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.
Over the decades, music critics have noted the effectiveness of Florent Schmitt’s ability to conjure up the heady atmospherics of the east. As just one example, here are the remarks of musicologist and critic Henry Prunières that were published in the February 21, 1926 edition of the New York Times:
“Florent Schmitt is the strongest of our ‘orientalists’. He likes the sun-baked soils of the Mediterranean, Judea, Egypt, Carthage, and loves to express the passions that grow under these brassy skies. This Dionysian music is shaken by violent frenzies; the orchestral colors are splendid. Florent Schmitt has discovered new combinations of orchestral thunders, sonorities, resonances.
No one — not even Richard Strauss — could have painted the magnificence, the voluptuousness, the cruel vengeance which mark the oriental soul, with a more vivid brush.”
It should be noted that “orientalism” wasn’t the exclusive purview of Florent Schmitt in France. Indeed, it was a focus a goodly number of French composers during the early decades of the twentieth century. Just how significant is illustrated in an article that appeared in the New York Times on June 28, 1931, reporting that the six leading orchestras of Paris — Lamoureux, Colonne, Pasdeloup, Straram, Poulet and Paris Conservatoire — planned to mount two symphonic concerts each at the Paris Colonial Exhibition featuring programs consisting exclusively of compositions of an “orientalist” character.
The first of these concerts, performed by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under the direction of Philippe Gaubert, included Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé as the anchor piece, along with shorter “oriental” works by Debussy, Ravel, Roussel, Gaubert, Eugène Grassi (born in Bangkok of French parents), and Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray.
Regarding Schmitt’s own perspective on his “orientalist” compositions, an interesting artifact came to light recently 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.
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