“Florent Schmitt will not have left this earth without taking away, like a viaticum, the certainty of his genius.”
— Bernard Gavoty
At the time Florent Schmitt passed away on August 17, 1958 at the age of nearly 88 years, he was considered by many to be the doyen of French composers. One of the most memorable epitaphs was penned by fellow-composer Henri Dutilleux, who famously wrote:
“Florent Schmitt was the last of that great family to which Ravel, Dukas and Roussel belonged. He remains one of them who, by a happy assimilation of German and Central European influences, recalled the French school to certain notions of grandeur.”
But beyond Dutilleux there were numerous other dignitaries who paid tribute to Florent Schmitt in the wake of his death. One of those was Bernard Georges-Marie Gavoty (1908-1981), a French music personality who was known for being a kind of arts polymath. Not only was Gavoty a talented organist, he was also a musicologist, a critic, an author and speaker — and even a talk-show host.
Gavoty’s early years in music were spent as a pupil of the great French organist-composer Louis Vierne, after whose death in the late 1930s Gavoty entered the Paris Conservatoire to become a student in the organ class of Marcel Dupré.
In 1942 Gavoty was appointed titular organist at the Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides, located within the Army Museum in the 7th arr. of Paris, where he was the driving force behind the rebuilding of the organ by Beuchet-Debierre in 1955-57.
Among Gavoty’s recordings, probably the most internationally famous is his last one: a 1975 EMI recording of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, made at the Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF under the direction of Jean Martinon.
But to many music-lovers in France, Bernard Gavoty was better known as a brilliant speaker and writer on classical music topics than he was for his organ virtuosity. Gavoty had succeeded Reynaldo Hahn in writing music criticism for the Parisian daily newspaper Le Figaro, where his articles were published under the pseudonym “Clarendon” — the name of the main male character in Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ 1767 play Eugénie.
Gavoty was also a regular presence on television, where he was empaneled to talk on various classical music topics. His exemplary public speaking skills gave him opportunities to make many appearances as a lecturer as well — notably at conferences of the Jeunesses musicales de France where he interviewed composers and other musical personalities during the 1950s and 1960s, including Florent Schmitt in February 1957.
Audio documentation of that JMF interview has been preserved. Conducted in the presence of a lively audience of young people that clearly found the discussion highly interesting — and, judging from the amount of laughter and applause, thoroughly engaging — Gavoty and Schmitt are quite entertaining in their repartee.
As French conductor Fabien Gabel puts it, “Schmitt has no barriers; he had a good sense of humor!”
As a cap on a notable professional career, in 1976 Bernard Gavoty was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, succeeding former BnF managing director Julien Cain. Rounding out the portrait of this true renaissance man, Gavoty was also an agricultural engineer who earned a degree from the Institut national agronomique, and who cultivated vineyard lands in the Provence region of France.
Bernard Gavoty’s tribute to Florent Schmitt was published in Le Figaro in early September 1958, shortly after the death of the composer, where it appeared as the lead story in his column Mon carnet de notes (My Notebook). That tribute is reproduced here. (For those who do not read French, an English translation follows immediately below it.)
— by Bernard Gavoty, Le Figaro, September 1958
Volumes will be written on Florent Schmitt. Confidences and memories of him will be published — his anecdotes will be told and his greatest works will be analyzed from a hundred different points of view — without penetrating the mystery of the man’s indecipherable nature.
I frequented this nature a great deal — observed it, interrogated it — but in vain. He wore a mask on his face — or rather a series of masks — changing according to the days and the circumstances. Brutality in words was one of those masks; unbridled verve was another.
Deep down, I’ve always thought that this great lyricist, so given to effusions in front of his ruled paper, suffered from a curious shyness when he found himself in the presence of humans — and even more so, in front of a crowd. Like a soldier surrounded on all sides by the enemy, he would then rush to free himself, but the violence of his thrusts did not prevent him from trembling at the thought of his own audacity.
The fact that he frequently contradicted his best “words” a day after he uttered them buttresses the hypothesis. The neat, clean and somewhat innocuous appearance of this in-actuality voluptuous man — for whom musical chords were never succulent enough, harmonic sequences rich enough, nor the orchestration sumptuous enough — was also a kind of alibi for his personality.
A splendiferous sultan set among coffers of precious stones — lavish as a prince of the Orient — Schmitt lived under the disguise of a bureaucrat.
How poor he must have found them, the ill-gifted people around him! At the age of eighty-seven, gold streamed from his hands as he was building a luxuriant symphony — even as some of his juniors were exhausting themselves in crafting puny pieces resembling artificial thistles.
For a man so rich, the mask was required; otherwise they would have wanted him banished to death.
A single day, a single evening, I saw his face unmasked. It was last June in Strasbourg, where his Symphony was premiered. The endless homage of the euphoric hall, where youth dominated, rose like incense to the nostrils of the dying old master. He greeted them simply, gravely — without a smile and without sarcasm. Florent Schmitt will not have left this earth without taking away, like a viaticum, the certainty of his genius.