In September and October 2023, American pianist Matthew Bengtson performed three recitals in which he introduced a selection that was new to his repertoire: Florent Schmitt’s Trois danses, Op. 86. Composed in 1934-35, the piece is a relatively late work among the voluminous quantity of piano music that Schmitt created for piano solo, duet and duo beginning in the early 1890s.
The composer himself is a relatively new discovery for this pianist, who first performed music of Florent Schmitt only in 2022 – the formidable Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées (ad modem clementis aquæ), Op. 68 dating from 1918-19 — as part of a recital of pieces by Schmitt, Joseph Marx and Cyril Scott in which he was joined by the American violinist John McLaughlin Williams. (Click here to read an interview that I conducted with Messrs. Bengtson and Williams following that recital.)
Realizing the worthiness of Florent Schmitt’s artistry in the Sonate libre sparked further investigation by Bengtson into the composer’s vast catalogue of piano works.
Considering that he has long championed the music of late-romantic and early-modern masters, it is wholly unsurprising for an artist like Bengtson to be curious about Schmitt’s piano works. Indeed, as part of his focus on the music of that era, Bengtson has recorded all of the piano sonatas of Alexander Scriabin as well as solo piano and violin/piano works of Karol Szymanowski. (Not confining himself to that time period, Bengtson also performs the music of living composers such as Paul Schoenfield, Roberto Sierra and William Bolcom, while also dipping back into the repertoire of the Classical era.)
Figuring that he might find Florent Schmitt’s Trois danses worthy of exploration, I passed along a copy of the score to Bengtson in 2021. And now, two years later, he has begun to play this music in concert: To date he has included Trois danses in recital programs presented at Temple University, Cornell University and Bucknell University.
I attended Bengtson’s Bucknell recital, at which time I was able to interview the pianist about his journey of discovery with Florent Schmitt and this particular score. Highlights of our very interesting discussion are presented below.
PLN: The music of Florent Schmitt is a relatively recent addition to your solo and chamber music programs. What attracted you to his music? What makes it “good repertoire” for the kind of programs you like to present?
MWB: Although I’m interested in music from all eras, the early twentieth century remains my favorite period. From those times you can encounter the most creative use of harmony, freewheeling imagination, the strong individuality of composers, and the notion of endless possibilities. There are also fascinating contrasts between the composers of different nationalities who created dynamic, virtuosic scores — as well as the feeling of looking both forward and backward in history.
You experience all of this in Florent Schmitt. French art and music are among my favorites of the period, and Schmitt has turned out to be a vibrant and fresh new face – one who has obviously been underrated, and who left us a lot of fine music to explore.
PLN: I had the opportunity to see you and violinist John McLaughlin Williams perform Schmitt’s Sonate libre in 2022. That piece dates from about 15 years before Schmitt’s Trois danses. What similarities — or differences — in musical style do you notice between the two scores?
MWB: First of all, the two works are clearly in completely different genres, with entirely different requirements. But both pieces are absolutely first-rate works of their kind.
The Sonate libre is a much more ambitious score, and more mysterious. It’s more expansive, and one might say more “Romantic.” There are touches of Wagner and Richard Strauss which are absent in Trois danses, a piece that is more jewel-like, more perfect, clear-cut — perhaps more Ravelian. Think of Romantic versus Classical, Beethoven versus Mozart, Debussy versus Ravel.
It’s clear enough, though, that both pieces come from the same composer because of the imaginative, coloristic use of harmony. In terms of form or phrase structure, you can see Schmitt’s tendency to include irregular repetitions of the same material, especially in the outer movements. This is a style we usually associate with Stravinsky and Le Sacre.
In both Schmitt pieces there is a contrast of style elements between suave lyricism and luxury on the one hand, and dance rhythms with acerbic humor, biting with half-step dissonances (but not as harsh or severe as in Stravinsky).
The ending of the third piece “Danse de Corde” in Trois danses also mirrors the ending section of the Sonate libre, where the tempo undergoes disintegration before an energetic and rather curt conclusion.
PLN: What characteristics of Trois danses make this suite interesting as a set of pieces? How does the work compare in style to the piano music of other French composers active at the same time as Schmitt in the early 20th century?
MWB: With their fast-slow-fast structure, the pieces have the feeling of a sonatina, whether or not Schmitt specifically intended that. There isn’t really an obvious companion work in the standard rep that I can think of. The three-piece Debussy cycles — Pour le piano, Estampes, both sets of Images — are longer and less formally clear-cut.
Trois danses goes well beyond Suite bergamasque in sophistication and difficulty. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin might be the closest thing to it, but Tombeau is on a much larger scale, and it’s probably a more traditional work since Ravel starts with a prelude and fugue, and the other dances he chooses are much less obscure.
By contrast, Schmitt’s titles of the pieces in Trois danses are quite mysterious — but I don’t think audiences would find this any impediment to appreciating them, since the music is so lucidly written.
PLN: What are your thoughts about how each of the three movements of the set are written, and how they come across to an audience? Starting with “Montferrine” …
MWB: This is the most “lean” and neo-classical of the three pieces — a textbook example of the altered partial repetition of phrases. Schmitt always keeps us off-balance and guessing as to how many measures of repetition there are going to be each time.
The “Bourée lombarde” subtitle perhaps suggests some similarity to the “Rigaudon” in Ravel’s Tombeau. The ending of “Montferrine” is much more fully scored, but you need to keep a brisk tempo to project the right character, and this is technically challenging.
PLN: How about the contemplative middle movement, “Bocane”?
MWB: This is a really gorgeous piece. It’s the least dancelike of the three — more a kind of intermezzo. It could be really effective played on its own, or even presented as an encore. The “Bocane” can be played very freely, with the pure beauty of the sound almost jazz-like, in the Bill Evans manner.
There is a mystical impression created by the harmony and the texture that perhaps feels English in some ways, too — somewhat akin to Gustav Holst. The parallel chords in falling fourths are a simple but unique musical gesture — very effectively and imaginatively carried out.
PLN: And lastly, the “Danse de corde”?
MWB: The final number is catchy and exciting, and it grabs the listener with its swing and energy. This so-called “rope dance” suggests acrobatics in a public arena — in a kind of circus-like atmosphere. The movement feels like a sonata form, with very clear outlines and a strong sense of sequential development in the middle.
There is a beautiful little interlude on the last page with a series of pauses that sets up a characteristically energetic Schmittian ending.
PLN: Florent Schmitt was known to be a fine pianist himself. Are those traits evident in the way he writes for the piano? Is his writing for piano idiomatic … and does it lay well under the fingers?
MWB: Schmitt’s piano writing is certainly idiomatic in the manner of Debussy, Ravel or Poulenc. Trois danses is demanding to play in a way that satisfies the pianist, but it isn’t intimidating as in the Sonate libre.
One difficulty is the harmonic idiom, which makes for challenging reading at first, but you get used to it. There is also the brisk tempo in the outer movements. The most difficult element is the frequent changing of position which results from the multi-layered compositional thinking.
In “Montferrine,” the pianist often has to cross over the fifth finger in the right hand. It seems slippery at first, but you do get accustomed to it and then it’s pleasurable to play.
I am not generally a fan of the concept of “orchestral thinking” at the piano — it feels a bit cliché — but in these particular pieces I find it hard not to associate certain passages with orchestral instruments or combinations.
PLN: Florent Schmitt’s music has been undergoing a renaissance in recent years, and nearly all of his keyboard music has now been commercially recorded. Is the renewed interest in his work – particularly the keyboard pieces – justified?
MWB: Yes — if for no other reason that he was such an important composer in the first half of the twentieth century. Schmitt wrote a ton of piano music, and no study of the French piano repertoire is complete without taking into account his substantial contribution to the literature.
PLN: Do you have future plans to explore more of Florent Schmitt’s keyboard music – and possibly add it to your repertoire? Which pieces in particular are you investigating?
MWB: There is certainly a lot of interesting piano music. I would like to record the pieces I have already performed. Even if most of Schmitt’s piano compositions have been recorded by now, there are so few versions available that a second or third recording still feels like it would make an important contribution to the discography.
It’s difficult to definitively say which additional solo pieces I would wish to learn. Ombres and Crépuscules are really substantial sets, but at the moment I am more attracted to smaller pieces such as the ones that make up Op. 23 [Nuits romaines], Op. 29 [Musiques intimes, Book II], Op. 42 [Pièces romantiques], and Op. 70, No. 1 [Mirages: Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy].
The chamber music is appealing as well – and also a way to introduce this composer and his remarkable creative output to other performers.
PLN: Beyond the possibility of programming more Florent Schmitt in the future, what other projects or performances do you have on your schedule right now?
MWB: I’m in the midst of a pretty intensive series of recitals, which will continue with performances later this year in San Francisco as well as a chamber music presentation of the Vittorio Giannini Piano Quintet on the East Coast. Of course, my position as Associate Professor of Piano Literature at the University of Michigan takes up a good deal of my time. But I’m always investigating new repertoire with an eye towards performance and recording – and Florent Schmitt is definitely part of those endeavors.
We are fortunate to have a consummate artist of the stature of Matthew Bengtson advocating for Florent Schmitt’s Trois danses. From my research, it may well be that he is the first American pianist to present these pieces in recital in more than a half-century. Hopefully, his aim to record this music will be realized – as well as performing more of Schmitt’s music for the benefit of grateful audiences across North America.