One of my favorite critics on the international classical music scene today is Steven Kruger, who is a reviewer for New York Arts and Fanfare magazine. What is particularly special is Kruger’s way of tying his music criticism to broader cultural and artistic undercurrents, often making fresh and novel connections that go unnoticed by others.
Compared to most others in his field, Kruger seems to be a more well-rounded reviewer who draws on much more than simply the music before him. As a result, his reviews are not only especially insightful ones, they are quite simply a joy to read.
Several years ago, the two of us struck up an acquaintance as a result of Kruger’s review in Fanfare magazine of the 2015 NAXOS recording of Florent Schmitt’s Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites, with JoAnn Falletta leading the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. We discovered that we had a mutual love of music from the late-romantic/early-modern period, which has resulted in many interesting and animated discussions subsequently.
Recently, I asked Steven Kruger to share his impressions of Florent Schmitt, and how he regards Schmitt’s music in comparison to other composers of the early 20th century who were also active in Paris and France. Kruger’s remarks – which are every bit as insightful as his music reviews – are presented below.
PLN: If I’m not mistaken, you became acquainted with Florent Schmitt’s music relatively later in life. Tell us when that occurred, and how you happened to discover him.
SWK: Actually, it wasn’t that late in the game for an armchair musician. I was 23 years old in 1970 and serving as an assistant finance officer at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, when I came across Antonio de Almeida’s RCA LP with the New Philharmonia Orchestra featuring French tone poems. It was at the local shopping mall – a JCPenney, I think.
I had been a romantic-minded admirer of Ernest Chausson’s Symphony since my teens, and here at last was a chance to hear Chausson’s tone poem Viviane, which was on that album. The LP also contained Henri Duparc’s Lénore as well as Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé. I had read about the other pieces but had never even heard of Schmitt!
It’s probably worth mentioning that in those days, French orchestral music in record stores largely meant Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony. Chausson was a daring choice. Vincent d’Indy was known only for his Symphony on a French Mountain Air. And Florent Schmitt? He’d have been an unlikely find outside the big-city import bins.
PLN: What were the first compositions by Schmitt that you came to know?
SWK: It was that RCA LP — Almeida’s performance of La Tragédie de Salomé — which first captured me. Twenty-three is the perfect age of susceptibility for music dripping with sensuality and offering climaxes of apocalyptic violence!
I recall that for about a year I played it nearly every day. I only wish I had known the even-better version by Paul Paray, available at the time on Mercury. But Almeida captured the creepy hyper-emotionality of Schmitt’s opening bars to perfection, and captivatingly evoked its throbbing, sickly-orgiastic atmosphere throughout.
PLN: I presume that you already had a good understanding of music of the late-romantic/early modern idiom when you first discovered Florent Schmitt. What struck you about Schmitt’s artistry that differentiates him from his contemporaries?
SWK: The first and greatest thing I’ve noticed is a difference in sensuality.
Among French composers by contrast, César Franck’s voluptuousness seems guilt-ridden and perfumed with church incense. Maurice Ravel’s music is ivory cool by-and-large, for all its evocation; did Ravel ever have a true romantic relationship, I wonder?
Debussy’s music is affectionate and, as time passes, increasingly abstract.
But Florent Schmitt seems to go in whole-hog for rich grandiosity. He’s not afraid of “sensuality-as-defilement.” Nor is he afraid to take rhythm and flesh it out in the face of Stravinsky, making it emotional – unlike Albert Roussel in this respect, who ran with it but stayed cool.
PLN: Schmitt’s musical education was entirely French and he spent his entire musical life in France, too. With that in mind, in what ways does Schmitt strike you as a quintessentially “French” composer? In what ways not so much?
SWK: French life is all about “the perfect moment.” It has a distilled, crystalline quality. And even though I sometimes think of Florent Schmitt as the French Respighi (Belkis, Queen of Sheba owing a lot to Schmitt’s Antony & Cleopatra), what keeps Schmitt “French” is that he never lapses into vulgarity.
Even at its greatest complexity, Schmitt’s music is put together like a gleaming Swiss watch. But I suppose it is the very grandiosity he attempts which makes Schmitt a bit more eclectic and international-sounding than his contemporaries in France.
PLN: Of the compositions by Schmitt that you know, which ones do you find the most compelling or winsome? What attributes about those particular pieces do you find so effective?
SWK: As you would expect, La Tragédie de Salomé is the romantic blockbuster around which I circle my Schmitt wagons. Antony & Cleopatra is another noteworthy creation in that same genre, and when you compare that score to Respighi’s Belkis, it’s easy to see how Respighi fell in love with the exoticism and Middle Eastern curves of the music.
But I’m also especially fond of Schmitt’s gleaming, jewel-like Second Symphony , which is written in a late, compressed style. It is as close to Roussel and Samuel Barber in manner as Schmitt would ever approach.
I love the result, but perhaps that symphony helps explain why Schmitt did not ultimately succeed so well with audiences. What I mean by that statement is this: Scores by Schmitt are constantly turning on a dime — like film music, staring into the middle-distance for a while and then moving on. Schmitt evokes every quivering-celesta “Ingrid Bergman moment.” But he is complex.
Schmitt’s attractive children’s ballet Le Petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil, for instance, features tintinnabulation à la Percy Grainger (think The Warriors) and bouncy climaxes straight out of Rimsky-Korsakov. The ballet’s story purports to evoke a child’s dreams with the “Sandman’s” help. But one of the dreams features a pretty ripe mezzo, and another is a seeming meditation on nonsensical correspondence! Just how old is this child?
In the event, louche or not, loathing of bureaucracy is typically French, as is a certain kind of officious attitude, and a hatred for pots of glue and paperwork tends to pop up in the arts. Schmitt’s ballet does begin with a delightful “mouse festival” and certainly exhibits no lack of imagination, but one comes away thinking of it as a pretty adult meditation on the child we still are.
Its 40-minute length and lack of an unforgettable fairy-garden apotheosis probably ensures that it will never be as popular as Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye, but Le Petit elfe is a joyous addition to the ballet repertory just the same.
Another feature of Florent Schmitt is that often he doesn’t set a rhythm and stay with it, like Roussel or Respighi do. I think his music has paid a price for that. It’s a beautifully constructed machine – as the best French music always is – but it has trouble getting somewhere. And you wonder what you’re missing “onscreen.”
It’s too bad Florent Schmitt didn’t live into the Hitchcock era as a film composer; he would have given Bernard Herrmann a run for his money!
PLN: Some musicologists and historians have written about the influence Florent Schmitt had on the young Stravinsky, along with other artists such as Honegger, Messiaen and Dutilleux. When you think about these composers, in what ways do you see Schmitt’s influence manifesting itself in the music they created?
SWK: Generally speaking, I don’t see much Schmitt in Stravinsky past Firebird, which has some Schmittian “swoopy” stuff in it – the fire itself.
I see Honegger and Dutilleux going in similar directions at the outset, mostly following Stravinsky. The Dutilleux First Symphony is very Honeggerian, and both composers are spare and ultimately much more like Stravinsky than Schmitt. Again though, unlike Schmitt, these composers keep their rhythms going.
I see some of Schmitt’s influence in the gorgeousness of Messiaen’s approach to orchestration — and in some of his episodic concentration of mood.
Ultimately, I do realize Schmitt is French, but I think his influences bubbled up in the same stew as Richard Strauss and Respighi.
PLN: During his life, Schmitt was generally considered nearly on the same plane as his fellow French composers Debussy and Ravel — only to be almost completely forgotten following his death. To what do you attribute the resurgence of interest in his music that has occurred in the past 25 years?
SWK: It’s quite simple, really: Dodecaphony failed totally. So, we started to go back and look for neglected pieces to showcase. These days, Florent Schmitt has a fighting chance of being programmed. Thirty years ago, he would have lost out to Charles Wuorinen or the usual Orwellian “fifteen minutes of pluck-and-scratch hate” (inevitably placed at the beginning of concert programs so we wouldn’t leave before the “main event”).
But digital sound and cheap streaming now make the “A” piece by a “B++” composer easily revivable. A look at Amazon shows a remarkable array of recently recorded symphonies by the likes of Sir Arnold Bax and Albéric Magnard – and anyone else you’d want to hear but never used to have the chance.
It’s getting better!
PLN: You’ve had a very interesting and varied career, including in the arts management field. Could you tell us briefly about those activities and how they inform your music criticism activities today?
SWK: One day in 1975 I walked into Shaw Concerts in New York City to apply for a job translating French. In the course of my interview I happened to mention I knew something about conducting and asked if they could use me. I’d never been to a conservatory and played no instrument except the piano by ear.
I don’t really read music, but somehow I walked out of that interview in charge of the musical life of 30 symphony conductors such as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Robert Shaw, José Serebrier, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Murry Sidlin.
Only in America: One week I’m standing across from Carnegie Hall in the cold, waiting to fool ushers at intermission with last week’s program rolled up and a plastic champagne glass in my pocket. The next, I’m sitting in an office negotiating the fate of my heroes. In some ways, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Where I differed from my peers, perhaps, was not just that I came to music through recordings and always had an ear out for what I would want to hear, but I seemed to have a layman’s feel for what sort of music other laymen would want to hear. So I spent those years as an agent, persuading conductors to dare to perform Elgar and Vaughan Williams symphonies, for instance.
I’m a great believer in the audience. And I benefitted from plenty of counter-examples, watching inbred one-upmanship going on among many critics and journalists. As a result, I stand ready to oppose fads — and the musical bandwagons created for their benefit and at the expense of the long-suffering “patron in Row J.”
PLN: What are your current activities as a critic? Which media outlets and what sort of activities?
SWK: Being a resident of the Bay area, I have the luxury of reviewing the San Francisco Symphony when I want to, which I review for New York Arts, and of publishing reviews of classical music recordings there as well.
I’m mainly a writer for Fanfare, where I review romantic and early-modern orchestral music primarily. There is a lot of esoteric music reviewed in the publication, but I remain at heart an aging teenager who simply wants a more exciting Brahms symphony – or a performance of La Tragédie de Salomé impassioned enough to get the girl!
PLN: Any final thoughts about Florent Schmitt and his place in music history?
SWK: I think it’s fair to say that Schmitt didn’t leave us symphonies as accessible as Roussel’s or concerti as memorable as Ravel’s. He doesn’t come across as an iconic “great composer” writing in all genres. Few do, actually; Brahms wrote no opera. But some of the other composers managed to set a national style in ways Schmitt did not.
As for the future, I think Schmitt’s reputation will rise further, ultimately finding its rightful place just beneath the undisputed French “greats.”
As this interview amply illustrates, Steven Kruger is something many other critics are not – a person whose commentary compels you to think about composers and musicians in fresh ways – even as he challenges certain deep-seated perceptions or opinions people may hold. This makes his writings invariably interesting and insightful.
To read more of Kruger’s observations about music and musicians, you can subscribe to Fanfare magazine (fee charged) or check out his writings at New York Arts (a free subscription).
This is a wonderful interview with Steven Kruger — full of sharp insights, humor, broad perspective. And the questions are just as incisive and well-informed. Enlightened and enlightening on both sides of this eloquent conversation! Bravo!