with the movement of the world, far from the closed field of formalist laboratories and postmodern affectations …”
As for Florent Schmitt’s work with Ganzo’s verse, the three poems the composer chose to set to music were:
I. … de pleurs s’égrène (Tears Erupt)
II. Les diners se font en courant (Dinners are Made while Running)
III. C’est l’heure (‘Tis the Hour)
The poems dwell on aspects of love and loss, and are characterized by a general sense of melancholy or even desolation. They are also characterized by the use of a complicated syntax, often making the meaning of the words and phrases difficult to decipher.
The first poem speaks of “the humid summer of tears” and a “dying evening” with the “long-silent quivering of a soul caught in its foliage” …
The second poem describes the waning fortunes of a person enveloped in a descending dusk, where “the night becomes a forest as an indefinable old desire passes, like a flight in a sky of sand” …
In the final poem, the reader is exhorted to abolish the memory of old dreams with their “shards and flowers,” going “upright in reason, arms outstretched between two worlds” …
Considering that the three Ganzo poems share similar “atmospherics” with the verses that Schmitt had selected for his Kérob-Shal set some 25 years earlier, it stands to reason that the flavor of both works is similarly unsettling. Schmitt’s complex writing is darkly polychromatic and conveys the impression of a bleakness dispelled only occasionally. As such, each of the mélodies requires concentrated listening; I found that the musical rewards grow with repeated hearings.
According to Florent Schmitt’s biographer Yves Hucher, Trois poèmes de Robert Ganzo was «une oeuvre que le compositeur chérissait tout particulièrement» (“a work particularly dear to the composer”) — although Schmitt also joked about the piece’s “lachrymal dissonances.”
The American music critic Steven Kruger makes several interesting observations about this music, stating:
“The appeal of the songs is more in verbal mood and manner than anything one can remember as a tune or harmony, since Florent Schmitt writes here in a kind of sprechtstimme. I suspect the last song correlates neatly with Schmitt’s own sense of mortality, considering that he was nearly 80 years old when writing the piece — ‘between two worlds’ correlating to ‘life and death’.”
Composed in 1949, the Ganzo Poems were published by Durand in 1951. As for the premiere performance of the work, that would have to wait until February 13, 1953, when soprano Geneviève Moizan and pianist Claudie Martinet presented it at the Salle de Caen of l’Institut de France (Académie des beaux-arts). The premiere was part of an all-Florent Schmitt program that also included the Pasquier Trio performing several movements from Schmitt’s recently completed String Trio, as well as duo-pianists Robert and Gaby Casadesus performing his early-career Trois rapsodies.
The Trois poèmes de Robert Ganzo premiere was notable in another way, too: The poet himself recited the words to each poem as part of the recital.
The Ganzo Poems were presented again in Paris in 1956, sung by Marguerite Myrthal with pianist Claude Bêche. Both the 1953 and 1956 performances were broadcast over French Radio, but in my research I have been unable to find evidence of the composition being performed anywhere else in the world in the past half-century.
… Nor has the music ever been commercially recorded. But we are fortunate to have audio documentation of the 1953 premiere performance which has now been uploaded to YouTube along with the score, courtesy of George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos’ exemplary music channel.
Mr. Gianopoulos, who is also one of America’s notable younger composers, was particularly keen to bring this music to the attention of the music world, explaining to me:
“It’s a wonderful cycle — very unique and interesting. Schmitt’s harmonic structure just blows me away.”
Thanks to Mr. Gianopoulos, everyone now has access to hear this music. Give it a listen; see if you don’t agree that the piece presents a fascinating glimpse into the darker corners of the human experience, brought to us courtesy of Messrs. Ganzo and Schmitt.