“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
When Florent Schmitt’s monumental score Psaume XLVII was premiered in December 1906, it burst upon the Parisian music scene in a big way. Nothing this grandiose had been heard outside the opera house since the days of Berlioz.
The French poet and essayist Léon-Paul Fargue echoed the sentiments of many when he wrote of the Psalm: “A great crater of music is opening up.”
Ravel declared the music “profound and powerful,” and several music critics spoke of Schmitt as “the new Berlioz.”
Perhaps even more interesting for such a singular composition was that Schmitt’s Psalm wouldn’t be a one-off phenomenon, even though the composer himself would set just one other psalm to music – much later in life and employing only an unaccompanied male chorus (the Psaume CXII).
In fact, Psaume XLVII would influence a number of other French composers to create their own works based on the Psalter – chief among them Lili Boulanger, Albert Roussel and Jean Rivier.
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), the younger sister of the famous musician and teacher Nadia Boulanger, would prove to be influenced most heavily by Schmitt’s composition. Prone to sickness, the younger Boulanger would live for less than 25 years, but in her short life would set three psalms to music – all of them stunningly effective compositions.
She was an incredible musical talent: a 1913 winner of the Prix de Rome whose untimely death would cut short a promising compositional career.
John Perkins, former professor of music at the American University of Sharjah and now associate director of choral activities at Butler University in Indianapolis, has written several articles about Lili Boulanger’s choral music – and particularly her Psaume 130 (“Du fond de l’abîme” – “Out of the Depths”), composed in 1917 and premiered in 1921 by Henri Büsser, three years after her death.
Perkins’ writings were published in the May 2010 and June/July 2010 issues of Choral Journal magazine. In his two-part article, Perkins notes the strong influence of Schmitt’s Psalm on the young composer, citing Boulanger biographer Léonie Rosenstiel who wrote that Boulanger “was extremely excited by the premiere … Lili followed every rehearsal with rapt attention.”
Perkins goes on to note:
“… Except for Schmitt’s choice of percussion … the scores resemble each other in instrumentation. Even an extended soprano solo appears in the middle of Schmitt’s work, as it does in the Psaume 130. The overall, and likely initial, influence of Schmitt’s Psaume 47 on Boulanger is evident, resulting in similar characteristics between the two works: form, instrumentation, and choice of psalmodic text.”
[As an interesting aside, Lili Boulanger’s sister Nadia had played the important organ part in the first performance of Schmitt’s Psalm.]
It is also interesting to note that Florent Schmitt himself, who was also a highly influential music critic in Paris, wrote these words about Boulanger’s Psaume 130 after attending a 1923 performance of the work:
“Coming from the mysteries of the abyss a song rises slowly — the choirs staged parallel to the orchestra — whose music successively emerges, little by little, to reach the most desperate violence …”
In addition to Psaume 130, Boulanger composed two other psalms: Psaume 24 and Psaume 129, both written in 1916. These are much shorter in length but similar in style to Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII.
The French conductor Yan-Pascal Tortelier has made highly effective recordings of Boulanger’s and Schmitt’s psalms. His 1999 recording of the Boulanger Psaume 24 is every bit as effective as his 2012 Chandos recording of Schmitt’s Psalm, as you can hear in this YouTube clip.
Less well-known but equally effective is Psaume LXXX by Albert Roussel (1969-1937). Roussel’s Psalm was composed in 1928 and features a tenor solo instead of the soprano found in Schmitt’s score. The orchestration differs from Schmitt’s primarily in the omission of the pipe organ.
It’s pretty clear that Roussel was influenced by Schmitt in the composition of Psalm 80. Indeed, Roussel considered Psalm XLVII to be the most important of Schmitt’s compositions. As Roussel characterized it, this music was:
“…the work which most faithfully reflects Schmitt’s character, and which gives the most precise impression of his voice as a composer, of the expressive nature of his melody, and the freedom of his rhythms.”
Surprisingly, considering that Roussel’s composition was written nearly 25 years after Schmitt’s, the “modernity” of Psaume LXXX isn’t particularly more pronounced. In fact, the incisive chords and vocal lines seem to stem directly from the 1904 Schmitt composition, underscoring once again how influential Schmitt’s score was on other French composers of the period.
Henry Prunières, editor and publisher of the influential French magazine La Revue musicale, wrote these impressions of Roussel’s Psalm in an article appearing in the British publication The Musical Quarterly in January, 1930:
“It is neither the highly theatrical conception of Florent Schmitt’s formidable Psalm, nor yet the purely mystic one of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus. It is a great human work, poignant in feeling, without external brilliance, devoid of super-terrestrial effusion. It speaks for men who suffer — and who implore the Heavens to save them, with cries of revolt which in the end subside in a transport of confidence and hope.”
Roussel’s Psalm is definitely a choral piece that deserves to be better known, as is amply proven in this EMI recording headlined by the conductor Serge Baudo, available courtesy of YouTube.
As for Jean Rivier (1896-1987), his contribution to music based on the psalter, Psaume LVI, is also a very worthy composition. It was created more than 40 years after Schmitt’s Psalm 47 — and yet here as well the influence of “Schmitt as forerunner” is clearly evident.
Rivier’s work is scored for soprano, tenor, chorus, organ and orchestra. To my knowledge it has never been commercially recorded, but we are fortunate to be able to hear a live performance of the piece as presented by the ORTF in concert in 1952, courtesy of YouTube, with the musical forces directed by Jean Martinon — the same conductor who was responsible for making one of the most memorable recordings of Schmitt’s Psalm (the CD reissue is pictured above).
Beyond Roussel, Boulanger and Rivier there is an additional French composer — Aymé Kunc (1877-1958) — who represents a rather fascinating case. Kunc was Schmitt’s junior by seven years, dying the same year as his older compatriot. He won the Prix de Rome second prize for composition two years following Schmitt, in 1902. (The other second prize winner that year was Maurice Ravel; no first prize was awarded.)
Kunc became quite friendly with Schmitt and André Caplet (the 1901 first prize winner), no doubt being influenced by what he was encountering in these other composers’ musical creations.
In 1907, Kunc composed Psaume CXLVII as one his final envois from the Villa Medici in Rome. The piece is a total rarity these days. I’ve been able to find oblique references to it in just a few historical documents; almost certainly no recorded documentation exists. One of those references about Kunc’s Psalm piques curiosity: the piece is characterized as “worthy of Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47,” composed three years earlier.
Hopefully there will come a day when this score can be rediscovered — if only to confirm whether that description is accurate — and indeed that what we have is a hidden gem to bring back from “musical purgatory” …