As Florent Schmitt’s star has continued to rise in recent decades, one happy result has been the growing number of recordings helping to fill gaps in the composer’s discography.
The trajectory has been real: At the turn of this century, only about half of Florent Schmitt’s compositions had been commercially recorded, but that number is now nearing 75 percent.
Still, there remain a number of significant works that still await their first-ever recordings. Among them are orchestral works from Schmitt’s middle period (Cançunik, Op. 79 – 1929), later career (Scènes de la vie moyenne, Op. 124 – 1950) … and one from the composer’s early efforts in preparing orchestral pieces: Musiques de plein air, Op. 44 (Outdoor Music).
This all-but-unknown three-movement suite is one that Florent Schmitt appears to have started working on (at least in portions) before he won the Prix de Rome first prize for composition in 1900.
It was while staying at the Villa Medici in Rome that Schmitt worked further on the composition and finally submitted it as part of his final year’s envois to the Paris Conservatoire. (It was delivered along with the orchestration of his duo-piano suite Feuillets de voyage plus the monumental choral blockbuster Psaume XLVII.)
The Musiques de plein air score is marked “Rome — 1900” although the music wouldn’t be published until 1914 (by Durand). Moreover, the evidence indicates that the orchestrated piece — originally prepared in a piano version which was also published — wasn’t ready in finished form until 1903 or 1904, thereby explaining it being among the last grouping of compositions sent to Paris by Schmitt.
The composer dedicated the suite to T. J. Guéritte, an important Parisian impresario who was responsible for organizing concerts of French music in England, and who had brought Claude Debussy to London to conduct his own works. Guéritte was also the person who organized joint appearances by Ravel and Schmitt performing their own piano works at Bechstein Hall (now Wigmore Hall) in 1909, which may explain Schmitt’s dedication of gratitude.
Musiques de plein air is in three movements, as follows:
- La Procession dans la montagne (The Mountain Procession) — Marked Lent, the first movement portrays a solemn procession among the trees at the base of a mountain. Reportedly, the scene portrayed was inspired by a visit Florent Schmitt had made to the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy during the early days of his Prix de Rome stay.
- Danse désuète (Outmoded Dance) — The second movement is marked D’une allure assez paisable (“at a very easy pace”), in three-quarter time but in a minor key.
- Accalmie (A Momentary Calm) — Marked Lent, the final movement evokes a unsettling calm just before the arrival of a storm.
Regarding the final movement of the suite, the British composer and author David Eccott finds similarities between it and certain stylistic trademarks of Frederick Delius, with whom Schmitt had been working in preparing piano-reduction scores of several of Delius’ operas. Eccott writes:
“In the last of the suite’s three movements … the uneasy stillness before a storm is evoked by continual reiteration of a simple five-note figure which weaves its way through ever-changing harmonies, with some Delian touches in the orchestration.”
According to the musicologist and author Octave Seré (Jean Poueigh), all of the chief works sent by Florent Schmitt from Rome were performed in concerts at the Paris Conservatoire during December 1906. But we lack definitive evidence of exactly which music was played when. We do know that the first two movements of Musiques de plein air were also performed the same month at the Salle Érard, with Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht leading the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux.
As reported in French Wikipedia, the Orchestre Lamoureux also lays claim to having premiered the first complete performance of the three-movement suite in 1906 — a presentation which likely was led by its then-music director, Camille Chevillard.
Thereafter the piece was taken up by Louis Hasselmans and his Association des Concerts Hasselmans, presented at the Salle Gaveau in January 1909 — and later still at a joint Colonne-Lamoureux Concerts presentation in December 1914.
In America, Musiques de plein air was first heard at two Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts in March 1919 under the direction of the French composer-conductor Henri Rabaud.
I have been unable to find evidence of any other performances of the work by American orchestras in the 100+ years since then — nor have I found any instances of the piece being performed anywhere else in the world in recent decades.
Perhaps unsurprising for such a rare work, Musiques de plein air has never been recorded commercially, either. However, we are fortunate that the first movement of the suite — La Procession dans la montagne — was selected by Maestro Inghelbrecht as one of five of Schmitt’s compositions the conductor led at a French National Radio Orchestra memorial concert presented on October 9, 1958, approximately two months following Schmitt’s death.
What’s more, we are able to hear that ORTF broadcast performance here. (For better audio quality, the performance has also been released by Forgotten Records as part of a disk that includes other music by Florent Schmitt as well as Claude Debussy.)
When you listen to this movement, the music clearly sounds like early Schmitt — yet it also exhibits a number of the “trademarks” that would come to characterize the composer’s recognizable style — from the opening English horn solo to the chromatic orchestral writing and the passionate tutti climaxes. As the American music critic Steven Kruger has remarked:
“Early pieces reveal temperament. We don’t always associate serenity and affection with Florent Schmitt’s blockbuster reputation; yet this music is loving and mild-mannered, swirling and daring, and convincingly Teutonic by turns — all parts of the Schmitt recipe to the very end.”
Clearly, Musiques de plein air is a composition that is worthy of revival — particularly now that the score has gone into the public domain and is available for purchase or rental at a very reasonable cost.
It’s also a piece that cries out for its first commercial recording. One conductor who has expressed interest in doing so is the American music director JoAnn Falletta. In fact, this work had been selected for inclusion on Maestra Falletta’s second recording of Florent Schmitt’s works on the NAXOS label (released in 2020) — a plan that couldn’t be realized due to the timing limitations on the CD. She says of the music:
“Musiques de plein air is a piece that has intrigued me for a long while. I am always moved by the evocative beauty Florent Schmitt creates when inspired by nature — a strong force in his creative output — and in this work he sets three beautiful scenes inspired by his Prix de Rome period that must be heard in their orchestral garb.
Schmitt lavished his color magic, including his particular love for the English horn, on the music. The result is three gorgeous landscapes which capture that special period in his life. I continue to look for the opportunity to perform and record this unjustly neglected jewel.”
Here’s hoping that in addition to Maestra Falletta, other advocates for Florent Schmitt’s music — Leon Botstein, Lionel Bringuier, Paul Daniel, Stéphane Denève, Fabien Gabel, Sascha Goetzel, Jacques Mercier and Yan-Pascal Tortelier among them — will be inspired to investigate this score and finally bring Musiques de plein air into the bright light of today.