Over the past decade or more, Florent Schmitt’s music written for solo and duo-pianists has appeared on commercial recordings with ever-increasing frequency. Among them are several premiere recordings of the composer’s scores for two piano players as offered up by the Invencia Piano Duo (released in 2012-13 on a series of four CDs on NAXOS’ Grand Piano label). More recently, a 2021 Grand Piano release of Schmitt’s solo piano music, performed by Biljana Urban, contains important recording premieres as well.
But one set of solo piano pieces by Florent Schmitt – the Trois préludes, Op. 3, has yet to receive its first complete commercial recording. These charming miniatures were penned in the years 1891-95 by a composer who was in his early-to-mid twenties – and who was still some years away from winning the coveted Prix de Rome first prize for competition (finally achieved by Schmitt in 1900 on his fifth attempt).
The reason for the neglect of Trois préludes is easy to fathom. As compositions created so early in Schmitt’s life, they can’t help but be less “original” works — and consequently more apt to be “derivative” of other composers and musical influences. Still, I’ve long wondered how these preludes might sound, coming as they did from the pen of a very young Florent Schmitt who was continually absorbing, processing and evolving as a result of those influences.
Now we have the answer to that question – and it comes not in the form of a commercial recording, but instead in a YouTube upload made by an amateur pianist from Japan who has posted more than 600 videos of often-unusual piano music created by composers from all over the world.
This “mystery pianist” posts his uploads under the pseudonym “Fumecri Himecri”, which translates into English as “Page Turner.”
… And a “page turner” he most assuredly is, with some 600+ uploads to his name. As the pianist himself explains on his YouTube landing page:
“Welcome to my channel. Here I present many pieces for the piano. I’m flipping through sheet music every day, and it’s like inviting friends over to my studio and telling them, ‘Hey, I just found a cool piece – have a look and a listen!’
As such, the performances aren’t perfected through extensive practicing — but in any case I hope that you’ll enjoy discovering the music with me.”
Florent Schmitt’s Trois préludes, collectively lasting about ten minutes in duration, are titled as follows:
- Prélude triste (composed in 1891 … dedicated to Mme. Jean Ballon)
- Obsession (composed in 1895 … dedicated to Mme. Henri de la Myre)
- Chant des cygnes (composed in 1895 … dedicated to Cesare Galeotti)
Thanks to “Page Turner” — whose performance admittedly isn’t that of a professional pianist but is nonetheless worthy of hearing — we now have the opportunity to assess these very early piano pieces for clues as to where the young composer was headed in his artistic development. Helpfully, in the YouTube upload the score is displayed in tandem with the performance, adding further to our understanding and enjoyment of the music:
To my ears, moving through the set reveals music that becomes increasingly more original — and more difficult to play. Prélude triste, composed in 1891 in Nancy, is the most straightforward of the three pieces, employing multiple repetitions of the main theme that renders the music somewhat less engaging than the other preludes.
That being said, there are similarities between this prelude and the set of ten “preludes-nocturnes” published a year later under the title Soirs, Op. 5, about which Florent Schmitt’s student and first biographer, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, would later write, “It sums up a whole [pre-war] period where there is no trouble for the morrow — when life is easy and eventless and happy.”
In his landmark writings on French piano music, Alfred Cortot describes Schmitt’s model for his “early romantic and emotive works” as follows:
“They are, for the most part, short improvisations with a single subject, leading via an expressive progression to a moment of suspension in which the phrase is brought to a standstill. Then, following a brief pause, a slower repeat of the theme serves as a conclusion.”
… And it’s quite clear that Prélude triste fits this model perfectly.
In the second prelude, titled Obsession, the mood is more plaintive. Composed by Florent Schmitt in Angoulème in 1895, the piece was dedicated to Mme. Henri de la Myre, a prominent resident of that city. One is left to wonder what connection, if any, might have existed between the “obsessive” subject of the piece and the relationship of the composer to his dedicatee …
The third prelude, Chant des cygnes, was written by Florent Schmitt in Paris in 1895 and was dedicated to the Italian-born Parisian opera composer, conductor and pianist Cesare Galeotti. Regarding this prelude, written in 6/16 time, the observations of “Page Turner” are interesting in that he asserts that Schmitt employs a “strangely difficult multi-note polyrhythm.” That description sounds more like the musical style of Florent Schmitt that would soon come to the fore — and we also have notations from the composer himself about Chant des cygnes where he points out that “the left hand is most discreet, as if ignorant of what the right hand is playing.”
Considering these characterizations, it isn’t surprising that Chant des cygnes turns out to be the most difficult of the three preludes for pianists to play.
What have been the fortunes of these early piano pieces in the decades since they were written? One thing we know is that Florent Schmitt felt highly enough of them to exclude the preludes from a folio of juvenilia created before 1895 which the composer had clearly marked “never to be published.” (The four secular cantatas that make up Schmitt’s earlier attempts to win the Prix de Rome composition prize are among the manuscripts included in this folder.)
Instead, the firm of E. Baudoux & Cie. published the Trois Préludes in 1896, and the Op. 3 piano score was reissued a decade later by Rouart Lerolle & Cie. Much later on, Kalmus reprinted the score for the Préludes in 1992. Interestingly the original Baudoux edition contains a number of dynamic, tempo and expressive markings that don’t appear in later editions of the score.
As for performances of the pieces, records show that the first public presentation of the set happened at a Société nationale de musique event in Paris in 1897, when the music was played by the composer himself.
From thence forward, it’s fair to surmise that performances of the preludes have been few and far between, as they have tended to be overshadowed by Schmitt’s later piano music. To wit, only the first of the Op. 3 preludes was selected by pianist Biljana Urban for her 2021 recording, whereas she opted for other recording premieres in her Grand Piano release of solo piano works by Florent Schmitt.
But now that people have the ability to “see and hear” all of the Trois préludes at long last, it may turn out that this music does have a performance future. At the very least, these early preludes seem to be tailor-made for students and others with moderate piano playing capabilities. Give them a listen and see if you don’t agree.
Obsession may be the best of these — a romantic evocation mediated by Schmitt’s signature delight in moments of abruptness.
The pianist plays serviceably well and his double notes are good — but his piano needs tuning to enable Schmitt’s harmonic subtleties to be savored fully.