For nearly every French composer coming of age during the period 1850-1950, competing for and winning the Prix de Rome first prize for composition was the indisputable gold standard. While the musical careers of some Prix de Rome recipients didn’t flourish as much as might be expected, no doubt the prestige of winning the honor opened up artistic doors for the recipients, making it easier for them to make their mark as composers.
In the case of Florent Schmitt, winning the Prix de Rome in 1900 – on his fifth attempt – was a watershed moment for him in three respects. First, it bestowed recognition and credibility on him as a composer.
Second, it gave Schmitt the opportunity to undertake a fruitful four years of creating music that, in retrospect, we recognize as important contributions to the concert repertoire.
Lastly, it gave the intrepid composer an excuse to embark on far-flung travel adventures, foretelling what would be a recurring activity of the composer for the rest of his career. For the typical Prix de Rome recipient, winning the prize meant an 18-month stay at the Villa Medici in Rome. But in the case of Florent Schmitt, his sojourn turned into a four-year odyssey of travel covering nearly all of Europe, the Mediterranean region and the Middle East.
Indignant letters from Paris Conservatoire authorities followed him wherever he went, and Schmitt would later remark that he “probably got into more trouble than any other recipient” because of his wanderlust during his Prix de Rome period.
The authorities needn’t have worried. Despite the rigors and distractions of his extensive travels, Schmitt’s Prix de Rome years were particularly fruitful in terms of the sheer volume of compositions that he created to send back as envois to the Conservatoire – a quantity that went well-beyond the minimum requirements. These pieces comprised orchestral works (among them Musiques de plein air, Combat des Raksasas et délivrance de Sita, Chant elegiaque and Le Palais hanté), choral music (Psaume XLVII), chamber music (extensive portions of the massive Piano Quintet), plus mélodies and works for piano. Chief among the latter were Reflets d’Allemagne, Feuillets de voyage and Trois rapsodies (all scored for two pianists), along with the solo piano sets Crépuscules and Nuits romaines, Op. 23.
The titles of the piano pieces in particular give clues as to the places where Schmitt had traveled. Nuits romaines (Roman Nights), composed in 1901, was inspired by Schmitt’s time in Italy and consists of two pieces:
- Le Chant de l’Anio, dedicated to French composer Auguste Pierret
- Les Lucioles (Fireflies), dedicated to composer and pianist Juliette Toutain, who had been a fellow classmate with Schmitt at the Paris Conservatoire
In Nuits romaines as with the contemporaneous Crépuscules, we can clearly notice a definitive break with Schmitt’s earlier piano music style — one that had been more reminiscent of Schumann and Liszt. It was a stylistic change that had been brewing for several years; in her 2011 thesis titled “Fashionable Innovation: Debussysme in Early Twentieth-Century France,” musicologist Jane Ellen Harrison explains:
“Florent Schmitt, Maurice Ravel and Charles Koechlin had met in Gabriel Fauré’s composition class at the Paris Conservatoire, and by 1899 had formed a small circle [the nucleus of what would eventually become Les Apaches]. Letters among the three composers reveal that they were regularly sharing their compositions with each other, attending concerts together, and engaging in critical discussion of the events occurring in their musical community.”
Based on the historical documentation that is available to us, Australian pianist Kenan Henderson recounts how Lucioles came to be:
“One day, Ravel announced to his circle of friends that it was impossible to write effectively for piano anymore. Florent Schmitt then proceeded to write his remarkable Les Lucioles in reaction to Ravel’s contention, which subsequently provoked Ravel into writing his innovative and famous Jeux d‘eau. This shows just how closely linked these two figures were in day-to-day life.”
Recognizing this interaction between Ravel and Schmitt places the significance of Nuits romaines in a clearer light, seeing as how it served as an important catalyst for Ravel in his development as a composer of scores for the piano. The French musicologist and author Nicolas Southon sees hints of Ravel’s future piano output throughout Nuits romaines, writing:
“The pianism sparkles in this set. It is written in a style where ‘fingers first’ are involved — almost in line with 18th century harpsichord playing — that is to say, contrary to the Romantic repertoire and without compromising resonance or spectacular pianistic gestures.
One notices the presence of the whole-tone scale with its characteristically mysterious sound. The score is quite close in character to Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, written later the same year, as well as Ravel’s Sonatine from 1905.
Most notable of all, it foreshadows Miroirs. A striking example is in the final bars of Lucioles, and in the first piece in the set [Le Chant de l’Anio], where in places the theme anticipates Une barque sur l’océan.”
As for that first piece of the set — Le Chant de l’Anio – the title likely refers to the Aqua Anio Novus, an ancient Roman aqueduct constructed along the Anio River (alternatively known as the Treverone or Aniene River) between 38 and 52 AD by Roman emperors Caligula and Claudius. The Aqua Anio Novus is considered one of the four great aqueducts of Rome. In Schmitt’s music, we can distinctly hear the aqueous rippling along with a general Mediterranean flavor bordering on the “orientalist.”
Nuits romaines received its premiere performance in Paris in 1902 at a Société Nationale de Musique event, performed by Juliette Toutain, a well-known pianist who had been a classmate of Florent Schmitt’s at the Paris Conservatoire, and who also premiered Schmitt’s 1895 composition Chant du soir (with the composer Georges Enescu as violinist) in 1900. Schmitt made Mlle. Toutain the dedicatee of Lucioles, the second number in the set.
The Nuits romaines score was published by Hamelle in 1904, but these days the work is one of the least known of Florent Schmitt’s piano compositions. Les Lucioles was included on the program of French pianist Jeanne-Marie Darré‘s second U.S. tour — a November 15, 1962 recital at New York City’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that also included music by Chopin, Franck, Saint-Saëns and Debussy. Of her performance, New York Times music reviewer Raymond Ericson noted:
“For all her great virtuosity, Miss Darré is primarily a lyricist, and it is the combination of these two qualities that makes her playing appealing even while it dazzles … Miss Darré is a romantic and an individualist, and to some she may seem like an old-fashioned pianist. But all her ideas about music carry the authority and conviction of a seasoned, mature artist who has lived long with her style and her interpretation. Her playing seemed quite wonderful.”
Since then, I can find little evidence of the music being performed in recital in recent decades — one rare exception being a performance of Lucioles given in 2004 by pianist Louis-Claude Thirion as part of a recital exploring musical connections with Émile Gallé’s decorative arts pertaining to nature and nocturnal themes.
Further underscoring the piece’s obscurity, there has been just one commercial recording ever released of Nuits romaines — made by the Bulgarian-American pianist Ivo Kaltchev in 2001 and released on the GEGA NEW label, exactly a century after the composition’s creation.
The Kaltchev performance is part of an all-Schmitt piano album that also includes two other premiere recordings (Small Gestures and Prelude … pour une suite à venir). In his CD booklet notes for the recording, Mr. Kaltchev characterizes the music of Nuits romaines as follows:
“The coloristic harmonic language of Op. 23 marks a further stylistic development into impressionism. Here, in addition to familiar impressionistic devices such as modality, parallelism, ostinatos, shimmering arpeggio figurations, etc., one can easily notice the characteristic features that would become a signature of Schmitt’s piano idiom — contrapuntal textures, an orchestral approach to the instrument, and complex rhythmic designs.
Schmitt’s experiences with time and sound are especially evident in Lucioles. The harmonic opulence, inventive polyrhythms and polymeters as well as delicate flickering figures of this piece foreshadow Ravel’s Noctuelles from Miroirs (1904-5).
For those who are interested in following along with the score while listening to the music, the Kaltchev recording has been uploaded to YouTube synchronized with the score, courtesy of Kyle Hannenberg’s music channel.
Give Nuits romaines a hearing. I think you’ll be just as captivated as Maurice Ravel was “back in the day” …