Fonctionnaire MCMXII: Florent Schmitt versus French Civil Servants (1923)

Fonctionnaire, Florent Schmitt's dig at government workers everywhere.Around the world today, the news is full of stories about bloated government bureaucracies and the inefficiencies of various public agencies.

From France and Italy to the United States, there are persistent calls for governments to become leaner and more effective, beginning with eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” from various agencies.

But this isn’t a new phenomenon at all. And we can actually go back to a piece of music composed by Florent Schmitt in the early 1920s to remind ourselves that even in the era before computers and automation, indolent government employees were fair game for satire.

Schmitt published a symphonic picture titled Fonctionnaire MCMXII, Op. 74 in 1923, and it received its premiere performance at the Lamoureux Concerts in 1924, conducted by Paul Paray.

The composition’s subtitle give us an additional clue as to the “inspiration” behind the score: Inaction in Music.

It turns out that Schmitt’s composition skewers the entire French government worker sector. Or, as musicologist Frédéric Decaune puts it, “It is the bureaucracy itself – the men of regulations – that Florent Schmitt makes to look completely foolish.”

Originally envisioned as music to accompany an artistic collaboration between the French writer Charles Muller and the artist Régis Gignoux, Schmitt ended up creating an intriguing musical portrait of the “parasitic civil servant.”

Throughout its ~14-minute duration, we clearly hear the “inactivity in music” in how it portrays a day in the life of a government worker, who engages in such “worthy” pursuits as:

  • Yawning and stretching for a long, long time
  • Perfunctorily saluting the French flag in the office
  • Eating
  • Exclaiming that there’s beaucoup work to do … but then doing nary a thing at all
  • Looking endlessly at the clock
  • Eedling away on a trumpet (out of tune, of course) to pass the time
  • Falling asleep

If Florent Schmitt were to live in the United States in today’s times, would he be a Tea Party supporter?

That’s pretty doubtful. But it’s clear from the above scenario – and in the structure of his highly symbolic score that’s very heavy on “episodics” and light on the full development of musical themes – that the composer had little respect, time or patience for the inefficiencies of French bureaucrats.

One wonders if Schmitt ever had to wait for hours at the French equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles … because that alone would have given him inspiration to pen this music!

Fonctionnaire 1912 is not a well-known piece of music, even though it boasts plenty of Schmitt’s trademark colorful orchestral palette. I am aware of just one recording – made back in the 1980s on the Cybelia label – which is long out of print.

That’s a pity, because the Cybelia recording, featuring the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Lockhart, is quite fine.

Those with an interest in studying the music score are in luck, however, as it is readily available from Presto Classical and several other sources.

To my mind, Fonctionnaire MCMXII is a composition that several of today’s Schmitt champions could do a fine job in resurrecting – among them the conductors Leon Botstein, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta and Yan-Pascal Tortelier.  Who’s game?

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