When one looks at the body of work that makes up Florent Schmitt’s 138 opus numbers, the period 1900 to 1935 is striking in the number of important works that were inspired by Eastern/Oriental subjects and themes.
Among the most significant of these compositions are:
- Psalm XLVII, Op. 38 (1904) for soprano, chorus, organ and orchestra
- Danse des Devadasis, Op. 47 (1908) for soprano, chorus and orchestra
- Selamlik, Op. 48 (1906) for concert band
- La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50 (1907/10), ballet for soprano, women’s chorus and orchestra
- Dionysiaques, Op. 62 (1913-14) for concert band
- Antoine et Cléopâtre, Op. 69 (1921), incidental music to André Gide’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play
- Danse d’Abisag, Op. 75 (1925), ballet for orchestra
- Salammbô, Op. 76 (1925), film music after Gustave Flaubert’s novel, for chorus and orchestra
- Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, Op. 83 (1934), ballet for orchestra with chorus
What possessed Schmitt, a French composer from the heartland of Europe near the Rhine River, to develop such a consuming interest in “all things Eastern”?
We know that his time at the Villa Medici in Rome in the early 1900s, a result of having won the Paris Conservatory’s Prix de Rome competition, coincided with travels to the Ottoman Empire and other areas of the Eastern Mediterranean.
And in fact, Schmitt would be an inveterate traveler his entire life, even visiting the United States in the 1930s. When he died in 1958, his last passport, which had been issued when he was 85 years old, contained more than 40 visa stamps — the last being for a trip the composer made to Japan in January of the year of his death.
Recently, an interesting artifact came to light in the form of a letter written in 1941 by Schmitt to Michel de Bry, then-director of L’Académie du Disque Français. In it, Schmitt gives us a glimpse of his “oriental muse” (translated from the French):
“I love the Orient as my third homeland – without neglecting that Italy, where I lived, is the second. I cherish my voyages in Arabia, in Persia, in Afghanistan and other unforgettable small countries nearby, even if I am ignorant of their languages …”
By the time Schmitt penned this note – 1941 – his “orientalist” compositions were behind him. Yet it seems these compositions remained the favorites of his “musical children.”
The passage of time has proven Schmitt correct: Taken as a group, these works represent not only the core of the composer’s oeuvre, they’re the ones singled out most frequently for praise – and performance.