Dr. Jerry E. Rife, a musicologist and professor of music at Rider University, has been a specialist on the music of Florent Schmitt for over 30 years. He has published several articles on the composer, and has just completed a detailed entry on Schmitt for the upcoming edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians.
The early orchestral music of Florent Schmitt was also the topic of Dr. Rife’s Ph.D. dissertation at Michigan State University, completed in 1986. Subsequently, he received a grant to study Schmitt’s life and music by accessing primary documents housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Dr. Rife began his musical life as a saxophone player, and has remained active as a conductor and performer in several wind ensembles in New Jersey and Virginia. Naturally, the concert band works of Florent Schmitt are of particular interest to him.
Recently, I asked Dr. Rife to describe how he became acquainted with the music of Florent Schmitt.
PLN: How did you discover Schmitt? Back in the 1980s, he was hardly a household name in classical music.
JER: I was a Ph.D. student in musicology at Michigan State University in 1980. I had just landed a graduate assistantship in the fall semester of my second year of class work. At the beginning of the semester the full professor had a fatal heart attack. I went in the next day and taught the class on Greek modes, and ended up taking all of this professor’s course curriculum for the complete academic year.
For one of my classes, I asked a colleague from the Art Department to give a guest lecture on art and music in late 19th Century Vienna. After the class, I casually asked him about potential music dissertation topics. (My faculty advisor had suggested that I read through the Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians for ideas, and I was casting about for something interesting.)
The art professor told me that he had purchased a recording of Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé. He said that he thought it sounded a lot like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
PLN: So, you had never heard of Florent Schmitt before this?
JER: No, and I was struck by the similarities between the two pieces – but the Salomé dates from 1907 and the Rite is from 1912-13. That really got my attention.
PLN: Did that make you decide on Florent Schmitt as your dissertation topic?
JER: Yes. I started researching the works written by Schmitt and Stravinsky before World War I. My dissertation topic – an investigation of Schmitt’s compositional style in several of his big early pieces [Salomé … Psalm XLVII] – was approved and the writing began.
PLN: Are you surprised that your dissertation ended up being on Florent Schmitt and his music?
JER: Sure, because I had been thinking seriously about doing my dissertation on a very different topic: improvisational techniques in C.P.E. Bach’s music!
PLN: Tell me a bit more about your dissertation …
JER: It focused on the major works that solidified Schmitt’s first mature period. The dissertation was finished in 1986 and my degree was granted. By that time, I was already hired and teaching musicology at Rider University and was in a position to apply for a grant to study Schmitt in Paris where I could work with primary documents. What I found there is another story …
I plan to continue this discussion with Dr. Rife — and find out what he uncovered during his investigations in Paris. This could be interesting!