Black and white … or shades of grey?

Considering the actions and motivations of Florent Schmitt during the 1930s and World War II.

Florent Schmitt French composer 1940s

Florent Schmitt, photographed in the early 1940s.

Regular readers of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog know that the primary focus of the site’s content is on the composer’s remarkable musical legacy.  For a person whose creative career spanned more than seven decades during the time of greatest innovation in classical music — and whose own catalogue consists of some 138 opus numbers plus a variety of additional items — there is more than enough material to focus on the music alone.

But as with many musicians whose lives were lived within the context of the 20th century’s momentous socio-political “innovations” that often had catastrophic results for the societies and individuals caught up in all the the experimentation, Florent Schmitt was not immune to the events of the day — nor to the consequences of the choices that he made in the process.

The situation for French musicians during the 1930s and 1940s makes for particularly interesting study.  History teaches us that France was woefully ill-prepared to fight a second major war barely two decades after enduring the massive bloodshed of the First World War.  Entire sections of northern France were rendered a wasteland during that four-year conflict, and the years that followed were marked by wild pendulum swings in policy as various French governments sought ways to prevent a reoccurrence of such trauma.

Ardent French nationalists found themselves on differing sides of these debates — some warning against a rearmed and increasingly belligerent Germany, while others saw in Germany a natural bulwark against the menace of Stalin’s brand of “Godless communism” and his murderous regime.  (One mustn’t discount the impact that legions of White Russian emigrés who populated Paris in those days had on public perceptions of the Soviet Union.)

Henri-Philippe Petain (1856-1951)

The irony that Marshall Philippe Pétain, the “Hero of Verdun,” would end up as prime minister of the Vichy puppet regime following the defeat of France in 1940 underscores the topsy-turvy nature of the times.  While the formation of the Vichy government preserved a “rump” country consisting of a little less than half of France (plus the colonial territories), it also meant a humiliatingly servile existence that was wholly dependent on the “benevolence” of the tyrannical Nazi German regime that was occupying of the remainder of the French mainland including Paris.  In such circumstances, any and all directives “handed down from high” of necessity had to be carried out.  Nothing was unaffected — including the arts.

For French musicians it was a time of testing — and of choosing one reality over another.  For some the decision was easy — particularly those whose very lives were in danger because of their racial/ethnic background or political persuasions: leave the country for safer havens.  For those not in personal danger, it was a question of how to continue living their lives and practicing their craft while navigating the minefields of continually shifting mandates and diktats.  Indeed, for everyone in a world turned upside down it was the challenge of figuring out how to navigate the rapids and make it to the other side.

It is often stated that history is written by the victors. While this may be true, the reality is sometimes more murky. When it came to the arts, for several decades following World War II France seemed to practice a kind of “collective amnesia” — studiously avoiding the topic of individual and collective behavior during the war years. This would change dramatically with the publication of several books, particularly the volumes La Vie musicale sous Vichy by Myriam Chimènes (2001) and Composer sous Vichy by Yannick Simon (2009).

If anything, those volumes went to the opposite end of the scale with agenda-driven narratives that sought to paint an entire generation of French musicians with the “Vichy brush.”  The list of prominent composers and other musicians coming in for particular opprobrium in these books is more than long; just a sampling of the best-known names includes Louis Aubert, Tony Aubin, Henry Barraud, Eugène Bigot, Emmanuel Bondeville, Henri Büsser, Joseph Canteloube, Alfred Cortot, Claire Croiza, Maurice Delage, Marcel Delannoy, Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé, Henri Dutilleux, Jane Evrard, Paul Le Flem, Jean Fournet, Arthur Honegger, Paul Ladmirault, Raymond Loucheur, Jean Martinon, Olivier Messiaen, Charles Munch, Max d’Ollone, Francis Poulenc, Gaston Poulet, Henri Rabaud, Gustave Samazeuilh, Henri Tomasi … and Florent Schmitt as well.

Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

For Schmitt in particular, it was almost too easy to conflate his alleged support of the Vichy France regime with remarks that he had made years earlier, during a November 1933 concert of Kurt Weill’s music following that composer’s move to Paris in the wake of Adolf Hitler coming to power in Germany the previous March.  In those times Weill was as notorious for his leftist political agitation as he was for the “music-hall sarcasm” and cheekiness of his creative output — both of which were controversial.  There’s no question that Schmitt’s wisecrack (“Vive Hitler — France already has too many bad Jewish composers — why do we have to import them from Germany now?”) was insensitive and mean-spirited. On the other hand, the remark was not out of character for someone who was known for making “in your face” caustic comments.

The incident was reported by the Parisian press, which viewed the remarks as uncharitable and completely uncalled for — although Weill himself dismissed the incident as “that silly Florent Schmitt affair.” Without excusing in any way the comment at the Weill concert, we can find numerous instances of strong words making their way into Schmitt’s comments and writings as a music critic, dating all the way back to the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which Schmitt wrote about in the pages of the newspaper La France:

La France June 4 1913 Florent Schmitt Stravinsky Le Sacre

Florent Schmitt’s report on Le Sacre, published in the June 4, 1913 issue of the newspaper La France.

“Igor Stravinsky’s genius could not have received a more striking confirmation than the incomprehension of the crowd and its vicious hostility. This group of what is called ‘worldly people’ — the world of Doctor Moreau, unable to see, hear and feel for themselves — these overgrown children who are overcome with gravity at the beastly and academic clownings of low boulevard theatre, could find nothing but brutal infantile laughter at these splendors, so immeasurably distant from their own weak understanding. 

Bringing everything down to their own mediocre, vain level, they will not admit — they cannot tolerate — that an artist should be creative without being concerned for them … With an implacable and infallible logic, human stupidity never loses its rights.”

On the actual evening of the premiere Florent Schmitt’s words were even more pointed, as remembered later by Stravinsky himself:

“I heard Florent Schmitt shout, ‘Taisez-vous, garces du siezième !’ [‘Down with the bitches of the 16th arrondissement!’]; the ‘garces’ of the 16th arrondissement of Paris were, of course, the most elegant ladies of the city.”   

In another example of Schmitt’s sharp tongue, there is his remark to the composer Darius Milhaud in the hallway of the Paris Opéra during intermission at the 1932 premiere of Milhaud’s roundly panned opera, Maximilien.

“Are you staying?”, Schmitt reportedly quipped.

Regarding these and other incidences, the words of Catherine Lorent, author of a 2012 biography of Florent Schmitt, certainly ring true:

“A man with a caustic spirit, this is a composer who will use humor throughout his life, becoming the source of multiple anecdotes that have caused much ink to flow — most often triggering laughter but sometimes arousing the angry voices of indignation.”

Florent Schmitt visiting card

In his dealings with friends and colleagues, Florent Schmitt was often known for his acerbic sense of humor. It’s on display in this calling card left by the composer during a visit. Asked to describe the purpose of his visit, Schmitt has written on the card: “To see you before I die.”

As for Schmitt’s activities following the defeat of France on the battlefield in World War II, the composer was two months shy of 70 years old at the time of the fall of the country in 1940. In that context, the decision he made to stay rather than flee seemed to make sense at the time.  The prospects for the liberation of the country under the young, untested brigadier general Charles de Gaulle, then operating little more than a “press release government” out of a London that was itself under constant German bombardment, seemed fanciful at best.

Artiguemy Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt’s country retreat in Artiguemy, Haute-Pyrenées.

In addition to his home in St-Cloud (suburban Paris), Schmitt had the refuge of his country retreat at Artiguemy in the Haute-Pyrenées, which is where he elected to stay almost exclusively in the first year and a half following the fall of Paris.  One source of happiness for the composer at Artiguemy was the presence of his grandson, Paul (Schmitt’s own son Jean had become a prisoner of the Germans and would return only at the end of the war).  Even after Schmitt resumed traveling to Paris, those trips were undertaken mainly to attend concerts of his music.

Never flagging in his interest to promote the cause of French contemporary music, Schmitt also served as an honorary member of the music section committee of Groupe Collaboration, organized by the Vichy government and under which concerts were run and recordings made on the Action Artistique label for broadcast over French national radio. Max d’Ollone chaired the committee while Schmitt and a fellow composer, Alfred Bachelet, were named honorary co-chairs (although there is no evidence that Schmitt attended any official meetings of the committee).

Mozart 1941 postage stamp Germany

A 1941 postage stamp issued by the Third Reich commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

More damning in the eyes of some observers of history was Schmitt’s acceptance of an invitation to be part of the French delegation that traveled to Vienna in late 1941 for events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the death of Mozart.  Sixteen other nations sent official delegations as well, and the large French delegation included dignitaries such as the composer Arthur Honegger.  The weeklong festivities, ending on December 5, 1941, turned into a major propaganda coup for Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s so-called “minister of public enlightenment.”

Following the liberation of Paris in late summer 1944, Florent Schmitt was investigated by the Comité National d’Epuration (National Purification Committee) which, under the recently reenacted Indignité nationale (national unworthiness) provisions was charged with determining the extent to which artists, musicians and writers had collaborated with the Vichy regime.  The complete file of documents pertaining to the investigation of Schmitt is housed today at the French National Archives.

Florent Schmitt’s testimony was taken at his home in St-Cloud on November 24, 1944.  Regarding his connection with the music section of Groupe Collaboration, the composer acknowledged his involvement while contending that he did not see it as having any particular political goals.  It was his objective only to defend the interests of French contemporary music and musicians, he maintained, adding that he “never worked with the Germans nor derived any profit from them.”

The first page of Florent Schmitt’s deposition given on November 24, 1944.

Asked why he had never resigned from the committee, Schmitt replied that he had attached “very little importance” to his membership, noting that it had been an honorary position and hadn’t entailed any meetings or committee work on his part other than attending concerts.

When questioned about other “official” activities before and during the war years, Schmitt stressed that his actions had been driven by his love for the arts and the promulgation of French contemporary music, not by political motivations.  “Music, pure and simple!” he had always maintained.  He stated that his involvement with the so-called France-Germany Group beginning in 1937 had occurred for similar reasons and that he had registered with the group at the request of Albert Lebrun, then-president of France, thinking it wise to promulgate good relations between the two countries based on a mutual admiration for classical music.

Schmitt further explained that his participation in the 1941 Mozart Anniversary delegation to Vienna was undertaken in part in the hope — naïve as it turned out — that he might be permitted to visit his only child, who had been captured during the invasion of France and who was being held as a forced-labor prisoner in Germany.  (Predictably, German officials rejected Schmitt’s request.)

As a result of the Comité National d’Epuration investigation, in 1945 a one-year suspension of performing or broadcasting Florent Schmitt’s music in France was imposed, retroactive to the year before, essentially resulting in little substantive negative consequences for the composer (although the one-year suspension also applied to collecting royalties from the sale of his music as well as writings for publication in newspapers or periodicals).

Florent Schmitt’s letter of contrition to the French government, dated December 18, 1945.

Despite the minor material consequences of the ruling, there is no question that Schmitt’s previously vaunted reputation in France suffered a significant blow as a result of his conduct during the war years.  Undeterred by this setback, he continued to compose, bringing forth more than two dozen new works during the final decade of his life — several of which are acknowledged today as among the most significant masterpieces in the Schmitt catalogue.

Legion d'honneur medal third republicAs further evidence of his professional rehabilitation, the composer was named a Commander of the Légion d’honneur in 1952 and in 1957, a year before his death, he was awarded the Music Prize of the City of Paris.

Moreover, throughout the 1950s live performances of Schmitt’s music were a ubiquitous presence on French National Radio broadcasts, performed by the leading French conductors, orchestras and instrumentalists of the day.

Florent Schmitt Grand Prix Figaro Litteraire 1957

Florent Schmitt’s Grand Prize for Music from the City of Paris was front-page news in La Figaro Littéraire‘s May 11, 1957 issue. (Photo: Rene Pari)

Lycée Florent Schmitt in St-Cloud, France, now named for Alexandre Dumas.

But as a famously “independent” composer who was associated with no particular school, in the years following his death in 1958 it became difficult for his reputation to withstand the criticism of detractors — not least the removal of his name from the high school of St-Cloud after a contentious, nearly decade-long battle pitting students, teachers, administrators and alumni against one another.

The relentless and withering criticism of Florent Schmitt has reduced his persona to the level of caricature — presenting him as a one-dimensional figure that utterly fails to account for his complexities, the genius of his artistic legacy, or his substantial efforts over many decades to assist fellow musicians and the cause of French music itself.  As the composer Alain Margoni, who as a young musician worked closely with Schmitt in the late 1950s, has observed:

“Florent Schmitt’s contributions to French music are huge — but up until recently, quite unknown to many people. But upon closer investigation, one can easily see how important he is by looking at the music of other composers and how he is reflected in their own output. 

Florent Schmitt has been falsely accused by some people of having Nazi sympathies. His alleged collaboration with the enemy became a way to attempt to ransack the composer’s reputation and his career accomplishments following his death. Indeed, one could say that Schmitt was secretly “excommunicated” — not through direct evidence, but by cowardly and clandestine whispers and innuendo. I consider those actions to be absolutely unjustifiable — and indeed immoral.”

So what is the sum of things?  In my view, any true appraisal of Florent Schmitt’s role and activities during the 1930s and 1940s must take a balanced approach instead of starting from a predetermined point-of-view.  If done so, the evidence reveals a person who was sometimes too quick with the throwaway remark, and an artist who during wartime made a number of poor judgments — even when there may have been no clearly good options from which to choose.

At the same time, it would be wrong to conclude that he was a person who harbored a political agenda, or who was advancing a specific polemical or socio-political cause.  Nowhere do we find “political” imputations in Schmitt’s music; unlike some other 20th century composers’ music, his stubbornly resists any such pigeonholing.  Indeed, in Schmitt’s choice of texts in his voluminous vocal compositions we find the presence of numerous leftist-radical poets (Robert Ganzo, Charles Sanglier (Charles Vallet), Laurent Tailhade, Charles Vildrac, etc.). Far from the extreme rightwing caricature some would like to portray, the evidence points instead to Schmitt’s diverse range of artistic inspiration and output.

A further point is that Florent Schmitt signed petitions during World War II in favor of a number of Jewish musicians when they found themselves under suspicion and in personal danger — including those for the soprano Madeleine Grey, composer Fernand Ochsey and pianist François Lang.  All were friends of Schmitt and he wished to use whatever influence he had with the authorities to help their cause.  It may be a small data point, but signing petitions in aid of Jewish musicians is significant nonetheless.

To my mind, the evidence writ large reveals that Florent Schmitt’s persona was every bit as complex and convoluted as the 20th century’s own experimentation with socio-political “innovations” — and equally untidy.  But for the loud voices of those who aggressively push a particular POV about Schmitt’s purported “Nazi sympathies,” the attempt to overlay that on the artistic output of the composer is ultimately a fruitless endeavor.  As the American conductor JoAnn Falletta has stated, “The music — if it’s good — wins out in the end.”

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