“I’ve learned a good deal in terms of structure by listening to classical music — and particularly to music created by a person like Florent Schmitt. In fact, I think that a well-structured text, including a share of the predictable and unpredictable, should be modeled on a piece of Schmitt’s music!”
— Julien Columeau, novelist and author
French novelist Julien Columeau must possess one of the most intriguing biographies of any living writer. A resident of the Indian subcontinent for the past 20 years, he writes not in his native French tongue, but in his adopted language of Urdu.
In the process, the author has become one of Pakistan’s most noted and innovative writers of fiction.
Originally from Marseilles, Columeau came to Pakistan at the age of 30 as a humanitarian specialist working with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other social service organizations.
Columeau’s first published works in the Urdu language were brought out in the early 2000s, and his first full-length historical novel was about the wandering mystic Saghar Siddiqui. Revered as a kind of saint by many people of the working classes, Siddiqui represents the triumph of the human spirit in the face of extreme privation — in his case financial ruin, personal tragedies and destitution.
This book was followed by another historical novel about the street poet Mira Jee. Both books were praised by literary critics — not least because they are written in a tongue that, despite its beautiful and flowery language, has fallen out of favor among famous authors of the subcontinent such as Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif who choose to write in English instead.
Columeau’s latest collection of critically acclaimed short stories features a variety of eclectic characters. As Mohsin Hamid has written, “Nobody gets Pakistan’s subcultures like he does.”
Columeau himself understands that his writing career “turns the telescope” on the normal expectations: “You have a lot of people from Asia and Africa whose mother tongue is not a Western language but who write in Western languages. The opposite you don’t really get to see,” he states.
Another interesting aspect of Columeau’s writing is the parallel he draws between it and the music of France composed in the early years of the twentieth century — particularly the compositions of Florent Schmitt.
Writing to me via the Florent Schmitt Facebook page, the author stated, “I really want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the Florent Schmitt Blog and Facebook page. You have made so much information and material available about this extremely original and unfortunately neglected composer of the last century and written about him so enthusiastically! Thanks for all your passionate work. I must say, Schmitt is my all-time favorite [composer] with Koechlin …”
When I asked Columeau to share his observations about Schmitt’s music in greater detail, the author readily agreed. (His observations below are translated from French into English.)
PLN: How did you become familiar with the music of Florent Schmitt?
JC: For me, Florent Schmitt is a fairly recent discovery. The first piece of his that I heard was part of an “omnibus” collection of piano pieces called Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy. It is an amazing collective work from the time of Debussy’s death that brought together the greatest talents of the time to memorialize the composer — people like Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel, Roussel and Satie in addition to Schmitt.
This piece by Schmitt (Et Pan, au fond des bles lunaires, s’accouda …), charmed and intrigued me, which led me to explore other important pieces by Schmitt for piano such as Crépuscules, Ombres and Mirages, songs in the Debussyian tradition, as well as pieces of chamber music — particularly the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet. The chamber works are Ravelian with obvious touches of Fauré, but also containing singular and original accents that reminded me of Shostakovich and even Schnittke.
Finally, I explored his orchestral works, including La Tragédie de Salomé, Salammbó, Le Palais hanté, Rêves, plus the early work Soirs. In them I discovered a completely different world of colors and unusual harmonies — a modern atmosphere yet still with fin de siècle elements, as if Florent Schmitt had remained faithful to the aesthetic of the nineteenth century.
PLN: What is it about Schmitt’s style of composition that appeals to you? Are there aspects of his musical language that you find particularly noteworthy — or possibly unique?
JC: The career of Florent Schmitt was an extraordinarily long one. As Bernard Gavoty remarked in his  taped interview with the composer, “Wagner was 57 years old when you were born!” And in truth, Schmitt was born in a musical era that was dominated by the Germanic world of Wagner, Liszt and Brahms. In France, it was Saint-Saëns and Franck.
And yet, he died in an era that witnessed Xenakis, Stockhausen and Boulez take flight — and Varèse triumph.
You see, Schmitt was at the crossroads of several eras and different styles, and even if he was following his own path, I think these other influences were internalized by the composer.
Listening intently to his music, I’m always a little confused because I never know how to peg his language, nor how to classify it. Sometimes one hears the boldness of the twentieth century, sometimes it’s the nineteenth, and other times it’s archaic musical language. This is what attracts me and seduces me in his music.
If I can suggest a pictorial analogy, it would be as if Henri Fantin-Latour had started painting in a Cubist style — futuristic and abstract — and the result would be always surprising, always unpredictable, always confusing.
The only other composer who comes to mind in this way is Charles Koechlin — another long-lived artist who was at the crossroads of epochs between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
PLN: French music of the early twentieth century always seems to revolve around Debussy and Ravel, with other composers positioned significantly below them. In your opinion, which other French composers, if any, should be regarded on the same plane as Debussy and Ravel?
JC: I believe that it’s high-time to re-contextualize Debussy and Ravel. Certainly they weren’t the only great composers of their time in France. Posterity has been very kind to them, but I think to fully understand the times in which they evolved and thrived it is necessary to also listen to the music of Schmitt, Koechlin, Roussel, Cras, Vierne, Dupont, Aubert, Samazeuilh, Delage, Caplet, Tournemire, Magnard, Le Flem and others.
By doing so, we can understand that what we took at first as the singularity of Debussy’s or Ravel’s language is actually the style of an entire era focused on experimentation and the revival of musical language.
Indeed, some of the output of these composers is the equal to some of the best pages of Debussy and Ravel. It is definitely the case with Florent Schmitt, who I envision eventually taking his rightful place alongside these two great masters.
PLN: You are an author of novels and other fiction. How does music serve as an inspiration for your writing, and how does it influence how and what you create?
JC: While writing I’m usually listening to music — often the composers I just named and frequently piano music. This intimate and often-dark music frees me from the atmosphere around me and pushes me to introspection.
Also, I’ve learned a good deal in terms of structure by listening to classical music — and particularly to music created by a person like Florent Schmitt.
In fact, I think that a well-structured text, including a share of the predictable and unpredictable, should be modeled on a piece of Schmitt’s music!
What we encounter in Schmitt’s music — the sequence of subtle themes … the succession of crescendos and decrescendos … the use of silence, dissonance and non-familiar harmonies … unexpected modulations … irregular rhythms, abrupt passages and atmospherics ranging from dark to bright — all of these processes when applied to writing can deliver extraordinary results as well.
PLN: You have had a highly interesting and unique writing career — mainly outside of France and particularly in Pakistan, writing in the Urdu language. How did your literary career evolve?
JC: After spending 14 years living on the Indian subcontinent, I came to realize that my native language of French was less familiar to me, and my borrowed tongue (Urdu) had by then become the language of my feelings and my thoughts.
The decision to write in Urdu followed this realization, especially since the themes I wanted to treat — fictionalized biographies of poets and the lives of marginal members of society — begged to be treated in the language of the characters themselves. This is how I came to publish the first two of my books in Urdu.
PLN: What new projects are you working on at the moment?
JC: I am preparing a novel on the life of a modern composer of the Indian subcontinent. The character is inspired by the Anglo-Indian pianist and composer Kaikhosru Sorabji.
PLN: Often, Florent Schmitt’s music seems to draw inspiration from “big themes” — literary, biblical, historical — as well as Eastern subject matter. Do you see similar parallels with the themes that run through your literary works?
JC: Unlike Schmitt, I prefer to work with marginal or “anonymous” characters rather than famous individuals. At the same time, I can see remarkable links between Florent Schmitt and the literature of his time.
Schmitt’s aesthetic has a direct equivalent in literature. Had he been a writer, I’m quite sure Schmitt would have been a mixture of a symbolist poet and a writer on decadent themes (J.-K. Huysmans or Oscar Wilde’s last period), fantastic tales in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe, and parody (Jean Giraudoux). He would have been a miraculous combination of these many different personages.
PLN: Are there any additional observations you would like to share about Florent Schmitt’s music and what it means to you?
JC: Just this: Thank you again for your efforts to raise awareness of the magical music of Florent Schmitt. I appreciate the opportunity to speak about him and his music as well.
One additional point: When I approached Julien Columeau about conducting this interview about the music of Florent Schmitt, while pleased to be asked, the author cautioned that as a writer his answers could only be a personal response to the music rather than the observations of a professional performer, a musicologist or similar specialist.
Precisely so: For most lovers of Florent Schmitt’s music, when all is said and done, it isn’t the scholarship or historical context that’s so important. It’s the personal response to the music that matters most of all.