The French author and playwright Jean de la Fontaine is best-known for his fables, which are considered masterpieces of French literature. The fables of the ancient Greek author Aesop may be better known across the world, but La Fontaine deserves an equivalent place in the spotlight considering that he produced no fewer than 240 of his own stories that were published in twelve books between 1668 and 1694.
One similarity between the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine is the frequent use the animal kingdom to portray human traits in all of their manifestations — good, bad and ugly. Likewise, the fables of both authors were intended for adult readers as much as for children.
Where the two sets differ is in style — Jean de la Fontaine’s writing being more poetic whereas Aesop’s is more formal and straightforward. Related to this, “irony” is a particular characteristic in La Fontaine’s fables.
As befits La Fontaine’s noteworthy position in literature, it isn’t surprising that numerous composers have set his texts to music. Because the fables were written in the French language, musical treatments have been created mainly by French composers including Saint-Saëns, Offenbach, Gounod, Charles Lecocq, Théodore Dubois, Pauline Viardot, André Caplet, Maurice Delage, Marie-Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalier and Michel Bosc, among others.
Additionally, a number of non-French composers have also set La Fontaine fables to music, including Isaac Albéniz, Joseph Jongen, Paul Hindemith, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Dimitri Mitropoulos.
Florent Schmitt was yet another composer who was inspired by the fables of Jean de la Fontaine. In all, Schmitt set five of them to music — including four that make up his Fables sans morales, Op. 130, composed in 1953 for four-part a cappella chorus (or alternatively for four individual voices).
[The other La Fontaine fable set to music by Schmitt was Conseil tenu par les rats, Op. 123, a men’s choral setting composed several years earlier.]
Fables sans morales was written for the composer, director and musicologist Jacques Chailley to perform with his choral ensemble, L’Alauda — and it was this group that gave the premiere presentation of the piece in the early 1950s.
There has been some speculation as to why Florent Schmitt chose to title his composition “Fables Without a Moral,” because by definition a fable contains a “moral of the story.” As French musicologist Nicolas Southon writes:
“The title Fables sans morales is a bit strange, because like all the fables of La Fontaine, there’s a moral at the end. Maybe «morale», in the title, could be used in the sense of «morality». The title would then be a play on words (which is completely in character for Schmitt, of course); there’s a moral but no «morality». Either way, the ambiguity of the meaning of the title is what makes it interesting and intriguing.”
Irrespective of the meaning of Schmitt’s title, one can easily see that each story does have a particular point to make, as described below:
I. La Femme noyée (The Drowned Woman and her Husband): A man searches for his wife who has drowned in the river. Noticing that the husband is moving upstream in his search, people call out from the banks of the river, wondering why he isn’t searching downstream of the current. He replies, “She was always a contrarian during her life – difficult, swimming against the ways of others — so why should she behave any differently now?”
II. Le Lion devenu vieux (The Lion Grown Old): Confronting a decrepit lion in its old age, other animals – a horse, a bull and a wolf — now take their revenge for past attacks by kicking and biting him. But when those beasts are joined by an ass, the lion laments that suffering injury from such a base creature as a donkey is the worst insult of all — like enduring a second death.
III. Parole de Socrate (The Word of Socrates): The wise sage Socrates has a new house built for himself, but it fails to please the public’s taste. Some find the house’s plain interior unworthy of such a notable figure, while others note that the rooms are so small, people can barely turn around in them. How could Socrates possibly entertain his friends in such an inhospitable abode? He replies, “This is actually the perfect house, because it is just the right size for my true friends and me.” Indeed, while nothing may be more common than the word “friendship,” nothing is rarer than the real thing.
IV. Squatters – La Lice et sa compagne (Squatters – The Bitch and her Brood): A breeder dog is lent a shelter to give birth to her puppies. The bitch successfully begs to remain at the shelter a little while longer, whereupon the puppies become grown and she and her brood, snarling and baring their teeth, refuse to relinquish their lodging. “What we give to the wicked we always regret. Give them an inch, and they’ll soon take a mile.”
Given his predilection for irony and the sarcastic remark, one can easily understand how Florent Schmitt would be attracted to these particular fables of Jean de la Fontaine — and this is also reflected in the musical treatments he gave to them. As Yves Hucher, Schmitt’s biographer, wrote in 1961:
“Florent Schmitt expresses the irony and humor of La Fontaine with a freedom, a sense of unequal meter, and a wit that the fabulist himself would have thoroughly enjoyed.”
… Not that this makes for easy music-making on the part of the performers. Despite being notated on just four staffs, the vocal writing is exceedingly polytonal and polyrhythmic in character. Doubtless it creates numerous landmines for the singers, but the end-result is a composition that sounds incredibly rich and full-bodied.
To see and hear proof of this, a 1960 live performance of Fables sans morales, presented by the Chamber Choir of the ORTF under the direction of Jean-Paul Kreder, has been uploaded to YouTube along with the score, courtesy of George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos’ excellent music channel:
Fables sans morales is quite the rarity; since its premiere performance in the early 1950s, the piece has failed to enter the repertoire in any meaningful way (nor has the work ever been commercially recorded).
Subsequent to the aforementioned 1960 Kreder/ORTF Chamber Choir performance, I am aware of just a handful of other outings for the piece in the ensuing decades. One is a 1963 performance by the René Alix Chorus that was broadcast over French Radio.
More recently, the Budapest-based ensemble Capella Silentium presented the piece in 2017 as part of an interesting and varied program of a cappella choral music that also included works by Hugo Distler and Sofia Gubaidulina.
Founded in 2009 by its artistic director Tamás Várkonyi, the Capella Silentium ensemble focuses on performing “forgotten beauties” of the vocal literature, ranging from early renaissance music to the contemporary era. Its talented vocalists are drawn from the current and former student roster of the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.
To date, Capella Silentium has presented more than 200 choral works as part of carefully curated thematic programs. Florent Schmitt has been featured in several such programs; in addition to Fables sans morales, the ensemble has also performed Schmitt’s 1944 a cappella choral work A contre-voix.
As a representative example of Florent Schmitt’s late-career choral style, Fables sans morales certainly deserves more champions — and it’s also overdue for its first-ever commercial recording. Hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer for that to happen.