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.
In later years, Schmitt would explain that his success 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 engendered:
“[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 1916 (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 music.
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 any evidence of the music being performed anywhere within 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-Emilie 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 the composer’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 clearly 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.
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.
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.