About this Recording
8.572194 - SCHMITT, F.: Piano Music (Larderet) - La Tragedie de Salome / Ombres / Mirages
English  French 

Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50 bis (version for piano by the composer) Ombres, Op. 64 • Mirages, Op. 70


Florent Schmitt was born during the Franco-Prussian War, on 28 September 1870, in Blâmont in Lorraine. Having originally studied piano and harmony at the Nancy Conservatoire, he began a long period of study at the Paris Conservatoire in October 1889. His teachers there included Gedalge (fugue) and Massenet and Fauré (both for composition), while among his fellow students were Ravel, Enesco, Koechlin, Louis Aubert and Roger-Ducasse. These long years of solid training were crowned in 1900 when Schmitt was awarded the Prix de Rome.

For the next four years he was based at the Villa Medici in Rome, making the most of his new-found freedom by journeying across Europe and around the Mediterranean. During his travels he immersed himself in the spirit of each different culture he encountered, without ever indulging in direct imitation, but developing a kind of cosmopolitanism that would govern his inner creative world.

Schmitt played an active part in the musical life of the day, both as an original and prolific composer (his catalogue numbers 138 works, covering every genre except opera), and as one of the founders of the Société de Musique indépendante, along with Ravel, Koechlin, Fauré, Roger-Ducasse, Louis Aubert and Jean Huré. As a music critic for the newspaper Le Temps (1929–39), he defended the innovative tendencies of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Honegger and Villa-Lobos.

As a man, Schmitt was complex, warm, outspoken and uncompromising, yet his attitudes were not always beyond reproach. During the 1930s his sympathies lay with Nazi Germany, and his questionable political choices continued into the 1940s when he joined the music section of occupied France’s Groupe Collaboration.

So independently minded was Schmitt that his music resists being pigeon-holed into any one of the last century’s aesthetic categories. The freedom with which he approached composition meant that he reinvented himself with each new work, reproducing through the filter of his own personality the multiple sources of inspiration he absorbed from the outside world. His rôle was to be that of conveying emotions to an audience. Hence, far from being unequivocally identifiable as his, Schmitt’s music may take any of the diverse paths and employ any of the diverse idioms available to the modern composer. Depending on the expressive demands of the work in question, he may call on aspects of impressionism, expressionism, fauvism, neo-Romanticism, neo-Classicism or Satie-like humour. His harmonic language, highly inventive and imaginative, draws on the resources of non-dogmatic polytonality and extended tonality, at times verging on atonality. Schmitt was, above all, an intuitive composer, and he defies any attempt at doctrinaire theorising. He is closer, therefore, to post-modern syncretism than to the aesthetic compartmentalisations of the first half of the twentieth century, which goes some way to explaining the revival of interest in his music today, now that post-modernism delights in mixing and matching different periods and styles, and no longer assigns exclusive pre-eminence to the concept of novelty.

La Tragédie de Salomé was originally composed for reduced orchestral forces, and designed to accompany a ballet in seven scenes. This almost hour-long version (recorded on Marco Polo 8.223448) was first performed in 1907 and remained unpublished. Two years later, Schmitt produced a second version, half the length, and now arranged for full orchestra. The orchestral score (given its première in 1911 by Gabriel Pierné) and the piano score, recorded here, were published by Durand in 1912 and 1913 respectively. Schmitt, a gifted pianist, realised the piano reduction himself, thereby giving it an exceptional authenticity.

The second version, though condensed, retains the dramatic development of the original, from the oppressive atmosphere of the Prélude, to the tragic vehemence and violence of the Danse de l’effroi (Dance of Fear). From the start of the Prélude onwards, we can pick out a rhythmic motif (dotted quaver – two demisemiquavers) that can also be found, like a signature, in several of Schmitt’s other works (Psaume LVI, Quintette, Ombres and Mirages, among others). The Danse des perles (Dance of the Pearls) is a kind of 3/8 scherzo with two themes, the first agitated and attention-grabbing, the second slower and seductive.

The following two parts come from Scene V of the original version. First we hear a slow introduction, Les Enchantements sur la mer (The Sea’s Enchantments), full of questioning and anxiety, a magnificent large-scale impressionist piece, broadly based on materials borrowed from the Prélude. Then, in the distance, the Chant d’Aïça (Song of Aïça), “found on the shores of the Dead Sea”, rings out. This insistent melody of oriental nature moves gradually closer and closer, Schmitt accentuating here the spatial dimension of sound. After an accelerating crescendo, the Danse des éclairs (Dance of Lightning) bursts on to the scene, its use of compound metres (3/4+1/8) anticipating Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps. The dance, having reached paroxystic levels (“With frenzy”), then blurs and gives way to a “mysterious and sinister” slow passage whose muted dramatic tension is broken now and again by sudden outbursts. The Danse de l’effroi, in 5/4 time and featuring apocalyptic chromaticism and savagely hammered-out pre-Stravinskyan chords, finally plunges into nothingness. Igor Stravinsky, the score’s dedicatee, wrote to Schmitt in a letter dated 23 February 1912, “Dear God it’s beautiful! It’s one of the greatest masterpieces in modern music.”

The triptych Ombres (Shadows) has often been compared to Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, above all because of the huge technical demands of its opening panel. Schmitt’s inspiration was less directly literary, however, for while Ravel, with exceptional skill, set out to establish subtle connections between his source text and the formal structure of the music, Schmitt seeks more to respond to the sentiments and sensations suggested by a poem, or by a single line.

The first piece was completed in September 1917, at the height of the First World War, and Schmitt chose as its epigraph a phrase from Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror: “I hear in the distance drawn-out cries of the most poignant grief”. The work reflects the composer’s reaction to the tragic events of the war and makes an impact with its exceptionally virtuosic writing, notated on three staves throughout. From the start, two themes are set against one another, one ff, violent and raging, includes Schmitt’s signature motif, the other more measured, pp, is whispered in the distance. In the course of a first development based broadly on the signature motif, a third theme, in quavers, makes its appearance and alternates binary and ternary groupings. A sweeping, expressive fourth theme, above solemn harmonies, is introduced after this rich and generous development section.

Mauresque was originally composed in Paris around 1912 and has no literary basis. Instead it brings together various reminiscences of impressions gained on the shores of the Mediterranean. After an introduction, a “nonchalant” first theme in 3/4 leads to a slightly slower, expressive central idea in 4/4, with sonorities that are initially subtle but then begin to shine more radiantly.

The third piece, Cette ombre, mon image, composed in 1916, was inspired by the line by Walt Whitman, “That shadow, my likeness, that goes to and fro, seeking a livelihood…”. After Mauresque, an echo of the carefree experiences of his travels as a young man, Schmitt here moves on to a meditation on human destiny and the choices that influence it. The piano writing becomes broader, its space and perspectives often requiring the use of three-stave notation. The first, questioning theme is only gradually unfolded and contains a variant of the signature motif. A second theme, sinuous and melancholy, very soon appears, after some softly-sounded parallel chords. The third, over a steady quaver accompaniment, is more serene in expression. A change of mood occurs later with a reintroduction of the second theme in a more animated 6/8 tempo, almost in the manner of a Fauré barcarolle.

The Mirages, Op.70, comprise two pieces. The earlier of the two, Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda (And Pan, deep amid the moonlit wheat, cupped his chin in his hands), was written in 1920, À la mémoire de Claude Debussy—one of a series of tributes published in a special supplement of La Revue Musicale, with other contributions by Dukas, Roussel, Malipiero, Goossens, Bartók, Stravinsky, Ravel, Falla and Satie.

Schmitt had been friends with Debussy since they met back in 1891. Émile Vuillermoz said the following of Schmitt’s work: “This is the only truly lyrical cry of farewell in the entire collection, the only sob that has not been too quickly stifled”. The nocturnal scene is set by a brief call, a chromatic interpretation of the signature motif, in the lower register and a slow tempo. There follows the main theme, very Debussyan in character, more melodic and animated, its rhythm taking on that of a Sicilienne, highly decorated with agile ornamentation. This theme is subjected to multiple free variations. At the heart of the piece, the signature motif bursts in ff among the rapid runs for each hand in opposite directions. The Debussyan theme in octaves then takes on a soft, melancholy feel, before fading away into strange sonorities. The mist-shrouded ending returns to the initial motif, enveloping it in resonance and evanescent skipping runs.

La Tragique Chevauchée (The Tragic Gallop) is dedicated to Alfred Cortot. Written in July 1921, the piece recalls a legendary episode in the life of Ivan Mazeppa, taking its literary inspiration from Byron and Hugo, and its musical inspiration from Liszt. The jerky, obsessive rhythm, in a tempo marked “angry and violent”, sporadically pierced by dazzling runs, the dynamic contrasts and violent punctuations all combine to create a genuine endurance test for the performer. In the middle of the piece, a melody in long note-values on the offbeats appears, sad and sorrowing in feel. A brief slow episode gradually comes to a standstill, as if in a daydream, before the final fall.

© 2010 Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

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