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, author and music critic, Fanfare Magazine

“Regarding the Psaume, what can we say that hasn’t already been said a hundred times? Each new hearing increases the reasons we have to admire it — and to love it. Years go by without depriving this musical monument of its nobility and power. On the contrary, it seems to shine with brighter radiance than when it was new.”

— René Dumesnil, music critic, Le Monde

“If you conduct just one French choral work in your career, it should be this Psalm.”

— Manuel Rosenthal, French conductor, composer and arranger

Song of Songs

Of 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.

Schmitt was hailed as “The New Berlioz” by the press. 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 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 his first 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.

Florent Schmitt Psaume XLVII score inscribed to Maurice Ravel

A vintage copy of the score to Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, inscribed by the composer to his friend and fellow-composer Maurice Ravel. It was Ravel who wrote to Schmitt following the December 1906 premiere performance of the piece: “”My dear Schmitt, your Psalm is so profound and so powerful, it nearly shattered the concert hall!” In this early printing of the score “XLVI” is in the title, which represents the numbering of this psalm in the Vulgate version of the Bible as compared to the number “XLVII” found in the Douay and other Bible versions.

Martin Cooper, musicologist and author of the book French Music: From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré, has noted that Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII was a dramatic departure from what was then the predominant manifestation of “orientalism” in French music, writing:

“Harmonically there is a deliberate ruthlessness such as is seldom found in French music, and a savage pleasure in dissonance that was new and perhaps prophetic. The conception of a psalm as a poem of bloodthirsty rejoicing celebrating the victory of a savage oriental tribe was new in 1904, and after Saint-Saëns’ suave orientalism these clashing fanfares and passionate languors seemed an approach to genuine Eastern music, of which earlier imitations had been mere drawing-room essays.”

Jacques Chailley French composer

Jacques Chailley (1910-1995)

The French composer and critic Jacques Chailley went even further, writing these words about the Psalm in 1950:

“The banner of revolt seemed to be brandished by Prix de Rome [winner] Florent Schmitt who, without greatly modifying the prevailing musical vocabulary, completely changed its meaning and impact, drawing from it all the disconcerting possibilities of grandeur and power.”

Manuel Rosenthal

Manuel Rosenthal, French conductor and composer (1904-2003).

In words of advice to young conductors, the famed director and composer Manuel Rosenthal once remarked:

“If you conduct just one French choral work in your career, it should be this Psalm.”

It isn’t difficult to figure out what Maestro Rosenthal meant by that statement, because the forces employed by Florent Schmitt in this 30-minute work – eight-part mixed chorus, soprano solo, violin solo, large orchestra and organ – are overwhelming in their impact.  And yet, unlike some of the bombastic scores of Wagner and Richard Strauss, the music stands up very well under repeated hearings.

A description of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII penned by French composer Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur for a French music magazine published in the early 1950s.

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 Chloé, 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, author 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.

Undoubtedly, it was this part of the Psaume that music critic Harold Schonberg was referring to when he wrote these words in the New York Times following a presentation of the piece by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York City on October 12, 1976:

“The scoring has the light, diaphanous quality of French instrumentation at its best – and this despite the large size of the orchestra.” 

Indeed, the French music critic and 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 British composer, arranger and orchestrator Christopher Palmer considered this middle section to be particularly special, writing in The Musical Times in 1973:

“The most personal, least deritivative music is to be found in the lyrical centerpiece which Schmitt builds around a single phrase … understandably, since this particular phrase (in the French) happens to be extremetly beautiful in itself — and the composer enhances it with a melting melody for the soprano solo, a finely-judged blend of soft orchestal and choral color, and many subtleties of enharmonic modulation.”

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.

Schmitt Debussy Inghelbrecht Pasdeloup concert program 1929

This 1929 Pasdeloup Concerts program featured Désiré Inghelbrecht directing the musical forces in Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII as well as music of Debussy. Maestro Inghelbrecht would lead countless performances of Schmitt’s composition over nearly six dacades of conducting. (Vintage program booklet courtesy of Dominique Bloch-Berthié and Gerard Fallour.)

But 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 rather rare. Indeed, one could say that this music is “more heard about than heard.”

That was the case even in the early days of the Psaume; indeed, it was mounted just five times during the first 15 years of its existence. One of those early performances happened as part of the first orchestral concert offered by the newly founded Société musical indépendante (September 1910), an organization formed as an alternative to the “establishmentarian” Société national de musique. (The SMI, which was dedicated to performing forward-looking contemporary works, was certainly true to its mission in that first concert, presenting the Etude symphonique by Maurice Delage and Eugeniusz Morawski-Dabrowa’s Vae Victis Symphony alongside Schmitt’s Psalm — all under the direction of Désiré Inghelbrecht.)

Joseph Jongen Belgian composer

Joseph Jongen (1873-1953)

One early advocate of Florent Schmitt’s score was the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen, who had studied with Vincent d’Indy in Paris from 1899 to 1902, during which time he became acquainted with Schmitt and other younger French composers. It was Jongen who would conduct the Belgian premiere of Psaume XLVII in his capacity as director of the Brussels-based Concerts spirituels in the early 1920s.

While not known as a conductor, Florent Schmitt would occasionally step onto the podium to direct his own works. This was the case with Psaume XLVII on at least two occasions. The first was at an all-Schmitt program presented in Paris in January 1937 by the Fédération Poulet-Siohan. New York Times reporter E. C. Foster was on hand for that performance and noted in his news story for the paper that the composer-conductor was given an enthusiastic ovation at the conclusion of the performance.

Florent Schmitt Heitor Villa Lobos 1923

Heitor Villa-Lobos (age 36) and Florent Schmitt (age 53), photographed in Paris in 1923.

The second occasion was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in October 1949 (see the listing below) — also part of an all-Schmitt series of concerts, in this instance organized by Florent Schmitt’s friend and fellow-composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Interestingly, the Psaume made its way to the United States even earlier than it did to France’s next-door neighbor Belgium, first being performed by the Cecilia Society of Boston in December 1913 in two concerts led by Arthur Mees. Two years later in 1915, the Apollo Musical Club of Chicago (today named the Apollo Chorus) presented the piece. It was also taken up by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Cecilia Society Chorus in February 1928, and again a decade later by the same forces in April 1938.

Abert Stoessel

Albert Stoessel (1894-1943), appearing on the front cover of Musical America magazine (April 25, 1939).

The Psaume was also presented on October 3, 1928 as the opening concert of the Worcester Festival in Massachusetts, with musical forces under the direction of Albert Stoessel. The music critic Olin Downes, who had attended the Boston premiere in 1913, was present for the Worcester concert as well. His comparative analysis of the two performances was published in an extensive article that appeared in the October 7, 1928 edition of the New York Times. In part, Downes wrote:

Olin Downes music critic

Edwin Olin Downes (1886-1955)

“When the 46th [sic] Psalm was composed, in Paris no one knew the name of Igor Stravinsky. Debussy was the great leading figure of French music. Strauss’ Salome, which, when it appeared, seemed to many the last word in dissonance and a certain kind of Orientalism, had yet to shock the world. The 46th Psalm was immensely original and, in intention, ahead of its time …

It must be admitted that the 46th Psalm today impresses the listener as a mixture of styles. Of its effect on the audience, however, there was no question — and there never will be [a] question — of the sincerity, the independence and the fiery dramatic spirit of the man who composed the music.

Arthur Mees

Arthur Mees (1850-1923)

The first [U.S.] performance, given by the Cecilia Society of Boston on December 18, 1913, was conducted by the late Dr. [Arthur] Mees. Through fault of the conductor or chorus — whosoever the fault may have been — the orchestra was the only part of the ensemble which observed correct entrances and played its part from beginning to the end. Halfway through the piece the chorus hesitated — then desisted. From that moment they filled the part of spectators.

Today, of course, the Psalm is not the almost insuperable technical obstacle that it must have appeared in 1913. In a short 15 years the technical demands that composers make upon performers have increased considerably beyond the point marked by this composition. It has, however, taken that long to give a performance of the 46th Psalm in this country … which approached the composer’s intentions as nearly as that of last Wednesday night.

The score is one of special and vexing difficulty. The [Worcester] singers had evidently rehearsed music that must have been puzzling and ungrateful to the more conservative-minded among them until they knew, at least, exactly what they had to do and in their fashion did it … The result was more than creditable to them; it was exciting, impressive to the listeners. So that … the Psalm of Schmitt was heard in its completeness as it probably had not been heard before in America.”

Florent Schmitt French Composer

Florent Schmitt (1913 photo)

At the time of the 1913 U.S. premiere, an amusing anecdote appeared in the pages of the Boston Transcript newspaper, recounting an incident that occurred when Florent Schmitt had tried to collect the royalties due him for concert performances of his Psalm:

“The Society of French Composers [SACEM] had undertaken to collect the royalties for M. Schmitt. One day the composer called at the office of the Society to receive those that had accrued since his last visit.

The treasurer, who had recently been installed in office, handed him but half the amount he expected.

‘Where is the rest of my money?’ Schmitt asked. ‘The rest? What rest?’ the treasurer replied. ‘That is your share.’

‘That is only half the amount of royalties.’

‘Ah, but how about your librettist? He gets his share, I suppose.’

‘The librettist?’ asked the composer blankly.

‘But certainly, my dear sir,’ the treasurer answered. ‘Your librettist — Monsieur David.'”

Florent Schmitt Psalm 47 Boston Symphony Orchestra 1928

The 1928 program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra featuring Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.

Richard Bloesch

Dr. Richard J. Bloesch

Today the situation regarding concert performances of Psalm 47 is much different, and the piece’s fortunes have changed for the simple fact that conductors and choral directors love this score, and whenever it is performed the audience response is electric. University of Iowa professor of music Richard Bloesch, the longtime reviewer of recordings for Choral Journal, the magazine of the American Choral Directors Association, contends that Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII along with Roussel’s Psaume LXXX “should be staples of the choral repertoire for American college/university, community and professional choral ensembles.” Furthermore, Dr. Bloesch considers Schmitt’s Psalm to be among the greatest large-scale works for chorus and orchestra that were created during the first decade of the 20th century — fully deserving of a place alongside the Gurre-Lieder of Schoenberg, The Dream of Gerontius by Elgar, and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

Schmitt Psaume XLVII Boston Symphony Fiedler Koussevitzky 1938 program

Another Boston Symphony production of Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII featured Arthur Fiedler directing the Cecilia Society chorus in addition to Serge Koussevitzky on the podium (April 1938).

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 from the past 75 years that I have been able to document.

[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.]


Public Performances Since 1945 – Partial Listing

1947 – March 30
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, André Cluytens, conductor
Odette Turba-Rabier, soprano; Paris Conservatoire Chorus

1948 – October 30, 31
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; André Cluytens, conductor
Marcelle Bunlet, soprano; Maurice Duruflé, organ; 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
Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Marcel Briclos Chorus; Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, conductor
Denise Duval, soprano

1951 – August 9  [Besançon Festival]
Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Jean Giardino, conductor; Marie-Thérèse Holley, soprano; Micheline Lagache, organist; Les Chanteurs Comtois; Félix Raugel, director

1951 – October 13, 14
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; André Cluytens, conductor
Denise Duval, soprano; Marie-Louise Girod, organ; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur

1951 – December 10 (International Human Rights Day concert, Palais de Chaillot, with Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance)
Orchestre National de la RTF; Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, conductor
Geneviève Moizan, soprano; Jeanne Baudry-Godard, organ; ORTF Chorus

Herbert von Karajan 1953

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

1952 – May 14, 15
Orchestre National de la RTF; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
Denise Duval, soprano; Jeanne Baudry-Godard, organist; ORTF Chorus

1952 – October 20
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; Georges Tzipine, conductor
Denise Duval, soprano; Maurice Duruflé, organ; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur

1953 – February 20
Concerts Pasdeloup Orchestra; Ernest Bour, conductor
Berthe Montmart, soprano; Maurice Duruflé, organ; Paris Music Teachers Choir

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

1954 – June 5 (Festival de Musique de Strasbourg)
St-Guillaume Municipal Orchestra & Chorus; Fritz Munch, conductor
Geneviève Moizan, soprano

1956 – June 26 [Vichy, France]
Ensemble Instrumental du Grand Casino; Louis Frémaux, conductor
Jacqueline Brumaire, soprano; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur

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

1957 – July 7
Orchestra & Chorus of l’ORTF; Louis Martin, conductor
Geneviève Moizan, soprano

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

1957 – July 7 [Brussels Exhibition]
Paris Opéra Orchestra & Chorus

Lamoureux Concerts program Markevitch Florent Schmitt December 1957

The program for the December 15, 1957 Lamoureux Concerts performance, led by Igor Markevitch at the Salle Pleyel in Paris.

1957 – July 8 [Troisième congrès de musique sacrée]
Orchestra & Chorus l’ORTF; Maurice Duruflé, organist

1957 – December 15
Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra; Igor Markevitch, conductor
Geneviève Moizan, soprano; University of Paris Chorus

1958 – October 5
Pasdeloup Orchestra; Albert Wolff, conductor
Régine Crespin, soprano; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur

1958 – October 9
Orchestra & Chorus of l’O.R.T.F.; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
Régine Crespin, soprano; Jeanne Baudry Godard, organist; O.R.T.F. Chorus  (Memorial concert in honor of Florent Schmitt)

1960 – August 3 [also performed on a multi-city European tour July 16-August 6, 1960]
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 & December 26
Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Pierre-Michel Le Conte, conductor
Geneviève Moizan, soprano; ORTF Chorus

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

1962 – December 8, 9
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; Jean Gitton, conductor
Berthe Monmart, soprano; Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur & Paris University Chorus

1964 – March 3, 19
Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Désiré Inghelbrecht, conductor
Micheline Grancher, soprano; Jeanne Baudry Godard, organist; ORTF Chorus

1973 – October 31
Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Jean Martinon, conductor
Andréa Guiot, soprano; ORTF Chorus

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, October 12 (Carnegie Hall, NYC), March 20
Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor
Kathryn Bouleyn Day, soprano; Keith Chapman, organist; Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia

1977 – March 4
Irvine Master Chorale (California)

1978 – November 24, 25
The Cleveland Orchestra; Robert Page, conductor
Sally Taubenheim, soprano; Joela Jones, organist; The 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; Marvel Jensen, organ; Los Angeles Master Chorale

Los Angeles Master Chorale program Schmitt Orff 1983

The famed choral director Roger Wagner led the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a performance of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles (April 1983).

1984 – April 5
Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Marek Janowski, conductor
Térésa Zylis Gara, soprrano; Choeurs de Radio-France

1986 – May 22, 23, 24 (also planned for performance on a June 1986 Paris/European tour that was cancelled due to international terrorism concerns)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Shaw, conductor
Judith Blegen, soprano; Atlanta Symphony Chorus

1989 – August 30 [Festival d’Angers]
Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire; Marc Soustrot, conductor
Françoise Pollet, soprano; Jean Guillou, organ; Choeurs de Radio-France

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

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

1994 – February 27
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; Jean Fournet, conductor
Françoise Pollet, soprano; Netherlands Radio 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 3, 24
Orchestre National de France; Jeffrey Tate, conductor
Inva Mula, soprano; Choeurs 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 [Members of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, DC]; 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; Jung-A Lee, organist; 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

Bard Summerscape program 2012 Saint-Saens Boulanger Schmitt Botstein

The August 2012 concert program featuring Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII, part of the 2012 Bard SummerScape Festival and its theme “Saint-Saëns and his World.”

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

2015 – November 14
Jena Philharmonic Orchestra; Franz-Peter Huber, conductor
Heidrun Kordes, soprano; Fulda Cathedral Choir

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; Denis Comtet, organist; 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

In 2016, conductor Jacques Mercier and the Lorraine National Orchestra brought Psaume XLVII to the Korean peninsula.

2019 – May 19
Washington Choral Arts Society Orchestra; Scott Tucker, conductor
Alexandria Shiner, soprano; Choral Arts Chorus

Choral Arts Society of Washington May 2019 concert program Florent Schmitt Psaume XLVII Boulanger Faure

The concert program for the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s presentation of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII at the Kennedy Center (May 2019).

Choral Arts Society of Washington May 2019 Alexandria Shiner Scott Tucker Florent Schmitt Psalm 47

Soprano Alexandria Shiner joins conductor Scott Tucker and the Choral Arts Society of Washington in Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47 at the Kennedy Center (May 2019). (Photo: Kenneth Joholske)

2019 – May 29
Orchestre Symphonique de Québec; Fabien Gabel, conductor
Karina Gauvin, soprano; Choeur de l’Orchestre Symphonique de Québec

OSQ Fabien Gabel Karina Gauvin May 29 2019 Florent Schmitt Psaume XLVII

Curtain call for soprano Karina Gauvin, conductor Fabien Gabel, chorus director David Rompré, the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec and OSQ Chorus following the performance of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII on May 29, 2019.

2020 – February 7
Transylvanian State Philharmonic Orchestra of Cluj-Napoca; Gottfried Rabl, conductor
Aida Pavăl-Olaru, soprano; Transylvanian State Philharmonic Chorus

Transylvanian State Symphony Gottfried Rabl Florent Schmitt

The February 2020 presentation of Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII in Cluj, Romania was reportedly the first-ever performance of this piece in that country.

2020 – August 17 [canceled due to COVID-19]
BBC Symphony Orchestra; Alain Altinoglu, conductor
Sally Matthews, soprano; BBC Symphony Chorus

2022 – May 12
Orchestre National de France; Fabien Gabel, conductor (video available here)
Marie Perbost, soprano; Karol Mossakowski, organ; Chœur de Radio France


Florent Schmitt Psaume XLVII Gabel ONF May 2022

Conductor Fabien Gabel leads the Orchestre National de France with soprano soloist Marie Perbost and the Choeur de Radio France in Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII (May 2022).

Orchestre National de France May 12 2022 concert program Stravinsky, Schmitt, Poulenc Gabel

The May 2022 ONF program, inscribed by conductor Fabien Gabel.

Commercial Recordings of Psaume XLVII

Fortunately, Psaume XLVII is well-represented on recordings today. 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 Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur plus the famed Maurice Duruflé at the organ.  This recording has been uploaded to YouTube and can be accessed here.

Florent Schmitt Arthur Honegger Georges Tzipine Pierre Bourgeois February 1953

Florent Schmitt receives the first copy of the premiere recording of his Psaume XLVII from conductor Georges Tzipine (second from right) and Pathé-Marconi president Pierre Bourgeois (far right). Standing at far left  is the composer Arthur Honegger. (February 1953 photo, courtesy of Emmanuel Jourquin-Bourgeois)

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 five other versions released in more recent years (featuring conductors Jean Fournet, Marek Janowski, Thierry Fischer, Yan-Pascal Tortelier and Leon Botstein).

Florent Schmitt Tragedie de Salome Tortelier OSESP

The newest recording, a truly transnational production: Yan Pascal Tortelier, Susan Bullock and the OSESP.

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 (Aymé Kunc, Joseph Jongen, 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

… And for those who would like to follow along with the score to this incredible work, you can do so thanks to another YouTube upload which features the 1989 Marek Janowski commercial recording with the Orchestra National de France and ONF Chorus.

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. Writing the pages of The Musical Quarterly in 1927, French musicologist and author André Coeuroy (the nom de plume of Jean Belime) claimed that Florent Schmitt’s inmost feelings were revealed in the ancient Biblical texts of the Psaume, “whose energy and warmth have vivified this strong work which, truth to tell, is less religious than … oriental.”

Terry Blain

BBC Music Magazine critic Terry Blain.

Channeling those same thoughts, some 85 years later British music critic Terry Blain wrote these words about Psaume XLVII in his September 2011 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!

23 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!

  15. I discovered your blog just after having finished leafing through both the amazing full and vocal scores of Psalm XLVII. I had never seen a vocal score written for piano four-hands from beginning to end.

    I am pleased to report that the performance by the Orchestre symphonique de Québec, which took place yesterday (29 May 2019), was not only very well attended (it was the final concert of the season), but also awesome. The work, which was performed here in 1982 as I discovered in your listing above, was very well-received.

    • Thank you very much for your report. I also attended the OSQ performance and found it to be superlative. No question, it created tremendous audience buzz and was an amazing experience for many people. I hope that Maestro Fabien Gabel chooses to program this music in more places in the coming years.

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