A slender, petite man — and the giant legacy he left us — draw parallels with Maurice Ravel.
Over the decades, a total of four biographies of the French composer Florent Schmitt have been published – all of them written in French. Three of these biographies were written during the composer’s lifetime, and with his cooperation.
The first biography, authored by Schmitt’s protégé Pierre-Octave Ferroud and published by Durand, appeared in 1927 when Schmitt was at the approximate midpoint of his highly fruitful compositional career.
Nearly 30 years later, a more extensive biography was written by Yves Hucher, a young writer who devoted two years to researching and writing his book which was published in 1953. At about the same time, Madeleine Marceron, an author who had become acquainted with Florent Schmitt approximately 20 years prior, began working on her biography of the composer – one that focused less on Schmitt’s musical output and more on the personality of the musician.
Unfortunately, Florent Schmitt was to pass away before Marceron’s book was completed; instead, the slender volume was published in 1959, a year after his death. In terms of its coverage of Schmitt’s artistic legacy, one could accurately contend that Marceron’s book is less valuable than the Ferroud and Hucher biographies. On the other hand, the book is particularly worthy in terms of its portrayal of the personality of Florent Schmitt.
With the help of the American cellist Aaron Merritt, I was able to acquire the papers of Madeleine Marceron pertaining to the development of her biography. Among these documents are letters between Marceron and Schmitt’s fellow composers, other musicians, personal friends and family members, along with notes from her interviews with the composer plus early drafts of the book. Other ephemera included in the Marceron collection of documents are vintage concert programs, several music scores, plus newspaper and magazine articles dating mainly from the 1940s and 1950s.
One such article is a two-page profile of Florent Schmitt authored by Marceron that was published in the May 1960 issue of Musica disques magazine. Aiming to present a personal profile of the composer instead of a chronicle of his career accomplishments, Marceron’s article successfully captures the flavor of Schmitt’s personality, based as it was on the author’s nearly quarter-century acquaintance with the composer that stretched back to the mid-1930s.
I’ve reproduced the original Musica disques article in its entirety below. But for the benefit of those who do not read French, I’ve also solicited the thoughts of several of today’s most ardent Florent Schmitt champions, based on their reading of the article.
The American conductor JoAnn Falletta shared the following observations:
“I was personally touched by the near-childlike quality we see here, and while Florent Schmitt might lack diplomacy, his truthfulness bespeaks a kind of innocence that might seem surprising given the romantic depth and extreme sensuality of so much of his music.
Reading the article felt a bit like being welcomed into Schmitt’s home. His humor, his self-deprecating wit and unfailing charm towards women, his unexpected and sometimes surprising viewpoints combine to create the image of a man who seemingly enjoys his life — and whose continuing musical journey is an endless source of enchantment for him.
Of course, Schmitt’s gratitude to his audiences, his loyalty to his friends and his personal courage are only a part of this complex, meticulous and discerning artist; we can only discover the complete musician in the extraordinary compositions he left us.”
Vincent Figuri, who specializes in French narration set to classical music scores, and who in that realm has recorded Schmitt’s Fonctionnnaire MCMXII, discerns several unique aspects of Schmitt’s character:
“The dialogues included in the article reveal a person who disdained propriety — and who sometimes let that be known in a caustic way. It also reveals a personality removed from worldly concerns and academicism, often operating outside of social conventions.”
Expounding further on the “undiplomatic” aspects of Schmitt’s persona, David Grandis, a French conductor who is working in the United States today, makes this observation:
“Florent Schmitt is a type of character I know very well. My grandfather was from Lorraine, and indeed there is a frankness and disregard for diplomacy that I’ve inherited myself; hypocrisy is not in our vocabulary! This is a general trait that all French people share – but with more intensity in Lorrainers such that other French people really notice it.”
Viewed from different angle, the American music critic Steven Kruger sees clues to Florent Schmitt’s character in the description of the composer’s surroundings at his home in St-Cloud:
“What emerges is a sense that Florent Schmitt was a self-contained individual – a man of satisfied domesticity and self-guided purpose. He’s content with his cat perched next to the sugar bowl, happy to speak of a cherry tree he planted, and speaks unapologetically about the locomotives that run on the train tracks behind his property. In short, it’s a comfortable and satisfying home life that he’s designed for himself.
At the same time, Schmitt has engaged in battles with critics as well as the struggle for prominence. In his music, we can often sense this struggle between apocalypse and tenderness which seems to happen spontaneously yet methodically. In all this, Florent Schmitt appears to be a happy warrior — authentic and with uncompromising standards (perhaps lacking a little in compassion for the human species) — but whose bark is worse than his bite.”
Going further, the French pianist Bruno Belthoise sees interesting parallels between Florent Schmitt and Maurice Ravel. He notes:
”In this intimate article, Madeleine Marceron reveals her personal feelings about Florent Schmitt and poses the question, ‘How can a man so short in stature create such towering things?’ This reflection reminds me of the personal memories of the violinist and music author Hélène Jourdan-Morhange who was, for her part, very close to Maurice Ravel, and about whom she gives us so much information in her book Ravel et nous.
Jourdan-Morhange was born the same year as Marceron , and the two books that the authors wrote about these two giants of French music were written at about the same time in the mid-20th century.
It is surprising to realize the similarities in how Schmitt and Ravel led their well-regulated lives, including loving their cats. We imagine them living in a simple atmosphere mixed with a certain distinction ‘à la française’ in their respective pavilions near Paris. There is apparently nothing out of the ordinary in the way of life of these two composers — no extravagances, no thrilling novel to write of the adventuresome lives of a Liszt, Albéniz or Villa-Lobos …
The words of Madeleine Marceron reveal some significant insights into Schmitt’s character: a kind of ironic humor mixed with shyness, and an elegant way of entering into relationships with others — without indulgence, but rather maintaining a form of restraint.
We are charmed by such simplicity. But faced with the simplicity (or even the modesty) of Florent Schmitt, an underlying question remains: It is the mystery of the musical output – of its expressive force and the overflowing imagination.
Ultimately, we can explain the skill and sure craftsmanship of a composer such as Schmitt. What cannot be explained so easily is the extraordinary musical harvest. Try as we might, we cannot solve the mystery of how this diminutive man left us such towering works.”
Displayed below is Madeleine Marceron’s article in its entirety. As you read it, see if you don’t agree with the assessments above, as observed by musicians from the vantage point of six decades on.