In the late 1980s the first and only commercial recording of Florent Schmitt’s intriguing composition Fonctionnaire MCMXII, Op. 74 (Functionary #1,912) was released on the Cybelia label, featuring the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Lockhart.
Schmitt published this symphonic picture 1923, and it received its premiere performance at the Lamoureux Concerts in 1924, conducted by Paul Paray. (Maestro Paray was also the score’s dedicatee.)
The composition’s subtitle gives us a distinct clue as to the “inspiration” behind the score: Inaction in Music, and indeed, the music skewers the French government worker sector through the lens of an indolent employee. As musicologist Frédéric Decaune puts it:
“It is the bureaucracy itself – the men of regulations – that Florent Schmitt makes to look completely foolish.”
Originally envisioned as music to accompany an artistic collaboration between French writer Charles Muller and artist Régis Gignoux – a film production that never came to be – Schmitt ended up creating a blistering musical portrait of the “parasitic civil servant.” Throughout its 15-minute duration, we hear the “inactivity in music” in its portrayal of a day in the life of a government worker, who engages in such “pursuits” as:
- Yawning and stretching for a long, long time
- Perfunctorily saluting the French flag in the office
- Exclaiming that there’s beaucoup work to do … but then doing nary a thing at all
- Looking endlessly at the clock
- Eedling away on a trumpet to pass the time
- Falling asleep
It’s clear from the above scenario – and in the structure of his highly symbolic score that’s heavy on “episodics” and light on the full development of musical themes – that the composer had little respect, time or patience for the inefficiencies of French bureaucrats.
I had known this music – and its only commercial recording – for decades before discovering something quite intriguing about it. As it turns out, the music represents only one portion of Schmitt’s artistic creation. The other is voiceover narration, which was intended for presenting in conjunction with the music.
Indeed, it is the narrative that takes this composition from “good” to “great.” And we have the renowned French actor and narrator Vincent Figuri to thank for resurrecting the speaking part and making the first-ever recording of Fonctionnaire MCMXII that includes the text.
Moreover, Figuri acquired the rights to use the Lockhart recording, and he released the finished production in 2017 on his own Salamandre recording label.
Speaking about the new Figuri presentation, the American arts and music critic Steven Kruger puts it this way:
“It’s hilarious! It sounds like [Aaron Copland’s] A Lincoln Portrait for the bureaucrat’s day!”
I can’t think of a better artist to bring forth Schmitt’s creation en pleine fleur than Vincent Figuri, who is so highly regarded for his efforts to bring classical music scores to life through his elegant narration skills.
Trained as a pianist and chamber musician, Figuri made the transition to acting and narration relatively early in his career. His diverse activities and projects have included much output in his native French tongue, while also working in other languages as well. In so doing, Figuri has established an enviable reputation; he’s known to many as “the talking musician.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Vincent Figuri, asking him about his efforts to resurrect and record Florent Schmitt’s Fonctionnaire MCMXII. Highlights of our discussion are presented below. (Note: Mr. Figuri’s comments have been translated from French into English.)
PLN: How did you discover Fonctionnaire MCMXII? Were you introduced to this music by a fellow musician, or through your own research?
VF: I came across this work during my efforts to discover musical repertoire with narrative text. As I recall, I found the score at Éditions Durand in the 1990s, when the publisher was still located in Asnières-sur Seine. As you can see, this piece has been on my radar for a long time!
PLN: Before discovering Fonctionnaire, were you familiar with any other music by Florent Schmitt?
VF: I knew some of Schmitt’s music – but mainly through recordings, since the composer is played rather infrequently in concert or recital. In particular, I knew some Schmitt piano recordings made by Pascal le Corre and Alain Raës.
I think the only opportunity I’ve ever had to hear his music performed in public is Psaume XLVII. Overall, his orchestral music is truly remarkable.
PLN: When you heard Schmitt’s music for the first time, what were your impressions?
VF: It was during my student years that I first discovered the Psaume. This fresco is impressive without a doubt. But I did not take spontaneously to many of Schmitt’s other compositions.
In fact, it was more my curiosity about French music in general that led me to delve into Florent Schmitt’s works. Some of his scores attracted me immensely – particularly the works with literary subject matters and also his large orchestral pieces. But other compositions passed by without leaving much of a footprint.
Regarding the Fonctionnaire in particular, I listened to this music even before having the score in hand. And the recording was the purely orchestral treatment, so it didn’t tell me too much.
But then I listened to the piece with the score, on which is printed the narration. Suddenly I understood it all – how the narration really works with the music.
PLN: What were your first impressions of the scenario and the text when you read it?
VF: Immediately I saw how the music and the words were working together symbiotically. The music alone didn’t convey all of that – something seemed to be missing. Likewise, the text did not work on its own, either. I realized that both the text and the music were needed in order to successfully convey Fonctionnaire MCMXII to listeners.
Indeed, I’ll go further than that: In my opinion, the piece is fully successful only when presented with the narration, because the music follows the storyline so faithfully.
In that sense, Florent Schmitt has been very adept in matching his music with the argument. For this reason, both must be presented together to bring Schmitt’s vision to life and to pay proper tribute to his creation.
Of course, I also realized the challenge of preparing a narrated version of Fonctionnaire without having access to the one commercial recording [James Lockhart on Cybelia]. So this idea was something I was forced to table until I founded my own record label and sought to obtain the rights to use the Lockhart recording to produce a narrated version.
PLN: What modifications did you make to the text when preparing the narrated version of Fonctionnaire?
VF: Nine times out of ten, the original layout of text with music isn’t completely suitable for performance. Few composers are fully adept at calibrating the flow of the spoken text overtop the notes. Very often the text is arranged in a somewhat random fashion. For example, the narrator should not be speaking overtop a solo cello or flute. It’s important to place the text in very specific spots so that it doesn’t overpower or otherwise disturb the music.
Liszt and Stravinsky are exceptions in that they understood these aspects better than anyone. In Schmitt’s case, I found that there were places where I needed to shift where I was speaking – but usually in small ways.
Another challenge happens when using a pre-existing recording, which I was doing in the case of Fonctionnaire. The timing is dictated by the recording; if there is a silence of three seconds, you have only three seconds to speak. Sometimes it works fine … but other times a phrase might need to be shortened, or repositioned elsewhere in the score.
So in approaching Fonctionnaire, I had to keep in mind the musical and textual logic. The goal was to balance the two in ways that optimized the interpretation while remaining true to the composer’s intentions.
One other point I’ll add is that it’s important for the narrator’s voice not to “crush” the orchestra through amplification. In my view, the narrator is akin to being another instrument. A soloist, yes – but still an instrument. Therefore, I’m always working with my sound engineer to achieve the proper balance between the volume of the orchestra and the voice.
PLN: There are many places in the piece where the music perfectly describes the narration – and vice versa. Do you have one or two favorite parts of the storytelling with the music?
VF: I particularly like the point near the end of the piece when the tempo accelerates. The orchestra expands and really carries the narration at this point. The final pages of the score forced me to engage in extensive reworking in order to fit the narration into spots where the music would allow it to be heard.
When doing this kind of work, it’s quite a challenge because it’s very important to speak “musically” – in other words, to blend in with the nuances of the score.
Here’s an interesting aside: the Lockhart recording hadn’t included the tolling of the bell when the clock strikes 4 o’clock, so it fell to my audio engineer to add that sound effect!
PLN: What do you know about the original production of Fonctionnaire MCMXII? Do you know how it was presented the first time – with or without the narration?
VF: It is my understanding that the original tableau was developed for a film that was never shot – and it’s too bad that never happened! For this reason, I suspect that it wasn’t performed with the text; maybe it hasn’t ever been up until now.
PLN: The Lockhart recording of Fonctionnaire MCMXII is more than 30 years old. How did you secure permission to use this recording in producing your narrated version?
VF: I undertook a judicial investigation. It lasted several years, but I finally discovered that the original tapes had never been bought by anyone else — so that’s what I did.
PLN: How can music-lovers acquire your new recording of Fonctionnaire?
VF: At present, it is available in download form only. There is no CD version available – at least not yet.
PLN: Preparing this new narrated version of Fonctionnaire MCMXII is part of a broader objective of yours to promote great French repertoire of this kind. Probably the most famous French example of music with narration is Claude Debussy’s Le Martyre de saint Sébastien. What can you tell us about your efforts to promote this body of work — and which pieces beyond these ones by Debussy and Schmitt?
VF: French music is at the heart of my interests. But this repertoire with narration is vast – expanding well beyond France – and nearly all of it is little known to the general public.
I have discovered many interesting works – and some of them like the Schmitt are really first-rate. In this sense I’d say that the French repertoire is honorable, but there are even more pieces in other national repertoires, including the German and Czech. There are some impressive melodramas by composers like Sibelius and Richard Strauss that are truly great works.
When approaching this repertoire, the question of translation always comes up. In my view, if we wish to promote these works, then we must be willing to translate them without worrying about the question of “authenticity.” Fortunately, in narration there aren’t the same challenges one might face in lieder or other vocal music in that there are far fewer rhythmic constraints.
For this reason, why deprive ourselves of the opportunity to offer these creations to a wider public? I like to reference Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as an example. The composer himself created the text for that piece – in Russian. But why should we hear it only in Russian? If we are broadminded in this respect, there will be a bigger market for other pieces as well.
PLN: You have had a noteworthy career working as an actor/narrator in the realm of classical music. In fact, you are known as “the talking musician.” How did your career evolve in this highly specialized niche?
VF: I am a musician – pianist and chamber music – by training, but I also practiced drama. One day I learned of Liszt’s melodramas. Upon investigating those, I fell in love with them – and everything started from there.
I don’t think things could have evolved the opposite way. Had I been an actor first, I would not have had the courage to study music to then work in this sort of repertoire.
PLN: What projects are you working on at present?
VF: I founded my Salamandre Productions recording label in 2012 in order to record many of my projects. Right now I am working on two recording projects featuring unpublished works of French composers. However, I’m choosing to keep the details under wraps until things are further along in development. We shall keep the surprise a secret for a while longer!
PLN: Personally, I find listening to your narrations to be a beautiful experience – as do other people I know. In fact, several non-Francophone music-lovers tell me that they enjoy hearing the sound of your voice even though they do not understand the words you’re saying. Do you work in languages other than French, too?
VF: I have always loved languages. I am well-familiar with Italian, German and even a little Russian. But it’s important to recognize that if the sung voice conceals the linguistic imperfections of the performer, the voice of the actor puts them bare!
I do like challenges, and I’ve even worked with languages such as Swedish and Hungarian. In addition, with my Salamandre label I’ve worked to widen the circle of listeners for the musical tales of Dvořák and Prokofiev by recording them in several different languages.
I’m a great believer that narration can help usher people more easily into the world of classical music. To that end, I’ve been involved with a UNESCO project recording musical tales in six different languages.
For me, I’m always keen on hearing how singers are treating language when performing or recording operas and lieder. Even if I do not know the language, I’m always sensitive to the diction of the singers. Listening to some singers today, at times it makes me quite unhappy!
PLN: In conclusion, do you have any additional comments you’d like to make about Florent Schmitt and his artistry?
VF: There’s no question that Florent Schmitt is a composer who deserves a much higher position than he occupies today in the French musical landscape, where some people are more concerned about judging some unfortunate words he had to say during the Second World War than they are about his very inventive music.
Fortunately, the world is far larger than merely France – and Americans are here to talk about him as well!
Vincent Figuri’s recording of Fonctionnaire MCMXII is available to hear in Schmitt’s original version with spoken voice. You can also follow along with the score here, reading the devastatingly satirical narrative that accompanies the music.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Vincent Figuri for resurrecting the “fullest picture” of Fonctionnaire MCMXII and giving the world such an effective presentation of the score’s many winsome moments. We look forward to learning more about his upcoming projects, too – particularly the ones featuring unpublished French scores that combine music and the spoken word.