Musicologist Suddhaseel Sen talks about the artistry of Florent Schmitt and the importance of his “orientalist” compositions.

Suddhaseel Sen

Suddhaseel Sen

Musicologist, author and teacher Suddhaseel Sen comes to his appreciation of Western classical music from an interesting angle. A native of the Indian subcontinent, Dr. Sen made his first musical discoveries there, long before coming to the West for a range of music-related studies and research.

Today, Dr. Sen is back in India as Assistant Professor of Humanities at Bombay’s Indian Institute of Technology, even as he continues his extensive research into classical composers as diverse as Carl Maria von Weber, John Foulds, Emmanuel Chabrier, the Indian-born British composer Naresh Sohal, and the composer-poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Florent Schmitt has also been an abiding interest of Dr. Sen for many years — ever since discovering the composer’s music as a teenager in Calcutta. For Dr. Sen, it was “love at first hearing,” and his appreciation of Schmitt’s artistry has only deepened in the ensuing years.

I became acquainted with Dr. Sen through correspondence on the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog. As I began to learn more about his research on the cross-cultural currents between Indian and Western musicians, it struck me that Dr. Sen brings a fresh and interesting perspective to the topic of “orientalism” in Western music — as well as Florent Schmitt’s prominent place among the composers who worked in that idiom.

Dr. Sen graciously agreed to be interviewed for this article, with topics touching on scholarly perspectives as well as his own personal response to Schmitt’s music. Highlights of our discussion are presented below.

PLN: You are originally from India.  How did you become interested in Western classical music?  More specifically, how did you became acquainted with the music of Florent Schmitt in a region not known for offering great exposure to European classical music?

SS: My interest in Western music began in kindergarten in the city of Bhubaneswar, the capital of the Indian state of Orissa where I spent my early childhood. I do not know if the music I loved was “classical,” but it was instrumental music that an elderly Anglo-Indian musician, who was also our music teacher, played on the piano after teaching us nursery rhymes.  

Unlike the nursery rhymes, which bored me, the world of pure instrumental music, and especially of harmony, fascinated me no end. I would abandon everything to hear her play – sometimes even going to the back of the upright piano to hear the sounds and feel their reverberation against my cheeks as I pressed them against the soundboard.  It was the closest I could get to “touching” the music.  

I did not know then that the instrument I had fallen in love with was called the piano – but the music teacher, my parents (who are both very musical) and I felt strongly even then that I had to learn music.

When our family relocated to Calcutta (now Kolkata), I started studying Western music, though for practical reasons I had to give up the piano very early and take up the violin instead — which I didn’t like very much because I couldn’t play multiple notes on it at the same time! 

By my early teens, I had developed the habit of reading everything I could about my favorite composers in Grove [Dictionary of Music & Musicians] and devouring every new issue of Gramophone magazine from cover to cover at the British Council Library. India was just becoming a free market economy and the Internet was still years in the future, so Gramophone was the only source for the latest news in the world of Western classical music.  

Florent Schmitt Salammbo

Jacques Mercier’s world premiere recording of Florent Schmitt’s Salammbô (1991).

It was in Gramophone that I read the late Lionel Salter’s glowing reviews of Jacques Mercier’s recording of Schmitt’s Salammbô and one other Schmitt CD – I can’t recall whether it was the Marek Janowski recording of Salomé/Psalm 47 or the Leif Segerstam CD of Schmitt’s Second Symphony and three other orchestral works – both of which he shortlisted among his favorite Records of the Year. That’s how I got to know about Schmitt and his music. 

I should add that Bombay and Calcutta had a flourishing Western classical music scene for the better part of the twentieth century – and Bombay has still managed to retain quite a bit of it – so before I could shoot a request to the Calcutta branch of All India Radio to play Schmitt on their weekly “Classical Music at Your Request” program, someone else had already made a request for La Tragédie de Salomé, which aired two weeks before they broadcast Psalm 47 at my request.

PLN: Were there other compositions by Schmitt that you came to know?  What was your initial reaction to the music — what particularly “spoke” to you about Schmitt’s substance and style?

Ibert Schmitt Roussel Erato

The Japanese release of Erato’s 1966 recording of Florent Schmitt’s Janiana, featuring Jean-Francois Paillard — the only recording to date of this highly interesting symphony for strings.

SS: I was a member of the Alliance Française library in Calcutta, and very soon I discovered in its collection recordings of Salomé (with Antonio de Almeida) and the Janiana Symphony (with Jean-François Paillard) before the authorities suddenly decided to shut down the library.  As a result, I did not get to hear Désiré Dondeyne’s recording of Dionysiaques, which the library also had in its collection. 

What spoke to me immediately about Schmitt’s music was its tremendous rhythmic energy and the remarkable mastery of his orchestration – “Dionysian” qualities indeed! I also loved the contrapuntal textures that often alternated with textures that one would call “Impressionist.”  

I have to admit that I have typically found the large-scale works of Schmitt more interesting than the miniatures (especially the “neoclassical” miniatures).

PLN: When did you first begin to discern Schmitt’s predilection to write music based on orientalist themes?  What drew you to these works?

SS: Most of Schmitt’s best-known compositions have orientalist themes, and are also usually orientalist in Edward Said’s sense in that they do tend to evoke the “Orient” as mysterious, violent, languorous and seductive. What drew me to them were the very innovative things Schmitt was doing regarding rhythm.

Florent Schmitt and Igor Stravinsky at a 1957 reception at the American Embassy in Paris. The composer Henri Dutilleux is between both men (back to camera).

It is a commonplace to state that Schmitt’s rhythmic innovations anticipated those of Igor Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring. But I think that Schmitt was often doing something quite different – something more inspired by Middle Eastern concepts of rhythm that also inform North Indian classical music.

I do not mean to say, of course, that Schmitt’s rhythms sound like those found in North Indian classical music — or in Middle Eastern music for that matter — but that the conceptual underpinnings of Schmitt’s rhythms have to be grounded in Middle Eastern music and not so much in Stravinsky.

There are places where the rhythms of Balkan music may have influenced both Schmitt and Stravinsky, but generally Schmitt’s rhythmic complexity springs from a different – and fundamentally non-Western – concept of rhythm, and occasionally of phrasings, too.

I began to realize this when I was trying to unpack what seemed to me were unusual features in Psalm 47 (without the aid of the score, of course, since in India those publications were very difficult to get hold of in those days).

PLN: In what ways do you see Schmitt’s orientalist music as different from other Parisian composers who were also drawn to Eastern themes in their compositions — people like Saint-Saens, Massenet, Delibes, Dukas and Roussel?  Conversely, in what ways might the orientalist compositions of Schmitt and these French composers “align”?

SS: The main difference is in rhythm. In many of the interviews you have conducted with orchestral musicians for the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog, one common difficulty they have mentioned about Schmitt is his challenging rhythms. Why would they appear difficult if they are so similar to Stravinsky’s — and when the latter’s music is so much a part of the repertoire?

Furthermore, this rhythmic complexity isn’t confined to his orientalist pieces alone; it is a fundamental part of his musical language, and can be found in pieces like the Piano Quintet and the Lied et Scherzo which do not seek to evoke the Orient.           

But there are points of alignment, too. Like Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Delilah, Schmitt’s Psalm 47 sees the Biblical lands as being part of the Orient, except that in Schmitt, it is the Israelites and not the Philistines who are “oriental.”  This is quite radical, I’d say.  

One could perhaps say the same for Massenet’s Hérodiade, but I have never gotten around to listening to that wonderful opera in its entirety, and I haven’t heard Le Roi de Lahore, so I can’t say much about similarities and contrasts with Massenet (who was one of Schmitt’s composition instructors at the Paris Conservatoire).  

Albert Roussel

Albert Roussel (1869-1937)

As for Albert Roussel, the score of an opera such as Padmâvatî shows Roussel portraying the Orient – India, in this case – in terms of music of violent energy and unusual rhythms on the one hand, and seductive interludes on the other, though I think that Roussel’s level of invention in that opera is considerably lower than that of Schmitt at his best.

But Roussel also strove for musical authenticity at some level, and he has the refreshingly vital Evocations, again based on his Indian impressions and partly on Indian musical material.  I can’t think of anything similar in Schmitt – am I missing any piece here?  

For me, Roussel was generally better when he was more concise and less overtly orientalist (I have in mind his Third Symphony and “Krishna” from Joueurs de flûte), while Schmitt’s best pieces are conceived on a large canvas.  

I have never found Paul Dukas’s La Péri to be either orientalist or influenced otherwise by non-European music — although I love that piece for other reasons. To me, the 5/4 variation in Istar by Vincent d’Indy sounds closer to Schmitt’s brand of orientalism in its adroit use of an unusual meter and in its colorful orchestration.  

Emmanuel Chabrier

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894)

I do feel that one crucial influential piece behind Psalm 47 as well as a good deal of Debussy – in fact, much of fin-de-siècle French music overall – is the hugely-underrated La Sulamite of one of France’s greatest composers, Emmanuel Chabrier.

Schmitt adored Chabrier’s music while Debussy, Ravel, and Dukas were particularly fond of La Sulamite — echoes of which resonate in a number of their works and at multiple levels:  modal melody, harmonic planing, and exquisite orchestration.

To me, the exhilerating ending of Psalm 47 has its parallel in the ecstatic close of La Sulamite, written 20 years earlier. 

One element that appears to unite Schmitt with Saint-Saëns, Roussel and Delibes is their desire to incorporate non-Western musical elements into their works instead of peddling the same musical stereotypes, even when the non-musical dimensions of these works were conventionally “orientalist.”

PLN: When you consider the various orientalist compositions of Schmitt, are there particular ones that you consider to be more inspired?  In what ways do you see them as working more successfully in the orientalist idiom?

SS: For me, the best ones are Psalm 47 and La Tragédie de Salomé — the latter both in its original 1907 version and the 1910 reworking.  In addition to the strengths I have mentioned earlier about Schmitt’s music generally, his invention in these pieces is consistently inspired and memorable throughout.

I’d also add to this list Dionysiaques and the suites from Salammbô and Antoine et Cleôpatre. I find them more interesting than the popular Légende or little-known pieces such as Danse d’Abisag and Sélamlik.

PLN: Are there any particular compositions by Schmitt that you feel are unjustly neglected?  Which ones are the most in need of attention?

Palazzetto Bru ZaneSS: I have been following the recordings of Prix de Rome compositions made by Hervé Niquet and Palazzetto Bru Zane with great interest, and I hope that Schmitt’s Prix de Rome competition cantatas will be recorded soon in that series.  Schmitt is at his best when he writes for a combination of voices and orchestra, so these promise to be good discoveries.  

I would also love to hear a new recording of Janiana which, in my opinion, is among Schmitt’s very best works, as well as the Symphonie concertante.   

Florent Schmitt Catherine Lorent

Florent Schmitt’s biography by Catherine Lorent.

As for pieces that have yet to see their first commercial recordings, I would like to hear Danse des Devadasis and the Ramayana-inspired symphonic poem Combat de Rakshasas et délivrance de Sitâ. Grove still lists the latter erroneously as a lost work, but Catherine Lorent quotes from the score, both in her four-volume dissertation on Schmitt and in her Schmitt biography.  

Recordings of Schmitt’s two settings of Cantique de Simeon suggest that his late, religious a capella choral music may be well-worth investigating, and may be of better quality overall than some of the shorter, secular choral works — some of which, to my ears, are as inferior as anything composed by Erik Satie.  

Lastly, Schmitt’s setting of Nietzsche’s Chant de la Nuit, which hasn’t yet been recorded, along with the hauntingly beautiful Chant élégiaque for cello and orchestra, of which I have been able to trace only two recordings, are pieces that we should also hear.  

Broadly speaking, the better-known pieces by Florent Schmitt should all have multiple reference recordings, since different recordings of the same Schmitt piece tend to reveal individual details that no single interpretation can bring out.

PLN: While Florent Schmitt remains a relatively unknown composer, it is also true that he is better known today than in the past half-century, and more of his compositions have been recorded in recent years than ever before.  To what factors do you credit this renewal of interest in Schmitt’s music?

JoAnn Falletta conductor

American conductor JoAnn Falletta, on the stage of Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, NY with her scores to Florent Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites.

SS: Having witnessed the Schmitt revival from a distance, and never having interacted with the classical music recording industry, I have no idea how that came about.  But I am happy that it did!  

I think that the commitment of record labels, especially Naxos/Marco Polo and Timpani, have helped, as has the advocacy of musicians such as Leslie De’Ath and the Invencia Piano Duo as well as the conductors JoAnn Falletta and Jacques Mercier.

PLN: You have had an interesting and varied career as a musicologist.  Please tell us highlights in terms of your schooling, training, and activities since receiving your doctorate.

SS: Actually, my doctorate is in English literature and I am still working on my musicology doctorate! But I have been working as a music arranger, composer, and teacher of music theory since high school days through my years as a doctoral student. I have diplomas in violin, theory, and piano from the Trinity College of Music, London, and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music — both UK-based institutions.

I also published peer-reviewed articles on various musicological topics before enrolling in the doctoral program in musicology. As a recipient of an Oxford University Balzan Research Visitorship for the project “Towards a Global History of Music” under the directorship of the Balzan-prizewinning musicologist Reinhard Strohm, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with specialists, organize conferences, and conduct archival research in Europe.

PLN: To what degree has Florent Schmitt’s music been part of your musicological studies or activities?  Have you included Schmitt in any projects or symposia that you have led or participated in?

SS: I did present briefly about Schmitt in a conference at King’s College in 2014, and with funding from Balzan and Stanford University I spent quite some time at the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Mediathèque Musicale Mahler in Paris, investigating everything that was available on Schmitt.

Unfortunately, it appears that Schmitt did not have direct contact with Indian music or musicians, and so his music will not feature as prominently as I hoped it would in my dissertation. Then again, my understanding is that many of Schmitt’s letters and personal correspondence are in the possession of his descendants, so it will have to be some other musicologist who can examine at length the impact of Turkish, Middle Eastern, and Balkan music on Schmitt’s creative output.

It could well be that some Indian references may be found in those archives.  Moreover, since Schmitt was a great friend of Villa-Lobos and other Latin American composers, that angle needs to be explored as well.

Had I not returned to India instead of staying on in the West as a full-time musicologist, these are topics I would have loved to explore in greater depth. But there are topics on Indian music that I would love to do, too – and hopefully some of these projects will enable me to go back to composing and arranging music as well.

PLN: What projects are you currently working on, and what future activities on the horizon are particularly noteworthy?

SS: At present I’m devoting all my research time to working on my musicology dissertation, which is focused on cross-cultural influences and exchanges between Indian and Western musicians. Last month I participated in a roundtable at the 2017 ESRA Congress [European Shakespeare Research Association] on the topic of “Shakespeare in Music.”

Rabindranath Tagore

Poet and composer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).

I am also working on several articles-in-progress on a range of artists. Articles that have been accepted for publication are ones on the music of Rabindranath Tagore (better known in the West as a poet), the English composer John Foulds, the Indian-born British composer Naresh Sohal, as well as the nineteenth-century Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Datta.  

PLN: Do you have any longer-range plans for working on Schmitt-related projects, projects involving French music, or projects involving orientalist music in general?

SS: A substantial part of my dissertation is on music that is considered “orientalist” — with all of the attendant pejorative connotations! The articles that I’m working on, with eventual publication in mind, are mostly about how Western musicians negotiated cultural differences — with the composers covered being as diverse as Weber and Borodin.

There are also two articles on Chabrier that are in the works.

I would also hope that by 2020 — the 150th year of Schmitt’s birth — there would be at least one scholarly book published in English that covers the composer’s life and works in extensive detail.

It is quite remarkable that not only Schmitt, but also composers as important as Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, are inadequately represented in Anglophone musicological scholarship — even as tomes continue to be produced with numbing regularity on canonical composers who have already received more than enough extensive coverage in English.

PLN: When you think of the totality of Florent Schmitt’s artistic legacy, which one or two factors stand above all in terms of his contribution to the musical arts?

SS: I love Schmitt’s music and return to it very often.  But to give a balanced view, I have to conclude that he was a great but uneven composer.  For me, his best pieces were written before 1925 or thereabouts, though there are wonderful pieces that came later, too — albeit more sporadically. 

In this regard, I would say that Schmitt’s fate was the same as many composers born in the 1860s and 1870s:  They found their styles becoming old-fashioned even before the ink had dried on their manuscript paper, as Schmitt himself put it so wittily!   

Florent Schmitt was an eclectic in the best sense of the term – a critic with catholic tastes embracing Stravinsky, the Schoenberg of Pierrot Lunaire, as well as the music of younger composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Olivier Messiaen, and Henri Dutilleux (the latter three being among his greatest admirers).  

On an artistic level, his eclecticism resulted in the creation of some very impressive large-scale orchestral, choral and chamber works, characterized by the presence of contrapuntal and Impressionist textures, rhythms of compelling originality, and a remarkable mastery of form. Not only Messiaen and Dutilleux but also Arthur Honegger seem to me to be profoundly influenced by his works.   

Finally, I shall always be on the lookout for new recordings of his music – especially ones featuring compositions recorded for the very first time.


Suddhaseel Sen is hardly alone in his wish for more of Florent Schmitt’s artistic legacy to become available through recordings. Although many more of his compositions have been commercially recorded for the first time within the past two decades, approximately 25% of his output still awaits rediscovery.

Thankfully, with advocates like Dr. Sen making the case for Schmitt so eloquently, we can be very hopeful that more compositions will see the light of day, giving them the chance to make their mark with music-lovers everywhere.

3 thoughts on “Musicologist Suddhaseel Sen talks about the artistry of Florent Schmitt and the importance of his “orientalist” compositions.

  1. A VERY interesting interview article!

    Your readers will be pleased to hear that I’ve received confirmation directly from Palazzetto Bru Zane that a Florent Schmitt volume is “on the tracks,” possibly with the five complete Prix de Rome cantatas, but not until 2020 or thereabouts. After Gounod (the next PBZ release), there will be one devoted to the Boulanger family (the father and daughters Lili and Nadia — I was not aware that the father was also a musician).

    I do love Chabrier’s Sulamite, too. Gee, this Indian musicologist has such a good taste. 🙂

  2. I think his most interesting point is that Florent Schmitt was influenced by Middle East rhythm. It is indeed different from Stravinsky’s.

    Just thinking of Schmitt musical passages in memory, it seems to me Stravinsky is more direct, and Schmitt more likely to begin on a subtle offbeat. Stravinsky also doesn’t broaden a rhythm to supply sensuality.

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