French Composer Florent Schmitt’s Romance with the Orient

Florent Schmitt Cleopatre Salammbo

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:

Florent Schmitt Danse des Devadasis

Danse des Devadasis (1908), one of Florent Schmitt’s “orientalist” scores, still awaits its first recording.

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”?

Florent Schmitt French composer aboard ship

Florent Schmitt aboard ship sometime during the 1920s. The composer was an inveterate traveler his entire life.

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):

Florent Schmitt letter to Michel de Bry“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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  1. Pingback: Oriane et le Prince d’amour: Florent Schmitt’s Final ‘Orientalist’ Composition (1933) | Florent Schmitt

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