“Florent Schmitt’s artistic legacy is of such importance that his work deserves all the exposure it can get. Once it has done so, it’s no exaggeration to say that the history of French music in the 20th century will have been rewritten.”
— Alistair Hinton, composer and music scholar
One of Florent Schmitt’s most ardent champions today is a fellow composer, Alistair Hinton. It’s an enthusiasm that dates back decades — all the way back to Hinton’s time as a student at the Royal College of Music in London.
Born in Scotland, Hinton studied music from the age of twelve. His early efforts attracted the interest of Benjamin Britten, who encouraged Hinton to enroll at the Royal College of Music where he studied with Humphrey Searle (composition) and Stephen Savage (keyboard).
Hinton’s earliest compositions date from 1962, although he later destroyed much of his pre-1985 output. In the decades since he has brought forth a body of inspired, finely crafted creations.
In addition to his work as a composer, Hinton is recognized as a specialist in the music of the enigmatic Anglo-Indian composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, who he met during his student years in London and with whom he established a close personal and professional relationship during the last decade of older composer’s life.
Hinton’s desire to encourage performances of Sorabji’s music led to founding the Sorabji Archive. Founded in Bath, England but now based in Hereford, the Sorabji Archive is an invaluable resource for musicians and scholars. The Archive maintains an extensive collection of information about the composer, oversees the compilation of new editions, and disseminates copies of Sorabji’s scores and writings.
Hinton is a published author on various musical topics, and has also been executive producer of a number of recordings including, most notably, pianist John Ogdon’s milestone 4-CD recording of Sorabji’s massive Opus Clavicembalisticum.
Alistair Hinton and I have corresponded for a number of years. Invariably, I have found his observations on music to be highly insightful, based as they are on his perspectives as both a composer and a performer. Recently, I asked Hinton to share his thoughts about Florent Schmitt’s music and how he views its importance in music history. Highlights of our discussion are presented below.
PLN: Do you recall when you first encountered Florent Schmitt’s music?
AH: The first – and life-changing – musical experience that I can recall was hearing Chopin’s Fourth Ballade on the radio, played by John Ogdon. This was in 1962 and I was just 11 years old at the time, yet it propelled me into a life of music and composition. By coincidence, it was Ogdon playing Florent Schmitt’s Ombres that was later to be my introduction to that composer. (Ogdon also recorded Mirages, yet another notable piano work by Schmitt.)
I was not merely impressed, but puzzled as to how I’d managed never to hear any of Schmitt’s music previously. Before long, I listened to La Tragédie de Salomé and Psaume XLVII. Those few experiences alone confirmed for me that Schmitt was among the most important composers of his time – and not just in his native France.
During the 1970s, Kaikhosru Sorabji generously gave me his score of Schmitt’s Piano Quintet, about which I’d read but had never heard. Sorabji’s enthusiasm for this work had been boundless ever since he first heard it performed in London in 1916. Having read through the score, I shared his enthusiasm wholeheartedly, although it was a good many years before I first had the thrilling experience of actually hearing it myself.
PLN: What was your initial reaction to Schmitt’s music and its stylistic elements?
AH: That his music had a strong French accent was a potent element, but it was clear to me from the outset that his influences were more wide-ranging than that – perhaps rather more so than some of his French contemporaries.
I have always found Schmitt’s piano works to be most engaging and, while clearly he was a fine pianist who was well-versed in the piano music of Fauré and Debussy and well aware of the work of his younger contemporary Ravel, there are also occasional suggestions of Alexander Scriabin and even Max Reger (two younger close contemporaries), while his influence on Maurice Emmanuel, Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux was to make its presence felt, too.
Overall in my initial reaction, Schmitt came across to me as more of a pan-European composer than just a French composer.
PLN: In what ways do you find Florent Schmitt’s musical style similar to other composers. In what ways is it different?
AH: There is no shortage of similarities between Schmitt’s earlier work and that of his teacher and mentor Gabriel Fauré, although Schmitt’s acute sense of high drama and overwhelming excitement goes beyond anything to be found in Fauré’s work.
Fauré’s example was nevertheless an abiding one; not for nothing did Schmitt dedicate his massive Piano Quintet to Fauré, and pay tribute to him again some four decades later in the sole string quartet that he wrote at around the age that Fauré was when he wrote his only work for that medium.
Schmitt’s mature work differs from that of his compatriots to in its evidence of a deep absorption not only of Wagner (whose potent and inescapable impact on many French composers in the latter 19th and early 20th century seems almost to have become something of an embarrassment to some), but also of Brahms.
Schmitt’s sense of musical form and architecture owe much to a strong Austro-German persuasion, such that one could almost perceive a parallel between his natural embracing of French impressionism along with Austro-German symphonic classicism, and Schönberg’s instinctive reconciliation of Wagner and Brahms in his own works.
On the other hand, Schmitt’s work seems to have had little in common with certain developments in French music that occurred in the years following the end of World War I. The sheer force of his musical personality seemed to be little affected by the composers active in Paris during the 1920s.
PLN: You are a composer in your own right. Has Schmitt’s music been an influence on your own creativity?
AH: Only perhaps to the extent of Schmitt’s bold, ambitious and powerful expressive manner and his immense structural mastery. There is no doubt that my Piano Quintet in particular owes some debt to Schmitt — although I fear that Schmitt might have said more in the 50+ minutes of his than I have done in the 80+ minutes of mine!
As well, the protracted gestation period of Schmitt’s quintet (written over a period of seven years) came to be reflected in mine, commenced in 1980 but not completed until 2010!
PLN: You have been an indefatigable champion of the music of Kaikhosru Sorabji for many years. Please tell how that that interest developed, and your ongoing efforts on his behalf.
AH: It began purely by chance. On a visit to the Central Music Library in London’s Westminster Library during my first term as an RCM student, a fellow student had asked if I would pick up some guitar scores by Fernando Sor. Having found them, I was puzzled to see a large landscape-format score declaring itself to be Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum, filed in the correct place alphabetically but the wrong one by category.
Curiosity getting the better of me, I drew it from the shelf and then proceeded to spend some four fascinated hours going through it at a desk. I could not understand why I’d never even heard of this composer, let alone listened to any of his music. I refrained from borrowing the score as it so obviously called for a pianist of “Ogdonian” prowess, but I did try to discover as much as I could about Sorabji — only to encounter frustrating obstacles at every attempt.
I discussed my interest with my teachers Humphrey Searle and Stephen Savage. Olivier Knussen then put me in touch with a friend who had Sorabji’s home address, although it would be more than two years before I built up the courage to write to the composer.
I met Sorabji for the first time at his Dorset home in 1972 when he was aged 80 and I was just 22. We became firm friends from the outset. On my many subsequent visits with him, I reiterated my concern for the fate of his music which was not being performed, broadcast or recorded and whose scores were well-nigh impossible to find.
Happily, from the mid-1970s performances began and much interest was generated by them. But I remained worried as to the fate of his scores, most of which had never been published. This gave me the idea to form an archive dedicated to collecting the scores to make master-copies, and then seek to encourage musicians and scholars to prepare performing editions of them.
The rest is history, really. Music-setting software has developed immensely since the 1990s, and some three-quarters of Sorabji’s scores have now been typeset in masterly fashion by dedicated editors. Several more such editions are in preparation today.
Many of Sorabji’s works have now been performed in around 30 countries, and there are now more than 50 CDs of his music. This would not have been possible without the benefit of such fine editions of these scores.
PLN: Do you sense any stylistic similarities between the music of Schmitt and Sorabji?
AH: Not particularly. Sorabji’s early years found him exploring a vast range of contemporary European and Russian music — not an easy task in the backward-looking climate of Edwardian England, with few performances and no available recordings. This pursuit marked Sorabji as something of an “outsider” at the outset – and this was before he had even begun to compose. Sorabji was a very late starter in this — his first extant works dating from his early twenties.
Sorabji familiarized himself with the works of Schönberg, Rachmaninoff, Bartók, Scriabin, Strauss, Medtner, Debussy and others. He also developed a particular passion for the music of Ravel (about whom he considered writing a book at one time), so it seems certain that he knew at least some of Schmitt’s music by then as well.
Sorabji’s early works were mainly songs for voice and piano, most of which are settings of French symbolist poets; influences on these included Scriabin, Ravel and to a lesser extent Cyril Scott. While the young Sorabji responded positively to French influences – musical and literary – in general terms, I’m not conscious that Schmitt’s music was of special significance to him.
PLN: Is it possible that Schmitt and Sorabji found inspiration for their creations from similar sources (musical or non-musical)?
AH: I suppose that their shared (though very different) response to things “oriental” might seem to suggest something of the kind, but I don’t think that this is especially noticeable. In their various vocal works, from time to time both Schmitt and Sorabji were drawn to French texts, although Sorabji composed only one set of songs for voice and piano during his last 60 years.
PLN: In your research, have you determined if Sorabji and Schmitt were acquainted with one another? If not, do you think they were aware of each other’s musical output?
AH: I wish that I had – and hope that one day I will! Sorabji was a reluctant performer who played in public no more than around ten times during his long life, but the invitation to give the premiere of his Trois poèmes for soprano and piano in Paris in 1921 with French soprano Marthe Martine in a concert under the auspices of the Société Musicale Independante (of which Schmitt and Fauré were among the founders) appears to have come from Florent Schmitt. Frustratingly, no correspondence between the composers has come to light and, so it has yet to be established with certainty that Schmitt attended that performance, or if the two ever met.
I do not know which works of Sorabji that Schmitt might have encountered. But Sorabji, in his capacity as a music critic between the two world wars, published several reviews of performances of Schmitt’s works, always in a most favorable light.
PLN: What are some milestones of your own career as a composer – in terms of pieces you have created, musicians who have performed them, or other highlights?
AH: There are quite a number, but major milestones would have to include the performance and recording of my hour-long Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Grieg by pianist Donna Amato.
Another one would be when I was requested to write a piece in memory of John Ogdon, whose role in my musical life I’ve already mentioned and with whom I had the privilege to work as executive producer on his historic recording of Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum during the mid-1980s. This piece was not a piano work but a 45-minute organ piece titled Pansophiæ for John Ogdon, which was commissioned, premiered and recorded by Kevin Bowyer (who regarded John as his keyboard hero).
Staying with the Sorabji angle, my Sequentia Claviensis, for piano, a 90-minute piece written in memory of Sorabji, was premièred by the fine English pianist Jonathan Powell. Lastly, I would have to include the recording of my String Quintet (scored for string quartet, double bass and, in its finale, a soprano soloist) as another important milestone. The Quintet plays for 170 minutes and was, to my sheer astonishment, rehearsed and recorded from the ground up by six fabulous artists in the space of nine very action-packed days!
I’m fortunate in that all of the pieces I’ve mentioned were given five-star treatment by the musicians involved. I would note in passing that it seems that my larger scale works have achieved more success in some ways than my shorter ones, of which I hasten to add that there are plenty!
PLN: What musical activities are you currently engaged in?
AH: At the moment I am spending a fair amount of time checking through typeset editions of my works that are being made by various editors. A couple of them are very old (the pieces, not the editors!) — so revisiting them seems at times like taking a trip to another planet …
PLN: Circling back to Florent Schmitt, how would you gauge his importance within the world of French music – or to music in general during the first half of the 20th century?
AH: Schmitt’s significance is far greater than has been generally assumed. As a French composer, he had the misfortune to be born almost midway between Debussy and Ravel, along with Magnard, Roussel, Koechlin and others. Whether and to what extent some of his trenchant views and their fearless expression adversely affected his reputation and due recognition it is hard to say, but that seems somewhat improbable at more than six decades’ distance.
Schmitt was longer lived and more prolific than the others, and seemed to have felt no need to reinvent himself during a compositional career spanning around seven decades because he always had something fresh to say in his own way, right to the very end.
His younger compatriots Messiaen and Dutilleux held him in high regard and, many years earlier, no less a composer than Stravinsky expressed his opinion of La Tragédie de Salome in the most glowing terms, and testified to its influence upon him in the composition of his own seminal work Le Sacre du printemps.
Beyond these points, I also consider Schmitt’s Piano Quintet to be among the very finest works ever composed for that combination of instruments.
PLN: For someone becoming newly acquainted with Florent Schmitt, which of his pieces would you recommend as the most worthwhile listening?
AH: I think that my own introduction to his works would serve as good an entry point as any. In more broad terms, the “Top 10 plus 1” pieces I would single out are Ombres and Mirages for piano, Psaume XLVII, La Tragédie de Salomé, the Piano Quintet, Dionysiaques, the Sonate libre for violin and piano, Symphonie concertante for piano and orchestra, the String Quartet, the String Trio and lastly the Second Symphony, whose sheer unremitting vibrancy has prompted more than one commentator to remark on its stature as “a work of youth” and “a lesson of youth to his juniors throughout the world” — despite being written when the composer was aged 87. Few other composers have achieved anything of such dynamism at so advanced an age — notable exceptions being Elliott Carter, Sorabji, and Schmitt’s compatriot Paul Le Flem.
PLN: Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share about Florent Schmitt and his legacy?
AH: I would add only that Florent Schmitt’s artistic legacy is of such importance that his work deserves all the exposure it can get. Once it has done so, it’s no exaggeration to say that the history of French music in the 20th century will have been rewritten.
Many musicians are in agreement with Alistair Hinton about Florent Schmitt’s artistic legacy and the need for a reassessment — such that Schmitt will find his rightful place in the pantheon of great French composers alongside such luminaries as Couperin, Rameau, Berlioz, Fauré, Debussy and Ravel.
An excellent interview and very important ideas on the position of Florent Schmitt in the history of 20th century music.