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 50s 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 Samazueilh), 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, 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-Elysees 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 …”
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, who wrote 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 little exposure in the concert hall or in recordings since its debut over 50 years ago. Soon after the Strasbourg premiere, the conductor André Cluytens presented it with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra on November 2, 1958. Jean Martinon also presented the music with the ORTF in 1960 (see below), while Charles Munch introduced the symphony to American audiences in a Boston Symphony performance 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, this stunning 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.
In 1988, the Symphony was recorded by Leif Segerstam and the Rhineland-Pfalz Philharmonic and released by NAXOS on its Marco Polo label. The memorable second movement from that recording is available to hear on YouTube.
I own both 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 recent years – but only in Europe.
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 a 1960 concert performance with the O.R.T.F. 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.]