On May 12, 2022, the French conductor Fabien Gabel stepped up to the podium in the auditorium of Maison de la Radio in Paris to lead the Orchestre National de France in two works by Florent Schmitt: the symphonic picture Rêves, Op. 65 (dating from 1915) and the large-scale choral work Psaume XLVII, Op. 38 (composed in 1904 and premiered in 1906).
I was present at the ONF concert and can personally attest to the fine reception both works received — the audience practically preventing the musicians from leaving the stage at the conclusion of the Psalm. Reviewing the event for the ConcertoNet.com website, music critic, author and Karol Szymanowski specialist Didier van Moere wrote:
Fabien Gabel, one of the best French conductors of his generation, has had a fine career and his Paris concerts are always satisfying — especially when he presents works that aren’t played frequently. Rêves and Psaume XLVII by the too-neglected Florent Schmitt constituted the main attraction of this program …
The impressionism of the [Rêves] symphonic poem as inspired by Léon-Paul Fargue, with its delicate shimmering, was flattered by direction that was attentive to the combinations of timbres and to the clarity of the textures. The jubilant brilliance of [Psaume XLVII’s] choral fresco revealed a fiery and masterful builder, his sure arm conjuring up the surges of an aural orgy in a pulsating reading with sharp rhythms.
Would this French conductor return to direct Salammbô, Antoine et Cléopâtre and Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, not to mention the best-known Tragédie de Salomé?
What Mr. van Moere may not realize is that Fabien Gabel has presented Antoine et Cléopatre in Paris (the second suite) — as well as numerous other compositions by Florent Schmitt with orchestras all over the world. In fact, he along with the American conductor JoAnn Falletta are the world’s leading advocates on the podium today for Florent Schmitt’s music, with no fewer than seven of the composer’s compositions currently in Maestro Gabel’s repertoire:
- Rêves (first presented by Fabien Gabel in 2016)
- Ronde burlesque (2017)
- Antoine et Cléopatre (Suite No. 2) (2018)
- Le Palais hanté (2018)
- Psaume XLVII (2019)
- La Tragédie de Salomé (2020)
- Suite en trois parties (for trumpet and orchestra) (2021)
Indeed, Gabel has directed Schmitt’s music on three continents, including with orchestras in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United States.
Having come to Paris to see the Gabel’s May 2022 ONF concert, I was able to meet up with the conductor the day of the performance to ask him about his experiences in exploring and performing Florent Schmitt’s music. Highlights of our discussion are presented below.
PLN: You’ve taken a rather unique path in your journey with Florent Schmitt’s music. Typically, conductors start with the most famous pieces like La Tragédie de Salomé or Psaume XLVII – and most never explore beyond those. Instead, you began with lesser-known Schmitt works. What was the reasoning behind this approach?
FG: There’s wasn’t a real strategy behind this – it was more a matter of circumstances. La Tragédie de Salomé is a big 25-minute piece and Rêves is just eight minutes. I wanted to do Rêves because it’s a perfect piece to open a concert before playing something a little bit longer, like Daphnis or something like that.
Rêves is actually a very good introduction to Schmitt’s works, because it’s representative. By contrast, the Psaume is quite different from what he wrote later. Schmitt was young when he wrote it, but it’s interesting how his musical language evolved so quickly after that – and in such a modern way.
I love these pieces by Schmitt – La Tragédié, Antoine et Cléopatre, Rêves and all the others – and it’s just a matter of circumstances as to whether I could play a piece of Florent Schmitt somewhere, and how and when I would be able to program the music.
It’s also a matter of convincing orchestra management to take a chance on repertoire they don’t know.
PLN: In more recent times you’ve begun presenting Psaume XLVII (in Québec and Paris) and La Tragédie de Salomé (in Spain, the United States, France, and soon Germany). What was it like to study and conduct these marquee pieces after working on the others? Is the more famous Schmitt “better” than those other compositions in certain ways?
FG: La Tragédie de Salomé is his masterpiece. It along with the Psaume are the pieces that made him famous. Since he’s a neglected composer these days, I think it makes sense that these are the best introduction to his music.
Salomé is modern, with fantastic harmonies. It’s also very expressive. By comparison, some of Schmitt’s other pieces can be a little more abstract. They are equally important, but perhaps it’s better to start with something that isn’t necessarily more familiar, but one that has this nice combination of modernity and beauty.
And they are beautiful pieces! In our concert this evening, the Psaume tells a story, but so does Rêves because it derives from a poem — even if it’s a very free interpretation of these lines – a kind of improvisation.
PLN: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that Florent Schmitt’s music is quite challenging for players. Do you sense this as well with the two pieces that are on tonight’s program?
FG: With both, I think so. The Psaume is huge, and it’s tiring to practice and to play. It’s demanding.
And in both pieces, the musicians are always outside their comfort zone. For example, with Rêves it sounds very French, but there’s also a kind of thickness to the score that’s more Germanic in nature. That’s unusual and therefore uncomfortable. But I think the musicians are playing it very well, and with refinement. At first, it sounded too heavy with all the low brass chords, but now it’s sounding more suspended in the air — and it’s coming off beautifully.
PLN: You’ve noted that Florent Schmitt differs from what many people commonly perceive to be a “French style” of writing music. Can you explain those differences?
FG: With Schmitt, the harmonies are indeed very elaborate and complicated. In his scores there’s a kind of clever and complicated counterpoint. We find that in all of his music — all the way from the 1904 Psaume to his very last pieces. It’s very difficult to read it and to learn it, because it isn’t easy to know where you’re going with the musical line. It’s broken up between the instrumentation, and sometimes it seems absolutely crazy.
It isn’t “vertical” writing like much of French music, and some people would say that it seems a little bit like Richard Strauss. They consider him like a French Strauss, and I can understand that. Of course, Schmitt was of the same generation as Strauss – just six years difference in when they were born. But even with those similarities, Schmitt’s orchestration sounds really French.
PLN: Like Strauss, Schmitt had a long creative career, and we see an evolution in his musical language from the late 1800s through the startling experimentation of the 1920s, and then a return to more neo-romantic characteristics in his later years. You have conducted music of Schmitt from all of these periods; do you find equal worth in his musical output across the entire trajectory?
FG: Whether considering early, middle or late Schmitt, it’s uniformly well-crafted. The music is always clear, precise — and difficult. But the pieces from the twenties and thirties are probably the most challenging – quite radical, in fact. But we can even see a significant evolution in his musical language in the short span between La Tragédie in 1907 and Rêves in 1915.
PLN: In addition to Florent Schmitt, you have become a champion of numerous other composers from France’s “Golden Age” going beyond Debussy, Ravel and Faure. In recent seasons you’ve conducted pieces by Aubert, Bonis, Chausson, Dukas, Holmès, Honegger, d’Indy, Lalo, Poulenc, Roussel, Tomasi and others. How does Florent Schmitt fit into this constellation of composers?
FG: Schmitt is the modernist among the composers you mention. But each one of them has their distinct personality and their own style or language. Even if it’s all French, I think that each work is representative of the sound of each composer.
Having now worked with more Schmitt scores, I can easily recognize Schmitt’s style and language today. Comparing all the major French composers, I think that Ravel was probably the most talented. Roussel is clearer and more direct, but Schmitt is more elaborate — and almost at the same level as Ravel in many ways. Debussy is a little bit different.
But the key point is this: We need to perform each of them — and appreciate each of them — equally.
PLN: When you program lesser-known pieces by these composers, what sort of reaction do you get from the musicians and audiences?
FG: It helps when you have a big, loud ending like in the Psaume. Not all of the pieces are like that — Soir de fête by Chausson, for example, which ends quietly. Because of this, might people be a bit disappointed sometimes.
The other thing is that since the music isn’t played that much, musicians and audiences need to take the time to properly appreciate it. But by and large, audiences like these works. A piece like the Roi d’Ys Overture by Lalo is a glorious work, and so it’s very entertaining. A more challenging piece like the Honegger Fourth Symphony is quite polytonal, and yet the audience in Spain where I played it accepted it. (I’m not sure if they appreciated the piece itself, or more particularly the effort that the orchestra had obviously put into preparing it for performance.)
PLN: We thank you for your tireless dedication to cultivating interest in the French musical patrimony! Are you seeing a resurgence of interest in this music? Is the “needle moving”?
FG: I think so, and the good news is that I’m not alone in this quest! Alain Altinoglu is also doing a lot of French music, for one. But a challenge with young conductors is that they start with known repertoire – constructing their programs with blockbusters like the Beethoven symphonies. We’ve all done that. But once you’ve done those symphonies, the better conductors should seek to broaden their spectrum — and that’s how a personal repertoire is built.
Speaking for myself personally, I love French music — but it’s also a question of acquaintance. For many, it’s easier to fall in love with Mahler or Shostakovich because it’s familiar music, even if it was composed much more recently than a Beethoven symphony. With Florent Schmitt, we have a period of some 60 years during which he’s been nearly forgotten. But now there’s a kind of revival of his music. I feel it — and I’m not the only one to be participating in it!
I’m also pleased to be able to record some of Schmitt’s music for the big Napoléon film project – which will include excerpts from La Tragédie, Antoine et Cléopâtre and more.
PLN: Lastly, do you have plans to conduct more Florent Schmitt scores beyond the seven pieces that are already in your repertoire?
FG: I would love to do Oriane et le Prince d’Amour, the Symphonie concertante, excerpts from Salammbô, as well as the cello piece Introït, récit et congé with someone like Nicolas Altstaedt who has expressed interest in playing it. And I’d also like to present some of Schmitt’s songs, which are so very special.
True to his tireless advocacy for the composer, Fabien Gabel has more Florent Schmitt concerts on tap for the 2022-23 season, including presenting La Tragédie de Salomé with the Deutsches Symphone-Orchester in Berlin and with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in the United States. We hope that he will also have the opportunity to present works from the Schmitt catalogue that are new to him.