Throughout his lengthy career, the French composer Florent Schmitt maintained personal friendships with many of his counterparts. He was at the center of musical life in Paris, having particularly close relationships with Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, Gabriel Pierné, Paul Dukas, Gabriel Fauré, and numerous other French composers, in addition to helping the careers of younger generation of creators such as Arthur Honegger, Claude Delvincourt and Pierre Ferroud, his most prized pupil.
Schmitt also sustained decades-long acquaintances with composers from other lands — Igor Stravinsky, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Alfredo Casella, Manuel de Falla and George Enescu, to name just some.
Among those relationships, the friendship Schmitt had with the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was one of the most mutually fulfilling. The two composers knew each other from the early 1920s until the late 1950s, ending only when death claimed both men within the span of just 14 months.
Villa-Lobos, arguably Brazil’s greatest composer, began his musical career in his native Rio de Janeiro. His earliest works, composed in the early 1900s, were in the prevailing salon style of the day, but he would soon begin to incorporate more modernist touches into his music, reminiscent of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky in particular.
In 1917, the appearance of two orchestral works by Villa-Lobos signaled the full flowering of his musical genius: the tone poems Uirapurú and Amazonas. Both compositions employed Brazilian themes and used a wide range of native percussion instruments.
By the early 1920s, it was clear that Villa-Lobos was ripe for the international stage, but such recognition would be difficult to achieve so long as the composer remained in South America. In those days, the center of culture and music meant Paris as much as Berlin or Vienna. Between the three destinations, Villa-Lobos’ own artistic proclivities would draw him to Paris.
Coming to Europe in the 1923-24 season, Villa-Lobos presented music of Latin American composers in France, Portugal and Belgium. During this time he became acquainted with the major musical personages of the day in the Paris — and one of those luminaries was Florent Schmitt.
Upon his return to Brazil, Villa-Lobos would “return the favor” by presenting French music there, while celebrating his first contract with the Paris-based publisher Éditions Max Eschig, the firm which would also publish the works of other Latin composers including de Falla, Joaquín Nin, Joaquín Turina, Federico Mompou and Ernesto Halffter.
In 1926, thanks to the generous financial support of the brothers Arnaldo and Carlos Guinle, two Brazilian industrialists and philanthropists, Villa-Lobos and his wife again made their way to Paris — this time to spend a full three years. During this sojourn, he enjoyed particularly warm acquaintances with fellow-composers Arthur Honegger, Olivier Messiaen, Sergei Prokofiev, Albert Roussel, Erik Satie, Edgard Varèse … and Florent Schmitt.
“During their stay at Place St-Michel, Villa-Lobos and [his wife] Lucilla frequently prepared a Brazilian bean dish called feijoada, but because their budget was limited, guests were often asked to bring a dish for a potluck. Guests included Florent Schmitt, Leopold Stokowski, the painter Joaquín Roca who created a famous portrait of Villa-Lobos, Edgard Varèse, and various other friends and musicians.”
In Paris, Villa-Lobos also befriended other Latin musicians, including the guitarist Andres Segovia and the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce. This extract from a letter Ponce wrote to his wife Clema in 1928 illuminates the nexus of artistic personalities in Paris in those times:
“Yesterday I was working at the office and Edgard Varèse came looking for me … He invited me to his house; naturally, I accepted. [Albert] Roussel, Florent Schmitt, the pianist [Tomás] Terán, Heitor Villa-Lobos, [Acario] Cotapos the Chilean composer were there with writers, painters, sculptors, etc. Among the women there was … the Comtesse de Polignac … Villa-Lobos was very amiable towards me, and invited me to visit him.”
Among all of these musicians and artists, Florent Schmitt was one of the most respected and influential. From his perch as an esteemed Parisian music critic, Schmitt was in a position to weigh in on Villa-Lobos’ talents as a composer — and he came down hard on the side of advocating for it.
Schmitt was present at several concerts of Villa-Lobos’ music in 1927, and his writings in the Parisian press did much to burnish the younger composer’s international reputation. Two concerts at the Salle Gaveau late that year inspired the critic to pen a nearly four-page review and analysis which was published in La Revue de France. In it, Schmitt described Villa-Lobos’ music in poetic terms:
“With teeth like a crocodile and eyes of fire … the art of Villa-Lobos is founded upon the simple native devices that his genius has assimilated marvelously.”
“The works of Villa-Lobos give birth to virgin roads and irresistible atmospheres …”
The following year Schmitt reviewed a performance of Villa-Lobos’ Symphony No. 1 equally favorably, and in 1930 the world premiere of the composer’s Momoprecoce for piano and orchestra (with the solo part performed by Magda Tagliaferro) also received a glowing review from Schmitt.
The music historian and writer Lisa Margaret Peppercorn has characterized the relationship between Villa-Lobos and Schmitt in this manner:
“[Villa-Lobos] was dependent on Florent Schmitt, who encouraged him and gave him moral support by his understanding and considerate reviews and his personal interest in his music. The warm friendship he offered his younger colleague presumably helped also to introduce him to other composers and artists — both French and foreign — who lived in Paris, the center of the cultural world of the 1920s.
Villa-Lobos had found in Florent Schmitt, his elder by 17 years, an admirer of his music and a sincere friend. The esteem and high regard they held for each other and the genuine friendship that developed between them … endured the rest of their lives.”
Upon his return to Brazil in the early 1930s and stimulated by his experiences of Paris’ endlessly fascinating musical life, Villa-Lobos organized a series of concerts in Rio and São Paulo that were devoted to contemporary compositions. One of those concerts was comprised entirely of music by Schmitt. Villa-Lobos would program more Schmitt in April 1933, with a presentation of La Tragédie de Salomé in a concert that also included Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Richard Strauss’ Burleske, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue(!).
As war threatened in Europe — and later came to the continent — Villa-Lobos stayed put in his native country, embarking on a series of fresh initiatives including devoting himself to the musical education of schoolchildren via a position created for him by the Rio de Janeiro municipal government. He also began creating his series of nine Bachianas Brasileiras, which famously melded Brazilian musical atmospherics with Bachian forms.
Equally important, in 1942 Villa-Lobos spearheaded the establishment of both the National Conservatory and the Brazilian Academy of Music.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Villa-Lobos would return to Paris, renewing his friendship with Florent Schmitt. It was likely at this time that Villa-Lobos invited Schmitt to come to Brazil; accordingly, in September 1949 Schmitt sailed for South America and was greeted at Rio’s port by Villa-Lobos with flowers and music.
On October 31st, Schmitt and Villa-Lobos teamed up to conduct a concert of music at Rio’s Municipal Theatre devoted entirely to Schmitt’s compositions. Schmitt conducted La Tragédie de Salomé and Psaume XLVII while Villa-Lobos directed the musical forces in Six choeurs, In Memoriam and Ronde burlesque.
The next day, Florent Schmitt was the guest of honor at a reception hosted by the Academia Brasileira de Musica, an organization founded by Villa-Lobos four years earlier. Held at the Brazilian Press Association Building, the reception was accompanied by a concert of Brazilian music as well as Schmitt’s Trois rapsodies for two pianos.
Schmitt was the second internationally famous composer to be so feted by the Academia; the first had been the American composer Aaron Copland in 1947.
This event was followed several days later by a concert devoted to Schmitt’s chamber music, during which his Flute Quartet received its first public performance. Also programmed were the Quatre poèmes de Ronsard, Trois danses for piano solo, as well as the middle movement of the Piano Quintet (with Schmitt himself playing the piano part).
Rare color film footage of the two men from their final times spent in each other’s company has survived — some of which appears in a documentary film about Villa-Lobos that was produced several decades ago. You can view a Parisian street scene of Schmitt and Villa-Lobos together, beginning at minute-marker 11:11:10.
In the final years of both composers’ lives, the two men would stay in touch via letters. Reading them, one can find hints of a second Brazilian trip that may have been in the planning stages, but considering Schmitt’s advanced age (then well over 80 years old), such a strenuous journey must have ultimately seemed too difficult to undertake.
As a measure of Villa-Lobos’ great esteem for the older master, he included a work by Schmitt on the program of an otherwise all-Villa-Lobos concert he conducted with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1957.
At the time of Schmitt’s death in September 1958, Villa-Lobos penned a heartfelt tribute to his longtime friend and colleague. Just fourteen months later, he too would be dead.
Summarizing the significance of the relationship between these two composers, Lisa Peppercorn has written:
“It is difficult to say if Villa-Lobos would have ever gained as much success as he did in his early days in Paris without Schmitt’s analysis and reviews of the composer’s works in reputable publications, or without the attachment and affinity the artists felt and expressed for one another.”
One thing is certain: The relationship between Schmitt and Villa-Lobos is yet another example of Schmitt using his influence and advocacy to help advance the careers of the fellow composers he felt were worthy to promote.