Spirituality with a pinch of pagan exuberance: Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses (1947-51).

Florent Schmitt, French composer

Florent Schmitt, photographed in 1953, two years following the premiere of Trois liturgies joyeuses. During the 1950s Schmitt would compose seven sacred works for a cappella voices — most with ad libitum organ accompaniment. (Photo: ©Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

Among the final crop of compositions that Florent Schmitt brought forth during his long career are a group of sacred works written for chorus or mixed solo voices.  They are seven in number, penned or published during the final eight years of the composer’s life:

  • Trois liturgies joyeuses, Op. 116 (1951)
  • Psaume VIII (Domine, Dominus Noster), Op. 119 (1956)
  • Quinque cantus, Op. 121 (1952)
  • Laudate, pueri, Dominum, Op. 126 (1952)
  • Oremus pro Pontifice, Op. 127 (1952)
  • Psaume CXII (Cantique de Siméon), Op. 135 (1956)
  • Messe en quatre parties, Op. 138 (1958)

With the exception of the 1958 Mass (Schmitt’s final composition), all of these pieces were written to be performed a cappella, with most including ad libitum organ parts as well. As such, they differ from Schmitt’s significantly more elaborate choral compositions with sacred texts that he had composed earlier in his career — Psaume XLVII, Op. 38 from 1904 being the most famous example, but also the Cinq motets, Op. 60 from 1917.

It’s intriguing to speculate on why Florent Schmitt might have been drawn to create such an extensive amount of sacred choral music during the final years of his life. Was it a newfound sense of spirituality developed in his twilight years? Or was the inspiration more practical — perhaps fulfilling commissions?

I can find scant evidence of the latter, so perhaps the notion of a man coming face to face with his own mortality may be a plausible explanation. But we shouldn’t forget that Schmitt wrote vocal music all throughout his seven-decade career, where we find him returning again and again to the human voice.

Florent Schmitt Trois liturgies joyeuses score coverThe Trois liturgies joyeuses, Op. 116 was the first of Schmitt’s late-career choral works to be completed. Written for four solo voices or SATB a cappella choir with an ad libitum organ part, the three sections of the work are:

Veni Creator (composed in 1949) — Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest, and in our souls take up thy rest; come with thy grace and heavenly aid to fill the hearts which thou has made …

Adjiciat Dominus (composed in 1947) – He hath blessed all who fear the Lord, both small and great …

Magnificat (composed in 1950) – My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior, for he that is mighty hath magnified me … 

Using Latin rather than French texts, Trois liturgies joyeuses is music that reflects Florent Schmitt’s mature compositional style, imbued with the polyrhythmic and polytonal writing that was commonplace for the composer during this period.

Florent Schmitt Trois liturgies joyeuses Veni Creator score page

A score page from the first of Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses.

At the same time, it is highly “accessible” music that has a romantic, often-exuberant flavor – so much so that Florent Schmitt’s biographer Yves Hucher wrote that the music has an almost “pagan” feel.

Florent Schmitt Trois liturgies joyeuses Adjiciat Dominus score page

A score page from the second of Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses.

Jeanne Baudry-Godard French organist

During the 1950s and ’60s, organist Jeanne Baudry-Godard performed not only Trois liturgies joyeuses, but also the important organ part in Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII. One of her several Psaume performances with the legendary conductor Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht was a 1951 International Human Rights Day concert presented at the Palais de Chaillot, attended by world-renowned dignitaries including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The work was premiered on May 25, 1951 in a Paris performance that featured four solo vocalists rather than a chorus: soprano Ginette Arvez-Vernet, mezzo-soprano Marguerite Myrtal, tenor André Leroy and bass André Pactat. The composition was published by Durand that same year, and shortly thereafter it was taken up by the Jean Machet Chorale and several other French choral ensembles.

National Presbyterian Church Schmitt Trois liturgies joyeuses 1955

This announcement of the Washington, DC premiere performance of Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses appeared in The Washington Post (February 1955).

In the United States, Trois liturgies joyeuses received its first performance on February 13, 1955 at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, presented by the parish’s chancel choir under the direction of Theodore Schaefer. At the time, Schaefer and his choir were renowned for programming the music of twentieth century composers, including works by Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams, Geofreddo Petrassi, Alfredo Casella, Zoltán Kodály, Alberto Ginastera, and Aaron Copland in addition to Florent Schmitt.

Jean-Louis Gil French organist

Jean-Louis Gil (1951-1991). Born in Casablanca, Morocco, this talented artist was organiste titulaire at Église St-Médard, professor of organ studies at the Angers Conservatoire, and organist of the Orchestre National de Lyon. He was featured on the 1990 Erato recording of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, with ONF forces conducted by Marek Janowski. Gil died tragically young at the age of just 40 years.

Michel Tranchant French pianist conductor

Conductor and pianist Michel Tranchant studied at the Paris Conservatoire. He served as assistant to John Alldis at the Groupe Vocal de France before becoming its music director in 1982, and later directed the Chœurs de Radio France.

Perhaps because of the music’s accessibility and audience appeal, Trois liturgies joyeuses has been programmed somewhat more frequently than Schmitt’s other late-career sacred compositions. Some of these performances featured noted directors and organists and were broadcast over French Radio, including:

  • Chorale Jean Machet, with organist Marie-Louise Girod-Parrot (1954)
  • Chœurs de la RTF, directed by Jean Gitton, with organist Jeanne Baudry-Godard (1963)
  • Chœurs de Radio France, directed by Jacques Jouineau, with organist Jean-Louis Gil (1985)
  • Chœurs de Lyon (Veni Creator + Adjiciat Dominus only), directed by Bernard Tétu, with organist Loïc Mallié (1995)
  • Chœurs de Radio France, directed by Michel Tranchant, with organist Yves Castagnet (2000)
  • Chœurs de Radio France (Veni Creator only), directed by Sofi Jeannin, with organist Denis Comtet (2016)
Yves Catagnet French organist

Yves André Claude Castagnet, French organist and composer, studied with Rolande Falcinelli and Michel Chapuis. Since 1988 he has been organiste titulaire of the choir organ at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.

A number of other French performances of the music have happened outside of Paris in recent years as well. In June 2014, Ensemble Energeia presented Trois liturgies joyeuses as the opening number of a program that also included sacred music of Jean Langlais, Jehan Alain, Olivier Messiaen, Vincent Coupet and John Taverner.

Jean-Dominique Abrell

Br. Jean-Dominique Abrell (1961-2019), harpsichordist, organist and choir director, began his musical career as a trumpet student of Maurice André. In addition to leading performances of Ensemble Energeia, he was a musicologist with wide-ranging interests covering the Middle Ages to contemporary creations. He entered the Ordre des Prêcheurs (Dominicans) in 1984.

Held at Paray-le-Monial, the concert featured four soloists rather than a chorus (soprano Brigitte Peyre, countertenor Michel Geraud, tenor Jean-Francois Chiama and bass Luc Bertin-Hugault), under the direction of the late Jean-Dominique Abrell.

Then in May 2018, Ensemble Affabilis, performing under the direction of Audrey Pévrier, presented Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses at Église St-Bonaventure in Lyon as part of a French program of sacred works that also included motets by Francis Poulenc and Maurice Duruflé plus Olivier Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium.

Ensemble Affabilis program 2018

The Ensemble Affabilis program (2018).

Affabilis Etcaetera 2022

Members of Ensemble Affabilis (2022 photo).

Sebastien Boin

Sébastian Boin

Later that same year, the choral group Madrigal de Provence, directed by Sébastien Boin, presented Trois liturgies joyeuses at two December concerts in Cogolin and Toulon. Schmitt’s work shared billing with an interesting grouping of pieces from composers as diverse as Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Debussy, Jean Absil, Maurice Ohana and Thomas Keck.

Madrigal de Provence December 2018 concert

The Madrigal de Provence program (December 2018).

George Parris choral conductor

George Parris

The most recent performance of Trois liturgies joyeuses that I am aware of occurred in November 2021 in Finland. It featured the Helsinki Chamber Choir led by the English director George Parris, performing a fascinating a cappella program ranging from the early Pierre de Manchicourt to Elgar and Delius, Vaughan Williams and his pupil Ina Boyle, and concluding with the Schmitt work. In his description of his program, Maestro Parris remarked:

“Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses concludes the concert with a luminous ecstasy that echoes the tonal world of Pierre de Manchicourt’s Magnificat secondi Toni.”

The 2021 Helsinki Chamber Choir concert was broadcast over Finnish Radio and remained accessible for some time thereafter, but appears to be no longer available.

Helsinki Chamber Choir 2021 photo

The Helsinki Chamber Choir presented Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses in 2021. The ensemble was founded in 1962 as the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir. It has performed more than 80 choral composition premieres since 2008.

Considering its rather robust history of live performances – including a goodly number of them in recent years – it’s rather surprising that no commercial recording has ever been made of Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses. But thanks to Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst’s excellent YouTube music channel, we now have access to hear the music while following along with the score:

Sofi Jeannin

Swedish-born Sofi Jeannin was the longtime director of the Maîtrise de Radio France, and now serves as the music director of the BBC Singers. (Photo: ©Christophe Abramowitz)

He has accomplished this by combining the 2016 Veni Creator performance by the Chœurs de Radio France, led by Sofi Jeannin, with the 1954 Chorale Jean Machet French Radio broadcast performance of the other two numbers.

In van Bronkhorst’s view, the result isn’t an unalloyed success; as he noted to me:

Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst

Jean-Marie van Bronkhorst

“It’s unfortunate that this work was never recorded by the likes of the Robert Shaw Chorale or the Cambridge Singers, where the results would have been so much better. This type of music requires a clean, transparent, not-too-thick choral sound. [But] I realize that these broadcast performances are the only ones available currently …”

Marie-Louise Girod-Parrot

Marie-Louise Girod-Parrot (1915-2014) stands at the organ of the Oratoire du Louvre, where she was organiste titulaire from 1941 to 2008. A pupil of Henriette Puig-Roget and Marcel Dupré at the Paris Conservatoire, Mme. Girod-Parrot was also a composer. She plays on the 1954 French Radio broadcast performance of Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses.

Despite those cautionary comments, we are fortunate to finally have a “score + audio” upload of this music accessible to us.

Hopefully, its availability will increase awareness of this fine composition, leading to more performances across the world as well as an eventual commercial recording of the piece.

Florent Schmitt Trois liturgies joyeuses Magnificat score page

A score page from the third of Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses.

One thought on “Spirituality with a pinch of pagan exuberance: Florent Schmitt’s Trois liturgies joyeuses (1947-51).

  1. These songs reveal Florent Schmitt at his most glowing and pantheistic, like Delius, but also show us his frequently playful side. The second number manages uplift through remarkably droopy descending harmonies, as if to show that it could be done, and the Magnificat is a simple canonical treatment of that one word.

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