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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
“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 …”
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.