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 de Falla 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 its 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.
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 first home in St-Cloud Villa Oiseau de feu.
It was also during this time that Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé was premiered by Diaghilev’s company (1912). In Ravel’s theatre box on the evening of the first performance were five people: the composer, his mother and brother … and Florent Schmitt and Igor Stravinsky. Not only was it a measure of the importance of these composers at that time in Paris, but also of the close personal friendship between all three men.
One year following the premiere of Ravel’s ballet 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.
Hints as to what was coming were revealed by Florent Schmitt in the newspaper La France in November 1912, where he reported:
“In a faraway pavilion in Auteuil, which from henceforth will remind me of the most magnificent of temples, M. Igor Stravinsky played Le Sacre du printemps for my friends. I will speak to you of its importance to all music … it speaks of freedom, newness, and the richness of life.”
The reaction of the Parisian audiences to the June 1913 premiere of 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 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 had come 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 Pétrouchka — and yet so distant from Pétrouchka. 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 contends, “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 1920s 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 Académie des Beaux-Arts became vacant. Stravinsky, who had recently taken French citizenship, applied for the position.
The author Stephen Walsh, in his book titled Stravinsky — The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971, explains “what went down” in the wake of the composer’s application:
“As might be expected, Stravinsky’s Russian origins and recent naturalization were soon being canvassed against him. Somebody dredged up a law — passed in July 1934 only a few weeks after he had become French — whereby foreign-born citizens were not permitted to hold state-paid office for ten years after their naturalization. But was an academy fauteuil an ‘office’ in this sense? Academicians received an annual stipend of 6,000 francs, but that was an honorarium and imposed no duties. For the most part, the Parisian press ridiculed what was self-evidently at best a bureaucratic expedient [and] at worst an organized attack on Stravinsky’s candidacy.
Stravinsky later claimed that ‘I stood as a candidate solely on the insistence of a few friends, whom I felt it impossible to refuse a gesture of deference toward a venerable French institution to which they themselves belong and to which, in their opinion, I could be useful.’
‘Mr. Stravinsky’s supporters forgot to tell him,’ Camille Mauclair [the French author and poet, né Séverin Faust] wrote later, ‘[that] for entry into the Académie des Beaux-Arts, it is almost indispensable to be a Prix de Rome [winner] and a professor in a school or conservatoire. Talent only comes later.’
No sooner was Stravinsky’s candidacy being generally reported that more comfortable alternatives began to be found: Henri Büsser … Marcel Samuel-Rousseau, and finally Stravinsky’s own old friend Florent Schmitt. All were past winners of the Prix de Rome, and all held Conservatoire professorships except Schmitt, who was a mere ex-director of the Lyon Conservatoire but in other ways, presumably, a more plausible face-saving opponent. According to Mauclair, a novelist and art historian who was also well-connected musically, Schmitt agreed to run as a joke — and perhaps did not expect to be elected — being, apart from musical successes, a well-known journalist-snapper at the heels of the Institute itself.”
But Schmitt did end up winning in the balloting — and the result wasn’t even close. Writing of the result in the newspaper Le Temps, music journalist Pierre Lalo (the son of composer Édouard Lalo) opined that Florent Schmitt was the most worthy of all the candidates considered for the position, contending that Schmitt’s influence in his new position would be “the best for French music in general.” Lalo wrote further:
“It is anticipated that this new member will swing interest to the content and message of music and away from that insistence on old forms which has been a fixation of the Institute in the past.”
Following the Institute balloting, Stravinsky’s opinions about Florent 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.
For those who would like to read Florent Schmitt’s complete, unexpurgated commentary about the premiere presentation of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps, it is reproduced below in the original French. (Special thanks to Messrs. Stéphane Abdallah, Philippe d’Anchald, Guillaume Le Dréau and Emmanuel Pélaprat for their help in locating the original article in the June 4, 1913 edition of the newspaper La France.)
Les Sacres du Printemps, de M. Igor Strawinsky, au Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
En nous révélant Les Sacres du Printemps, le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées ne pouvait de façon plus éclatante manifester sa raison d’être : théâtre libre, il s’honore en hospitalisant l’art le plus libre qui soit : la musique de M. Igor Strawinsky aggravée de la chorégraphie de M. Waslaw Nijinsky et des décors de M. Nicolas Rœrich. Avec Les Sacres du Printemps, suite de tableaux de la Russie païenne, nous arrivons au point culminant non seulement de la saison russe, mais aussi de l’art russe – et peut-être bien de l’art tout court. De fait, nul musicien, nul metteur en scène, nul décorateur, traitant aussi dédaigneusement des traditions séculaires, ne s’aventurèrent aussi avant dans le domaine des sons, des mouvements et des couleurs, et n’exprimèrent l’inexprimable en d’aussi géniales trouvailles.
La tâche était d’autant moins aisée qu’il s’agissait de traduire l’atmosphère d’une époque profondément rudimentaire, l’époque préhistorique d’une humanité balbutiante et sauvage. La musique de M. Igor Strawinsky, par son agitation frénétique, le tourbillon insensé de ses rythmes hallucinants ; par ses agrégations d’harmonies en dehors de toute convention et de toute analyse, d’une hardiesse agressive que nul – ni M. Richard Strauss – n’avait osée jusqu’à ce jour ; par l’insistance obsédante de ses thèmes, leur saveur et leur étrangeté ; par la recherche de la sonorité dans ce qu’elle a de plus paradoxal : combinaisons audacieuses des timbres, emploi systématique du registre exceptionnel de l’instrument ; par son orchestration tropicale, iridescente, d’une somptuosité invraisemblable ; par un excès, pour tout dire, une luxuriance inouïe de raffinement et de préciosité, la musique de M. Igor Strawinsky arrive à ce résultat inattendu – et voulu – de nous donner l’impression de la plus ténébreuse barbarie.
En vérité, il faut voir dans Les Sacres du Printemps l’avènement d’une musique nouvelle, déjà pressentie dans Petrouchka, et pourtant si lointaine de Petrouchka. Cette dernière œuvre, comme l’Oiseau de feu, nous avait déjà fortement impressionnés par sa nouveauté et son étrangeté. Elles sont encore surpassées dans Les Sacres. La force et la rapidité d’évolution chez M. Strawinsky, sont déconcertantes. Auteur, à trente et un ans, de trois chefs-d’œuvre si différents, sans parler de l’admirable Scherzo fantastique, du Feu d’artifice et des si évocatrices mélodies japonaises, Igor Strawinsky est, je crois bien, le Messie que nous attendions depuis Wagner et dont Moussorgsky et Claude Debussy, comme aussi Richard Strauss et Arnold Schœnberg, semblent avoir préparé les voies.
Le génie d’Igor Strawinsky ne pouvait recevoir de plus frappante confirmation que l’incompréhension de la foule et son hostilité méchante. Ces peuples des gens dits « du monde » – le monde du docteur Moreau – incapables de voir, entendre et sentir par eux-mêmes, ces grands enfants qui se pâment de gravité aux pitreries zoologiques et académiques de tel bouge boulevardier, n’ont trouvé devant ces splendeurs si incommensurablement lointaines de leur faible entendement, d’autre argument qu’une hilarité bête de nouveaux-nés.
Dans cette musique inquiète et sublime ils n’ont vu que cacophonie, dans ces gestes géométriques de primitifs d’une gaucherie si émouvante, que farces de guignol. Ramenant tout à leur médiocrité vaniteuse, ils ne veulent admettre, ils ne peuvent tolérer que l’artiste crée sans se soucier d’eux plus que la princesse de Paul Claudel ne se souciait des rats ou des couleuvres qui vivaient dans les murs de son palais. Ces gens des Sacres se sont montrés parfaitement dignes de leurs ainés de Tannhauser, de Briséis, de Pelléas et Mélisande. D’une logique, d’une infaillibilité implacables, la bêtise humaine ne perd jamais ses droits.
Il sera peut-être de quelque intérêt que vous connaissiez l’ « argument » – horrible mot ! – de cette œuvre si altière et si humaine. Le voici, réduit à sa plus simple expression. Je ne fais que transcrire :
« 1er tableau : l’adoration de la Terre. Printemps. La Terre est couverte de fleurs. La Terre est couverte d’herbe. Une grande joie règne sur la Terre. Les Hommes se livrent à la danse et interrogent l’avenir selon les rites. L’Aïeul de tous les sages prend part lui-même à la glorification du Printemps. On l’amène pour l’unir à la Terre abondante et superbe. Chacun piétine la Terre avec extase. »
« 2e tableau : le Sacrifice. Après le jour ; après minuit. Sur les collines sont les pierres consacrées. Les adolescentes mènent les jeux mythiques et cherchent la grande voie. On glorifie, on acclame Celle qui fut désignée pour être livrée au dieu. On appelle les Aïeux, témoins vénérés. Et les sages aïeux des hommes contemplent le sacrifice. C’est ainsi qu’on sacrifie à Idrilo le magnifique, le flamboyant. »
C’est le poème tout entier de l’humanité, poème beau plus par les impressions qu’il suggère que par son action elle-même. La mise en scène de M. Nijinsky, qui a soulevé tant de désapprobation, me parait tellement adéquate à la musique que cette fois je n’affaiblirai mon enthousiasme d’aucune des restrictions que je m’étais permises à l’égard de celle des Jeux de M. Debussy. Mlle Piltz, que nous avions déjà remarquée dans l’Oiseau de feu, réalise la Danse sacrale avec une passion douloureuse et tragique, et le grotesque étudié de ses mouvements n’exclut pas sa grâce, qui est infinie. Il faut admirer le sang-froid, le courage extraordinaire de cette jeune fille qui, sans paraitre se soucier d’une salle démontée, apporte dans l’interprétation de rythmes aussi compliqués celte précision merveilleuse. C’est un éloge qu’il convient de décerner également à M. Pierre Monteux, l’habile et infatigable chef d’orchestre des spectacles russes. Fort à l’aise parmi des difficultés inouïes, il peut se vanter désormais d’avoir mené à bien l’exécution de la partition la plus redoutable qui soit, et c’est une gloire, il me semble, qui vaut celle des noms illustres en er ou en isch, si fiers de conduire par cœur la pastorale.
Sinon la musique de M. Strawinsky, sinon la mise en scène de M. Nijinsky, du moins les décors de M. Nicolas Rœrich auraient pu trouver grâce devant l’intransigeance abjecte des foules. La beauté du premier tableau nous est connue : c’est le réalisme ardent des couleurs, la symphonie de la verdure printanière, dans des lignes sobres, proches de la terre nue encore sans arbres. C’est la stylisation du chaos se revêtant peu à peu de mousse et de verdure. Peut-être trouverai-je les costumes des danseurs trop éclatants, trop riches. Ne convenait-il pas de les vêtir d’étoffes primitives aux teintes neutres, ou mieux de peaux de mammouths ou de diplodocus, ou plus simplement encore de magnifiques cheveux, de fluviales barbes et de beaux membres ? Le décor du second tableau, d’un impressionnisme macabre, me fait songer – à tort ? – aux derniers chapitres de la Machine à explorer le temps : humanité mourante, rebalbutiant toutes les actions de la vie ? Ou bien, humanité naissante du chaos et commençant le rythme de toutes les actions ? Ce second décor m’émeut davantage.
Florent Schmitt — La France, 4 juin 1913