On November 12 and 13, 2022, JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra presented one of the most significant entries in the catalogue of Florent Schmitt’s orchestral works — the first part of In Memoriam, Op. 72 (Cippus Feralis). Composed in 1935, it is an extraordinarily beautiful composition, replete with “passion and pathos.”
Even though In Memoriam is a piece that has been praised by fellow French composers — and was performed by esteemed conductors “back in the day” including Roger Désormière, Pierre Dervaux, Tony Aubin, Jean Martinon and Georges Prêtre, in recent decades the piece has fallen into obscurity. Thus, the two Buffalo concerts were significant events — and made even more so because they were likely the first-ever North American performances of the piece.
I made the journey to Buffalo to hear the concerts first-hand, where I was joined by like-minded Florent Schmitt devotees who came to town from six states to share in the experience.
Suffice it to say, we weren’t disappointed; Maestra Falletta and the orchestra delivered two compelling performances that captured perfectly the essence of the music: Fauréan elegance and refinement as seen through the passionate lens of one of his prized pupils.
On the Friday before the Buffalo concerts, I had the opportunity to interview JoAnn Falletta about her journey of discovery with this music. Highlights of our interesting and insightful 90-minute conversation are presented below.
PLN: In Memoriam is an intriguing composition in that it is one of relatively few orchestral pieces by Florent Schmitt that isn’t based on a specific story line. It is an homage to Fauré, but it’s closer to “absolute music” than most of his other orchestral works. In your opinion, how effective is he in writing a piece without a particular “program”?
JAF: Every Schmitt work I’ve conducted before this piece has told a dramatic story, with lots of action, color and dynamic changes. In Memoriam is something quite different, and it’s been interesting to discover how Schmitt handles that. It’s magnificent, but it’s also quite different; everything is in 3/4 time, and it unfolds in a dignified way with no dramatic changes in tempo.
There’s also a kind of tenderness in this piece. He’s more intimate, and in that sense you get a better idea of who Schmitt was as a human being. We don’t find the display of technical excellence that he employs so often in his other orchestral works; it’s more about how he’s feeling.
Even the dynamics are more restrained. The music comes to a fortissimo in only a couple of places.
In a way, I could see more of who Schmitt was in this piece, because his inspiration here is how he felt about his teacher. Schmitt doesn’t go in for heart-on-sleeve emotion; it’s more like laying a wreath in his tribute to Fauré. You come away from the music with the sense that Schmitt was a man not only extraordinarily skilled and facile, but also deeply caring.
Schmitt’s music here is quite subtle. The piece relies on great writing, the sense of color which he excels at, and a sort of blossoming of the music before then dying away — the very Schmittian “arch.” Even though he begins with the solo oboe and other woodwinds, the next step is the low strings which seem to be his go-to place for beginning so many of his compositions.
Add to this the detail — the braiding of the lines together — which is amazing even without having the splashiness of many of his other works. He utilizes two Fauréan main themes — one with the oboe — that recur throughout the piece. It’s almost as if Schmitt is saying, “Look what he’s left us.”
PLN: Most of the music you have performed by Florent Schmitt dates from his earlier compositional period, up to the age of 50. In Memoriam was penned substantially later. When you compare this work to his earlier pieces, what differences in style or structure to you notice?
JAF: Conducting Schmitt in abstract music such as this piece was a discovery for me. In this particular work we experience the music simply unfolding, with no changes in meter. In that regard it is similar to Fauré, and it’s like the opening up of a flower that has such a sense of rightness — even an inevitability — to it.
The music is never forced. It isn’t pushing the envelope on the upper dynamics. It can glow at the top but it isn’t a hammer-clap. Instead, here’s a kind of internal light to it rather than the sparkling sensations we get in earlier pieces like Antony & Cleopatra and Salomé.
Whether this difference is because of the topic of the piece, or if this is how Schmitt wrote abstract music in general, remains an open question, I think. We could probably figure this out more definitively with further exploration of his other scores.
PLN: Are there some aspects of Schmitt’s style that remain more consistent between his earlier and later orchestral compositions?
JAF: The dark coloration is there — and this is something that Schmitt uses a very often in his other pieces. Also, the intricacy of the inner lines — the second violin and viola parts weaving in and out like a tapestry, for example — is highly characteristic of Schmitt. There’s a good deal going on with multiple voices at once, and that’s a Schmitt trademark.
I see similarities in the details, too. In the louder moments where he introduces figurations and other fine detail in the strings, this is Schmitt at his most representative. In this score they’re audible but not overwhelming; there are brass lines moving above them, and yet they’re important to the overall color of the piece. That’s another Schmitt trademark — these glistening textures that are incredibly detailed yet never thick, and that provide added dimension to the music as it flows forward.
Of course, it’s up to conductors and musicians to balance everything, and we’ve worked a lot on balances in our rehearsing this week. But we’re remindful that Schmitt often wants some of it cloaked — a glimmer as opposed to coming through brilliantly. And that is part of what makes the music so extraordinarily beautiful.
PLN: In Memoriam isn’t one of Schmitt’s better-known works. Thinking about the score, what do you find so compelling about the music — and that made you want to resurrect it for today’s audiences?
JAF: This piece has been on my radar for quite a few years. I’ve always been attracted to it, and of course I’m always interested for our orchestra to play more Florent Schmitt. I think our musicians think of themselves as performers who understand Schmitt better than most, since they’ve played so much of him with our two NAXOS recordings of his music.
And then the idea that this piece is an homage to Schmitt’s favorite teacher, who he loved. There weren’t many people in Schmitt’s life for whom he had a tremendous affection like that, which is another thing that makes this tribute so very touching.
The piece, while it couldn’t have been written by Fauré himself, does remind me of some of Fauré’s suites that I’ve conducted. They are introspective in the same way — and they have a similar sort of stately motion and grace to them — so I tend to think of Schmitt’s piece as being in the footsteps of Fauré. It unfolds in a very interesting way and at the same time gracefully — almost effortlessly.
Also, Schmitt’s use of the solo woodwinds is remindful of something that Fauré would have written — cherishing each woodwind line and phrase. I’d also add that there’s a kind of nobility to the music, and this is something that is quite special.
PLN: You have mentioned before that musicians often find Florent Schmitt’s scores challenging to play. What comments, if any, have you heard about this piece as you’ve rehearsed it with the orchestra?
JAF: I haven’t heard any comments this time around about the music being hard to play. Instead, I think the musicians have reveled in the music.
This piece is less difficult than the other scores they’ve played by Schmitt, where you really have to concentrate on the notes and the rhythm. A piece like this has given them ample time for the music to settle in, to where they could really concentrate on color.
Also, some of the musical lines are more exposed, such as the woodwind parts and the small violin solos for our concertmaster Nikki Chooi that are sprinkled throughout the score. And so they’ve been very focused on how beautiful they can make it — in achieving excellence of sound.
I’d also mention that in consultation with Henry Ward, our principal oboist, we came to the realization that the final measures of the piece should be taken a little more slowly than what’s indicated in the score. It’s the final reminiscence of the love theme, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. These very subtle adjustments in tempo have added to the effectiveness of the notes on the page.
One other point I’d make is that hearing our musicians perform the music in rehearsal this week has been a revelation. We have some French broadcast performances from the 1950s for reference, but the sound on those tapes doesn’t do the music justice. The one commercial recording from the 1980s doesn’t offer many clues, either. But this week everyone could finally hear all the colors that this piece possesses, and it’s nothing short of amazing.
PLN: In Memoriam is made up of two sections — Cippus Feralis which you are performing, plus a brief scherzo on the name GABRIEL FAURÉ which the composer had originally composed for piano solo about a decade before, and then orchestrated for this score. You have chosen to omit the Scherzo. What was the rationale for making this decision?
JAF: The two pieces come from different worlds. The Scherzo was written in 1922, several years before Faure had died, so in that sense it wasn’t a “memorial” composition like Cippus Feralis. It’s interesting that it wasn’t until 1935 that Schmitt looked back and decided to write this memorial tribute to Fauré, more than a decade following his death.
Now, we know that Schmitt published the two together, so there is that statement. But the two pieces are just so different, and I couldn’t find any bond between them. I was afraid that the audience would be bewildered by hearing the jarring contrast of the Scherzo immediately following the Cippus Feralis. They might find the first part among the most beautiful pieces they’ve ever heard, but then the Scherzo is such a departure from that, it would break the spell.
PLN: Do you and the Buffalo Philharmonic have plans to record In Memoriam, as you have done with the other works of Schmitt that you have conducted?
JAF: Yes, if I can come up with a new Florent Schmitt recording to make with NAXOS. It’s something that is being actively worked on, but we are still in the early stages of discussion with the label. If the project happens, we would plan on recording both parts of the piece.
PLN: With In Memoriam, you now have seven works by Florent Schmitt in your repertoire, a tally matched by just one other conductor active in the world today. Are there additional pieces by Schmitt that you are planning to program in the future — or that are on your “wish list?”
JAF: Psalm XLVII is definitely on my wish list. Some of his orchestrated songs would be very worthwhile to perform as well.
PLN: You have been in the forefront of the worldwide Florent Schmitt renaissance — in particular because of the release of your two critically acclaimed NAXOS recordings released in 2015 and 2020 that have received widespread international distribution. In your view, how important has this renaissance been to the field of music?
JAF: It’s been tremendously important, because now we hear Florent Schmitt being talked about in ways that hadn’t been happening for decades prior. More and more, he’s being referenced in the same breath as Debussy and Ravel, which is completely fitting. Fauré and Schmitt are paired as well. Stravinsky and Schmitt, too. The renaissance is restoring him to the eminent position he had during his life, and where he truly belongs.
If you think about it, it wasn’t a long time ago when we never saw that happening — or, he’d be confused with the Viennese composer Franz Schmidt. But we’ve reached a tipping point. Of course, we need to have more conductors and orchestras playing and recording his music, but it’s definitely broken through.
PLN: Along these same lines, have other musicians sought your counsel and advice concerning programming Florent Schmitt’s music?
JAF: Quite a few people have told me that they’ve heard my Schmitt recordings, and that those have made them more interested in exploring his music. Whether that’s actually inspired more performances I don’t know for sure, but I do see that La Tragédie de Salomé is having many outings this concert season, all over the world.
We are grateful for JoAnn Falletta’s efforts to resurrect Florent Schmitt’s In Memoriam, and hope that the prospects of a desperately needed new recording will become a reality before long. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece that is overdue for a revival on concert stages across the world.