Music critic Rob Barnett talks about the music of Florent Schmitt and its growing presence on recordings.

MusicWeb International

Recently, the online magazine MusicWeb International published a feature article about the French recording label Timpani Records and its commitment to bringing out recordings of the music of Florent Schmitt.

Timpani RecordsEncompassing a range of works including solo piano, chamber music, vocal and orchestral selections, this enterprising label has released six recordings devoted exclusively to Schmitt’s compositions — including several important world premiere offerings.

The author of the full-length feature article was Rob Barnett, a British-based contributing writer at MusicWeb International who for more than a decade also served as the website’s music review editor.

I was impressed with the article, which exhibited a solid understanding of Florent Schmitt’s music as well as obvious affection for the composer’s artistry. Through the intercession of the American conductor JoAnn Falletta, I made contact with Mr. Barnett and was able to interview him about his long-time interest in Schmitt’s music. Highlights of our discussion are presented below:

PLN: How did you first become familiar with the music of Florent Schmitt?  Which pieces did you encounter first?

RB: It would have been in about 1979, when I purchased the famous Jean Martinon/Voix de son Maitre recording of Psaume XLVII and La Tragédie de Salomé at a second-hand record shop just outside Bristol. Prior to that, I am fairly sure I heard the occasional Schmitt work broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s morning record program.  

Music Group of London

Members of the Music Group of London, which performed a studio broadcast of Florent Schmitt’s 1908 Piano Quintet on BBC Radio in June 1989.

I also recorded a studio broadcast ‘on spec’ of Schmitt’s huge Piano Quintet. The performers were the Music Group of London. It was certainly an adventurous thing for Radio 3 to put on the air back in 1989.

I had cause to play that cassette again to transfer it to CD-R recently, and the performance is every bit as good as the Werner Bärtschi first commercial recording [on the Accord label]. The only downside was that I’d had to flip the C-90 cassette over to accommodate the full work — and lost some of the music in the process!

PLN: When you first heard Schmitt’s music, what struck you in particular?  What aspects of his music jumped out at you as particularly interesting or noteworthy?

Ralph Vaughan Williams Florent Schmitt 1956

Florent Schmitt and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), photographed in London in 1956.

RB: What captivated me was the sheer unbridled barbaric magnificence of Psalm XLVII — but the decisive factor was the mysterious and almost nonchalant melody that weaves in and out of The Tragedy of Salome. It manages simultaneously to brood, and to seduce the listener. It’s potently atmospheric in much the same way as Griffes’ Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, Bax’s Northern Ballad No. 2 and Balakirev’s Tamara.  

It was about this time that I bought a “pictorial biography” of Ralph Vaughan Williams and was surprised (not sure why, given that RVW had studied with Ravel) to find a picture of Vaughan Williams alongside his friend Schmitt. It’s a pity we do not have access to their letters.

PLN: How would you characterize Florent Schmitt’s style of composition — in comparison with other French composers of his time, as well as classical music in general? 

RB: Florent Schmitt strikes me as an impressionistic melodist with a lavish orchestral palette. Clearly, he enjoys “high drama,” and that rescues him from any tendency towards the static or a mere wash of sound.  

Florent Schmitt Louis Aubert

Florent Schmitt with composer Louis Aubert (1877-1968), photographed at the ORTF’s studios in Paris in the early 1950s.

Schmitt is closer to Ravel than he is to Debussy. He also has a kinship, I think, to another master French composer, Louis Aubert — particularly in his orchestral work Le Tombeau de Chateaubriand, to my mind one of the most seductive marine works in the classical repertoire.

PLN: What do you consider to be special about Florent Schmitt and his place in French music?  Are there things that he was doing in his music that were unique among his French compatriots?

RB: It’s difficult to pin this down, actually. Certainly, Schmitt had a taste for the exotic — a little like his contemporary and champion Henri Tomasi (another composer whose music we need to hear more often).  

But until we can hear all that Schmitt created, it is difficult to give a verdict — and I am not sure that one is required. It is more than enough that his music draws people (it certainly draws me) to hear his compositions again, and to want to hear more and more.  

It’s such a pity that quite a few works seem to be inaccessible, even today.

PLN: Are there certain compositions by Florent Schmitt that are particular favorites of yours? 

Schmitt Tragedie de Salome ScoreLa Tragédie de Salomé — in both of its versions — is compelling. Maybe the clue is in Schmitt’s adoption of the word ‘tragedy’ in the title. The juxtaposing of tragedy and beauty is a powerful one, and one that seems to be in the warp and weft of this piece.

It’s a universal truth that is also embraced by many British composers including Finzi, Hadley and Bax — especially Bax who celebrates evanescent beauty, but always with a sense that it is fleeting and crumbling away almost as soon as it is embraced.

There’s a sense of that in much of Schmitt, I think.

Andre Navarra

André Navarra

I am also a particular fan of the Introït, récit et congé for cello and orchestra. What won me round to this work was a utterly “possessed” aircheck performance by the work’s dedicatee, the cellist André Navarra, which I was privileged to hear courtesy of a French friend. It was played by Navarra with a sort of “Mravinsky-meets-Golovanov” volcanic fury that the music deserves.

PLN: For someone who might be coming to Florent Schmitt’s music for the first time, which compositions would you recommend that they sample first?

RB: That’s easy: Go for the Tragedy of Salome — for all the reasons mentioned above.

PLN: The music of Florent Schmitt has been undergoing a renaissance in recent years.  To what do you attribute this development?

RB: Since the mid-1970s, tonal and melodic music has been making a comeback after the music establishment’s self-destructive infatuation with atonality.

The success on record (if not in live concerts) of Bax, Lloyd, Moeran, Nystroem, Schoeck, Ivanovs, Hovhaness and many others is some measure of this. Perhaps things will change back in years to come, but for now Schmitt’s music “makes hay.”

Schmitt always strikes me as an intelligent and sincere composer. He is not a showman, nor does he go for “easy victories.” I suspect that his audiences will rarely be as numerous as those for Ravel or Debussy. He does tend to suffer because he seems never to have had a short ‘hit’ (like Ravel’s La Valse and Pavane for a Dead Princess or Satie’s famous Gymnopédie).

That said, for those in sympathy with the masterful creation of works that represent a meeting-place between melody and brooding atmospherics, Schmitt’s music is one of the finest places to go.

PLN: Have you had opportunities to see any of Florent Schmitt’s music in concert? 

RB: Sad to relate, I have never heard any Schmitt compositions in concert; my acquaintance has only ever been with recordings or broadcasts. I continue to value hearing his music on CD and digitally.

It always amuses me that while others are enjoying the latest rap and rock music thundering away in their cars, I am listening to Schmitt, Bax, Arnold, Schmidt, Nystroem and a host of others!

PLN: You have been a music critic for quite a few years now.  Briefly describe your background in music and how you came to be a critic.

RB:   have no technical musical training and cannot play an instrument. I do not come from a musical family, although my father had a few classical LPs and relished the mainstream of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

That said, I did not come to classical music via Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. What has become a dominant theme since my early 20s dates back to my years in technical college in 1969-71. Critically, this involved a friend’s record collection which centered on Janacek, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Martinu, Bax and Vaughan Williams.

Colston Hall, Bristol UK

Colston Hall in Bristol.

This developed further in two ways during my years studying for a law degree at Bristol Polytechnic during 1971-75. Firstly, I started to go to concerts at Bristol’s Colston Hall — usually the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Secondly, this university town had a good record library and was at that time not short of second-hand record and book shops. I would spend far too much time riffling through their LP stocks and occasionally buying. (This was in the days when you could live very cheaply as a student, and full subsistence grants were available.)

Such knowledge as I gained came from a delight in listening to music, linkages with poetry, novels and even sci-fi, as well as a questing attitude. Couple this with many years of miraculous discovery (and some disappointments) through exchanging recordings with contacts and friends in the UK, USA and Scandinavia. This was supplemented by avidly listening to BBC Radio 3 and eagerly sifting through Radio Times every week.

I have also devoured the content of such magazines as Records and Recordings (long defunct), Gramophone (now a very different voice from its glory days in the 1960s and 1970s) and Fanfare (still going strong and still well-worth reading). 

British Music SocietyI am a life member of British Music Society (BMS) and have been so since 1981. I was editor of the quarterly BMS Journal from 1995 to 2012. (I should stress that, as may be obvious, my interests are not exclusively in British music.) 

In 1997 I was approached by Dr. Len Mullenger, the Founder of MusicWeb International, to be his volunteer Classical Editor. For my money, Len is one of the unsung heroes of the classical music world. His dedication and diplomacy in channelling top-quality voluntary writing for a site that remains free-access should have been cheered to the rafters years ago. I owe him a great deal, musically speaking.  

My own part, balancing family life and work in the legal department of a local authority involved devoting many midnight and early-morning hours to editing the site’s CD reviews and writing my own. This also gave me access to review copies of classical CDs.

The editing side largely came to an end earlier this year after almost two decades. I am still the site’s Founding Editor, but this major change of emphasis has allowed me to review more discs and the occasional DVD. 

I relish the challenge of attempting to bridge the vast gap between words and music. If I fail, then at least I do try — if crudely — to encourage people to make the same journey of discovery that I have made.

Florent Schmitt is part of that evangelical mission as much as Bantock, Nystroem, Hovhaness, Dale, Bax, Louis Glass and so many others.

PLN: In addition to your activities at MusicWeb International, what other activities are you involved with on the music scene?

Lyrita Recorded EditionRB: Retirement from professional employment in 2013 has opened up time for many long-cherished projects and activities. Who knows — I might even complete some of them!

I’m pleased to be an adviser in an informal way on the Lyrita Recorded Edition project, which has laid paths for my interest in Sir Arnold Bax and Sir Granville Bantock. I have assisted in small ways with the issue of off-air recordings made by Lyrita’s guiding hand, the late Richard Itter 

At long last, I’ve been attending and writing about concerts of unusual and often-deserving music. My reviews appear on Seen and Heard International.

Joseph Holbrooke

Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958)

My research into the life and music of Joseph Holbrooke, pursued since the early 1980s, has finally borne fruit as a contributor to a published symposium on that composer.

I have also contributed a few articles and revised work-lists for the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, and before that there were articles about Stanley Bate and Arthur Benjamin that I wrote for the BMS Journal.

There has also been time, in a small-scale way, for rescuing rare recordings from battered LPs, audio cassettes and tape reels and transferring them to CD-R. I am keen to do this without charge as a service to other collectors whose shelves of cassettes, reels and the like will otherwise disappear to landfills when they are no longer with us.

PLN: Looking to the future, what would you like to see in the way of new Schmitt recordings?  Are there any pieces in particular that you think are in need of new (or first-ever) recordings?

Florent Schmitt Semiramis

First edition of Florent Schmitt’s cantata Sémiramis, which won the Prix de Rome first prize for composition in 1900.

RB: For me, one major gap is Schmitt’s Prix de Rome cantata Sémiramis. It’s typical subject matter for Schmitt, and this very early and probably gloriously indulgent work may well promise a major musical experience!

PLN: What other observations would you like to make about Florent Schmitt and his music?

RB: Koechlin, Aubert, Witkowski, Marriotte and Schmitt seem to suffer the same problematic neglect as their counterparts in the UK:  Bax, Bantock, Brian, Dale, Moeran; and further afield Roy Harris, Griffes, Farwell, Klami, Raitio, Pingoud, Ivanovs and Skulte.

While the music of the French composers I mention has clawed its way into accessibility through recordings, the route to repeated and regular performances in the concert hall remains elusive.

We need to persist and remember that recordings, no matter how ancient, can serve to enthuse musicians — not to mention inveterate enthusiasts and the general listener as well.

Gerard Schwarz

Gerard Schwarz

I recall reading about the deep impression certain recordings made on the young Gerard Schwarz, and how these bore fruit later in the inventive concert programs of that fine conductor.  

In the same vein, there are musicians who are — or will be — captivated by Florent Schmitt’s music.  

I should add that the work of those who make scores and parts available is also crucial to this process; those who wish to make Schmitt’s music a concert-hall reality will need to have performing materials and sympathetic financial treatment from trusts and publishers to go with their will to perform.

____________________

We can only echo Rob Barnett’s wish that more opportunities to hear music in concert by Florent Schmitt and similarly underrepresented composers will surface in subsequent years. We share a common hope that more of Schmitt’s compositions will make the transition from “rarities” to “regular repertoire” in the coming years.

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