Florent Schmitt and Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Friendship Over Five Decades

Ralph Vaughan Williams and Florent Schmitt Society Journal Magazine Cover

The cover story in the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, published in October 2014, focuses on the half-century friendship between the French composer Florent Schmitt and his English counterpart.

The two composers were near contemporaries of one another — Schmitt was older by two years — and they died within mere days of each other in 1958.

The article, authored by Dr. Robin Barber, describes the milieu in which the two composers operated in Paris before World War I.  Vaughan Williams had come to France from England for additional musical study.

Because he was fluent in the French language — thanks to having a French governess and teacher as a child — Vaughan Williams moved easily among the ranks of French musicians and artists, and was particularly close to Maurice Ravel.

It was likely through Ravel that Schmitt and Vaughan Williams became acquainted in about 1908, and the two established an immediate rapport.

At the time, Schmitt was working with another English composer, Frederick Delius, to prepare piano reduction scores of four of Delius’ operas.  While that association had begun as a business relationship, likewise it developed into a friendship what would last until the end of Delius’ life in 1934.

[With Delius ensconced at his garden estate in Grez-sur-Loing outside Paris, it was easy for Schmitt to maintain close personal ties, even during the composer’s many years of declining health.]

Reflecting the close friendship that developed with Vaughan Williams, Schmitt would dedicate one of the movements from his piano suite Crépuscules, Op. 56 (Twilights, published in 1913), and the two composers also spent time together on trips to London in the years leading up to the war.

Dr. Barber’s article does a fine job describing key milestones involving both composers in Paris and London in those halcyon days, while also providing readers a concise overview of Schmitt’s life and composing career.

Most helpfully, he provides insights into the final meeting between the two composers, which occurred in London in 1956, facilitated by the impresario and music critic Felix Aprahamian.

Of the photo that graces the October 2014 front cover of the Society Journal, reproduced above, Dr. Barber describes it thus:

“What a lovely picture it is — the dapper Frenchman in his immaculately pressed suit and bow tie, and Vaughan Williams slumped in characteristic pose wearing his best crumpled tweeds!”

Robin Barber Ralph Vaughan Williams Society

Robin Barber

Dr. Barber approached me during the course of researching and sourcing his article, and I was pleased to be able to help him on certain questions and confirmation of facts.

Shortly after the article appeared, I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Barber again, at which time I asked him to share more observations about what he’d learned in his research about the relationship between Schmitt and Vaughan Williams.  Here is a summary of those comments:

PLN:  How did you first discover the music of Florent Schmitt?  

RB:  Actually, it was through your website and blog on Schmitt that I discovered his music.  I actually knew nothing of his music before this.

PLN:  In that case, how did the idea of writing an article on this particular topic come to you?

RB:  The article was inspired by seeing a photograph of the two octogenarian composers seated together, which had been reproduced in a book on Vaughan Williams.  I was curious to know about Florent Schmitt.  When I searched the Internet I found your blog site, which was invaluable.   

Then, when you were able to furnish me an excellent copy of the original photograph and its source, I felt this would be a basis for an interesting and I hope unique article.

PLN:  What were the most surprising things you learned about either composer during your research for this article?

Florent Schmitt with Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (l.), photographed with Florent Schmitt about the same time as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ arrival in Paris (1908).

Probably the most surprising things were that Schmitt was such a fine composer, and a friend or associate of some of the greatest 20th century composers (Ravel, Stravinsky and others).  He was an incredibly important figure in modern French music.  

His “sound” is sophisticated and highly original — and I think it is now making a comeback.    

The most surprising thing about RVW was his long acquaintance with Schmitt — a full five decades. 

PLN:  Do you have any other observations to share about the relationship between Schmitt and Vaughan Williams?

RB:  I think there is more to learn about their relationship.  In particular, there are letters between the two composers which are out there.  I hope my article may help bring some of them to light.

PLN:  How long have you been associated with the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society? 

RB:  I co-founded the Society with two other individuals in 1994, and I served as its vice chairman and a trustee for a dozen years.  In addition, I have written over a dozen articles, as well as CD and concert reviews, over the 20 years or so that the RVW Society Journal has been published.

PLN:  Tell us a little about your professional and personal background — and how music figures into it.

RB:  My professional life has been as a doctor in the U.K. and in Australia, as a general physician.  I am now retired.  I have no formal musical training although I can read music at a basic level and play the piano.  

I have listened to, been fascinated by, and collected classical music since I was in my late teens.  In my opinion, music is the greatest and purest art form — and for me a great source of inspiration, sanctuary and pleasure.  

These days, I tend to listen most to late 19th and early 20th century music:  Bruckner, Mahler, Ravel, Shostakovich, and of course the English composers who flourished during that time. 

PLN:  What noteworthy things are happening with the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society at the moment?  Are there any special activities or events being planned?

RB:  There are always interesting activities happening such as concerts and social gatherings.  These are noted on the Society’s website, and are definitely an important part of what makes it a worthwhile and vibrant organization for our members.

PLN:  How can people learn more about the Society, it objectives, and its work on behalf of Vaughan Williams the composer? 

RB:  The Society maintains an excellent website which explains our objectives and how to join.  We attract members from all over the world.

Indeed, the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society is a model of how the life and artistry of a great composer can be celebrated and promoted.  Within the first decade of its founding in 1994, the Society had enrolled its 1,000th member.  Since that time, its online presence has helped it attract many more members from overseas.

The society also counts among its members many of Great Britain’s leading classical music performers.

RVW Society activities.

An example of the many varied musical programs with which the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society is involved.

The Society has been instrumental in bringing about performances of two complete cycles of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, as well as several important festivals featuring world premieres of the composer’s lesser-known operas.

The Society has also helped bring about premiere performances of other Vaughan Williams compositions such as the Cambridge Mass, Willow Wood and The Garden of Proserpine.

Other endeavors include publication of the Society Journal three times per year, along with producing recordings on its own label, Albion Records.

Those interested in exploring more about this vibrant and highly active organization and how to become a member, can visit the Society’s website at www.rvwsociety.com.

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