Fête de la lumière: Florent Schmitt’s extravagant showpiece at the Paris Exposition (1936-37).

Fetes de la lumiere Paris Exposition 1937

Fêtes de la lumière at the Paris Exposition, 1937.

In 1937, one of the final transnational gatherings held on the European continent before the onset of World War II occurred in the city of Paris. The International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life — colloquially known as the Paris Exposition — took place between May and November of that year.

Paris Exposition Plan View 1937

Plan view of the Paris Exposition, 1937.

Its lofty name reflected a similarly lofty goal, and yet certain telltale signs hinted at the conflagration that was soon to come. Built on both banks of the Seine River and adjacent to the Eiffel Tower, an important component of the Paris Exposition was the zone reserved for various national pavilions representing the countries of Europe.

USSR Pavilion Paris Exposition 1937

USSR pavilion at the Paris Exposition, 1937.

Perhaps unwittingly, the Expo planners positioned the sites of German and Soviet pavilions directly facing each other, which precipitated the construction of “dueling towers” reflecting the intense struggle the two ideologies were engaged in — albeit still only as a war of words in 1937.

The USSR pavilion featured a huge sculpture of a peasant and a factory worker atop its imposing structure, while the competing German pavilion, designed by architect Albert Speer, was even taller.  The German pavilion was flanked by massive sculptures of nude figures created by Josef Thorak, the Austro-German artist who was famous for similarly grandiose monuments erected throughout the Third Reich.

Josef Thorak sculpture German pavilion Paris Exposition 1937

A Josef Thorak sculpture at the German pavilion, Paris Exposition.

Other countries such as Romania attempted similarly grandiose statements — although the resulting edifices were not quite as impressive — whereas nations such as the United Kingdom and Switzerland participated in the Exposition with far less flamboyant pavilions designed to showcase their countries’ heritage of native crafts and industries rather than the projection of raw power.

Meanwhile, the Spanish pavilion engaged in a propaganda endeavor of its own. With the country still engaged in a bloody civil war, the Republican government, while it may have been on the run at home and in control of steadily diminishing portions of the country, held full sway in Paris.  It turned the Spanish pavilion into a celebration of the Republican struggle, including exhibiting Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica for all fairgoers to see.

Madeleine Milhaud Florent Schmitt Magda Tagliaferro

Florent Schmitt at dinner in Paris several years before the Paris Exposition, joined by Madeleine Milhaud (l.) and concert pianist Magda Tagliaferro (r.)

Writing years later in his autobiography Ma vie heureuse (My Happy Life), the composer Darius Milhaud remembered the feelings he and his wife, Madeleine Milhaud (1902-2008) experienced when visiting the national pavilions at the Exposition:

“Threats and sinister omens filled the air.  There was an Austrian pavilion, but the evil forces of the Anschluss lurked close by; Picasso’s Guernica sprawled over the walls of the Spanish pavilion, but the Republic had been murdered; the German and Soviet pavilions, nose to nose, seemed to challenge each other. 

As the sun set one evening, contemplating the great mass of flags of all the nations that fluttered above the Pont d’léna, Madeleine felt such a pang of anguish that she clutched my arm and whispered, ‘This is the end of Europe!'”

Swiss Pavilion Paris Exposition 1937

Less pretentious: The Swiss pavilion at the Paris Exposition, 1937.

Against this backdrop of “prelude to war,” the Paris Exposition’s aims in the cultural arena were manifested prominently in its Festivals of Light, in which the Exposition’s planners sought to attract and thrill audiences with a series of shows where newly created musical compositions would be accompanied by tightly choreographed spectacles of light and water.

Eugene-Elie Beaudouin

Eugène-Elie Beaudouin, French Architect (1898-1983)

Designed by Eugène Beaudouin working in conjunction with fellow-architect Marcel Lods, the Fêtes de la lumière were set on the banks of the Seine River stretching from the Point de Invalides to the Ile des Cygnes.

In Beaudouin’s conception, the ambitious scheme constituted a sort of “immersive symphony” of light and water, sustained and exalted by the music.  The visual spectacle was the main attraction — and the music the accompaniment — in this grand design to highlight the beauty of the effects of water and vapors, fumes and colors.

Marcel Lods

Marcel Lods, French Architect (1891-1978)

At the same time, through its elaborate technical and engineering requirements, the Festivals of Light were intended to showcase the urban and technologically sophisticated side of modern France in presentations appealing to vast audiences without distinctions of class.

The Festivals of Light events were scheduled to be presented over a nearly five-month period between June and December of 1937, meaning that a substantial number of new musical compositions would be required to ensure sufficient variety during the season.  Accordingly, the Exposition committee commissioned 18 composers to create musical scores in the year preceding the start of the exposition.

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

As the acknowledged doyen of French composers — Paul Dukas having passed away in 1935 and Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel and Gabriel Pierné no longer able to compose (all three would die in the year of the Exposition) — Florent Schmitt was given the honor of creating the score for the very first show, to be held on June 14, 1937. His piece, appropriately titled Fête de la lumière (Opus 88), was a substantial composition of more than a half-hour in length.  Schmitt scored it for large orchestra, plus two vocal soloists and an eight-part mixed chorus singing a text taken from the writings of Charles Baudelaire.

Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt, photographed in 1937, the year of the Paris Exposition. ©Boris Lipnitzki / Roger-Voillet

Schmitt and the other 17 composers worked with pre-established topic scenarios developed by the architects, requiring the musical creations to follow precise, moment-by-moment cues reflecting the lighting and play of the water.  The scenarios were presented in the form of black drawing paper, upon which brilliantly-colored schemes were drawn in chalk that illustrated what the principal sequences would be.

Not that the “best-laid plans” were to come off without a hitch or two. From August 1936, we have a letter posted from Florent Schmitt at his country retreat in Artiguemy, stating:

“Many thanks for the schematics. Alas, I haven’t done much about it yet! I received Beaudouin’s album only yesterday, and his colleague didn’t explain everything to me clearly. Besides, I’m not doing it at all.”

[Fortunately for us, this last pronouncement turned out to be a judgment subsequently reversed.]

The entire season of offerings included the following compositions, listed in order of their premieres at the Festivals of Light as well as the total number of performances of each creation that were presented:

  • Florent Schmitt: Fête de la lumière  (8 performances)
  • Jean Rivier: Fête de rêve  (3)
  • Jacques Ibert: Fête nationale  (1)
  • Elsa Barraine: Fête des colonies  (1)
  • Darius Milhaud: Fête de la musique  (4)
  • Raymond Loucheur: Fête de la Seine  (6)
  • Manuel Rosenthal: Fête du vin  (2)
  • Marcel Delannoy: Fête de la danse  (3)
  • Claude Delvincourt: Fête de l’automne  (3)
  • Louis Aubert: Fête de l’éte  (2)
  • Paul Le Flem: Fête du printemps  (1)
  • Arthur Honegger: Mille et un nuits  (6)
  • Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht: Fête enfantine  (1)
  • Henry Barraud: Fête du feu  (4)
  • Pierre Vellones: Fête fantastique  (5)
  • Maurice Yvain: Fête du chanson  (2)
  • Olivier Messiaen: Fête des belles eaux  (6)
  • Charles Koechlin: Fête des eaux vives  (3)

The musical scores created by the 18 composers ranged in duration from just 15 minutes (Barraud’s Fête du feu) to the grand frescoes of Ibert’s Fête nationale and Schmitt’s Fête de la lumière.

In addition being the first and last shows presented (June 14th and November 12th), Schmitt’s Fête de la lumière had the distinction of being the piece mounted the most times during the Festivals of Light.  Approximately 3,000 fireworks were required for each airing of Schmitt’s creation — a whopping ~24,000 fireworks in total across all eight showings — dwarfing any of the other presentations.

Paris Exposition Poster 1937

Paris Exposition Poster (1937)

Because it was considered impossible to present the Festivals of Light shows featuring live music, it was decided to pre-record each of the scores, and then broadcast them via amplifiers and specially-engineered potentiometers mounted on barges on the Seine River to enhance audio fidelity and limit any distortion. In order to ensure that the sound would be audible to all spectators, loudspeakers were also to be placed in trees and even on the Eiffel Tower.

The objective was to enable the Fêtes to be experienced throughout the entire Exposition site — whether from the café terraces that lined the bridges spanning the Seine, along the promenades lining the river’s banks, or atop the Eiffel Tower.

In the months leading up to the opening of the Exposition, all of the major Parisian orchestras were mobilized to record soundtracks to the 18 shows. Among those ensembles was the newly formed French National Radio Orchestra; its recording of Koechlin’s Fête des eaux vives, conducted by Roger Desormière, is very likely one of the very first recordings ever made by that ensemble.

In the case of Florent Schmitt’s Fête de la lumière, the Lamoureux Orchestra under the direction of Eugène Bigot did the honors.

Pre-recorded soundtracks played by France’s best orchestras meant that the musical component of the shows was universally strong. Unfortunately, as recounted by Koechlin and others, although the recordings themselves were impressive, it was disappointing to hear the music frequently drowned out by fireworks and water sounds when performed live in front of crowds that sometimes numbered as many as 250,000 people.

Fetes de la lumiere Paris Exposition 1937

Fêtes de la lumière at the Paris Exposition, 1937.

According to eyewitness accounts, the logistics of preparing each presentation were interesting in their own way.  Each day, fireworks were placed on boats and floating pontoons that were put into correct order, then transported up the Seine River and placed in specific positions for the evening’s event.  Submersible platforms housing elaborate fountains and mist-forming vapor ducts were also part of the schematic; these would rise from below the surface of the river’s water as each presentation started.

An article in the Parisian newspaper Ce Soir gave a detailed accounting of all that was entailed in these nightly extravaganzas.  The requirements included 190 fountains capable of casting water 100 feet in the air, 65,000 yards of wire attached to more than 600 operating buttons, and 100,000 cubic meters of water per hour employing a force of more than 4,000 horsepower.

Considering that the Paris Exposition dates from 1937, the fact that we have any color video documentation at all from the Festivals of Light is a minor miracle. But such is the case, thanks to Phillip Medicus, an amateur videographer who filmed extensive color footage of the Expo’s day and nighttime activities.  Some of the best highlights from Medicus’ efforts have been compiled into a 30-minute video that can be viewed here, courtesy of YouTube.  (Footage shot during the nightly Festivals of Light begins at approximately minute marker 21:30.)

Maurice Imbert

Maurice Imbert (1893-1981) (1923 portrait)

As for the 18 musical selections created for the Festivals of Lights, some works were better received than others — which may not be all that surprising considering the constraints on creativity that were dictated by the tight choreographic demands of Beaudouin’s vision. In his warm commendation of Florent Schmitt’s composition, the composer and critic Maurice Imbert alluded to this by writing, “A work of circumstance — but well-worthy of the magnificent pen of its glorious author.”

The Paris correspondent for London-based The Musical Times issued this eye- and earwitness report which was published in the magazine’s September 1937 issue:

“While it cannot be said that the scores which eighteen French composers wrote for the ‘Fêtes’ have been equally successful (some composers apparently forgot that they were writing for the masses of humanity and not for the intimacies of the salon), they have nevertheless quite satisfactorily met the demands of the ‘luminous scenarios’ with which they consort.

Unrestricted by rules and specifications, our music-makers were given a free hand in their effort, and no limit was placed upon either their originality or fantasy. Some of them turned to the classical orchestra, some took to modern instrumentation, some augmented the sonorous power of their outpourings by bringing in the [ondes] Martenot ether waves, while others (as was to be expected) wooed popular approval by allusions to hybrid jazz — the music, previously enregistered, being diffused over the festive area from records.

Festivals of Lights Paris Expo 1937

The Festivals of Lights at the Paris Expo (1937).

It is inevitable that, when eyes and ears are in competition, the former win out (exception being made for the rare persons who have learned to see and hear at the same time); and who would blame 200,000 exhibitionites for swooning at the sight of a blue fountain going red, and being totally oblivious of the fact that, simultaneously therewith, they might also be enjoying the outpourings of Florent Schmitt …”

Unfortunately, because these 18 scores had been created for a very special purpose, most of the compositions written for the Festivals of Lights have never been published.  Florent Schmitt’s score is no exception; for years it was one of just a small handful of his opus-numbered compositions to remain unpublished.  However, recent correspondence with Durand-Salabert-Eschig (Universal Publishing) reveals that, while the score and parts aren’t offered for sale, they are available on a rental basis.

Moreover, because the music was pre-recorded, we have audio documentation that has been well-preserved over the ensuing eight decades. Thanks to Philippe Louis’ very fine YouTube music channel, music-lovers finally have the opportunity to hear Florent Schmitt’s score in all of its colorful splendor.

You can listen to the music here.  The 1937 sonics are surprisingly clear and fine, with conductor Eugène Bigot coaxing committed performances from soprano Marie-Louise Doniau-Blanc, contralto Irina Kedroff, the chorus and the Lamoureux Orchestra musicians.

Listening to this endlessly fascinating music, it’s quite easy to imagine the play of the water, lights and fireworks that accompanied its presentation at the Festivals of Light.  But the music works equally well on its own, conjuring up those very same images in the imagination — often with ecstatic, even delirious abandon.

Ginette Martenot

Ginette Martenot leads an ensemble of ondistes performing at a state concert given during the Paris Exhibition in 1937. All of the scores composed for the Fêtes de la lumière spectacles included significant parts for ondes martenot. Ginette Martenot (1902-1996), the sister of cellist, radio telegrapher and inventor Maurice Martenot, was an accomplished player and tireless champion of the instrument.

Schmitt’s large orchestra includes important quasi-solo parts for the alto saxophone and — most intriguingly — ondes martenot. Not leaving it at that, Schmitt employs two soloists along with an eight-part mixed chorus, making the music positively visionary in its breadth and spirit.

Maurice Martenot

Maurice Louis Eugène Martenot (1898-1980), the inventor of the ondes martenot. (1928 photo)

No wonder Schmitt’s biographer Yves Hucher characterized Fêtes de la lumière as “a dazzling composition” — and he is absolutely correct.  Hucher described it as a “vast triptych … which sumptuously gives voice to visual enchantments and the poetic climate from which they are inspired.”

The composition begins and ends in the depths of the orchestra, with the mysterious sounds of the bass clarinet and other low-register instruments.  The middle section of the piece is described by Hucher as follows:

“With a tight rhythm, a tortuous dance theme begins in the basses, then gains in intensity while ondes martenot waves run wild — phantasmagorical and domineering.  The sounds of an onomatopoeic chorus are heard along with the words of the soloists who celebrate light, tenderness and radiant life.”

Louis Aubert

Louis Aubert (1877-1968), photographed in 1928.

In the concluding third of the piece, Hucher describes how the chorus takes up the love-song text, leading to the reappearance of the dance motif and then an extraordinary decrescendo — a return to the shadows where the voices disappear into the mysterious harmonies of the beginning.

Fellow-composer Louis Aubert — who was responsible for creating one of the other Fêtes compositions — characterized the love-song motif in Schmitt’s creation as “a powerful lyric, eternally youthful.”

Reporting from Paris in a June 27, 1937 article published in the New York Times, journalist E. C. Foster wrote these words about the premiere presentation of Florent Schmitt’s piece:

“Skillful synchronizing of fireworks, fountains springing from the river itself, colored lights on a screen of smoke and new illuminations on the tower itself are elements employed in this spectacle, planned to delight the eye as well as the ear. Much of the music was lost in the noise of exploding fireworks, but the broadcasts from the Eiffel Tower were eminently successful. A slow melody flung out into the night by a woman’s voice added peculiar charm to the forms and colors emerging from the Seine.

Florent Schmitt’s score utilizes a symphony orchestra, alto saxophone, Martenot waves, chorus and soprano voice. At the close of the spectacle … came a peculiarly effective moment: the illuminations on the tower were extinguished and suddenly two immense shafts of blue light streamed skyward. At the same instant a great carillon of bells rang out and the illusion was of some gigantic stylized cathedral suddenly conjured into the space, where only a moment before had stood the familiar shape of the Eiffel Tower.”

In the present day, the American musicologist Christopher Hill has made these observations about Schmitt’s score:

Christopher Hill

Christopher Hill

“Although written for the Paris Exposition, Fête de la lumière is in no way a ‘piece d’occasion.’ It has, in my opinion, as much claim to being Schmitt’s greatest composition as anything he ever wrote.

In it one finds all the hallmarks of the composer’s most powerful pieces: It is approachable, sensuous, visceral, long-lined, extraordinarily well-crafted, and profoundly emotional. But it is also, in its last section, the Credo of a French intellectual — just as the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony may be heard as the Credo of a German intellectual.

Certain textures and effects in this music are not found elsewhere in Schmitt, although they are recognizably from the same fecund mind that created Salammbô and Oriane et le Prince d’Amour. The composition is over in half an hour, but it has the impact of a work twice its length.”

Paris Exposition 1937In an interesting historical sidebar, the Festival of Lights provided the young music journalist Olivier Messiaen with one of his earliest composing opportunities.  His contribution — Fête des belles eaux — is among a very few of the 18 works ever to be commercially recorded in subsequent years.  Still working as a journalist in 1937, Messiaen wrote in rhapsodic terms about the festival:

“Fêtes de la lumière take place beside the Seine, with synchronized fountains and fireworks surpassing in splendor all previous spectacles of this kind, accompanied by musical scores composed on clearly established scenarios in close synchronization with the arabesques of fire and water.”

Olivier Messiaen French composer

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Three decades later, Messiaen would write the following words to Eugène Beaudouin, the architect who had brought the Festivals of Light from vision to reality:

“You must remember that I have not forgotten the Fêtes de la lumière, nor the enormous timed and colored plan of the moments of water and light that I accompanied with music.  It was so large that I had to spread it out on the carpet in my drawing-room, and that I lay on the ground to read it — or even at night by boat on the Seine with the streams of water.  The colorful projections that fell from the sky, the orchestras, and the martenot waves.  1937:  It was a happy time; thank you for enabling me to live it.”

What have been the fortunes of Florent Schmitt’s Fêtes de la lumière since those distant-past days of 1937?  We know that the piece was presented again by Eugène Bigot and the Lamoureaux Orchestra on March 19, 1938 — this time in a concert performance without the accompanying choreography of lights and water.

Tony Aubin French composer conductor

Tony Aubin, French composer and conductor. (1907-1981)

I’ve found documentation of only three additional public performance of this work in the years since — the first one being a presentation on November 6, 1947 by the ORTF Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Tony Aubin.

Another performance by the same orchestra and chorus happened on April 6, 1949, featuring soprano Marcelle Branca and tenor Joseph Peyron, with the proceedings led by Henri Tomasi.

Florent Schmitt Psaume XLVII Fete de la lumiere Pupazzi Habeyssee Forgotten Records

The 1949 Henri Tomasi performance.

The 1949 performance has been released by Forgotten Records and can be ordered from the label’s website as part of a winsome CD compilation of French Radio broadcasts from the period that includes a 1956 Psaume XLVII, a 1958 Habeyssée with violinist Madeleine Vautier, and a 1958 Pupazzi performance featuring Schmitt’s own orchestration of his set of piano miniatures inspired by commedia dell’arte characters.

Fêtes de la lumière was also presented during the French Music Week of the Vichy International Festival in August 1955, in a performance conducted by Jean Fournet that also featured Alyette Melvat as soprano soloist and the orchestra and chorus of the Vichy Opera. The Vichy performance is also available to hear on a Forgotten Records CD and can be ordered there.

Forent Schmitt Psaume XLVII Fete de la lumiere Munch Fournet

the 1955 Vichy Festival performance.

Interestingly, both the 1949 and 1955 performances were of a revised score that had been cut by approximately one-third. It’s likely that these cuts were composer-sanctioned, and moreover it is the shortened version rather than the complete score that is on file at Durand today.

But no performances appear to have happened at all since the mid-1950s, and the lack of exposure for this piece is a shame because it is such a substantial and worthy composition among Schmitt’s body of work. Unmistakably a product of the master, it delivers the widest possible range of emotions and atmospherics, along with endlessly interesting musical ideas.

The richness of Schmitt’s colorful orchestration, augmented by the fullness of the mixed chorus and the ecstatic solo voice passages, are remindful of other large-scale Schmitt creations, particularly Psaume XLVII, La Tragédie de Salomé, Salammbô and Oriane et la Prince d’Amour. Indeed, one could argue that Fête de la lumière deserves a rightful pride of place alongside those lauded compositions.


Florent Schmitt Arthur Honegger Forgotten RecordsUpdate (8/30/21):  The original recordings of two of the works presented at the 1937 Paris Expo’s Festivals of Lights — Florent Schmitt’s Fête de la lumière and Arthur Honegger’s Mille et une nuits — have now been released by Forgotten Records.

Taken from a mint copy of one of the few physical recordings ever produced, the audio fidelity on the Schmitt performance in particular is significantly better than the dubs that are available on YouTube or in other downloads.  Eugène Bigot and Gustave Cloëz direct a bevy of soloists, a force of ondes martenot performers, plus the top orchestras and choruses of Paris in these rare and wonderful historical recordings.

After listening to the new release, Christopher Hill shared his observations about the  performance and the recording quality:

“The folks at Forgotten Records have done a marvelous job of bringing the 1937 recording to life. They have not tried to remove the ‘needle swish’ of the original media, but the clarity of the sound on the disc transcends that historical noise. The CD makes clear that while media technology was somewhat limited in 1937, audio engineering was surprisingly sophisticated and capable of capturing faithfully much of the original sound.

From a performer’s point of view, Florent Schmitt’s score must have been daunting, but the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux is obviously well rehearsed and under Eugène Bigot plays the music confidently — indeed with panache.

In a sane world, conductors attracted to Schmitt would be competing to make a modern recording of this score …”

More information about the recordings plus ordering information can be found here … and the Forgotten Records label ships worldwide.

Florent Schmitt Fete de la lumiere Honegger Mille et une nuits Forgotten Records

4 thoughts on “Fête de la lumière: Florent Schmitt’s extravagant showpiece at the Paris Exposition (1936-37).

    • Thank you, Anna. It was a very interesting article to research and write.

      The most recent word I have from Durand is that, while the score exists solely in manuscript form, it is written in Florent Schmitt’s trademark fine, meticulous penmanship. And for that reason, rental photocopies of the partitions are available for study and performance purposes.

  1. At the end of this reading of this excellent article, we only want to listen to all the music created for this event. I already knew and appreciated the contributions of Messiaen and Koechlin and I discover thanks to this article the works of Florent Schmitt. Thank you very much, Phillip.

    • My pleasure, Francis. Thanks to the work of Forgotten Records (see above), we now have the opportunity to hear the Artuhur Honegger and Florent Schmitt pieces taken from mint-condition disks that were prepared for broadcasting the music on the banks of the Seine River “way back when” …

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