In the latter part of his career as a composer, Florent Schmitt devoted a good portion of his energies to writing vocal music, both for solo voices and for chorus. These projects give him the opportunity to indulge his passion for writing for the human voice — a persistent trait we can see throughout his life beginning with his very first opus number (O Salutaris, composed in 1891). Moreover, it also enabled him to select poetic verses that inspired him — particularly those created by contemporary writers.
The Quatre monocantes, Op. 115 is representative of this vocal music. In these four pieces, composed in 1949, Schmitt selected poetry from four different writers to create a set of pieces for voice and piano that are varied in their mood and color. The four numbers include:
I. Prise aux réseaux d’or (Taken to Golden Nets)
II. La Petite princesse (The Little Princess)
III. Antennes (Antennas)
IV. Le Cerisier (The Cherry Tree)
The poetry for Prise aux reseaux d’or was taken from a book of verses titled Les Crépuscules du matin (Morning Twilights) by the French-Colombian writer Hernando de Bengoechea, an artist whose life was tragically cut short during World War I. The symbolist poetry doesn’t translate easily from French; indeed, it’s nearly indecipherable even in its original language. Florent Schmitt’s music plays off of the mysterious meanings in weirdly unsettled sonorities.
This first piece in the set was dedicated to Marie Béronita, the soprano who introduced Quatre monocantes to Parisian audiences in 1950. A musician who was talented enough to perform at the Paris Opéra-Comique from 1942 onwards, Béronita is best-remembered today for her 1949 premiere performance of Émile Goué‘s Ballade on a Poem by Emily Brontë, a performance which has been released on CD and is currently in print. (In an ironic twist of fate, Goué was a casualty of war like Hernando de Bengoechea before him — but in Goué’s case it was the Second World War, during which the composer was held a prisoner-of-war by the Germans for five years, which destroyed his health and led to his premature death just a year after being freed.)
In the second number in the set, La Petite princesse, the verse chosen by Schmitt came from Tancrède, a volume of poetry authored by Léon-Paul Fargue and first published in 1911. Fargue was a longtime friend of Schmitt’s dating back well before World War I when the two men were fellow members of Les Apaches, the notorious anti-conformist group of artists, musicians and writers. (Another Fargue poem had been the inspiration for Schmitt’s hallucinatory orchestral piece Rêves, composed in 1915 in the midst of the First World War.)
In the verse for La Petite princesse, which is a beautifully rhyming poem in the original French, a young girl is alternatively enraptured by and afraid of her mysterious suitor, with the poem concluding, “He will pick flowers that die painlessly, and the little princess will be afraid.”
Schmitt’s setting of La Petite princesse was dedicated to the French soprano Geneviève Moisant, who was active in opera and on the concert stage in Paris during the 1950s. Opinion appears to be divided about her vocal skills. A 1952 Le Monde newspaper review of her performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade praises Moisant as singing “with as much intelligence and taste as vocal sureness.” On the other hand, the famed sculptor Paul Landowski (who was also the grandson of composer Henri Vieuxtemps and father of composer Marcel Landowski), wrote this less-than-flattering observation of Mlle. Moisant in his personal journal after seeing a February 1957 production of Gounod’s opera Faust:
“At the theatre, Faust with [Xavier] Depraz, an excellent Mephisto. I don’t like Geneviève Moisant — a voice with inexplicable sounds, akin to copper or zinc.”
The poetry for the third piece in Florent Schmitt’s set — Antennes — is intriguing in that the words were penned by Mireille Vincendon. Born Mireille Kramer in Cairo in 1910, she was the daughter of an Egyptian mother and a Russian father, and was educated in French schools. Upon her marriage to Jacques Vincendon, then-director of the Land Bank of Egypt, she divided her time between Egypt and France, eventually settling full-time in Paris in 1956. According to literary scholar Ferial Ghazoul, Vincendon’s poetry “revolves around existential concerns and the limits of language,” and her free verse is prone to contain violent metaphors.
Vincendon, who began her literary activities in the 1940s, was encouraged early on by Florent Schmitt, for whom she would write poetry not only for Quatre monocantes, but also the fourth number (Enserée dans le port) of the set De vives voix, an a cappella work for female singers composed by Schmitt in 1955. The words to Antennes are nothing if not atmospheric: “Unhurried white sails, vibrating waves, a world of memories …”
Florent Schmitt dedicated Antennes to Reine Aubier, a Belgian-born soprano whose actual name was Reine Duysburgh. During the late 1940s and early 1950s Aubier sang as part of the Quatuor el-Tour, a quartet of vocalists that also included Mireille Tournin, Raymonde Senecal and Isabelle Durtain. Few other details are known about her career, which appears never to have blossomed into something substantial. (One can’t help but wonder if Schmitt might have been more enamored by her attractive physical attributes than by her vocal artistry …)
For the final number in the set — Le Cerisier — Florent Schmitt selected a poem by Maurice Carême that appears in La Lanterne magique, a volume of children’s verses first published in 1947. A native of Walloon Brabant in Wavre, Belgium, Carême wrote French-language poetry that is characterized by its simple writing style. In his early years he was a primary school teacher, but by 1943 Carême had become a full-time writer, in addition to translating the works of Dutch poets into French. He is perhaps best-remembered today as a writer of children’s poetry.
The French composer Henri Sauguet once remarked that Maurice Carême “is and shall be the most musical poet who will ever live.” Many other composers would seem to agree with Sauguet’s claim, since — incredibly — over the decades more than 300 composers and singers have set over 2,700 of the poet’s texts to music.
Florent Schmitt was one of the composers who turned to the poet’s writings for inspireation multiple times. In addition to Le Cerisier, Schmitt set two other Carême poems to music — the second and third pieces in his Cinq refrains, Op. 132, a 1955 compositon for female voices (Chanson de route and L’Orphelin).
Unlike the almost fathomless nature of several of the poems set to music by Schmitt in Quatre monocantes, La Cerisier is much more straightforward. It is a fable in which a cherry tree begins to laugh “for no reason at all,” and its infectious laughter soon has birds and other creature laughing along. Soon the whole world is doing so, such that the laughter reaches the heavens where even God must hide his face while laughing, lest the angels and saints think that the deity has gone completely bonkers.
Florent Schmitt appears to have quite enjoyed creating Le Cerisier — so much so that he included it as the first number in his Cinq choeurs en vingt minutes, composed in 1951 as his Opus 117. It is exactly the same piece of music, except this time it was scored for four-part mixed chorus.
Unfortunately, neither version of Le Cerisier — nor the entire Monocantes set for that matter — has gained a foothold in the repertoire, which is a shame since it is certainly a creation of special merit. Moreover, I am not aware of any commercial recording that exists of the Monocantes, and live performances are rare as well. One that was broadcast over French Radio in 1986 featured Jean-Louis Petit leading soprano soloist Evelyne Razimovski and an ensemble of instrumentalists — part of an all-Schmitt chamber music concert from the Festival de Musique Française Ville d’Avray. (Other works by Schmitt presented at the same concert included the Sonatine en trio, the quartet Pour presque tous les temps, the Andantino [Vocalise] for clarinet and piano, and Lucioles from the early piano set Nuits romaines.)
Interestingly, the 1986 Ville d’Avray presentation of Quatre monocantes didn’t involve the usual piano along with the soprano soloist, but rather Florent Schmitt’s own chamber arrangement of the piece for flute, solo strings and harp that he prepared for the February 1950 premiere performance of the piece in Paris featuring soprano Marie Béronita and the Lily Laskine Quintet. As it turns out, Schmitt’s chamber music version adds wonderful additional elements of color, as can be heard in this upload of the Ville d’Avray performance presented in conjunction with the piano score, courtesy of Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst’s invaluable YouTube music channel:
Hopefully a first=ever commercial recording of this fascinating vocal composition will be made before long.