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.
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.
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.
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.
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!'”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 have 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 show presented, 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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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 Deniau-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.
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.
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.”
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.”
In 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.”
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.
I’ve found documentation of only two 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. The piece 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 (but missing the chorus).
The lack of exposure for this piece is a shame because it is such a substantial and highly 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.