Florent Schmitt: Piano Quintet in Bm, op. 51

performed by the Stanislas Quartet and Christian Ivaldi

(cover image by Easton Oliver)

Florent Schmitt was born on September 28, 1870 in Meurthe-et-Moselle, and entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 19, studying with Fauré, Massenet, Dubois, and Lavignac. He won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1900.

From 1929 to 1939, he was the music critic for Le Temps, and was apparently controversial in that role, being called, among other things, “an irresponsible lunatic,” but upon knowing that he would shout from his seat at the concert hall or theater when he was displeased, I can’t say the description isn’t fitting.

He composed no opera, and his work fell into neglect, perhaps partially due to his “pro-German sympathies,” for which he was attacked. He wrote three symphonies, a piano quintet, a string quartet, string trio, two ballets, etc.

Composition on today’s massive work began as early as 1902, was completed in 1908, and dedicated to Gabriel Fauré. Michael Fleury considers it to be the “absolute apex” of French piano quintets, but I’d say almost without qualification that it’s one of the grandest, most monumental, imposing chamber pieces ever written, or at the very least, that I’ve come across.

The work is in three movements, as listed below, and has an astounding length of almost a full hour:

  1. Lent et grave
  2. Lent
  3. Animé

The piano begins the first movement with not so much a trickle as the far-off rumble of an impending deluge. Once you’ve heard a piece this large (usually we’re talking about a Bruckner or Mahler symphony), even the first few gestures or phrases of the piece imply, suggest, foreshadow the entire journey that the piece presents, and I find that a real strength. I get that impression here, that once you’re somewhat familiar with this piece, the opening flood of sound from the piano crashing onto the scene, is indicative of the power, might and richness of this entire work.

“What follows,” says Caroline Waight at Naxos, “is a study in contrasts, in which moments of delicate, lyrical beauty alternate with impassioned, dramatic gestures.” The size of this piece, not just in length but in the sheer grandeur of the sound, is just astounding. At times it feels as if it will explode and reveal itself to be a full-fledged piano concerto, but no; it constantly strains at the limits of its form, and just when you think it’s totally shattered any semblance of chamber-like intimacy, we get one of those “moments of delicate, lyrical beauty.”

This contrast of which Waight speaks is nothing short of a necessity, for the first movement lasts a full 20 minutes. It envelops the listener, practically drowns us in its liquid richness and emotion, and I’m completely okay with it. Schmitt’s piano writing is sumptuous, and at times the writing for the piano alone expands out to four staves. It rarely takes a backseat.

The second (and shortest) movement, at 14 minutes on its own, features yet more fluid piano writing, with contrasts of nervous string tremolos or melancholy solos from one of the strings, but this is really more than just a slow movement, as it reaches some thunderous climaxes of its own. It’s a little like being lost in an enormous garden or something, because it’s not so much that the music traverses a lot of ground as it is that what ground there is gets thoroughly covered. At one point, the piano is directed to sound ‘like distant bells’ in the score, and there are some Impressionist elements to the writing. It’s just beautiful.

You thought surely that 20-minute first movement was the longest, right? Wrong.

The finale, marked Animé, is slightly longer, and the piano looms over this movement, too, with generous use of its lower register, a resounding rumble that underpins everything else in the movement. This is also the only movement of the three not to have any kind of ‘slow’ marking in its title, but even here we have long stretches of the lush, lyrical spirit, with Romantic emotion and Impressionist textures. The music undeniably feels weighty, in both length and content; we are unmistakably aware of its duration, but it doesn’t feel like it comes so close to an hour.

There’s no fear of getting lost in this movement, though. You’ll know the climax when it appears, like reaching the summit of a volcano while it’s erupting, with a cascade of weighty sounds, a veritable wall of music, with the greatest use of dissonance in the entire piece. This richness and intensity make the entire journey worth it, and there’s an impression that there isn’t any other satisfactory way to approach this summit.

After this almighty climax, though, there are still remarkably tender, soft passages that (along with all the other contrasts in the previous movements) make it hard to fit this work into your standard slow-fast-slow three-movement form. It’s so beyond that…

The big question for a big, imposing piece like this, though, is how on earth you end the thing. Abruptly, apparently.

This music, while truly beautiful, is heavy, rich, but somehow still delicate, in the way that something decadent like, say, cheesecake or a beurre blanc sauce can be rich but also delicate. This really isn’t easy listening. It’s intense, but absolutely never mawkish. Fearlessly Romantic, even in the face of being overlong, it is bold and ambitious.

If there’s any chamber piece anywhere that approaches Mahler’s concept that a symphony should be the/a world unto itself, this must be it. It’s all encompassing, enormously satisfying, exquisitely written, and effective despite its intimidating length. It makes me very eager to hear more of Schmitt’s music, but also doubtful that any of the rest of it could be this excellent, although I certainly hope it is!

We’ve got so much more coming in the next two weeks before we end the French series, so do stay tuned for all the rest of it and thanks so much for reading!

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