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, who was also the work’s dedicatee.
The composition’s subtitle gives 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 with devastating satire. 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 15-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
- 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
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!
I’ve uncovered scant documentation about the first staging of Fonctionnaire MCMXII, although a brief mention of it was made by Maurice Bourgeois, a New York Times correspondent in Paris who filed a report on the Parisian theatre scene that was published by the Times on March 20, 1927. In his article, Bourgeois referred to Schmitt’s piece as a “striking musical extravaganza” and reported that it was staged by a troupe run by Mme. Marguerite Bériza at the Théatre Fémina.
Fonctionnaire 1912 is not a well-known piece, 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. And the Lockhart recording is available to hear on YouTube (accessible to viewers in the United States only, unfortunately).
Of particular interest to French speakers, the Lockhart recording is also available in the original version with spoken voiceover, featuring the winsome Vincent Figuri narrating the pathetic activities listed above. (Even better, this upload is accessible everywhere in the world, thanks to Philippe Louis’ very worthy YouTube music channel).
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, Fabien Gabel and Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Who’s game?