Here we have it, ladies and gentlemen: France’s missing symphony from the 1950s … It is almost impossibly beautiful, with some of the most kaleidoscopic sound-staging and effective bass sonorities you will encounter. Florent Schmitt’s Second Symphony was never precisely lost, to be sure. It’s actually the Francophone fifties which seemed to disappear and turn up blank for us. Here they return to impress — quite alive and kicking!
— Steven Kruger, Music Critic, Fanfare Magazine
Musicologists have noted the large number of pieces composed by Florent Schmitt during his life – some 138 “official” opus numbers plus a number of others. And the works span the full range of musical expression, except for opera.
Of course, considering Schmitt’s seven decades as a productive composer – he continued writing music right up until the end of his life at age 87 – perhaps the volume isn’t so surprising after all.
The last major work completed by Schmitt was his Symphony No. 2, Op. 137, which was composed in 1957 (dedicated to fellow French composer Gustave Samazeuilh), and had its premiere performance at the Strasbourg Festival in June 1958 in a concert conducted by Schmitt’s fellow Alsatian-Lorrainer musician, Charles Munch.
The composer was in attendance at the concert — in what would be his last public appearance — and received a standing ovation from the audience as well as the performers.
The musicologist and author Marc Pincherle, who was present at the final rehearsal of the Symphony in Paris prior to the Strasbourg premiere, wrote these words of observation:
“During the rehearsal we saw [Schmitt] leave his seat several times and walk up to the front tier of the orchestra stalls to give a precise and minute direction. Charles Munch, careful and delicate, the orchestra — the wonderful Orchestre Natonal — fired with the wish of ensuring the triumph of the new work, the mute but unanimous feelings of some intimate friends seated in the Champs-Elysées Theatre — all that was even more moving, perhaps, than the enthusiasm at Strasbourg would be.
And then, with a gesture, Florent Schmitt expressed his complete approval of what he had just heard …”
In an interesting juxtaposition, the 20th Strasbourg International Festival commenced immediately following the 32nd world festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) held in the same city. Filing a report published in the New York Times (June 29, 1958) about both festivals and the Florent Schmitt premiere, German-Israeli composer and musicologist Peter Gradenwitz wrote:
“Though the [ISCM] jury seems to have worked hard to compile programs giving representation to the younger composers and the little-known musical nations, everything heard during the festival week was put in the shade by a composition performed immediately after the ISCM festival. That work was the 88-year-old composer Florent Schmitt’s new Symphony No. 1 [sic].
The Schmitt symphony was heard at the concert officially opening Strasbourg’s own International Festival, the twentieth that this beautiful and hospitable Alsatian city has held …
This buoyant and original three-movement symphony shows all the vigor and drive associated with youth in its opening and final movements, while the almost psalmlike, serene middle movement has expression and charm — qualities that were missing in most of the rather morbid pieces contributed to the ISCM programs by men fifty to sixty years younger than Schmitt.”
Although it has never achieved widespread fame, the Second Symphony is a highly interesting piece of music. I see it being an intriguing synthesis of the various musical styles that marked the composer’s output from his earliest years forward.
The Symphony is quite “contemporary” sounding, yet is rooted in tonality and retains from the past a characteristically rich and “French” orchestral color.
The outer two movements treat us to the colorful, even luxuriant orchestration for which Schmitt was so well known, along with his jaunty rhythms and the sometimes-acerbic “pronouncements” from brass and woodwinds.
The use of percussion is quite interesting – not merely the usual timps, triangle, cymbals and bass drum, but also tam-tam, celesta, xylophone and concert bells. There’s a kind of nervous energy to the composition, and the overall effect in these outer movements is one of “exuberance.”
Speaking of the first movement of the symphony, Fanfare music critic Steven Kruger writes this:
“[The] music moves forward by virtue of what I’d call ‘sudden whiplash.’ Storms and breezes hit the listener, as they do in Debussy — gleamingly orchestrated with flying bits of percussion … The symphony sort of mutters itself into being, like Jeux, direct and mysterious at the same time. It never loses its impressionist roots.”
For me personally, the second movement is the emotional high-point of the Symphony. This slow movement packs in more emotion than anywhere else in the composition. It is actually the least “modern” of the three movements – instead reminiscent of Schmitt’s Fête de la lumière from 1937 and the middle section of Schmitt’s celebrated Psaume XLVII, composed more than 50 years before the Symphony (1904).
The Symphony No. 2 may not have the ecstatic soprano solo of the middle section of the Psalm invoking the Song of Solomon, but all of the same sensuous passion – bordering on delirium – is there. It’s a phenomenal movement that is sure to captivate anyone who listens attentively: You feel like crawling up in between the notes – it’s that special.
As for the final movement of the symphony, music critic Kruger describes it as “an all-out slam for percussion”:
“It shatters you relentlessly — then leaves you to the fascinatingly orchestrated sound of the pieces scattering.”
The British composer and author David Eccott put down his thoughts on this symphony in a chapter he wrote about Florent Schmitt in the book Frederick Delius: Music, Art and Literature, edited by Lionel Carley. Eccott’s points are interesting and track with my own personal observations:
“It has been said, and quite rightly so, that Schmitt’s Second Symphony is a work of youth. Certainly, upon study of the score it soon becomes obvious that Schmitt has not lost his capabilities of inventiveness or his powers of orchestration. The complicated rhythms, almost a trademark of the composer, are still there and the mood is as rich and vibrant as ever.
As always with Schmitt, it soon becomes apparent that one is listening to the work of a master who was able to conceive patterns within patterns and to visualize an ultimate coherence within the completed fabric.
The Second Symphony does not contain even a hint of the despair and melancholy of old age. There are no regrets, unfulfilled dreams or hopeless sentiments. The music does not take on a reserved stateliness or sentimental nostalgia, but instead moves with unbounded enthusiasm and sprightly agility.”
In this evaluation, Eccott mirrors the words of Clarendon (nom de plume of French organist and music scholar Bernard Gavoty), who had written these words for his Le Figaro column at the 1958 premiere:
“This most glorious of musicians, aged 88 [sic], gives a lesson of youth to his juniors throughout the world.”
The French musicologist and author Nicolas Southon makes an additional observation about Florent Schmitt’s symphony that’s quite interesting:
“This was the first time Schmitt attempted to create a “classic” symphony — one with three movements shaped in the traditional way — and without any featured instrument or extra-musical argument or title.
Such a gesture to a classical and traditional genre reminds us that Gabriel Fauré composed his only string quartet as his very last work. It’s often stated that many artists, at the end of their lives, find or return to a sense of classicism. Both Fauré’s and Schmitt’s final creations are confirmation of that claim.”
The Symphony No. 2 has had relatively little exposure in the concert hall or in recordings since its debut over 50 years ago. Soon after the Strasbourg premiere, conductor André Cluytens presented it with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra on November 1 and 2, 1958. Jean Fournet conducted the work with the Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra in November 1959. Composer and conductor Henri Büsser, who also served as the music critic for Revue Musicale, filed this report following the Fournet concert:
“The Lamoureux Concerts honored the memory of Florent Schmitt by presenting … his Second Symphony, written shortly before his death. This symphony can be classified as the most ‘French’ of his works, where we see the return to his origins — that is to say the influence of his master Fauré as well as a nod to Ravel.
It is vigorous and young writing. The first movement with its striking style and rich harmonies embraces us from the start, and the vitality of the 87-year-old composer compels our admiration. The slow movement is of a very serene inspiration — a little dreaminess before the contrast of the fast third movement with its asymmetrical rhythms and the unfolding of the entire orchestra in an apotheosis. Here again, Schmitt used a daring pen … Fournet’s excellent execution served the work well and it was received very warmly.”
Also in the late 1950s, György Lehel led the first performance of the Symphony No. 2 outside France, leading the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra.
Jean Martinon presented the music with the ORTF in 1960 (see below), while Charles Munch introduced the symphony to American audiences in two Boston Symphony performances on November 18th and 19th of the same year. But after this initial flurry of activity the symphony pretty much disappeared from sight.
As for recorded documentation of this symphony, the Charles Munch premiere performance from 1958 was issued on CD back in the early 1990s in a French release (Euromuses EURM 2009) that is very difficult to find today – even in France. But fortunately for us, the performance has now been uploaded to YouTube in its entirety (although the sound quality of the YouTube dub is inferior to the CD). More recently, a far better transcription of the same Munch performance has been uploaded to the MQCD Musique-Classique website, and I strongly encourage listeners to access the performance there instead.
Even better is Maestro Munch’s November 1960 account with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which has been preserved and can be heard here, courtesy of YouTube. The orchestra ensemble is tighter than in Munch’s 1958 RTF performance — likely due to the fact that the BSO was “his” orchestra and therefore responded instinctively well to his direction. In Boston the conductor took one minor cut towards the end of the final movement; I’m not sure of the reasoning for the cut and it certainly seems unnecessary, but that doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the performance, which is quite astonishing.
In 1988, the Symphony was commercially recorded for the first time by Leif Segerstam and the Rhineland-Pfalz Philharmonic, and was released by NAXOS on its Marco Polo label. The memorable second movement from that recording is available to hear on YouTube.
I own both the 1958 and 1988 recordings of the symphony, and there are some interpretive differences between them. There’s no question that the Munch performance is thrilling — with the difficult score well-prepared by the conductor and orchestra and the final movement realized in a fresher, more lithe manner when compared to the Segerstam reading.
… Which is not to say that the Marco Polo rendition isn’t anything other than polished. Moreover, it’s also a superior recording from a sound-quality standpoint.
I am unaware of any U.S. performances of the Symphony No. 2 that have been done since Charles Munch gave the North American premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1960. The American conductor Leonard Slatkin has programmed the piece in more recent years – but only in Europe (in the late 1990s).
Interestingly, the Symphony has also been arranged for wind ensemble – and very successfully, too. The concert band version is available on a Japanese CD in a performance featuring the Akita-Minami Senior High School Wind Ensemble conducted by Tomohiro Abe. (Don’t be misled by the student ensemble – the playing is very fine. In fact, the skill of these youthful musicians puts many Western wind players to shame!)
The Symphony No. 2 would turn out to be the last major work that Florent Schmitt composed. He passed away six weeks following the premiere of the symphony, just one month shy of his 88th birthday.
With Schmitt’s death, the last of the distinctive generation of French composers born in the 1860s and 1870s – Charpentier, Cras, Debussy, Dukas, Koechlin, Kunc, Magnard, Pierné, Rabaud, Ravel, Ropartz, Roussel, Tournemire and others – passed from the scene. Commenting at the time on the significance of the event, the composer Henri Dutilleux wrote:
“Florent Schmitt was the last of that great family [of composers] to which Ravel, Dukas and Debussy belong. He remains one of those who, by a happy assimilation of German or Central European influences, brought the French school back to certain notions of grandeur.”
Update (6/25/14): A third recording of Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2 has now been released. It is the 1960 concert performance with the ORTF Orchestra directed by Jean Martinon — a conductor who was an evangelist for Schmitt’s music throughout his career. The CD is available from Forgotten Records. While the sonics are rather typical of the constricted broadcast audio of the day (and monaural rather stereophonic), Maestro Martinon more than makes up for that in terms of visceral excitement. It’s a must-hear performance.
Update (3/6/18): Chandos Records has issued the fourth recording of Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2. (Actually, it’s only the second commercially recorded rendition, the other two being live performances.) Featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo, the new release is a stunning recording — both in terms of the interpretation as well as the full-bodied sound, which is of audiophile quality.
Due to its all-around stellar production values, there’s no question that this recording has become the new “go-to” rendition of Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2.
[The Chandos recording was made immediately following the BBCSO’s concert performance of the Symphony No. 2. For the critics’ reception along with an interesting eyewitness report from the concert provided by Edmund Harris, a faithful reader of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog, click or tap here.]
Update (7/24/20): Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2 has now been uploaded to YouTube along with the score. Listeners can now “see” the composer’s endlessly interesting creation while listening to the music. The performance used is Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s live concert performance at the Barbican in London (October 27, 2017).
Update (5/12/21): A newspaper interview conducted with Florent Schmitt late in life has come to light. Published in the January 11, 1958 edition of Le Figaro Littéraire, the interview covered the soon-to-be-premiered Symphony No. 2 and other aspects of the composer’s life and musical career. Likely the last extensive interview the composer ever granted, the article also provides a fascinating glimpse of Schmitt’s personality as he looks back on his highly productive 70+ years in music.
Update (4/11/23): Recently discovered are the personal reminiscences of the premiere performance of Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2 by organist, music critic and author Bernard Gavoty which were published in the pages of Le Figaro shortly after the event. Gavoty’s words are particularly poignant in their portrayal of the composer who was by then in the final weeks of his life.
The original article is reproduced here, but for those who do not read French, an English translation is also provided below:
Last image … after the triumph of his Symphony
By: Clarendon [Bernard Gavoty]
Charles Munch had not yet, with a stroke of his baton, sounded the last chord when an immense noise, like that of the sea in heavy weather, surged and echoed through the vaulted ceiling of the Palais des Fêtes in Strasbourg. Two thousand people raised it, applauding the National Orchestra and its conductor; then, turning towards the balcony, they acclaimed the composer endlessly.
In all my life, I have never seen a man so pale as Florent Schmitt at that moment when, so close to death, he was able to witness the triumph of his Symphony. He never possessed the physique of his output, opulent as it was — being small in size, a shy look, beard of dry hay, hoarse voice and short speech. But on this final evening, we were struck by the ironic contrast between music overflowing with life and the emaciated little gentleman who had created it. With his hands, which the disease was already cooling, he had, at the age of nearly 88, built, kneaded and molded a symphony in which the blood of youth circulated and which was gilded by an oriental light. A palace from the Thousand and One Nights, fabulous and sparkling, inhabited by some legendary sultan — such it seemed to me the work to which Florent Schmitt had given his last efforts, miraculously structured and as if stimulated by the approach of night. A restless traveler, he had spurred his beast because the night was falling.
Alongside Professor [Lucien-Marie] Pautrier and René Dumesnil, the old man responded wistfully at the ovations of the joyful crowd. “What, all of this is going to live, and I am going to die …” Because he was under no illusion, if not about the nature of his illness, at least about the approaching ending.
As I told him in my fervor, “What an evening!”, he replied straightaway, “But what a tomorrow!” Because among the living, Florent Schmitt was no more than a man on borrowed time. Floating in clothes once so impeccably tailored, thus he wandered, solitary, in this hall of celebration. And when he reached, painfully, the dressing room of Munch, his mechanical step, his neck stretched by an invisible chain which towed him, his stonelike whiteness brought tears to his friends’ eyes.
On gala evenings, it is a tradition in Strasbourg that we meet after concerts in the pretty residence of Professor Pautrier, situated on the calm rise of the Quai Saint-Nicolas. Imagine a house of fairy-like enchantment, the open living room on the same level as a lovingly cared for little garden where the most beautiful roses in the world grow; they are the source of rest and a particular pride of the instructor. Squares of grass, lit at an angle, add a scholarly note to so much purple richness. We all were there, surrounding the poor great man out of his country — proud to have succeeded, happy to be celebrated, but not comprehending why it was necessary to say goodbye to all that. The death of an artist is scandalous because everything he created, necessarily, wishes to be eternal. This immense work yet this little time. These bursts of joy, these rumors of a celebration — and to conclude, at its height, in a final breath …
The time came when Florent Schmitt could not bear it further. He got up, said an acerbic word in response to a friend who congratulated him, anxiously sniffed a rose, cast a long look around him and, taking the arm of a faithful friend he disappeared, caught in the shadows of the grand staircase.