In the century-long period from 1850 to 1950, the Prix de Rome prize for composition was probably the single most important and prestigious recognition for any French composer. And for that reason, nearly every important French composer strove to win it.
Offered to students at the Paris Conservatoire, winners of the award were rewarded with a handsome stipend, along with a multi-year stay at the Villa Medici in Rome in the company of fellow composers plus artists, sculptors and architects.
While in Rome, award recipients were free to follow their own artistic pursuits — the only requirement being to send back periodic envois to the Conservatoire, which for composers meant various works of music composed during their time in Rome.
Some composers were successful on their first or second attempt at winning the coveted prize, such as Claude Debussy in 1884. Others tried numerous times but were never successful, like Ernest Chausson and Maurice Ravel.
Like so many of his fellow composers, Florent Schmitt competed for the prize multiple times, beginning with the secular cantata Mélusine in 1896 and followed by Frédégonde in 1897 … Radegonde in 1898 … and Callirrhoé in 1899.
The first public performance of Schmitt’s cantata happened on November 3rd in a Paris Conservatoire performance led by Paul Taffenel. A review of the premiere was publised in the November 18, 1900 issue of Le Guide musical, which stated:
“In the annual public session of the Acedemy of Fine Arts, the hearing of Sémiramis, a lyric scene by Adenis with music by Florent Schmitt — who won the first prize for musical composition this year — took place. We won’t surprise anyone by saying that the Institute’s room is the last place one should think of making music; the acoustic is deplorable there. The judgment that one is called upon to make on the music performed there is hence very difficult.
Nevertheless, it seemed to us that Florent Schmitt’s Sémiramis showed much promise. It was not in vain that he worked with masters such as Massenet and Fauré. The lessons of the latter especially have borne fruit. The young composer is not a backslider; his score is written with all the resources of modern harmony. There we discover exquisite delicacies and interesting research. The two main themes of Sémiramis — one of power, the other of enveloping grace, skillfully presented in the prelude — testify to the musician’s knowledge and the value of his inspiration. And what we particularly like about him, the the absence of any very marked originality, is that he has a horror of all banality …”
In later years, Schmitt would explain that his success in the 1900 competition was due to the non-musicians on the selection committee. He wrote:
“I had to compete five times for the Prix de Rome to win it once. And if in the end I was not left out in the cold, it was thanks to Gabriel Fauré, my much-lamented teacher, who managed to gather for me enough votes among the sculptors and painters to counterbalance the animosity of the musicians who, with the exception of Massenet, Reyer and Saint-Saens, turned thumbs-down on me. But I have no shame for all that … the important thing was the 30,000 gold francs.”
For Schmitt, his tenure in Rome was distinguished by the amount of time he wasn’t there — thereby turning the typical 24-month stay into a four-year travel adventure. Between 1900 and 1904, Schmitt journeyed to numerous European countries including Germany, Austria-Hungary and Scandinavia.
He also explored the Mediterranean region end-to-end, traveling to Sicily, Corsica, Spain, North Africa and the Near East. In doing so, Schmitt absorbed many different influences, which also contributed to his developing interest in orientalism.
In an article written in 1927 for the Christian Science Monitor, the French music critic Émile Vuillermoz described Florent Schmitt’s wanderlust — and the raised eyebrows it generated:
“[Schmitt’s] regulation stay at the Villa Medici in Rome was marked by many heroic-comic incidents caused by his love of travel. This undisciplined pensioner traversed Europe in every direction with a whim and obstinacy that more than once won him severe remonstrances. This vagabond tendency led him to the most unforeseen places and allowed him to form his imagination and his heart at the same time as his talent.
Those 50 months outside France had a decisive influence on his outlook. One may consider as essential in the makeup of this exceptional person the ingredient of visual experience — of the reflection on things and costumes — to the same degree as that of musical training pure-and-simple. To develop himself, it was necessary for him to pick up what was lacking in the places immediately surrounding him.”Florent Schmitt submitted envois to the Paris Conservatoire in each of his four years at the Villa Medici. In his first year, it was several movements to his Piano Quartet plus several chansons. The second year brought forth the symphonic poem Combat des Raksasas et délivrance de Sita — a score thought to be lost in the Paris Flood of 1910 but recently rediscovered.
The third year’s envoi was Le Palais hanté, and finally in the fourth year, Schmitt delivered to the Conservatoire five orchestrated movements from his piano duo set Feuillets de voyage, the Musiques de plein air, and Psaume XLVII.
By far the most substantial piece of music resulting from Schmitt’s Prix de Rome years, the stunning Psalm, scored for soprano, mixed chorus, organ and large orchestra, would take Paris by storm in its 1906 premiere performance. It was a composition that had breathless critics speaking of Florent Schmitt as “the new Berlioz.”
There is no question that the magnificent splendor of the Psalm has overshadowed the other envois that Schmitt sent from Rome. One of these, Le Palais hanté (The Haunted Palace), is a symphonic etude inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe story — a composition that Schmitt worked on from 1900 to 1904.
This piece is actually fairly well-known, and has received four recordings beginning in 1983 (Georges Prêtre), with the latest one recorded earlier this year (JoAnn Falletta, slated for release in November on the NAXOS label).
All-but-unknown is another orchestral work, Musiques de plein air, Op. 44 (Outdoor Music). Schmitt had actually started work on this three-movement suite before he won the Prix de Rome. While at the Villa Medici, Schmitt completed the composition and submitted it as an envoi to the Conservatoire. The score is marked “Rome — 1900” although the music wouldn’t be published until 1914 (by Durand).
Schmitt dedicated the suite to T. J. Guéritte, an important Parisian impresario who was responsible for organizing concerts of French music in England, and who brought Claude Debussy to London to conduct his own works. The first performances of the score were in 1906 at the Paris Conservatoire and also at Salle Erard in Paris by the Lamoureux Concerts Orchestra, conducted by Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht. Thereafter the piece was taken up by Louis Hasselmans and his Association des Concerts Hasselmans (presented at the Salle Gaveau in January 1909). In America, it was first heard at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert in March 1919 under the direction of the French composer-conductor Henri Rabaud.
Musiques de plein air is in three movements, as follows:
- La Procession dans la montagne (The Procession in the Mountain)
- Danse désuète (Outmoded Dance)
- Accalmie (Lull)
To my knowledge, this work has never been recorded commercially. Moreover, I have been unable to find evidence of the music being performed anywhere in the past half-century.
However, we are fortunate in that the first movement of the suite — La Procession dans la montagne — was selected by Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht as one of five of Schmitt’s compositions the conductor led at a French National Radio Orchestra concert in memory of the composer. The concert occurred on October 9, 1958, approximately two months following Schmitt’s death.
The broadcast tape from this concert has now been made available in its entirety for the first time in nearly 60 years. You can listen to the ORTF performance of the first movement of the suite here. (A special “thank you” to Eric Butruille, a faithful reader of the Florent Schmitt blog, for preparing the high-res audio file.)
While the music clearly sounds like early Schmitt, it exhibits many of the “trademarks” that would come to characterize the composer’s recognizable style — from the opening English horn solo to the chromatic orchestral writing and the passionate tutti climaxes. At the quiet conclusion of the movement, the mood is both mystical and magical.
To my ears, this music makes one wish for the entire suite to be recorded. Here’s hoping that one of Florent Schmitt’s strongest advocates — Leon Botstein, Lionel Bringuier, Paul Daniel, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, Sascha Goetzel, Jacques Mercier, Yan-Pascal Tortelier or some other conductor — will be inspired to investigate this score … and finally bring Musiques de plein air to the microphones.
One final note about Florent Schmitt’s Prix de Rome period and the works that he brought forth in the wake of his time in Rome (and roaming). The December 26, 1906 concert at the Paris Conservatoire which included the premiere of Psaume XLVII was an all-Schmitt concert that also included other envois. To today’s listeners who know Schmitt’s full range of creativity, these early pieces seem anything but revolutionary in comparison with what was to come. And yet for many audience members in 1906, these works were a bridge too far.
As one example of the reacion, the outcry from Arthur Pougin, a music and drama critic writing in the January 5, 1907 issue of Le Ménestrel magazine, seems almost like a cri de cœur. His “rant” is worth translating and presenting in its entirety, as it illustrates just how much resistance composers of Schmitt’s generation faced as they forged new pathways in music. Pougin writes:
It becomes almost frightening to see our young composers writing music such as that which M. Florent Schmitt offered us the other day at the Conservatoire, at the audition session for the Prix de Rome which was dedicated to him. We really wonder what they are thinking about and what their goal could be. Do they simply intend to “amaze the bourgeoisie” with procedures whose audacity seems to border on madness? Or are these aggressive and cruel procedures, in their minds, the mark of an originality that no one is yet able to appreciate and understand?
Isn’t their aim more ambitious — and would they not, by chance, in hatred of the art that they cultivate though we don’t know why, have sworn to the ruin of this art by treating it in such a way that we should hate it? We don’t know what to think — and we wonder what they themselves think, if they think about anything at all.
The program included (but the public did not understand!): a symphonic study for Edgar [Allan] Poe’s The Haunted Palace; Poèmes des lacs for voice and orchestra; Musiques de plein air orchestral suite; Psaume XLVI [sic] for orchestra, organ, chorus and solo [soprano].
All this comes from the same barrel — and from a barrel which is not malvoisie wine, I can assure you. Not the shadow of an idea, not the shadow of a phrase, not the shadow of a rhythm; notes that slip into each other – “I go as I push you” without knowing why — and which do not represent anything. With that, fierce modulations, a bizarre orchestra without poise and without balance, an infernal noise, cymbals (lots of cymbals!), squeaking violins, whistling flutes, bursting brass, and sopranos which also burst out … what do I know?
Hearing it, we looked at one another, anxious, dazed, wondering what it meant and where we were going to end up. You had to see the faces of the listeners struggling with this astonishing, shattering and deafening music. Everyone seemed to be saying to their neighbor: “Good heavens! This is OK for one time, but they won’t do it again!”
But the fact is, this is why we have the Prix de Rome!
Update (11/19/19): A 1954 broadcast performance of Sémiramis, Schmitt’s prizewinning Prix de Rome cantata, has now been released by Forgotten Records. Interestingly, the musical forces are led by Henri Tomasi, who was much better-known as a composer. The sonics are quite good considering the age of the live recording.
[Archival information reveals that this wasn’t the only time that Sémiramis was performed during those times; in 1957 another live performance was broadcast over French Radio — that one conducted by Manuel Rosenthal but featuring the same vocal cast as the 1954 presentation.]
In his review of the Forgotten Records CD for Fanfare magazine, critic Steven Kruger wrote these words about Schmitt’s cantata:
“The award-winning Sémiramis, a half-hour cantata for three solo voices and orchestra … disturbed academic conventions at the time. Fascinating to the ear of history, though, is how much of Schmitt’s mature style is in evidence from the beginning. The cantata opens with a sense of chromatic menace punctuated by grim muted squawks from the brass that might as well be creepy alligator love calls. Schmitt’s tendency towards lush-but-dangerous-sounding sensuality is clearly present already — seven years before his most famous work, La Tragédie de Salomé, established his reputation as a master of sexual apocalypse. Short explosive phrases and declamations are an essential part of the mix.
Much of Sémiramis is spent emoting in time-honored French operatic fashion. (Equally given to sudden outbursts, Schmitt’s later music, culminating with the Second Symphony, is volatile in exactly the same way.) Just when one no longer expects melody, Schmitt suddenly slips in a tune worthy of Puccini …
Hindsight indicates as well that Schmitt’s fascination with strong, dangerous women as muses began early. The Assyrian queen Semiramis in legend restored the ancient city of Babylon. She also invaded Armenia when its king, Ara the Handsome, refused her amorous attentions. Semiramis was victorious, but Ara was slain in battle. As we said, dangerous!”
We are indebted to Forgotten Records for giving us the chance to hear this music until such time as a commercial recording can be made. The CD can be purchased on the Forgotten Records website and shipped anywhere in the world.