These charmers, written for violin or cello soloist, make for perfect recital pieces.
Music-lovers who are familiar with Florent Schmitt’s catalogue know that he composed a number of works featuring the violin and cello as solo instruments.
Most of the composer’s violin pieces have been gathered together in a fine collection of works including the stunning Sonate libre from 1919, recorded by violinist Beata Halska-Le Monnier and pianist Claudio Chaiquin and released in 2018 on the NAXOS label.
As for the cello pieces, Schmitt’s works include one each from his early career (Chant élégiaque, composed in 1903), middle period (Final, written in 1926) and late flourishing (Introït, récit et congé, dating from 1948).
But there is an additional set of pieces created by Florent Schmitt that comes from his early period, written for either violin or cello soloist along with piano. Created over a period of some years, the five pieces were brought together as a set under the title Cinq pièces pour violon ou violoncelle et piano, Op. 19.
Collectively lasting approximately 20 minutes in duration, the five pieces that make up the set are as follows:
I. Chanson à bercer (Rocking Song)
II. Guitare (Sérénade)
III. Berceuse pour la chatte (Lullaby for the Cat)
IV. Rêve au bord de l’eau (Dream at the Water’s Edge)
V. Petites cloches (Small Bells)
These charmers are among the early Florent Schmitt compositions that Pierre-Octave Ferroud, a composer who studied under Schmitt and was also his first biographer, characterized as contemplative and happy: “fresh daydreams in the middle of calming nature, where worries are absent.”
The dates and circumstances of the publication of the set are a bit unclear. In Yves Hucher’s listing of Schmitt’s compositions prepared in 1961, the Cinq pièces are listed as being published in 1913 by Hamelle. At odds with this information, IMSLP lists the work’s publication year as 1909. But looking at the individual numbers of the set, it quickly becomes evident that at least several of them were composed long before 1909.
As for the qualities of the music, each of the pieces is its own little gem, with moods alternating between dreamy contentment and poignancy. According to a notation on the score, the first number — Chanson à bercer — was composed in Nice, France in 1901. It is a sweet, uncomplicated melody that was captivating enough to be waxed twice in the early years of recording (see below).
The Chanson bears a dedication to Mlle. Suzanne Duchêne, daughter of the prominent landscape architect Achille Duchêne and his social-activist and workers’ rights-advocate wife Gabrielle Laforcade Duchêne. I have been unable to determine the extent of the relationship between Schmitt and the Duchêne family or the degree of their social interaction — or alternatively, if Suzanne was simply the object of Florent Schmitt’s appreciation for an attractive young woman of sixteen.
The second piece in the set (Guitare) dates from even earlier – noted in the score as being composed in Paris in 1899. In this serenade, the strings of the violin or cello are plucked in places, redolent of playing on a guitar. This piece was dedicated to Jouro Tkaltchitch (Juro Tkalčić), a noted Croatian-born cellist who settled in Paris and who also devoted himself to composition. As such, a January 1913 Le Courrier musical review of a Tkaltchitch recital presented at the Salle Pleyel noted, “We knew Mr. Tkaltchitch as a brilliant cellist but not as a composer. In this last respect he also deserves interest. His String Quartet is a very fine addition, and his small pieces for cello and piano are charming pages.”
The Berceuse is a touching little number — its subject matter reminding us that, like his friend and fellow-composer Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt had a special fondness for felines. Indeed, he owned a succession of pet cats during the many decades he resided at his home in St-Cloud.
In some respects, Rêve au bord de l’eau is the most memorable piece in the set, in that in addition to being the longest in duration of the five, it’s a work that is near-hypnotic in its impressionistic character. An inscription on the score quotes a phrase from the French poet Paul Castiaux (“O songe des reveries !”), and Schmitt’s music fully lives up to this description.
Rêve au bord de l’eau was dedicated to André Tourret, a violinist who is best-known for being the teacher of Gražyna Bacewicz in Paris in the 1930s. Earlier in his career, Tourret was a member of the New York Chamber Music Society’s resident string quartet, a position he held until 1916. Interestingly, Tourret also played in the premiere public outing of Schmitt’s recently completed Piano Quintet in 1909 – a milestone event in the artistic development of the composer.
There is a bit of confusion surrounding the final number in the Cinq pièces set. Most sources list the piece as Petites cloches, although IMSLP has muddied the waters somewhat by listing a different piece (Dialogue) in its place. Dialogue is actually labeled Op. 17 (No. 1) in the Schmitt catalogue — an opus number it shares with the Scherzo-Pastorale (Op. 17, No. 2) for flute and piano. As for Petites cloches, it is masterfully descriptive music that conjures up bell-like sonorities as effectively as one encounters in similar pages written by the English composer, writer, poet and occultist Cyril Scott.
Perhaps because of its somewhat “scattershot” development over a number of years – along with the score being written for either a violin or cello as the soloist – the Cinq pièces aren’t particularly well-known in either the violin or cello realm, nor have they fared well on recordings.
But as noted above, the Chanson à bercer was the recipient of two recordings in the early years of the industry. One of them featured the famed American touring violinist Maud Powell, performing with pianist George Falkenstein. It was recorded on June 24, 1914 and released as a single-sided 78-rpm record in the USA (Victor Red Seal 64458) and the UK (HMV 3-7981). The recording has been re-released by NAXOS as part of a four-CD series presenting the complete recorded output of Maud Powell.
A later recording of Chanson à bercer was released on the Pathé label in France. Featuring the violinist Yvonne Curti on an 80-rpm 11.5-inch record (No. 9768), that recording is an extreme rarity today as it has never been re-released in any form. (It doesn’t appear on either of the two Japanese CDs issued in 2015 and 2016 that present a retrospective of Curti historical recordings.)
Little-known today, Yvonne Curti was a genuine violin “star” in France in the 1920s and 1930s. She specialized in light classical fare, and her popularity manifested itself in numerous recordings made for the Pathé label. While he resided in France, the Ukrainian émigré composer Thomas de Hartmann accompanied Curti in recital, and he also dedicated his 1929 salon miniature Feuillet d’un vieil album to her.
In the modern era, Florent Schmitt’s Cinq pièces has received just one recording, made in 2006 by cellist Jean Barthe and pianist Geneviève Ibanez. The recording, released on the Marcal Classics label, also contains Schmitt’s late-career quartet Pour presque tous les temps (Quartet for Almost All the Time) along with two works by the Swiss-French composer Pierre Wissmer.
The Barthe/Ibanez recording of Rêve au bord de l’eau has been uploaded accompanied by the score, which you can access courtesy of George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos’ YouTube music channel. While it may be my own personal favorite of the five pieces in the set, truth be told, all of the numbers are well-worth getting to know, considering their equal portions of melodic charm and dream-like passion.
As for orchestral arrangements of the Cinq pièces, it appears that Florent Schmitt created orchestrations for two of the five – both of them scored for small ensemble. The Chanson à bercer was arranged for flute, clarinet, bassoon and strings, while the Rêve au bord de l’eau exists in the composer’s arrangement for solo cello along with flute, oboe, clarinet, strings and harp. The Rêve au bord was presented by Camille Chevillard and the Concerts Lamoureux in 1913 (I do not know the name of the cello soloist).
Access to these instrumental arrangements has proven elusive over the years. As it turns out, what may be the only publicly available copy of the orchestrated Rêve au bord de l’eau resides among the holdings of the Fleisher Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. It is available to musicians and scholars for study and performance.
Looking at the handwritten score, one can easily understand why Florent Schmitt’s conductor-advocates JoAnn Falletta and Fabien Gabel are trying to interest cello soloists such as Nicolas Altstaedt and Julian Schwarz in performing this piece. At the very least, it would make for a perfect encore to present with an orchestra.
If there is a Great Beyond … and as you walk through its gates when it’s your time, I imagine Florent Schmitt will be there to embrace you for such exemplary work on behalf of his musical legacy down here.
Could not agree more, Frank Cooper!
Thank you so much, Messrs. Cooper and Hinton. You gents are going to give me a swell head!
Small intimate pieces like these tend to get to the heart of a composer.
Florent Schmitt wrote apocalyptic works, but the cozy affection he reveals in this music — including how he felt about his cat — tells us more about him in the same way that listening to late Brahms at the piano reveals an inwardness of affect not always evident in his large-scale compositions.