When Florent Schmitt died in August 1958 at the age of nearly 88 years, his fellow composer Henri Dutilleux penned this memorable epitaph:
“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.”
In the wake of Schmitt’s death, other composers, musicians and scholars weighed in with tributes of their own as well. Among them were insightful essays written by Schmitt’s biographers Yves Hucher and Madeleine Marceron as well as one by organist and music critic Bernard Gavoty. Those tributes have been translated from the original French into English and are published on the Florent Schmitt Website; you can view them here, here and here.
Another insightful essay was penned by Émile Vuillermoz, and it’s a particularly valuable one in that this musician, author and critic knew Florent Schmitt over a period of more than six decades – dating all the way back to the time when the two were fellow-students in Gabriel Fauré’s composition class at the Paris Conservatoire. This longstanding acquaintance and professional association between the two men gave Vuillermoz a special vantage point from which to assess not only the composer’s musical legacy, but also his personal characteristics.
With his multifaceted activities across various artistic fields, Émile Vuillermoz could be rightly characterized as a true “renaissance” person. Born in Lyon in 1878, he studied music (piano and organ) while pursuing law and literary studies in his home city. Eventually deciding to pursue a career in the arts, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying harmony with Antoine Taudou as well as composition with Fauré. Establishing consequential friendships with the important musicians of the day, Vuillermoz was a founding member of Les Apaches as well as the Société musicale indépendante – two organizations to which Florent Schmitt also belonged.
By this time, Vuillermoz had begun to focus his activities on writing about music rather than being a composer (he would eventually write books about Ravel, Fauré, Debussy and even Chopin). In 1911 he became the editor-in-chief of Revue musicale, the SMI’s official publication. He also served for a time as a ghostwriter for Henry Gauthier-Villars (aka “Willy”), a poet and author who is perhaps best-known for being the onetime husband of novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.
A comprehensive listing of Vuillermoz’s extensive writings — including books, newspaper and magazine articles — has been indexed and can be viewed here.
Vuillermoz was also instrumental in establishing the Grand Prix du Disque competition, an annual awards program recognizing classical music recordings of special merit. Later becoming part of the Académie Charles Cros, winning the coveted Grand Prix du Disque has long been considered among the highest achievements in the classical music recording industry.
In another significant initiative, in the early 1950s Vuillermoz was one of the leading lights in founding the Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors — a program which continues to the present day (and for which Florent Schmitt had served as the chairperson of the jury at the first competition held in 1951).
Another aspect of Vuillermoz’s life is perhaps less known but equally significant – his involvement in the field of film. Indeed, Vuillermoz is considered the founder of film criticism in France, where he published many articles in various Parisian newspapers (sometimes under the pseudonym “Gabriel Darcy” or “Claude Bonvin”) as well as serving on the editorial board of L’Impartial Français. In 1924 he helped organize the earliest important exhibition on film, “L’Exposition de l’art dans le cinéma français,” at the Musée Galliera.
With his film industry reputation firmly established, in 1936 Vuillermoz served as a member of the jury at the 4th Venice International Film Festival — a precursor of the Cannes Film Festival, which would be established by Vuillermoz in coordination with French actor, writer and cinema historian René Jeanne shortly after the end of World War II.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, in the years prior to the Second World War Vuillermoz was a designer of cinéphonies – short films illustrating musical works. Among these cinéphonies are films set to the music of Schubert, Albéniz, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Mompou and Karol Szymanowski. The example below, depicting Szymanowski’s’ La Fontaine d’Aréthuse and featuring the famed violinist Jacques Thibaud, is one of the best of these creations:
With a lifetime spent at the nexus of the musical and visual arts in Paris and in France, it’s little surprise that Émile Vuillermoz was able to describe the persona of Florent Schmitt and his contribution to French music so insightfully in an essay that was published in the pages of the September 29, 1958 issue of the Jeunesses Musicales publication Journal musical français a month after the death of the composer. Vuillermoz’s piece, titled “The True Face of Florent Schmitt,” depicts the composer with a poignancy that fully lives up to the article’s headline.
Commenting on Vuillermoz’s portrayal of the composer, the American conductor JoAnn Falletta states that it is “a frank and revealing portrait of Florent Schmitt, showing the complex nature of his personality — with an interesting mixture of confidence and strength, and the insecurities of a great artist.”
The Vuillermoz essay is reproduced in its entirety below. (For readers who do not know the French language, an English translation follows immediately below it.)
The True Face of Florent Schmitt
By Emile Vuillermoz, Journal musical français, September 29, 1958
Carried away by the sudden onset of an illness that does not forgive, the robust Lorrainer passed away at the age of 87, without having suffered the effects of lengthy physical decline. Until the end he had retained not only all of his lucidity and his cerebral faculties, but also a healthy professional curiosity which seemed to suggest we could keep him in our affection for a long time yet.
Death took him from us during the summer holidays, but until the end of the Paris musical season at the start of summer, we could still encounter him in the corridors of the concert halls and music theaters where new works were being presented. And during intermission, with the spontaneity, sincerity and somewhat laconic demeanor that characterized him, he would sum up his impressions for us in one of those colorful and pithy formulas which enchanted his friends with their mischievous clairvoyance.
I can still hear him comment to me, without malice but with pinpoint accuracy of touch, about a great lyrical work disproportionately flattered by worldly snobbery: “I’ll tell you this: This subject wasn’t meant to be set to music — and so, the music didn’t materialize!”
His quips and his paradoxes, which often took on the character of a frontal assault, long ago had earned him the nickname the “Wild Boar of the Ardennes.” But if this imagery could, in a phrase, evoke his fierce independence of spirit and his way of rushing towards an obstacle instead of circumventing it, it was very badly suited to the sensitivity and the natural benevolence which constituted the basis of Schmitt’s character — and which he hid, out of modesty, under a brusque countenance.
But those who knew him well were never mistaken. Since the beginning of this century, which brought me the joy of being his fellow-student in the composition class of Gabriel Fauré, I had witnessed continual examples of the kind of sarcastic camouflage that he used to dissimulate the true feelings which inspired him. Having had him as a companion in the fight — in this heroic period when the battles of aesthetics still fascinated musicians, when we fought fiercely for Debussy, for Ravel, and where the students of Fauré founded, under the courageous presidency of their master, the famous Société Musicale Indépendante, the combative SMI which aimed to react against the overly dogmatic and hidebound tendencies of the disciples of d’Indy — I had the opportunity to observe his qualities of heart daily, his enthusiasms and his indignations.
He was also one of the first members of the legendary tribe of “Les Apaches” which we had created to surround Ravel with protection — a sort of guard of honor which became indispensable in repelling the assaults that the official musicians and the ignorant public directed at this young genius. It was from those distant times forward that I had been struck by the curious complexity that tormented this valiant fighter.
The Bird of Storms
Florent Schmitt represented, among the young creators of his generation, a force whose explosive power had something worrying about it. Consider that this young Prix de Rome winner had delivered from the Villa Medici the monumental “cathedral” of sound that was his Psalm XLVII — whereas the laureates of the Institute had accustomed us to standard prefabricated maisonettes whose architecture was infinitely more timid. From his first composition attempts he thus affirmed his instinctive feeling for nobility and grandeur which contrasted with the collective tendencies of his comrades in arms, at a time when the transformation of vocabulary, grammar and harmonic syntax inclined young artists towards refinement of writing — fine carvings and delicate quintessences.
There was something vaguely anachronistic in this “will to power” which gave [Schmitt] a feeling of being isolated in the history of the music of his time, and I am convinced that he suffered as a result of it.
Admittedly, in our effervescent circle he was surrounded by sincere admiration, and no one dreamed of seeing in him a musician too attached to the traditions and disciplines of the past. But it was he who felt, without admitting it, a kind of embarrassment in being so different from his comrades — the embarrassment of a man “big for his britches” who tries to conceal his tall stature — the embarrassment of the bird of the storms whose giant wings prevent him from walking. We sensed this in a thousand details — in his way of making fun of himself, in his sarcastic humor, in the choice of some of his subjects, in his penchant for the slightly absurd puns that he imposed as titles on his works so that we wouldn’t accuse him of taking himself too seriously.
The magnificent stability and the solid balance of his genius became his secret torment. He told me one day, with an irony that couldn’t mask some bitterness: “I am disgusted to write music in an era like ours: The score I am starting is already out of date when I finish it! ” He was very attentive to all the experiences of his fellow-composers and, more than once, was tempted to give them proof that he wasn’t “dated” and that he could, as equally well as they, exploit the latest fashionable techniques. And it is quite obvious that, for a composer with such mastery of the pen and such a prodigious wealth of writing, such modest performances were child’s play.
Some of his works bear the mark of this childish preoccupation. And we know that two or three times in his life, in the presence of this or that eccentricity of naive avant-garde artists who were soon destined to sink forever into their own deserved mediocrity, the author of La Tragédie de Salomé would provoke indignation by declaring, in a tone of deep conviction: “I would give everything I wrote to have found this measure!”
An “Athlete” of Modern Music
Until the end of his career, this magnificent athlete of modern music, who should have lived in the climate of certainty and serenity that his herculean strength could legitimately assure him, was, at bottom, a modest and insecure man. He was never sure of the value of what he wrote — and it is in this, perhaps, that he differed most profoundly from other composers of his time who were rarely tormented by such scruples. This heir to the noblest German Romantics — this creator who “dreamed big,” this passionate lyrical artist, this dazzling orchestrator, this painter of violently colored frescoes – every day experienced around him attempts to discredit everything he loved, instead exalting intellectualism and cerebral “systems” of writing while attempting to excommunicate sensitivity, human emotion, palpitation and tenderness.
Without undermining his splendid ideal, this daily repetition of obsessive axioms which aimed to condemn his art could and did, with good reason, trouble him. He was unaware not only of the eternal nature of his masterpieces but also their incorporation into what is most solid and most durable in the true French musical tradition of our century.
And nothing could be more moving than the fidelity with which, on the eve of his death, he paid homage to his convictions by leaving us the musical testament of his magnificent and youthful Symphony, which testifies to his unshakably solid faith in the musical values that he had always adhered to in his [Piano] Quintet, his [String] Trio and his [String] Quartet.
The enthusiastic welcome that Strasbourg gave, in his presence, to this swan song was his last artistic joy. For his admirers, it is a great consolation and comfort to have the memory of this triumph that was extended to this dying man, who knew he was condemned to death — to see rise towards him the sincere fervor of the entire crowd, happy to show that his supreme message had found its way to their hearts.
The major insight here is “the will to power.” One could say that Schmitt was almost “Nietzschean” in his musical goals, in sharp contrast with the French aesthetic of his time.