About this Recording
8.570489 - SCHMITT, F.: Piano Quintet / A tour d'anches (Berlin Soloists Ensemble)

Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
Piano Quintet, Op. 51 • À tour d’anches, Op. 97


The French composer Florent Schmitt, once mentioned by Stravinsky in the same breath as Debussy and Ravel, is a somewhat obscure figure today. Often relegated to the shadows of music history, he was nevertheless a prominent and important member of early twentieth-century Parisian musical life. Born in Blâmont in 1870, Schmitt grew up in a musical household. He was admitted into the Nancy Conservatoire at the age of seventeen to study piano and composition, and just two years later found himself at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire, where he later took composition lessons with (among others) Massenet and Fauré. It was in these classes that he first encountered Ravel, with whom he formed a close and lasting friendship.

Like Ravel, Schmitt entered the Prix de Rome competition five times, but unlike his more famous friend, his persistence was finally rewarded when he received first prize in 1900 for the cantata Sémiramis. The prize brought his name to wider attention, and during this period Schmitt travelled widely, meeting some of the most famous artists of the day and gradually solidifying his reputation. He was appointed as the Director of the Lyon Conservatoire in 1922, although he only held this post for two years. In 1924 his prominence was such that he was chosen to represent his country at a festival organised by the recently-founded International Society for Contemporary Music, held in Prague. By 1931 his fame was assured, and he was given the official stamp of approval when he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

His career continued to move from strength to strength, and five years later Schmitt was voted into a seat at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, a division of the Institut de France, although the writer Camille Mauclair asserted at the time that he ran for the seat as a joke. Despite being a personal triumph, the Institut’s offer resulted in the breaking of a friendship. Stravinsky had also put himself forward for the seat, and Schmitt’s victory occasioned a rift between the two composers that lasted until after Schmitt’s death.

In some ways Schmitt’s election to this most venerable of institutions was surprising, given that in his capacity as a critic for such publications as La France, Revue de France and Le temps he frequently ruffled establishment feathers with his biting wit. According to the conductor Robert Craft, Le Figaro described Schmitt as ‘a man who had mocked the Institut throughout his career’. Henri Dutilleux recalled that he used his privileged position to aid struggling young composers, and he continued to be musically active until his death in Paris on 17th August 1958.

The two works on this disc span a period of almost forty years. The Piano Quintet, Op. 51, which is dedicated to Fauré, was composed between 1902 and 1908, in the decade after Schmitt won the Prix de Rome. This was also around the same time that he wrote the ballet La tragédie de Salomé, which later became one of his most famous contributions to the repertoire. A work of extraordinary length, difficulty and beauty, the Quintet is a true masterpiece, and has long been unjustly neglected. Schmitt, who often performed it himself, must have been a formidable pianist—at almost an hour in length, and with piano-writing that occasionally spills over into four staves, the piece poses a considerable challenge to its performers. It was an immediate hit with critics and audiences alike, and established Schmitt’s name firmly in the public’s consciousness. In many ways, the Quintet marks a turning-point in his work, ushering in his mature period. Almost orchestral in scope, the work strains at the boundaries of its form, encompassing an extraordinary range of textures and emotions, and containing a wealth of melody.

The first movement opens with an almost imperceptible bass tremolo on the piano, before rising gradually from the depths to a fortissimo climax. What follows is a study in contrasts, in which moments of delicate, lyrical beauty alternate with impassioned, dramatic gestures. The opening of the second movement is characterized by an unusual, impressionistic texture: muted, ethereal strings outline a tremolo melody, while the simple, delicate piano figuration is marked ‘like distant bells’. Thereafter the writing becomes increasingly dense and complex as the music repeatedly works itself up into a virtuosic frenzy, although this mood is frequently punctuated by passages of blissful serenity, including the return of the opening texture. The final movement begins with a restless, agitated piano introduction that leads into an unsettling melody. The suppressed tensions within the opening continually threaten to erupt, and eventually do so in a breath-taking cascade of notes during the dramatic middle section, before the piece gradually draws to an abrupt, defiant close.

À tour d’anches, Op. 97, composed between 1939 and 1943, could hardly provide a greater contrast with the monumental proportions of the Quintet. Whimsical and ironic, it speaks an unmistakably twentieth-century language, and it is representative of his late style. Written for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano, the title refers to these three reed instruments. The comical first movement is full of playful rhythms, the instruments chasing each other through the texture until disappearing into the distance. Equally mischievous, the following movement is likewise infused with unpredictable rhythms and capricious energy. The bipartite third movement, however, alters the mood somewhat. The poignant opening nocturne features a mournful, delicate oboe melody, which weaves in and out of the surrounding texture. This first section, like the following sarabande, is reminiscent of both Ravel and Stravinsky. The last movement is entitled Quasimodo, and in this charming character-piece it is indeed easy to picture Victor Hugo’s famous hunchback among the bells of Notre Dame.

Written during the war, À tour d’anches is the product of a period in which Schmitt composed a good deal of chamber music, and its première took place at a chamber music festival given in his honour at the École Normale, alongside several other of his works. It sparkles with the humour, energy and wit for which Schmitt was famous and, listening to it, it is easy to understand why, upon his death fifteen years later, one critic wrote that ‘French music has just lost a smile and a master’.

Despite the many honours that were conferred upon him during his lifetime, Florent Schmitt’s name is little known today, and when he is mentioned, it is generally only as Ravel’s or Stravinsky’s less distinguished colleague. Yet his music refuses to be dismissed, possessing a rich and distinctive voice that demands to be heard on its own terms.

Caroline Waight

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