Osmo Tapio Räihälä is one of Finland’s better-known composers of today. He has created music in many forms, from vocal and chamber pieces to large orchestral works.
Mr. Räihälä’s highly active career includes fulfilling numerous composition commissions. His works have been performed by important European orchestras and ensembles, interpreted by leading artists such as the conductor Sakari Oramo.
Like any composer, Räihälä derives inspiration for his music from numerous sources, not least the great musical talents from earlier generations. This interest has compelled him to study not only the creative legacy of these artists, but also to visit the homes and graves of many of them.
Being one of the major cultural capitals of the world, Paris has long been a place that has attracted the composer. In fact, it’s a city to which he returns each year for an extended visit, indulging in its rich cultural offerings.
Last month on his annual visit to Paris, Mr. Räihälä attended a concert presented by the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Jonathan Darlington. Florent Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé was the featured item on the program.
Subsequent to that event, Räihälä took the opportunity to seek out the final resting place of the composer, who died in 1958 just shy of his 88th birthday and is buried at the cemetery in Bagneux.
I happened to see a tweet and photo that Mr. Räihälä sent out during his visit to Schmitt’s gravesite, which led me to get in touch with him to learn more about his visit there.
That contact resulted in a friendly and highly interesting exchange of information and insights. Highlights of our discussion are presented below:
PLN: Please tell us about your interest in the final resting places of composers and others in the arts.
OTR: Yes, this is a particular interest of mine. I’ve been a “grave spotter” for many years — and what could be a better place than Paris to find the graves of remarkable composers, artists, authors, actors and actresses, playwrights, filmmakers and chanson singers?
Although I live in Helsinki, Finland, I travel to Paris and stay there for a month or two every year. Among the many sights and activities there, I always find time to visit its beautiful cemeteries.
My favorite one is the small, quiet and private Cimétiere de Picpus, where the poet André de Chenier and sixteen Carmelite nuns (of whom Poulenc wrote his wonderful opera) lie headless in a mass grave.
PLN: What sparked your interest in seeking out Florent Schmitt’s gravesite on your most recent Paris visit?
OTR: As a composer myself, I pay particular attention to composers’ graves, and I have visited many of them in Paris.
On my most recent visit to the city, I had the pleasure of seeing the Orchestre de Paris perform Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé at the Philharmonie. It is such a strong and beautiful piece of music that influenced many other composers — including being inspiration for Stravinsky’s Russian ballets!
Besides my work as a composer, I have worked for nearly three decades as a music journalist as well, so I’m very aware of Schmitt’s importance to French music of the early 20th century — both as a composer and as a teacher of other composers.
That knowledge plus seeing the Philharmonie concert motivated me to search for Schmitt’s grave, which I assumed would be in Paris.
PLN: And … were you successful?
OTR: As it turns out, Florent Schmitt’s grave happens to be located at the Bagneux Cemetery, outside the Péripherique. Because of that, I hadn’t visited this particular cemetery in my travels to Paris before.
The easiest way to travel there is via Metro nr. 4 to Mairie de Montrouge, and then take a walk of about 15 minutes from there.
PLN: What did you find?
OTR: To find the tomb of Florent Schmitt and his wife wasn’t as difficult as some others have been for me. Although I did not see his gravesite listed on the Find a Grave website (I now plan to add it there myself when I have the time), I did find a French-based website that gave out the right cemetery and the division there.
However, it turns out that Bagneux is a huge cemetery! I think it spreads out across an even larger piece of land than Père Lachaise. For that reason, people move around the cemetery in their cars.
But being without a car, naturally I had to walk around. But this isn’t a bad thing actually, because few things are better than taking a promenade on the paths of a Parisian cemetery!
Florent Schmitt’s grave is located in the 54th Division, which has hundreds of tombstones — many of them nearly forgotten or in bad condition. Fortunately for me, as an experienced grave spotter I was able to find Schmitt’s grave without going around the place time after time, which has happened to me in some other instances.
PLN: What you say about the condition of the graves in the 54th Division sounds a little disconcerting!
OTR: Indeed it is. I’m afraid I don’t have the best news to report, because Schmitt’s gravestone is not in good condition, unfortunately.
PLN: I wonder if that situation could be rectified somehow. Have you encountered similar situations with other composers or artists?
OTR: The only way for gravesites to be well-maintained over the years is for family members or devotees of the artists to take it upon themselves to tend to the sites.
As for who could restore Schmitt’s tombstone, one might look to a Florent Schmitt estate or trust that could take care of that — if one existed. But I’m guessing that might not be the case.
As it turns out, I have seen the same situations with other composers, but at least one of them has a happy ending. Last year I had searched for the gravesite of Florent Schmitt’s near-contemporary composer, Mélanie Bonis, at the Montmartre Cemetery. Boy, was it difficult!
From my research, all I knew was that the gravestone was situated in the 24th Division. I searched and searched but just couldn’t find it — until a cat living in the cemetery quite literally started showing me the right direction.
I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s absolutely true; the cat took me there! Upon arriving, I saw a gravestone that was nigh-on derelict. In the end, I started feeling the stone and the inscription with my fingers, and with this Braille-like method I finally became certain that I had found her name, written as “Mel Bonis,” on the bottom right corner of the stone.
I uploaded a photo of the derelict Bonis tombstone to the Find a Grave website. Surprisingly, when I revisited Montmartre cemetery in October — just a year later — I found that someone had restored the tombstone! There was even a laminated photo of Mélanie Bonis placed there.
Who had done this? I have no idea — but obviously someone had seen my posting on Find a Grave and had put some work (and money) into restoring it to a good condition.
Of course, I took a new photo of the Bonis gravestone in order to have a “before/after” record of what had happened. It proves that there are people in the world who cherish the legacy of these composers, and who are motivated to keep that legacy alive in various ways.
I hope someone, or some group of people, would be inspired to do the same with Florent Schmitt’s tombstone.
PLN: What you have reported does give us hope — and perhaps also a template for figuring out a similar happy ending to the story of Florent Schmitt’s gravesite.
OTR: Yes, I think so. Every action is significant — whether it’s tending to the final resting places of artists like Florent Schmitt, or maintaining websites like yours that help make mainstream classical music audiences more aware of the music of composers whose works aren’t the ones being programmed in concerts every week.
We are thankful to Osmo Tapio Räihälä for sharing his experiences. While some of the news he reports about Florent Schmitt’s final resting place is distressing to hear, it is also inspiring to know that there’s the potential for something positive to be done to rectify the situation.
With thousands of Florent Schmitt devotees not just in France but all over the world, hopefully things can be set right for a composer as important and as influential as Schmitt was in his day — and whose rich and inventive music continues to captivate music-lovers now and into the future.
Update (7/20/20): Nearly three years after the publication of this article, there’s very good news to report: Florent Schmitt’s gravesite is now in the midst of being cleaned and restored.
Answering the call to volunteer for this task during the composer’s 150th birthday anniversary year, Florent Schmitt devotee Stéphane Abdallah has lovingly taken on the responsibility of cleaning the composer’s tombstone to remove decades of dirt, grime, lichens and other plant matter, as well as beautifying the surroundings.
Mr. Abdallah, who is a music journalist and editor at UnderScores magazine, resides in Melun, which is located more than 50 kilometers from Bagneux Cemetery. Nonetheless, he has taken it upon himself to journey to the Schmitt gravesite on two occasions this summer – most recently in July.
The results of his restoration efforts are evident in two photographs taken on July 16, 2020. The improvement in the stone’s appearance is plainly visible compared to when Osmo Räihälä visited the site in 2017. In the close-up photo, the inscriptions for the composer and his wife are clearer and more readable as well.
Despite his two visits for cleaning, Mr. Abdallah reports that more work needs to be done, writing:
“There are some small greenish spots that have not gone away despite my efforts. It may be some kind of moss that has permeated the stone. I plan to go back to the cemetery a third time in August to complete the cleaning.”
Without doubt, fans of Florent Schmitt must be very pleased by this latest turn of events, and deeply grateful as well. Through Stéphane Abdallah’s commendable efforts, the composer’s final resting place shines once more – even as his music attains brighter and wider recognition the world over.
Update (3/31/21): I have received a new report from Stéphane Abdallah, who has just returned from his most recent trip to Bagneux Cemetery to tend to the gravesite of Florent Schmitt (see the update above for the work he has been doing over the past nine months).
Mr. Abdallah’s report is a happy one:
“I have just returned from Bagneux Cemetery. The gravesite is now in much better condition. If anything, it was cleaner than on my last visit. Perhaps the cleaning product has continued to work even better over time with the effects of rain and wind.
I performed another cleaning with my product, focusing on removing the remaining black spots which I suspect are a kind of fungus. All of the buildup has faded quite dramatically. Today, the tombstone gives the impression of being quite recent; in any case, it does not look like it dates from 1944 or 1958.”
In viewing the digital photos that Mr. Abdallah was kind enough to send to me, the improvement is readily visible. It’s clear from the appearance of the stone in comparison with Mr. Raihala’s photo from 2017 (see above) — not to mention the condition of the surrounding gravesites — that the restoration work Mr. Abdallah has done since summer 2020 has had a dramatic effect.
Moreover, the inscriptions of the names of the composer and his wife are now plainly visible.
Special thanks are due to Stéphane Abdallah for devoting his time and talents to honoring Florent Schmitt and his final resting place. We’re all grateful.
Thanks also to Osmo Tapio Räihälä for drawing attention to the condition of the Schmitt gravesite in 2017, as well as to Kate Mockler Jenkins, former marketing director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and a specialist in historic tombstone restoration, who provided guidance on the proper process for restoring the gravestone. Her information and counsel were invaluable.