Flowing Freely, Légende, by Florent Schmitt, Moves from Calm Serenity to Outburst without Excessive Transition

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Légende for alto saxophone and orchestra, Op. 66, by Florent Schmitt

Commissioned by American saxophonist Elise Hall “Legende” by F.Schmitt is one of the most enigmatic piece of music ever written. Unlike Debussy’s rapsodie, also commisionned by Elise Hall in 1903, Legende  requires a solid technique. Debussy was not impressed by Mrs. Hall’s talent and it shows. Although beautifully crafted, one can feel that Debussy felt compelled to restrain composing a technically challenging work. Either Mrs. had improved tremondesly or Schmitt didn’t care, (having read about Schmitt’s character I would opt for the later option!)  he writes as he pleases, with no contrains and the result is superb.

“Legende” could have as well be called Rapsodie. A one mouvement piece, flowing like an improvisation, freely, according to the mood of the moment, from calm and serenity to outburst of strong emotions without real transition, at least at first sight. We shouldn’t be fooled, Florent Schmitt has structured his work as thoroughly as Bach or Mozart would have done.

The orchestra sets the decor. MAYBE SOMEWHERE IN THE ORIENT AND ITS MAGICAL CHARM. A magnificent orchestration of impressionistic inspiration but yet so personal. A new language. The light touch of polyrhythmical elements and use of polytonality create a fluid, eery atmosphere upon which the saxophone floats, free to express the deepest emotions of the composer. No wonder Strawisky praised the piece so much after all both composers  belonged to a new generation of musicians, a group called Les Apaches, loosely translated as the Hoolighans! Everything  is geared toward giving the audience the feeling that Legend is improvised of the spot. Needless to say that this is an extraordinary gift for a talented saxophonist. For those who like Javier Oviedo are able to charge each note with infinite sensitivity, emotions and colors, such a music is an endless exploration of what the saxophone is capable TO EXPRESS. 

The piece opens with the introduction of a simple rhythm, I will refer to as  “the rhythm” by the cellos and double basses, with the mention calm, no metronomical marking, just Calm: Double dotted quarter note-16th note. This pattern will be heard all along the work, like Ariane’s thread guiding us through the labyrinth of the composer’s dream. Above it a few touch of colors by the oboes, flutes, French horns and triangle, peaceful yet mysterious atmosphere where the saxophone floats as a haunting voice, leading to a short moment of tension, sort of uneasiness  before coming back to a more serene atmosphere with the saxophone engaging in a playful dialogue with the wind section. The rhythmical pattern of the beginning being is heard, like an obsession, from the brass section with  an increasing intensity until the first outburst of strong feelings: the rhythm becomes more violent, with the pattern shifting to  double dotted quarter/2 32nd notes, with strong accentuations, not without reminding the listener  of Richard Strauss’ style. Following, the passage titled ”un peu plus mouvemente” is  a very fluid section, reminiscing of Debussy but  unlike Debussy this is not the treacherous ocean that Florent Schmitt depicts but rather a mountain creek that flows, calmly and leisurely.  Quiet waters reflecting the shimmery sun light, THE WHISPERS OF A LIGHT BREEZE TEASING THE LEAVES OF EXOTIC TREES but also capricious, with rapids and rocky passages.

“The rhythm” is still present and appears from time to time to take us back to reality. Is it our destiny, reminding us that whatever path our dreams take us we have a mission to accomplish and bringing us back to reality? Then we are back to tempo primo. The composer combines all the elements we heard, fluid rhythm of water, abrupt sounds of brass, touches of colors and the omnipresent rhythm, obsessional reminder of the ineluctable ending that will occur after a frantic accelerando, a most peaceful moment preceding the last accent of rebellion before it all ends.

Coming up next… Some comments on Tableaux de Provence by Paule Maurice

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