About this Recording
8.573169 - SCHMITT, F.: Violin and Piano Works - Sonate libre / HabeysseƩ / 4 Pieces / Chant du soir / Scherzo vif (Halska, Chaiquin)
English  French 

Florent Schmitt (1870–1958)
Works for Violin and Piano


Florent Schmitt, one of the most original and prolific composers belonging to the late nineteenth-century and first half of the twentieth-century French music school, was born into a family of music-lovers and was encouraged to follow musical interests from an early age. After his initial studies at the Nancy Conservatoire under the guidance of Henri Hess (1841–c1908), who taught him piano, and Gustave Sandré (1843–1916), who taught him harmony, he became a student of André Gédalge (1856–1926), Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924), Jules Massenet (1842–1912), Théodore Dubois (1837–1924) and Albert Lavignac (1846–1916), receiving an excellent education in advanced music theory, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, composition and piano with these important musicians. In 1900 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome with his cantata Sémiramis. It is worth noting that even though he studied under Massenet, one of the greatest opera composers, he never composed an opera. Most of the other classic forms attracted Schmitt, who composed in most genres, including symphonic works, choral works, piano pieces and a quantity of chamber music. He was a music polymath, composer, pianist, organist, and music professor, teaching harmony and serving as director of the Conservatoire of Lyon, from 1922 until 1924, the only official position that he ever held. He was also music critic of the Revue de France and later of Le Temps (from 1919 until 1939), and as a critic was severe and outspoken, exactly as Hector Berlioz had been in an earlier generation. He was widely read and an enthusiastic traveller, visiting, among other countries, Germany, Scandinavia, Spain, Morocco, Greece and Turkey (a detailed and long manuscript essay concerning his visit to Greece demonstrates his investigational spirit blended with a youthful enthusiasm on encountering the country of dreams and of civilization: Voyage aux Météores- Monastères en l’air, 1903, the Constantin P. Carambelas-Sgourdas Music Manuscript Collection-French Composers Section).

His chamber music works are created in a very personal manner. They show Schmitt at his very best and are inspirational and harmonically daring. In 1901 he composed a suite of four pieces for violin and piano, entitled 4 Pièces pour violon et piano, Op 25. The work is dedicated to his friend, Maurice Caplet, and comprises four movements of distinctive character. The opening Lied, pays tribute to the German art song of the nineteenth century, but in a very “French” way. The piano accompanies a highly expressive and cantabile violin line, whose singing quality is emphatically lyrical. The following Nocturne, dedicated to the celebrated Italian violinist Teresina Tua (1867–1956, known as the “angel of the violin”), is an evocative piece that brings to mind the delicate atmosphere of Fauré. Piano arpeggios in 6/8 time, support the singing melody of the violin. The third piece is a Sérénade, dedicated to Henri Schickel, in 3/8 time and in E major. This has a light, very optimistic and dance-like character. The concluding piece, Barcarolle, dedicated to Luigi Monachesi, is in 3/4 time (presque lent). Its delicate and refined writing (warm arpeggios and chromatic harmony) evoke the Venetian atmosphere of the waters, love and youth.

Scherzo vif, Op 59, is dedicated to Firmin Touche (1875–1957), concertmaster of the Orchestre Colonne and professor at the Paris Conservatoire, father of Jean-Claude Touche (1926–1944, organist, conductor, composer and improviser of genius, who died tragically young). This exists in both an orchestral version and a reduction for violin and piano. Schmitt began composing the work in 1903, completing it in 1910. The violin and piano reduction was published in 1913 and is a technically demanding virtuoso piece, full of fiery passages, well-crafted rhythmic patterns and intricate melodic lines.

Chant du soir, Op 7, for violin (or English horn) and piano, is an early work, composed in 1895 (it is usually performed in a later revised version), when Schmitt was in his mid-twenties and is dedicated to the distinguished Belgian violinist, composer and concertmaster of the Orchestre Colonne, Armand Parent (1863–1934). It begins with a Debussian modal subject, mystical, “oriental” and rhapsodic in character, and gradually evolves into an apocalyptic nocturnal testimony.

Completed in 1947, Habeyssée, Op 110, for violin and piano, belongs to the late Schmitt masterpieces, (it also exists in a version for violin and orchestra). Most probably inspired by an Islamic legend, it is in three movements (A, B and C). Movement A (assez animé), dedicated to his friend François d’Albert, explores syncopated rhythmical patterns, quasi-Bachian counterpoint and cantando melodic passages. Movement B (un peu attardé) is dedicated to the famous photographer Boris Lipnitzki (1887–1971), who had photographed many legendary personalities from the world of arts and entertainment of his time, including Schmitt. It begins in an atmosphere of relative calmness and soon changes into an anguished mood of uncertainty that is underlined by sudden explosions of dynamics, a bold chromatic language and dissonant chord progressions. It offers an intense dialogue between the two instruments. The last movement C (animé), dedicated to Monique Jeanne, is lively, melodic, light and narrative in character. The violin and piano hold a dialogue that swiftly alternates between playful, crisp and lyrical moods.

The final work on this recording is the Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées (ad modum clementis aquae), Op 68, for violin and piano, dedicated to Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (1888–1961), favourite violinist of Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), who also dedicated to her both his Sonata for violin and cello (1922), as well as his Sonata for violin and piano (1927). The Sonate libre, finished in 1919, soon after the First World War, is one of the best loved works by Schmitt. He began composing the score the previous year and completed it in the place that he had begun it, at Artiguemy, in the Hautes-Pyrénées, where he had his country retreat. The title is a jeu de mots referring to the daily newspaper L’Homme libre, founded in May 1913 by French president Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), which, after censorship and suspension, was given the new name L’Homme enchaîné. This marvellous bold diptych was first performed in March 1920 by Hélène Léon (violin) and Lucien Bellanger (piano) at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante.

The first movement (lent sans exagération) begins with a slow introduction and unfolds in a dark dreamy fairy-tale atmosphere, which includes a number of rhythmically energetic parts. The movement includes all the distinct qualities of Schmitt’s writing, lyrical-rhapsodic narration, impressionistic use of harmonic language, sudden changes of dynamics and contrasting rhythmic patterns, well worked out counterpoint and subtle thematic transformation. The time signature alternates between 12/8, 9/8, 6/8, 3/4, 5/4, 4+2/4, 24/16 and 4/4, giving the movement an extra sense of pulse fluidity.

The second movement (animé), structurally developed in great detail, finds itself in a direct contrasting mood when compared to the first movement. The Mephistophelian character, full of rhythmic vitality, drive and motoric energy, is a tour de force for both instruments involved. If the first movement was a mystical dream, this is a frightening nightmare that tries to find solutions and ways of escape (it relates to the tragedies of the First World War). As in the first movement, also here we come across sudden changes of time signature, 3/8, 2/8, 5/8, 7/8, 4+2/4, 9/8 and 6/8. The rhapsodic character returns between fiery sections, in remembrance of the poetical mood and elements of the sonata’s first movement. The work ends in an explosive atmosphere of demonic grandeur that finally finds the light of freedom and peace in the last bars of the score.

Constantine P. Carambelas-Sgourdas

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