Throughout his long life and composing career, Florent Schmitt would forge many personal friendships with his counterparts. He was at the center of musical life in Paris, maintaining particularly close relationships with Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, Gabriel Pierné, Paul Dukas, Gabriel Fauré, Guillaume Lekeu and numerous other French composers.
He also had decades-long friendships with composers from other lands — Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alfredo Casella, Manuel DeFalla and George Enescu, to name just some.
But it was Schmitt’s relationship with Igor Stravinsky that may have been the most rewarding one of all — at least in the early decades of the 20th century.
Stravinsky, who was born in 1882, was Schmitt’s junior by a dozen years. So when the Russian composer came to Paris in 1910, the friendship that developed between the two of them was a relationship between an established celebrity and a musician whose fame was still emerging.
At the time, Stravinsky’s compositional style still displayed the influence of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — not only in the orchestration but also in the musical language and the music’s inspiration from Russian folklore and themes.
Clearly, Schmitt recognized the raw talent of Stravinsky, who was still in his twenties when he arrived on the scene in Paris. Stravinsky’s first big-scale work in France was the ballet L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), which turned out to be a showstopper not only in the original 1910 stage version, but also in the orchestral suite Stravinsky extracted for concert performances.
This was followed in short order by the ballet Petrouchka (1911), another brilliantly conceived (and sumptuously orchestrated) ballet.
It didn’t hurt that both of these ballets were produced by the impresario Serge Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes dance troupe was the toast of Paris during this time.
There is little doubt that Stravinsky was influenced by what he was hearing in Paris as much as what he brought with him from Russia.
Among the noteworthy French scores that were being premiered around the time of his arrival were Schmitt’s powerful choral work Psalm XLVII, scored for soprano, organ, chorus and orchestra (premiered in 1906), and his ballet La Tragédie de Salomé (premiered in 1907).
Several years later, Schmitt revised the Salomé score, shortening its length by half while substantially augmenting the orchestration.
It was this version of the score that Schmitt dedicated to Igor Stravinsky. In a letter of gratitude, Stravinsky wrote to Schmitt:
“When will your fine Salomé be published so that I can spend many happy hours playing it from beginning to end à la folie? I must confess that it has been a long time since a work has given me such pleasure … I am proud that you dedicated it to me.”
In the view of musicologists and critics such as Andrew Porter and Jerry Rife, certain aspects of Schmitt’s ballet influenced Stravinsky’s scores that were to come — particularly the music’s bold and sometimes violent ostinatos, its bitonality, as well as the jagged rhythms in the concluding Danse de l’effroi (Dance of Fright) section of Schmitt’s ballet.
The French conductor Stéphane Denève, speaking to the audience before a 2011 concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra where he performed the Schmitt score, declared, “Without La Tragédie de Salomé, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would not have been the same!”
The admiration was mutual. Schmitt was so taken with Stravinsky’s score to The Firebird that he renamed his home in St-Cloud Villa Oiseau de feu.
Several years following the premieres of Petrouchka and Salomé came one of the most notorious premieres in the annals of classical music: the first performance of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), depicting scenes from pagan Russia.
The reaction of the Parisian audiences to this groundbreaking piece of music is the stuff of legend.
We have Stravinsky’s own first-hand account of what happened at the premiere. Two of them, in fact — which have been recounted in Thomas Forrest Kelly’s book First Nights: Five Musical Premieres.
In Stravinsky’s autobiography, published approximately 20 years following the June 1913 premiere, the composer had written:
“As for the actual performance, I am not in a position to judge as I left the auditorium in the first bars of the prelude, which had at once evoked derisive laughter.
I was disgusted. These demonstrations, at first isolated, soon became general, provoking counter-demonstrations and very quickly developing into a terrific uproar. During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky’s side in the wings [Vaslav Nijinsky had prepared the choreography for the production]. He was standing on a chair, screaming …
Naturally the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps.
I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghilev kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise.”
In a later commentary (1962), Stravinsky spoke specifically of how Florent Schmitt came to his defense during the first performance of Le Sacre:
“Mild protests against the music could be heard from the very beginning of the performance. Then, when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke. Cries of ‘Ta guile !’ [loose translation: STFU] came from behind me. I heard Florent Schmitt shout, ‘Taisez-vous, garces du siezième !’ [Down with the bitches of the 16th arrondissement]; the ‘garces’ of the 16th arrondissement of Paris were, of course, the most elegant ladies of the city.
The uproar continued, however, and a few minutes later I left the hall in a rage … I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance.”
It is important to recognize that the premiere performance of Le Sacre du Printemps wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the end of the ballet brought equal amounts of applause to counteract the shouting. There were multiple curtain calls, including one for the beleaguered pit orchestra and its conductor, Pierre Monteux.
Writing an extensive article about the music in the pages of La France on June 4, 1913, Florent Schmitt made these observations about the music and the production:
“In showing us Le Sacre du printemps, the Theatre des Champs-Elysées could not have a more impressive way of demonstrating its reason for existence: A free theatre, it prides itself on being a home to the freest art there is — the music of Igor Stravinsky, aggravated by the choreography of Vaslav Nijinski and the settings of Nicolas Roerich.
With Le Sacre du printemps, a suite of tableaux of pagan Russia, we come to the high point not only of the Russian season, but of Russian art — perhaps even of art itself. In fact, no musician, no director, no decorator, treating ancient traditions so scornfully, has ever ventured so far in the realm of sound, movement and color, or expressed the inexpressible in such brilliant discoveries …
Igor Stravinsky’s music, by its frenetic agitation; by the senseless whirl of its hallucinating rhythms; by its aggregations of harmonies beyond any convention or analysis, of an aggressive hardness that no one — not even Richard Strauss — had dared until now; by the obsessive insistence of its themes, their savor and their strangeness; by seeking the most paradoxical sonorities, daring combinations of timbres, systematic use of extreme instrumental ranges; by its tropical orchestrations, iridescent and of unbelievable sumptuousness — in sum, by an excess of an unheard-of luxuriance of refinement and preciosity — the music of Igor Stravinsky achieves this unexpected-yet-intentional result: It gives us the impression of the darkest barbarity.
We must actually see in Le Sacre du printemps the arrival of a new music, already felt in Petrouchka — and yet so distant from Petrouchka. The latter work, like L’Oiseau de feu, already made a great impression by its novelty and its strangeness. But this is surpassed in Le Sacre; the force and speed of Stravinsky’s evolution are disconcerting.
The author, at age 31, of three such different masterpieces … Igor Stravinsky is, I believe, the Messiah we have waited for since Wagner, and for whom Mussorgsky and Claude Debussy, as well as Richard Strauss and Arnold Schönberg, prepared the way.”
Florent Schmitt went on to characterize the reaction of the opening night audience in his own colorful language:
“Igor Stravinsky’s genius could not have received a more striking confirmation than the incomprehension of the crowd and its vicious hostility.
This group of what is called ‘worldly people’ — the world of Doctor Moreau, unable to see, hear and feel for themselves — these overgrown children who are overcome with gravity at the beastly and academic clownings of low boulevard theatre, could find nothing but brutal infantile laughter at these splendors, so immeasurably distant from their own weak understanding.
In this disturbing and sublime music they discerned only cacophony; in these primitive geometric gestures, so moving in their gaucherie, they saw puppet farces. Bringing everything down to their own mediocre, vain level, they will not admit — they cannot tolerate — that an artist should be creative without being concerned for them …
With an implacable and infallible logic, human stupidity never loses its rights.”
Listening to Le Sacre today, more a century since its premiere, it is music that still sounds surprisingly modern. Contemplating this music makes it easier to understand the words of conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen when he claims, “Today, the future of classical music has a lot to do with Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, and less to do with Schönberg, Berg and Webern.”
From the vantage point of history, we can also see that the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps represented the high point in the relationship between Schmitt and Stravinsky.
At the conclusion of World War I and moving into the 1920s, Stravinsky would begin to migrate away pretty definitively from the style of composition inherent in his three big ballet scores — and from the Russian inspiration underlying them.
Following the disappointing reception of his opera Mavra in 1922, Stravinsky declared that his “Russian” period had come to an end. From that point forward, his music would take on a far more “internationalist” bent, as well as adopt characteristics of neo-classicism, expressionism, serialism and other modern movements in classical music.
Schmitt did not look particularly favorably on some of Stravinsky’s newer works, and those views found their way into Schmitt’s concert reviews as a music critic for Paris’ Le Temps daily newspaper beginning in the late 1920s. No doubt, Stravinsky took note of those writings.
In his own compositions, Schmitt stayed more true to the musical ethos of the early 20th century. While many of his scores from the 1930s and later bear unmistakable modernisms, in their overall flavor and feel they remain more rooted in the earlier era.
One can sense this clearly in Schmitt’s final ballet, Oriane et le Prince d’Amour. Composed in 1933, this work exhibits a sound-world that is much closer to Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau than to Le Sacre.
In 1934, an event that likely caused the definitive breach between the two composers occurred. With the death of the composer Paul Dukas, the post of president of France’s Academie des Beaux Arts became vacant. Stravinsky, who had recently taken French citizenship, applied for the position.
Florent Schmitt had also put his name forward … and Schmitt won the in the balloting.
Following this development, Stravinsky’s opinions about Schmitt’s music took a decided turn to the negative. He was growing less fond of France as well, and by 1939, would leave the country for America.
It turned out to be another fortuitous move for Stravinsky, whose fortunes would reach new heights in the remaining three decades of his life — his fame as a composer and a celebrity far eclipsing Schmitt’s. (Stravinsky even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)
But with the advance of the years — and with both composers leading productive musical lives well into their late 80s — a certain mellowness was bound to occur. One piece of evidence is Stravinsky’s 1962 recollection of the premiere performance of Le Sacre and acknowledging how Schmitt had come to his defense (as recounted above).
In the final year of Schmitt’s life the two composers met one last time, at an American Embassy function in Paris in October 1957. A photograph from that event shows the two old gentlemen together, along with Stravinsky’s second wife.
There’s an interesting connection in this, too. Mme. Vera Stravinsky’s first marriage had been to Serge Sudeikine, the artist who had designed the sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes’ 1913 production of Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé.
Sometimes history — and the arts — do come full circle.