Psalm XLVII: Florent Schmitt’s Astounding Choral Masterpiece (1904)

“… An extravagant outburst of highly perfumed Franco-exoticism at its most virile, heroic and exalted … I can’t think of another piece that achieves — or even attempts — quite the impact made by this work.”

— Walter Simmons, Music Critic, Fanfare Magazine

Song of SongsOf all the music Florent Schmitt composed, the Tragedy of Salome may be the most famous. But it’s the Psalm 47 that seems to amaze audiences most of all when it is performed.

The reaction is one of delight — and surprise:  “Why isn’t this piece better known?”

Composed in 1904 during Schmitt’s stay at the Villa Medici in Rome, the Psaume XLVII, Op. 38 is a comparatively early work, written when the composer was just 34 years old. When it burst on the Paris musical scene in its 1906 premiere, it left the music critics and audience members alike gasping for breath.

The poet and essayist Léon-Paul Fargue wrote, “A great crater of music is opening up in our midst.”  And in a letter to Schmitt following the premiere, his friend and fellow-composer Maurice Ravel wrote:

“My dear Schmitt, your Psalm is so profound and so powerful, it nearly shattered the concert hall!”

Desire Inghelbrecht, French conductor

Désiré Inghelbrecht gave the premiere performance of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII in 1906 … and his last one more than a half-century later.

[As an interesting side-note, the 1906 premiere was conducted by Désiré Inghelbrecht, who would never tire of programming the Psaume.  Incredibly, his last public performance of the work happened in 1964, nearly 60 years later!  Students of music history will also be interested to learn that the esteemed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger was the organist at the 1906 premiere performance.]

The giant fresco painted by Schmitt in this psalm (“O clap your hands, all ye people”) is one that concert-goers in France hadn’t experienced in the realm of choral music since the days of Hector Berlioz’s Requiem and Te Deum a half-century before.

To be sure, Parisian opera audiences had been treated to the massive operatic dramas of Meyerbeer and Massenet, but rarely if ever had they witnessed a similar spectacle in the concert hall.

The forces employed by Schmitt in this 30-minute work – large chorus, soprano solo, violin solo, large orchestra and organ – are overwhelming in their impact. Yet unlike some of the bombastic scores of Wagner and Richard Strauss, the music stands up very well under repeated hearings.

Kenneth Fuchs, American composer, on Florent Schmitt

American composer Kenneth Fuchs takes note of Psalm XLVII’s unique place in the French classical music repertoire of the time.

The contemporary American composer Kenneth Fuchs has noted the special position that Psaume XLVII holds in the French repertoire, writing:

“The Psalm is unusual for French music because it has such a big profile.  Even Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, at its largest moments with chorus and orchestra at full throttle, doesn’t quite have the ‘hugeness’ of this piece.  The Psalm’s language is not Germanic — but the dimensions somehow are.”  

These sentiments are echoed by Walter Simmons, a musicologist and music critic for Fanfare magazine, who has written this about Psalm 47:

“… The piece begins and ends with tremendous vigor — an extravagant outburst of highly perfumed Franco-exoticism at its most virile, heroic and exalted … I can’t think of another piece that achieves — or even attempts — quite the impact made by this work.”

Despite the power of the music’s language, some listeners find that the middle section of the work, which features a soprano solo in an ecstatic recitation of the Song of Songs (“He hath chosen in his inheritance the beauty of Jacob, whom he loved …”) and accompanied by soft murmuring of the chorus and orchestra, is the emotional high-point of the piece.

The French music critic and fellow composer Emile Vuillermoz described the middle section of Schmitt’s Psalm in poetic terms:

“With sensual chromaticism which has lithe and languorous movements, we penetrate the perfumed chamber of the Shulamite, who gives utterance to her soft, dove-like cooings … in a contemplative reverie through which pass all the perfumes of the East.”

Florent Schmitt Psaume XLVII Straram Concerts

Florent Schmitt’s Psalm XLVII, featured on the February 9, 1928 program of the Walther Straram Concerts in Paris.

The ravishing beauty of this section of the Psaume is such that it was extracted for performance at the baptismal ceremony for Prince Albert II at the Cathedral of Monaco in 1958, with the chorus and orchestra of the Monte-Carlo Opera conducted by Louis Frémaux.

Not to leave it at that, Schmitt then takes us on an incredible journey in the final section of the Psaume, during which the chorus intones a paean to the Almighty (“God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet …”), joined by the brass and organ, and culminating in a final explosion of sound as the orchestra whirls through the final pages of the score:  the pounding rhythms and dancing of the exhilarated Jewish throngs – at once savage and joyous.

When he conducted the Psaume XLVII at the National Cathedral with the Cathedral Choral Society in the piece’s 2001 Washington, DC premiere performance, music director J. Reilly Lewis remarked to the audience, “I don’t think you will ever hear a more exciting ending in all of choral music.”

He isn’t exaggerating.

Florent Schmitt: Psaume XLVII

A sonic “experience”: Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47, composed in 1904.

Because of the massive forces required to undertake a proper mounting of Psaume XLVII, public performances have been rare. Indeed, one could say that this music is “more heard about than heard.”

But the situation is changing for the simple fact that conductors and choral directors love this score — and whenever it is performed, the audience response is electric.

Taking a look at where public performances of this music have occurred, it’s evident that they are becoming more frequent as the years roll on, with increasingly more of them happening outside of France.  Shown below is a partial listing of performances.

[N.B. Special thanks to Chandler Cudlipp, former artistic advisor at the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, and to Jean Letarte, former artistic director at the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, for their assistance in compiling the performance listing below.  Additions and corrections to the information are welcomed.]

FLORENT SCHMITT:  PSAUME XLVII, Opus 38

Public Performances Since 1945 – Partial Listing

1946 – March 30
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, André Cluytens, conductor
Odette Turba-Rabier, soprano; Paris Conservatoire Chorus

1948 – October 31
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; André Cluytens, conductor
Marcelle Bonlet, soprano; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur

1949 – October 31
Orquesta Sinfonica Brasileira (Rio de Janeiro) & Chorus; Florent Schmitt, conductor
(Florent Schmitt Festival in Brazil organized by Heitor Villa-Lobos)

1951 – March 22
Orchestra & Chorus of l’O.R.T.F.; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
Denise Duval, soprano

1951 – October 14
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; André Cluytens, conductor
Denise Duval, soprano; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur

Herbert von Karajan 1953

Herbert von Karajan pictured in a 1953 advertisement, the same year he conducted Psaume XLVII in Vienna.

1952 – May 15
Orchestra & Chorus of l’O.R.T.F.; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
Denise Duval, soprano

1953 – March 18
Vienna Symphony; Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Teresa Stich-Randall, soprano; Anton Heiller, organist; Singverein des Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde

1953 – April 27
Orchestra & Chorus of l’O.R.T.F.; Igor Markevitch, conductor
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano

1957 – April 25
Orchestra & Chorus of l’O.R.T.F.; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
Geneviève Moizan, soprano

1957 – June
Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.
O.R.T.F. Chorus

1958 – May 26
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; Josef Krips, conductor
Cincinnati May Festival Orchestra & Chorus

1958 – August
Orchestre de la Radio Française; Igor Markevitch, conductor
Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur

1958 – October 9
Orchestra & Chorus of l’O.R.T.F.; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
Régine Crespin, soprano; Jean-Louis Godard, organist; O.R.T.F. Chorus

1960 – August 3
Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo; Louis Frémaux, conductor
Jacqueline Brumaire, soprano; Philippe Caillard Vocal Ensemble + Monte-Carlo Opera Chorus

1961 – March 14
Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Pierre Le Conte, conductor
O.R.T.F. Chorus

1961 – June 6
Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
O.R.T.F. Chorus

1962 – December 9
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; Jean Gitton, conductor
Berthe Monmart, soprano; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur & Paris University Chorus

1964 – March 3, 19
Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
Micheline Grancher, soprano; O.R.T.F. Chorus

1973 – October 31
Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F.; Jean Martinon, conductor
Andréa Guiot, soprano; O.R.T.F. Chorus

1975
New World Symphony; Leon Thompson, conductor
Morgan State University Choir

1975 – July 9
Tokyo Symphony Orchestra; Takashi Yamaguchi, conductor
Katsura Nakazawa, soprano; Reiko Shimada, organist; Philharmonic Chorus

1976 – December 7
SBTS Instrumental Ensemble; Richard Lin, conductor;
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Oratorio Chorus (Louisville, Kentucky)

1976/7 – October 7, 8, 9, March 20
Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor
Kathryn Bouleyn, soprano; Keith Chapman, organist; Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia

1977 – March 4
Irvine Master Chorale (California)

1978 – November 24, 25
Cleveland Orchestra; Robert Page, conductor
Sally Taubenheim, soprano; Joela Jones, organist; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus

1981 – December 18
Radio-Canada Orchestra; Raymond Daveluy, conductor
Louise Lebrun, soprano; Choir of SS Andrews’s & Paul’s Church

1982 – February 25, 27
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Shaw, conductor
Sylvia McNair, soprano; Atlanta Symphony Chorus

1982 – December 7
Orchestre Symphonique de Québec; Pierre Hétu, conductor
Marie-Danielle Parent, soprano; Choeur de l’Orchestre Symphonique de Québec

1983 – April 24
Los Angeles Sinfonia; Roger Wagner, conductor
Delcina Stevenson, soprano; Los Angeles Master Chorale

1986 – May 22, 23, 24 (also performed on Paris/France tour, June 1986)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Shaw, conductor
Judith Blegen, soprano; Atlanta Symphony Chorus

1991 – July
European Cantata Festival Orchestra (Vittoria, Spain); Erwin List, conductor
Antifonia Choir of Cluj-Napoca (Rumania)

1992 – December 8
Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra; Jean Fournet, conductor
Shinobu Sato, soprano; Naomi Matsui, organist; Shinyu-kai Chorus

1994 – April 23
Pacific Symphony Orchestra; John Alexander, conductor
Benita Valente, soprano; Pacific Chorale

Schmitt Roussel Bensancon

Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII at Besançon, in concert with Albert Roussel’s Psaume LXXX (1997).

1996 – October 24
Orchestre National de France; Jeffrey Tate, conductor
Inva Mula, soprano; Choeur de Radio-France

1997 – March 5, 6
Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Fedoseyev, conductor
Joanna Borowska, soprano; Vienna Singakademie

1997 – March 19, 20, 21, April 1, 3
Orchestre Inter-Lycées (Besançon); Jean Mislin, conductor
Catherine Maerten, soprano; Inter-Lycées Chorus

American Symphony Orchestra concert program

Passionate advocate: Conductor Leon Botstein has programmed Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47 twice with the American Symphony Orchestra (1997 and 2012).

1997 – April 13
American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor
Korliss Uecker, soprano; Canticum Novum Festival Singers

1999 – July 11
Nord-Deutsches Symphony Orchestra
Florence Quivar, soprano; Danish Radio Choir & NDR Chorus

1999 – September 23
Tokyo Symphony Orchestra; Naoto Otomo, conductor
Maki Mori, soprano; Ritsuyu-kai Chorus

2000 – June 24
Orchestre des Concerts Nivernais; François-Robert Girolami, conductor
Nevers Academy Chorus

2001 – April 3
Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra; Timothy Taylor, conductor
Jill Padfield, soprano; Cardiff University Choral Society

2001 – May 20
Cathedral Choral Society Orchestra; J. Reilly Lewis, conductor
Audrey Stottler, soprano; Cathedral Choral Society (Washington, DC)

Cathedral Choral Society concert program (Poulenc, Saint-Saens, Schmitt)

An unforgettable presentation: Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII performed at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC (2001).

2005 – June 29, July 1
Brno-Bratislava Conservatory Orchestras; Xavier Ricour, conductor
Urzsula Cuvellier, soprano; Choeur Symphonique de Paris

Florent Schmitt Choeur Symphonique de Paris Psaume XLVII

The Choeur Symphonique de Paris’ 2005 performances of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII.

2005 – September 27, 28 (Paris)
Brno-Bratislava Conservatory Orchestras; Xavier Ricour, conductor
Urzsula Cuvellier, soprano; Choeur Symphonique de Paris

2005 – December 2
Het Gelders Orchestra; Joop Schets, conductor
Ellen Schuring, soprano; Dirk Luijmes, organ; Tonkunst Arnhem Chorus

2006 – April 5, 8
Orchestre National de France; Yan-Pascal Tortelier, conductor
Ingrid Perruche, soprano; Choeur de Radio-France

2006 – October 7, 11
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Thierry Fischer, conductor
Christine Buffle, soprano; BBC National Chorus of Wales

2006 – October 13
Gotham City Orchestra (New York); George Steel, conductor
Tiffany Jackson, soprano; Kent Tritle, organist; Vox Vocal Ensemble

2010 – March 4, 5, 6
Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo; Yan-Pascal Tortelier, conductor
Susan Bullock, soprano; OSESP and Paulistano Choirs

2010 – November 7
Pacific Symphony; John Alexander, conductor
Erin Wood, soprano; Pacific Chorale

2011 – (Besançon Festival)
Orchestre Inter-Lycées; Jean Mislin, conductor
Schütz Choir

2012 – August 18
American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor
Lori Guilbeau, soprano; Bard Festival Chorale

2014 – February 3
Berlin Collegium Musicum Orchestra; Donka Miteva, conductor
Uta Krause, soprano; Collegium Musicum Chorus

Collegium Musicum Berlin Schmitt Psalm XLVII

The 2014 performance of Psaume XLVII by the Berlin Collegium Musicum at Philharmonie Hall.

2015 – March 1
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; Marek Janowski, conductor
Jacquelyn Wagner, soprano; Berlin Radio Chorus

2016 – February 19, 20
Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra; Jean-Luc Tingaud, conductor
Ewa Biegas, soprano; Krakow Philharmonic Choir

Florent Schmitt Cesar Franck Krakow Philharmonic Tingaud

The concert poster for the February 2016 Krakow Philharmonic performances of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, coupled with César Franck’s Psyché.

 

Krakow Philharmonic Concert Program Franck Schmitt

The Krakow Philharmonic concert program, inscribed by conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud.

2016 – July 24 (Saarbrücken)
Orchestre National de Lorraine; Jacques Mercier, conductor
Sooyeon Kim, soprano; Suncheon City Chorale + Goyang Civic Choir

2016 – August 27 (Chaise Dieu Festival)
Orchestre National de Lorraine; Jacques Mercier, conductor
Sooyeon Kim, soprano; Suncheon City Chorale + Goyang Civic Choir

Florent Schmitt Psaume XLVII Jacques Mercier Festival de Chaise Dieu 2016

Moments before a performance of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, under the direction of Jacques Mercier, at the Festival de Chaise Dieu (August 27, 2016).

2016 – October 20 (Seoul, Korea)
Orchestre National de Lorraine; Jacques Mercier, conductor
Sooyeon Kim, soprano; Suncheon City Chorale + Goyang Civic Choir

Orchestre National de Lorraine Korea Tour Florent Schmitt

Fortunately, Psaume XLVII is well-represented in recordings as well. It was first waxed by EMI in 1952 (in the presence of the composer) in a production featuring conductor Georges Tzipine, soprano Denise Duval, along with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra and Chorus plus the famed Maurice Duruflé at the organ.

Florent Schmitt Psaume XLVII premiere recording

First commercial recording (1952), made in the presence of the composer.

Twenty years would go by until the next commercial recording was released (also by EMI), with Jean Martinon conducting the O.R.T.F. Orchestra and Chorus, Andréa Guiot singing the ravishing soprano solo, with the legendary Gaston Litaize on the massive pipe organ.

That 1972 recording is still the preferred one for many music lovers, although there have been four other versions released in more recent years (featuring conductors Jean Fournet, Marek Janowski, Thierry Fischer and Yan-Pascal Tortelier).

Florent Schmitt Tragedie de Salome Tortelier OSESP

The newest recording, a truly transnational production.

Speaking personally, I find the 2011 Tortelier recording (on Chandos) to be the most satisfying all-around performance, although each one of them certainly has its merits.

A measure of the musical importance of the Psaume XLVII is the undeniable influence it had on other “Francophone” composers of the period. Prior to its premiere, the “epic” aspects of French symphonic and choral music were – to put it mildly — nearly nonexistent.

But afterwards, other composers would come out with their own striking psalms compositions (Lili Boulanger, Albert Roussel, Jean Rivier), and other musicians composed other major choral compositions based on sacred texts (Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Frank Martin).

Schmitt Psaume Salome Martinon EMI

The celebrated EMI recording featuring Andréa Guiot, Jean Martinon and ORTF musicians (1973).

For those who aren’t familiar with this impressive composition, here are links to sample the music (Jean Martinon’s exemplary recording), courtesy of the excellent Jean-Christian Bonnet music channel on YouTube:

• First Section, including the thunderous opening featuring the brass, organ and chorus

Middle Section, featuring the rapturous soprano solo

Third Section, including the exhilarating ending

One final observation about this stunning piece of music: When one thinks of French music from this period that is based on sacred texts, the Fauré or Duruflé requiem settings may be the first works that come to mind. But stylistically, the Psaume XLVII is miles apart from these more intimate, pious works.

Terry Blain

BBC Music Magazine critic Terry Blain.

Illustrating the difference, I like what music critic Terry Blain wrote in September 2011 about Psaume XLVII in his review of the Tortelier/Chandos recording, in the pages of BBC Music Magazine:

“Going from the lurid sex and violence of Salomé to Schmitt’s setting of Psalm 47 should be a major wrench stylistically — but isn’t. The orgiastic volleys of brass and percussion in its opening paragraph have a distinctly pagan feel about them, and are a long way from conventional religiosity.”

You can say that again!

20 thoughts on “Psalm XLVII: Florent Schmitt’s Astounding Choral Masterpiece (1904)

  1. This is one of the most orgiastic and exciting works ever composed. The ending still sends shivers down my spine, even after more than 100 hearings.

    Despite its spectacular harmonies and rhythms, Florent Schmitt’s Psalm is also one of the most refined pieces of music ever written, demonstrating that Schmitt managed to find an original path without needing to pay tribute to either Debussy or Wagner.

    • Thank you for your comments about Sylvia McNair and her fine singing voice. I have been attempting to track down a recording of the Atlanta performance she did of the Psalm, but have not been able to find it. In correspondence with an Atlanta Symphony Chorus member a few years ago, he informed me that neither the McNair nor the Blegen Atlanta performances were available. Perhaps that is not the case, or perhaps there is another McNair performance that I do not know of — any guidance you can give me would be appreciated!

    • Oh, I’d also LOVE to hear that !!!

      As I love Sylvia McNair (she was at her best, at that time), and Robert Shaw, a wonderful man and artist who was a true passionate man about French choral repertoire (he conducted during many summers a choral Festival near Rocamadour, teaching young american conductors about the joys of this repertoire). Too bad they didn’t record it officially for Telarc at the time !!!

  2. Pingback: Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII: Now available in a 2012 live performance by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra from the Bard Music Fesitval. « Florent Schmitt

  3. Psalm XLVII
    1975 – July 9 (Japan Premiere)
    Tokyo Symphony Orchestra; Takashi Yamaguchi, conductor
    Katsura Nakazawa, soprano; Reiko Shimada, organist; Philharmonic Chorus

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  14. You mention that Schmitt’s work set a precedent for large-scale psalms in France. I wonder how much Faure’s 1900 cantata Prométhée played a part — premiered with some 800 musicians. I’ve never been able to find a recording, so I wouldn’t know. If not, he certainly does seem to be picking up where Les Troyens left off!

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