Discovering the man behind the musician: The personal remembrances of French composer Florent Schmitt’s biographer, Yves Hucher (1958).

Florent Schmitt gravestone inscriptionWhen the composer Florent Schmitt died in August 1958 at the age of nearly 88 years, many prominent musicians, scholars and journalists wrote words of tribute honoring the last of the “grand generation” of French composers that had included, among others, Debussy, Dukas, Ravel, Roussel, Koechlin, Pierné, Cras, Rabaud, Ropartz and Tournemire.

Henri Dutilleux

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)

Along those lines, this tribute from a composer of the younger generation — Henri Dutilleux — succinctly captured the essence of Schmitt’s artistry:

“Florent Schmitt was the last of that great family to which Ravel, Dukas and Debussy belong. He remains one of those who, by a happy assimilation of German or Central European influences, brought the French school back to certain notions of grandeur.”

Yves Hucher Florent Schmitt biography 1953

The 1953 biography of Florent Schmitt by Yves Hucher.

But we also have observations of a more personal nature that came from Yves Hucher (1914-2001), the French musicologist who in 1953 authored what remains to this day the most extensive biography of Florent Schmitt — a volume that is nearly 300 pages in length.

Two years following the composer’s death, Hucher would follow up with another book, published in collaboration with Durand et Cie., focusing on the composer’s extensive catalogue of works and also including information about late-career compositions Schmitt had brought forth in the five years following the release of the first biography.

Yves Hucher L'oeuvre de Florent Schmitt

The 1960 Hucher book, published by Durand.

Hucher, who was just 37 years old when he first met Florent Schmitt and only 39 when his 1953 biography was published, was clearly awed by the composer and his accomplishments.  While not hagiographical exactly, Hucher’s writings about Schmitt are the product of someone who harbored a deep respect for the musician as well as the man.  It is also clear that Hucher was troubled by what he felt was insufficient acknowledgement of Schmitt’s artistic legacy.

In the weeks and months following Schmitt’s death, articles about the composer appeared in various European publications. Among them were items published in Le Monde (authored by René Dumesnil), Musica disques (Antoine Goléa, né Siegfried Goldman), plus Le Guide du concert et du disque and Feuilles musicales (Revue musical romande et courrier suisse du disque).

Le Guide du Concert et du Disque September 26 1958These last two were authored by Yves Hucher, and what makes them particularly valuable is how Hucher gives us glimpses of “Schmitt the man” as much as he writes about the musical legacy of the composer.

The shorter of the two Hucher articles was a single-page tribute that appeared in Le Guide du concert et du disque in which the author recounts how he came to meet Schmitt personally in 1951, leading to preparing and publishing the composer’s biography two years later.  Here is that article as it originally appeared in the magazine:

Yves Hucher In Memoriam Florent Schmitt Le Guide du concert et du disque 9-26-58

For those who do not read French, an English translation of Hucher’s article follows below:

In Memoriam:  Florent Schmitt

— Yves Hucher, Le Guide du concert et du disque, September 26, 1958

We asked our collaborator, Yves Hucher, for some recollections about Florent Schmitt. But the person who remains, after Pierre-Octave Ferroud, the chief biographer of Florent Schmitt, could not deign to write merely an impersonal article falling within the scope of music criticism. So close to a master who had touched him personally, Hucher has instead given us a few intimate recollections that Le Guide is pleased to publish: 

One Sunday in December 1951, Le Théâtre du Châtelet was buzzing with attentive and enthusiastic young people who had come together for the educational concerts of the Association des Concerts Colonne. The concert ended with a hearing of La Tragédie de Salomé, already presented the previous Sunday and whose power of evocation overwhelmed our youthful audience — only a little disappointed not to be able to acclaim Florent Schmitt in person. 

But this morning, the good news spread in the room reaches us: The composer is here! While following Gaston Poulet, who conducts, I feel some trepidation:  I do not know Florent Schmitt personally, but I know how much he is an enemy of “commentary” made about his work.  And I, drawing the parallel between Flaubert and him, dread hearing one of those jokes for which he is so known. 

Gaston Poulet French conductor

Violinist and Conductor Gaston Poulet (1892-1974)

“Let’s go!” says Poulet to the musicians; I take my share of this encouragement and, glancing at the box where I see Florent Schmitt furtively seated, I open, for the now-fully attentive young audience, the score of Salomé. 

The overwhelming ovation that the hall and the entire orchestra gave the musician has just ended. I speak with Poulet while already young men and women approach. “Do you think he’ll give me an autograph?” one of them asks me. I don’t have time to answer before a hand rests on my arm. “I really liked your parallel; you will bring it to me at my place, I hope.” And then a little more animated, Florent Schmitt adds, “I did not come last Sunday; I could not — La Tragédie was also given at Pasdeloup in the evening, and it is music that I cannot hear twice on the same day … “ 

* * *

Florent Schmitt French composer 1937 photo

Florent Schmitt, photographed at his worktable in the study of his home in St-Cloud (July 1937). (©Boris Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

A year later, towards the end of an icy morning, I arrive at Florent Schmitt’s home. It is a pleasant habit we’ve taken up since he invited me to come and chat with him at noon. He is at his little worktable from where he could if he wished, leaning over a little, watch for a reflection of the Seine River. But instead he continues to work diligently as he has done all morning. He abandons his pencil, grabs the eraser or his scraper. “One more moment,” he says to me, “but have mercy on this apéritif which awaits you.” 

I immerse myself in the papers I have brought him and suddenly he is there, next to me, handing me the box of cigarettes he loves. And now we are working. I show him the outline of what will become the chapter devoted to the musical criticism that he contributed to Le Temps for ten years — the only chapter [of the biography] that he will ask me to modify. We are talking about those whose music he loves and never ceases to defend: Barraud, Bondeville, Le Flem, Daniel-Lesur, Tomasi, Mihalovici, Delage, Martelli, Loucheur and others. “Here!” he says to me, “I have copied a few lines that must have escaped you. You can do what you wish with them.” 

In the manuscript that I keep preciously — and where Florent Schmitt corrected only the unnecessary capitalizations which he hated — I can find this sheet, piously preserved, where his hand ran with an alert, nervous and tight pen …

Feuilles Musicales December 1958 issue coverA more extensive retrospective about Florent Schmitt was prepared by Yves Hucher for the December 1958 issue of Feuilles musicales, the French-language monthly music magazine published in Switzerland (and connected to L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande).  This four-page article goes into some detail about Schmitt’s biography, his musical output and artistic legacy — while also providing additional glimpses into his persona.

Here is that article as it originally appeared in the magazine:

Florent Schmitt Yves Hucher Eruilles Musicales December 1958

Florent Schmitt Yves Hucher Feuilles Musicales December 1958 Page 2Florent Schmitt Yves Hucher Feuilles Musicales December 1958 Page 3Florent Schmitt Yves Hucher Feuilles Musicales December 1958 Page 4Again, for those who do not read French, here is Hucher’s article as translated into English:

Florent Schmitt:  A Grand French Musician

— Yves Hucher, Feuilles musicales, December 1958

Florent Schmitt birthplace, Blamont, France

The birthplace of Florent Schmitt, Blâmont, France.

Florent Schmitt was born in Blâmont, in Meurthe-et-Moselle, on September 28, 1870.  He was a pupil in Nancy of Henry Hess and Gustave Sandré, then entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889 and worked in the classes of Lavignac, Gédalge, Massenet and Fauré.

The Prix de Rome first prize for composition was awarded to him in 1900 for his cantata Sémiramis, but already very independent, the composer remained at the Villa Medici only for “just the time needed to meet the regulations” — instead traveling throughout Europe and as far as the Middle East. From this time forward he composed voluminously and, from that date his life merges with the story of his work. 

Schmitt was for a short time director of the Lyon Conservatoire and for ten years, from 1929 to 1939, was a music critic for the newspaper Le Temps. Elected a member of L’Institut on January 25, 1936 by the Académie des Beaux-Arts for the chair left vacant by the death of Paul Dukas, Florent Schmitt had also been a member of the S.M.I. (Société Musicale Indépendante), and since 1938 presided over the destinies of the Société nationale de musique. The Music Prize of the City of Paris was awarded to him in 1957. Florent Schmitt was also a Commander of the Légion d’honneur. 

This is what anthologies and dictionaries will teach us a few years from now about the man who was — and remains — one of France’s greatest musicians. But before attempting to say what his work was and what the artist was, can we not seek to evoke the man?

Florent Schmitt wore elegantly, so to speak, his medium height; with his bow tie in disarray, he watched carefully those he did not know coming from afar.  This precaution did not spoil his friendships, his confidence or his admiration; he was unfailingly faithful because he possessed to high degree this simplicity of the true “big masters.” 

He had a quick, sharp and sometimes biting intellect, but I never heard a word from him that intended to hurt. He hated questions and interviews: “I have done my work; I don’t have to speak about it, I am not a docent.” So this simple and even shy man – who at concerts only got up to greet the public after much hesitation so as not to steal the limelight from the performers – thus separated the importunate and dissuaded, not without reason, those who did not possess the “sacred fire.” 

But to others — to those who had faith — what services has he not rendered! One of the musicians of the younger generation, Henri Dutilleux, expresses himself as follows on this subject: 

“Sometimes brutal in his critiques, incapable of concessions, he does us all good by his frankness. ”

And the signatory of these pages, who combated his natural reserve and was his biographer — he could take on his own account these few words, too.  

Pierre Capdevielle French conductor composer music critic

Pierre Capdevielle (1906-1969)

But to those who would think that my admiration is dictated by a grateful friendship, I want to address that with two quotes — two judgments made by musicians regarding one of their colleagues.

Pierre Capdevielle’s first of all: 

“If the musician’s work has the beauty and the brilliance of a diamond, I also know that his heart and his soul have the most absolute purity.” 

Raymond Loucheur

Raymond Loucheur (1899-1979) (1955 photo)

And Raymond Loucheur, the current director of the Paris Conservatoire, who characterized Florent Schmitt as follows:   

“Ardent, generous, muscular, nervous, laden with blood, salt, tenderness, irony, love, anger, built for eternity, such as it is; such is his work worthy of the most fervent admiration.” 

Finally, even in his impatience, there was reflected in the artist the dream of the poet. Wasn’t it Schmitt saying to a friend who was driving him in the car one day on the Place de la Concorde’s wisely respected roundabouts: “When will you be finished? I’m sure if we were on a plane, you would go ’round every star!” 

Such was the man; such also was the artist, incapable of baseness, repulsed at the idea of ​​a concession — demanding for himself while also expecting of musical interpreters the maximum of effort, work, and especially respect for the score. 

But if Schmitt’s catalog reached 138 works, it is not that the creator manifested impatience, but rather worked tirelessly with the care of an artisan, the patience of a Benedictine, and the courage of one who is truly inspired. Here is his profession of faith (but stated always in the ironic tone that he gave to even the most serious matters): 

“One cannot be a mercenary and at the same time an artist, and I do not understand why we consider music a profession. First of all, even making bad music is a difficult business; it is better to take care of the market — even if it is a black market, it’s more honest … “ 

Also, at his little worktable where we often surprised him in his hours spent in patient and fruitful labor, we can still hear his exclamation: 

“Half past twelve already? Not possible! What have I have accomplished this morning? I erased … but I also found a nice solution …” 

Through his work, the artist consoles himself with the “sad joke that is life.” And this is why some have compared Schmitt to Gustave Flaubert. The great novelist once said: “I love my work with a frenzied and perverted love — like an ascetic loves the hair shirt which itches his stomach. ” To which Schmitt might reply: “Why rush to orchestrate? There’s no more delectable work, so it is best to take your time.” 

We must now say a few words about the oeuvre which, in the context of a single article, is a delicate matter. Florent Schmitt’s output is indeed so remarkable for its richness of inspiration, its plenitude and its diversity, that it is very difficult to give a brief notion — even approximate — without studying it in detail. 

This challenge is further complicated by a fact that confronts all commentators: The work of Florent Schmitt, always equal to itself, never denies itself. One could say “the author of La Tragédie de Salomé or the Psaume,” but in truth everything deserves to be known and performed, from the Opus 1 of 1891 to his Opus 138 which the composer completed a few weeks before his death. 

However, to say only a word or two about works subsequent to 1900 — these are mainly works for the piano (Soirs, Op. 5, Musiques intimes, Op. 15) and vocal works. Indeed, this born orchestrator — one of the musicians to have best exploited the possibilities of instruments and therefore one of the very best of orchestrators — leaves nothing to hint at this talent before his Opus 38, the Psaume. This work, dating from 1906, [sic] is an explosion of joy and fire bracketing a meditation on oriental sensuality where the soprano takes up the theme of the solo violin, while the choirs pose a new motif before languishing in a serene and distant vocalization. And the work ends in the grandiose key of C major, kept carefully in reserve until that moment. 

Florent Schmitt Robert Blot Paris Opera 1954

Florent Schmitt confers with Robert Blot, conductor of the musical forces in the Paris Opéra Ballet’s revival of La Tragédie de Salomé in December 1954.

Aside this immortal masterpiece we can place La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50, from 1907 in the version for small orchestra and 1911 [sic] in its recasting for large orchestra. The mimed drama is still in the repertoire of the National Theater of the Opéra, but the music is sufficient in itself as great pages of contemporary music. The major sections are the Prélude, Dance des perles, Les Enchantments sur la mer, Danse des éclairs and Danse de l’effroi

The distant past of the Orient attracted Florent Schmitt and we have often recognized its evocative power — the power and sensuality of its large frescoes — which is why his other best-known orchestral works include Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920), Salammbô (1927) [sic] and Oriane la Sans-Égale [Oriane et le Prince d’Amour] (1932) [sic]. 

But we should be careful not to forget so many other parts of the catalogue that are less ample of proportions but no less rich in invention of all kinds: the delicate series of small miniatures titled Enfants, the moving In Memoriam written in tribute to Gabriel Fauré, the sparkling Suite sans esprit de suite, the delicious and evocative Petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil, based on a tale by Andersen, the realistic Scènes de la vie moyenne. 

The same richness and diversity exist the works of vocal music that Florent Schmitt seemed inspired to write as a break from his other, more absorbing works — but where likewise he applies the best of his creative and inventive mind to his writing:  Chansons à quatre voix, Quatre lieds, Six choeurs for female voices, Trois trios, En bonnes voix, A contre-voix, De vives voix, etc. There exists an inexhaustible trove of the most diverse works, ideal for choruses all over the world! 

Richness and diversity also abound in the pages that Florent Schmitt devoted to chamber music. These are splendid, delicate or intimate inspirations: Here is the wonderful Légende for viola and piano, and Habeyssée for violin and piano, whose title-pun is a characteristic deception by the composer to camouflage the perfectly regular [A-B-C] structure of a “suite.”  

But what we find at the summit of this production are the Sonate libre en deux parties enchainées for violin and piano (1918-19), the Piano Quintet (1910) [sic], the String Trio (1946) [sic] and the String Quartet (1947) [sic]. We cannot undertake an analysis of these monuments of contemporary chamber music except to speak of their common characteristic: the science of instrumental writing which enabled Florent Schmitt to convey, employing just three, four or five instruments, the impression of the sound of an entire orchestra. 

Faced with such a legacy, our readers could be forgiven for asking this question: Why isn’t the work of this musician better known — more “global”? Why isn’t its reputation as great as that of Honegger or Stravinsky?  

Pasquier Trio

The Pasquier Trio

Speaking frankly, the answer is this:  The music of Florent Schmitt is not easily executed.  The Pasquier Trio worked on preparing the String Trio for a full year, and if the “great” virtuosos do not wish to know the Symphonie concertante for piano and orchestra, it is because the piece falls less well under the fingers than Tchaikovsky’s concerto! 

Another reason is that Florent Schmitt founded no “school”; he was too independent in character and spirit to be a good “teacher” even as he maintained many musician friendships. 

This same strength — the same wealth, the same diversity, the same bold density — has by no means aged in his musical output; indeed what is striking about the music is its astonishing youth. 

Florent Schmitt Psaume 47 manuscript pages

Two pages from Florent Schmitt’s handwritten manuscript of his Psaume XLVII. The 128-page manuscript was prepared at the Villa Medici in Rome.

There is an explanation for this – that which can be easily overlooked but which the dates prove: Florent Schmitt was, at the dawn of our twentieth century, the most daring, the most brilliant innovator —  standing at equal distance between the influence of Wagner and that of Debussy. Florent Schmitt gave us the Psaume in 1906, a major event in the history of French music.  The Ariane et Barbe-bleu of Dukas is from 1907, Daphnis et Chloé of Ravel is from 1912; L’Oiseau de feu and Pétrouchka by Stravinsky are from 1910 and 1911. Likewise coming later, the great works of Arthur Honegger.  The dates speak for themselves. 

As for the secret to Schmitt’s innovative power and personality, I believe I discovered it in the conversations I had with the one who would shudder with horror whenever people called him Master — “This name,” he would say, “being the privilege of the wolf, the raven and the fox …”

The secret, I think, comes down to three words: “Work in independence.”  Far from chapels, schools and all the “isms”, Florent Schmitt worked, so to speak, with his pencil and his eraser to bring forth an ideal of beauty and perfection.  May we recognize and remember it! 

We wish that the work of Florent Schmitt, superb in its independence, bold in its innovations, rich in its creative spirit and in its orchestral finery, will shine in France and beyond, radiating all the more and recalling in our midst the presence of one of the greatest French musicians of all time.

___________________

We owe a debt of gratitude to Yves Hucher for combining his prodigious knowledge of Schmitt’s musical career with personal recollections that could only come from a person who was fortunate to maintain a close personal relationship with the composer in the twilight years of his life.  Upon encountering these reflections and anecdotes more than 60 years on, several of Schmitt’s present-day champions have noted how they bring the composer “to life” in fresh and meaningful ways.

David Grandis orchestra conductor

David Grandis

The French-American conductor David Grandis, who has presented Schmitt’s orchestral suite Soirs in concert in the United States, remarks:

“It is indeed very interesting — and rare — to hear about the man rather than merely the composer and his works.  I feel like I would have gotten along very well with Florent Schmitt; his is the type of personality I really admire, and which reminds me of some of my old professors back in France.”

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger

The American music critic Steven Kruger weighs in with these thoughts:

“Florent Schmitt seems to have been a personality who found fame shallow and self-promotion vulgar — a man of integrity, happy at his desk with his music paper, a pencil and an eraser, and someone given to the sort of ironic humor that thrives among introverts surveying the human parade. 

Hucher’s two tributes are very French, seeking to provide us with reassurance that Schmitt was not only an important composer, but one worthy of love and admiration — and a man of noble inspiration.  For all its complexity and difficulty, Schmitt’s music — sensuous, explosive, sarcastic and lyrical by turns (and sometimes all at once) — never sounds like the product of a megalomaniac.  You don’t listen to a piece by Schmitt and say to yourself as you might with Mahler, ‘Remember, it’s all about him’.” 

JoAnn Falletta conductor

JoAnn Falletta

And the American conductor JoAnn Falletta, whose two NAXOS recordings with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra devoted to the music of Florent Schmitt have garnered critical accolades worldwide, shares this observation:

“It is always fascinating to read about Florent Schmitt’s personality, friends, habits and lifestyle.  But for me, the striking independence, boldness and innovation of his work is truly who he was — a courageous and uncompromising genius.”

Come to think of it, perhaps that observation from Maestra Falletta should serve as the “final word” on Florent Schmitt and his legacy.

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