Fables sans morales: Florent Schmitt’s pointed portrayal of Jean de la Fontaine fables for a cappella chorus (1953).

Jean de la Fontaine French poet

Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695). The poet and author, best-known for penning nearly 250 fables, is considered one of France’s most prominent literary figures. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1683.

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.

Florent Schmitt 1953 photo

Eighty-three year-old Florent Schmitt seated at the doorway of his study at his home in St-Cloud, France. This photograph dates from 1953, the same year that he composed Fables sans morales (Photo: ©Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

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).

Jacques Chailley French composer musicologist

Jacques Chailley (1910-1999)

[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.]

L'Alauda Choeur Francais Jacques Chailley Studio SM

This mid-1950s recording of Jacques Chailley’s Messe breve de angelis features L’Alauda, a choral group led by Chailley between 1946 and 1961. (Studio SM label)

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:

La Femme noyee La Fontaine Gustave Dore 1880

Gustave Doré’s 1880 illustration of the Jean de la Fontaine fable La Femme noyée.

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?”

The Lion Grown Old La Fontaine illustration Charles Pinot 1860

The fable of Le Lion devenu vieux by Jean de la Fontaine, as illustrated by Charles Pinot in 1860.

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.

Parole de Socrate La Fontaine Rabier

Jean de la Fontaine’s fable Parole de Socrate, as illustrated by Benjamin Rabier in 1906.

La Lice et sa compagne La Fontaine Granville 1840

La Lice et sa compagne (Squatters), a fable by Jean de la Fontaine, as illustrated by Jean-Ignace Gérard Granville in 1840.

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.”

Florent Schmitt Fables sans morales score first page

The first page of the music score for Florent Schmitt’s Fables sans morales. Composed in 1953, the work was published by Durand the following year.

Jean-Paul Kreder French Choral Director

Jean-Paul Kreder

… 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:

La Semaine Radiophonique Rene Alix 1949

The French musician René Alix (1907-1966),  pictured on the front cover of a 1949 issue of La Semaine radiophonique magazine. The René Alix Chorus was featured in many contemporary French compositions, in addition to performing the operatic canon. Alix was also a composer whose works included a piano concerto plus choral works, published by Herelle. He also authored the book Grammaire musicale, published by Durand in 1953.

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.

A Capella Silentium concert program Schmitt Distler 2017

The 2017 Capella Silentium program.

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.

A Capella Silentium Hungary

Members of Capella Silentium, with music director Tamás Várkonyi standing at right. The ensemble has won awards in several international choral competitions (Rimini and Vienna).

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.

2 thoughts on “Fables sans morales: Florent Schmitt’s pointed portrayal of Jean de la Fontaine fables for a cappella chorus (1953).

  1. Nothing pleases a French intellectual more than to think himself surrounded by fools — and to say so through aphorism or fable. In French, the notion best translates as “imbeciles” and surely fits Florent Schmitt’s frame of mind as a frequently embattled composer.

  2. It is wonderful to hear this rare piece performed so well. Published just four years before his death, the piece contains elements of style that can be found in Schmitt’s compositions from the juvenilia to his final works. Notably, the rhythmic vitality, the difficulty and challenges of performance, his interest in counterpoint as it contrasts with homophonic sections (especially in vocal works like this), experimentation on all fronts — polytonality that is seated in harmonic constructs here, for example — and the wit and playfulness that finds a way occasionally to peak through.

    One reason that his music deserves more performances is that he wrote so intelligently and so interestingly. And he was a rebel to the end.

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