As many readers of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog are undoubtedly aware, 2020 marks the 150th birthday anniversary year for French composer Florent Schmitt. During the course of this year, many concerts of Schmitt’s music had been scheduled — alas, too many of them having to be canceled or postponed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
But COVID-19 hasn’t prevented the 2020 release of several new recordings of Schmitt’s music, — including a number of world premieres — featuring the composer’s orchestral and vocal music. In late July, a recording of music featuring four vocalists and two pianists was released on the Resonus label, and in November NAXOS will be releasing a recording of two ballet scores plus two world premieres.
In addition, Florent Schmitt has been the topic of heightened news coverage in the musical press. Among them is a piece that has just been published by Crescendo magazine.
Recently, I was interviewed by Pierre-Jean Tribot, the chief editor of this e-magazine — Belgium’s leading publication devoted to classical music and musicians. I was pleased to be asked a number of probing questions about Florent Schmitt’s artistic legacy.
The Crescendo article was published in French on September 23, 2020 — just five days before Florent Schmitt’s own birth date of September 28th. For those who know the French language, click or tap here to access the interview article. If you would prefer to read the article in English, below is a translation of the article text:
P-JT: What is the place of Florent Schmitt in 20th century music? How does his music fit in between Ravel or Debussy … and then Messiaen or Dutilleux?
PLN: Florent Schmitt’s contribution to 20th century music is very significant, but in modern times not well-recognized. This wasn’t always the case. In her 2013 book A Fragile Consensus: Music and Ultra-Modernism in France, Barbara Kelly notes that three book-length studies about modern French music, authored by André Coeuroy, Paul Landormy and Emile Vuillermoz and published in 1922 and 1923, identified Florent Schmitt as the one composer all three could agree upon in terms of the importance of his creative output and the significance of his influence.
Of course, Schmitt was longer lived and more prolific than most of his contemporaries, and he seemed to have had something fresh to say in his own way right to the very end, with memorable creations such as the Symphony #2 (1957) and the Messe en quatre parties (1958). His younger compatriots Messiaen and Dutilleux held him in high regard, but it was perhaps a drawback that he lived to such an advanced age. Some composers who have long lives outlive their fame in a way — and for no good reason other than musical tastes change and the younger generation can’t see that their music still matters.
But I believe that a reassessment is taking place once again, and Schmitt is now being recognized as an important and influential musical voice in the first half of the 20th century.
P-JT: What are the noteworthy characteristics of Florent Schmitt’s music?
PLN: Florent Schmitt lived during the time of the most radical changes in Western classical music. His birth year of 1870 is sandwiched between that of Debussy (1862) and Ravel (1875), yet he outlived both composers by decades and wrote music right up to the time of his death in 1958.
Schmitt did adopt some aspects of Debussy’s harmonic vocabulary such as the use of extended chords and parallel streams of chords. Even so, Schmitt’s musical forms possessed greater clarity than what is found in the “freer” structures of impressionism. It is fair to say that Schmitt challenged certain notions of the impressionist aesthetic — subtlety and inwardness — and in the process created colorfully vital music that was quite different stylistically.
From the 1890s on, Florent Schmitt was at the center of musical life in Paris and was acquainted with every composer and performer of note. He was an admirer of the music of Richard Strauss, Arnold Schönberg as well as the youthful Stravinsky, at whose 1913 Le Sacre premiere Schmitt vociferously defended the younger composer against the detractors in the audience.
Schmitt and Ravel were particularly close friends. As fellow members of Les Apaches, there are numerous examples of each composer influencing the other, such as when Ravel announced to his circle of friends that it was impossible to write effectively for piano anymore. Florent Schmitt then proceeded to compose his remarkable Les Lucioles (1902, from Nuits romaines) in reaction to Ravel’s contention, which subsequently provoked Ravel into writing his innovative Jeux d‘eau. Another occasion was when Schmitt composed his two-piano work, Rapsodie viennoise, in 1903 which the two men played together in concert. One can see a direct connection between this piece and the sketches that Ravel wrote in 1905 for the work that would ultimately become La Valse.
In the other direction, there is the example of Ravel’s 1905 piano duet Ma Mère l’oye which he later expanded, orchestrated and turned into a ballet. Schmitt did exactly the same thing with his piano duet Une Semaine du petit-elfe Ferme-l’oeil (1912), which was expanded, orchestrated and presented as a ballet at the Paris Opéra in 1923.
The American violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams has made this interesting observation about Ravel and Schmitt: “It is absolutely essential to pair these two composers. It shows the timeless stature of both and highlights the wonderful differences in their music while illustrating common sources. Each among the greatest orchestrators, Ravel was the über-cosmopolitan, elegant and composed; Schmitt was sophisticated and elemental — overwhelming in the way of natural forces.”
P-JT: How did Florent Schmitt’s style evolve during his life?
PLN: Schmitt’s seven-decade creative life began during the time of César Franck and Saint-Saëns and ended during the era of Pierre Boulez and Charles Chaynes. So it isn’t surprising to see an evolution in Schmitt’s own style as well. Although always adhering to tonality, his music became increasingly polytonal and polyrhythmic, particularly after World War I. Schmitt’s earliest compositions have echoes of Schumann and even Massenet (his first composition instructor at the Paris Conservatoire). This style would soon change, but the spirit of Gabriel Fauré, his favorite teacher, would remain with Schmitt throughout his entire career.
In his approach to composing music, Schmitt would often break the mould of uniformity — not only superimposing binary and tertiary forms but also mingling various rhythmic formulae within a given bar. In so doing, he achieved a rhythmic space that is the principal of life in his melody. Musicians have noted the difficulty of Florent Schmitt’s scores, but the key is to isolate each bar, each line and each instrument, and the larger picture soon becomes clear. The musical rewards are many, and in the process we discover a sound that is absolutely unique to this composer.
P-JT: For me, Florent Schmitt is above all a composer for the orchestra, with an astounding mastery of orchestration. Was he also equally comfortable with small instrumental and pianistic forms?
PLN: Schmitt is justly recognized for his highly effective use of instrumental color as he built his massive frescoes. In such works as La Tragédie de Salomé (1907/10), Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920), Salammbó (1925) and Oriane et le Prince d’Amour (1934), his orchestrations are so colorful, they’re like Rimsky-Korsakov on steroids! But we should also remember that Schmitt knew how to write very effectively for piano and for voice, as well as for smaller musical forces.
Schmitt’s own instruments were the piano, organ and flute, and we can see from his catalogue that wrote vast swaths of music for solo and duo-pianists. Many of these were composed during his early years, although several later sets such as Trois danses (1936) and Enfants (1941) are also noteworthy.
Later in his career Florent Schmitt produced numerous pieces for smaller ensembles, including quartets for saxophones, flutes and trombones/tuba plus a clarinet sextet. His Trio à cordes (1946) and Quatuor à cordes (1948) are legendary for their rich sonorities — and for their complexity. In these and other chamber works such as A Tour d’anches (1939), Hasards (1943) and Quatuor pour presque tous les temps (1956), it’s fascinating how Schmitt was able to coax such robust sounds and colors from just three or four musicians. All are incredibly meaty compositions that offer fresh musical insights with each subsequent hearing.
P-JT: Florent Schmitt was also interested in the saxophone. We are indebted to him a for quartet for saxophones which is one of the pillars of the repertoire, and also the superb Légende for saxophone and orchestra. What drew him to this instrument? How did he take advantage of the possibilities of this instrument?
PLN: Schmitt was one of numerous French composers who created works for the saxophone, which isn’t in itself surprising considering that the saxophone was invented and first took root in France and Belgium. Even a composer like Léo Delibes included a saxophone part in the score for his ballet Sylvia in 1876. But Schmitt knew how to exploit the colors of this instrument in ways that few of his contemporaries were able to match. Most saxophonists will tell you that Schmitt’s Légende (1918) is a far more compelling piece of music than Debussy’s Rapsodie, for example.
The Quatuor pour saxophones (1944) has earned special pride of place in the repertoire — and for good reason. The Quatuor was one of numerous pieces that were commissioned by Marcel Mule following the creation of his saxophone class at the Paris Conservatoire. It’s acknowledged that a real demarcation was set between this work and compositions written previously for saxophone.
Speaking of setting a demarcation, I think the same can be said of Dionysiaques, Schmitt’s incredible wind band piece written in 1913 for the Garde Republicaine. Dionysiaques was the first truly artistic work created for large concert band; in its inventive writing, it’s quite clear that Schmitt considered the potential of wind ensembles to be “without limits.”
P-JT: What is, for you, his greatest masterpiece? Why?
PLN: Florent Schmitt’s catalogue of compositions is extensive — some 138 opus numbers plus additional pieces — so it is very difficult to select just one work! But if I were to choose just one, for me personally it would be Schmitt’s monumental setting of Psaume XLVII, which was one of the final envois to be delivered by Schmitt to the Paris Conservatoire in 1904 from his Prix de Rome sojourn. Scored for soprano solo, mixed-part chorus, organ and large orchestra, it is an astonishing creation that took musical Paris by storm when it was premiered two days after Christmas in 1906. At the time the composer was heralded as “The New Berlioz,” and one can well understand why.
The conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud recounts how the great Manuel Rosenthal once said to him, “If you were to conduct only one French choral work during your career, it should be this Psalm.”
P-JT: Does the work of Florent Schmitt seem to you to be at the dawn of a revival? It seems to me that for some years the recordings have multiplied.
PLN: I would say that the revival is already happening. Today, approximately two-thirds of Schmitt’s compositions have been commercially recorded, with a substantial number of recording premieres happening within the past decade. Several pieces, such as the Antoine et Cléopâtre suites, Le Palais hanté (1904) and the Sonate libre for violin and piano (1920), have had multiple new recordings during that time.
Equally important, Schmitt’s music is appearing more frequently in the concert hall and on recital programs. The Florent Schmitt Website lists more than 1,000 solo musicians who keep Schmitt’s music in their performing repertoire, and the number is growing. There are more than a dozen internationally known conductors who have become particularly active in programming Schmitt’s music beyond just his most famous piece La Tragédie de Salomé — most notably JoAnn Falletta and Leon Botstein in the United States, Sakari Oramo in the United Kingdom, Jacques Mercier in France, Gottfried Rabl in Central and Eastern Europe, Ira Levin in South America, and Fabien Gabel all over the world. And there are others …
P-JT: My last question is more personal. What attracted you to the work of Florent Schmitt, of which you are a great connoisseur?
PLN: My first exposure to Florent Schmitt’s music was purely by chance, when at the age of 14 I heard Paul Paray’s classic 1958 Detroit Symphony Orchestra recording of La Tragédie de Salomé. As an impressionable teenager, I was instantly captivated by music that was so sensuous and at the same time tinged with danger. That was the beginning of a five-decade love affair with the composer’s music that, over time and with greater exploration, has only deepened my appreciation for the incredible gifts of this composer and the magnificent artistic legacy he left us.
It gives me tremendous satisfaction to see that Florent Schmitt’s star is rising again — his true talents now visible and evident to everyone. Florent Schmitt is no longer merely a fine French composer; today he belongs to the entire world.