By Phillip Nones
“Florent Schmitt is the most important French composer you’ve never heard of. Rhapsodic, brooding and startlingly beautiful, Schmitt’s language is deeply personal – passionate yet extraordinarily detailed, sophisticated and elusive.”
— JoAnn Falletta, American Orchestra Conductor
“His music stands as a bold and colorful depiction of what is surely the most vibrant and exciting period in the history of French music … it shimmers with conviction, elemental intensity, and a fearless harmonic vocabulary.”
— Jerry E. Rife, PhD, Musicologist
“His work has a breadth, force and vehemence that are in welcome contrast to the smallness and poverty of spirit of so much of contemporary French music.”
— Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, British Composer
“To those who would persist in believing … that French music is no more than a game of subtleties — a musical toy-shop — Florent Schmitt’s music is an excellent and fierce retort.”
— Georges Jean-Aubry, French Music Critic
“We must rediscover Florent Schmitt because his music is truly genius. He was independent; his language sounds obviously French, but it’s completely different from Ravel or Debussy … and he’s a master of the orchestra.”
— Fabien Gabel, French Orchestra Conductor
“It’s really quite rare, I think, to come across music which simultaneously sounds so old and so new.”
— Sakari Oramo, Finnish Orchestra Conductor
“Florent Schmitt’s artistic legacy is of such importance that his work deserves all the exposure it can get. Once it has done so, it’s no exaggeration to say that the history of French music in the 20th century will have been rewritten.”
— Alistair Hinton, Scottish Composer and Music Scholar
“Florent Schmitt: Arguing about his greatness is just unthinkable.”
— Olivier Messiaen, French Composer
Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) is one of the most fascinating of France’s lesser-known classical composers. Born in the small town of Blâmont (Meurthe-et-Moselle, Lorraine) — a community practically within sight of the newly-drawn, post-Franco-Prussian War boundary between France and Germany — Schmitt’s German surname belied the fact that he was a French musician through and through.
Schmitt’s birth year of 1870 was sandwiched in between those of the two towering masters of French music of the period: Claude Debussy (born in 1862) and Maurice Ravel (born in 1875). As such, Schmitt was very much part of the milieu in which these other composers lived and operated — yet he would outlive both men by decades while continuing to compose music up until the final year of his life (1958).
Educated at the Paris Conservatoire by such teachers as Théodore Dubois, Albert Lavignac, André Gedalge, Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré (the latter two for composition), Schmitt would develop an “epic” style of writing that, while thoroughly French in idiom, exploited the grandiose aspects of music overlaid by masterful orchestration in the tradition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Due to the location of his birth, it’s only natural to view Schmitt as an artist straddling the worlds of France and Germany. Indeed, the music scholar and critic Georges Jean-Aubry characterized Schmitt in this way:
“He stands on the musical frontier of France and Germany. There is to be found in him that French refinement, that intellectual taste, mingled with rigorous preoccupations and an appetite for greatness that is not unconnected with Teutonic musical obsessions.”
A similar observation was made by Nadia Boulanger, the esteemed pedagogue who was well-acquainted with Florent Schmitt’s music, including playing the important organ part at the 1906 premiere performance of the composer’s celebrated Psaume XLVII:
“Schmitt was born in Lorraine and his music clearly shows the traces of his double Latin and Teutonic heredity. Clarity, balance, restraint – that is, what we normally call the Gallic traits – are constantly alternating with or being fused with the more Germanic ideals of ponderous force, imposing construction, and abundance of feeling.”
However, Schmitt’s pupil and biographer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, characterized the composer differently, denying any such geographic imputations. In his biography of the composer, Ferroud wrote:
“The character of Florent Schmitt has every quality of the eastern Frenchman: verve, energy, tenacity, breadth of conception, and the ability of realization.
There is nothing in him of that taste for mythology — that appetite for false metaphysics which controls German art.”
In this regard, we also have the composer’s own words from 1919 — not long after the conclusion of World War I — when he noted this about the return of Richard Wagner to Parisian orchestral programs:
“People demand Wagner without knowing why. I cannot think without a shudder of the countless overtures of Lohengrin and Rienzi that the war, as its only merit, at least spared us for some time.”
Beginning in 1896, Schmitt entered the Conservatoire’s famed Prix de Rome competition every year until he finally won first prize for composition in 1900 with his cantata Sémiramis. Along with the prize came a stay at the Villa Medici in Rome.
What was normally a 15-month stay at the Villa Medici for Prix de Rome winners would turn into a four-year travel adventure for the intrepid composer, as Schmitt journeyed throughout the Mediterranean region (Spain, Corsica, Morocco, Greece, and the various lands of the Ottoman Empire), as well as to Germany, Austria-Hungary and Scandinavia.
Of the various pieces composed by Schmitt during his “Prix de Rome period,” undoubtedly the most impressive is Psaume XLVII, a strikingly original large-scale work scored for large orchestra, organ, soprano and mixed chorus that was composed in 1904 and received its premiere performance in Paris two days after Christmas in 1906. Writing in the pages of Melos magazine some 25 years later, the French musicologist Armand Machabey described the differences between the Psalm and other works being created at the same time in France:
“How great a diversity of individual tendencies a complete survey of modern French instrumental music would have to describe will be illustrated by measuring, for instance, the distance between Debussy and Florent Schmitt. The former’s Pelléas et Mélisande and the latter’s Psalm  appeared almost at the same time — the one an instance of extreme refinement, the other vehement and unrestrained.”
Concurrent with his years of study and early endeavors in composition, Florent Schmitt cultivated a wide circle of musician acquaintances, befriending all of the established and budding French composers of the day, including being a founding member of Les Apaches, the notorious group of French musicians, writers and artists which was formed around 1900.
He was also friendly with composers from foreign lands who had been drawn to the artistic milieu of Paris — including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Manuel de Falla, Igor Stravinsky, Alfredo Casella, Joseph Jongen, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Frederick Delius, to name just some.
In fact, it was Schmitt who prepared piano-reduction scores for several of Delius’ operas, and he also prepared a new edition of the violin/piano sonatas of Franz Josef Haydn for the publishing firm Durand et Cie.
It is also worth noting that when Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé was produced by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company in 1912, in Ravel’s box on the evening of the first performance were five people: the composer, his mother and brother … and Florent Schmitt and Igor Stravinsky. Not only was it a measure of the importance of these three composers at that time in Paris, but also of the close personal friendship that existed between the three men.
Florent Schmitt’s own compositions have been characterized in diverse ways: rhapsodic, brooding, sinister, beautiful, sumptuous, magical, mysterious, forceful, stunning, spectacular, thrilling, astounding — all of them highly descriptive terms.
Some of these may seem like surprising adjectives to describe French music. Indeed, in the Parisian musical world of the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was difficult to escape the influence of the Impressionistic composer Debussy.
Schmitt did adopt a number of aspects of Debussy’s harmonic vocabulary, such as the use of extended chords and parallel streams of chords. Even so, Schmitt’s musical forms possessed greater clarity than what is found in the “freer” structures of Impressionism. In this regard, it is likely that Schmitt’s interest in formal symmetry came from his favorite teacher and mentor, Gabriel Fauré.
Indeed, it is fair to contend that Schmitt challenged certain notions of the Impressionist aesthetic — subtlety and inwardness — and in the process created colorfully vital music that was quite different stylistically.
It is also instructive to compare the artistry of Florent Schmitt with Maurice Ravel’s. According to the American violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams, any understanding of French music of the period must encompass the output of both. Williams writes:
“It is absolutely essential to pair these two composers. It shows the timeless stature of both and highlights the wonderful differences in their music while illustrating common sources. Each among the greatest orchestrators, Ravel was the über-cosmopolitan, elegant and composed; Schmitt was sophisticated and elemental, overwhelming in the way of natural forces.”
Of Schmitt’s highly individualistic compositional style, the late music critic Paul A. Snook has written:
“Even though he made use of the harmonic and textural devices of his French contemporaries … delicacy and nuance were only a couple of his intermittent concerns as he meticulously constructed his enormous orchestral machines, full of tidal surges, anticipatory dread, and continuously unresolved climaxes … Schmitt’s heart — even in his works for small ensembles — was always drawn to the spectacle and excess of a theatrical ambience …”
Writing in The Musical Times following Florent Schmitt’s death in 1958, the English composer, French music specialist and biographer Norman Demuth observed:
“The surprising thing is that none of Schmitt’s early works have become dated, as have those of so many of his contemporaries. This is because his aesthetics were not founded upon musically-mannered composers — his inheritance coming from a French composer whose individuality and outlook lay in general rather than in particular. There is nothing ‘Wagnerian’ about Schmitt’s music; it is ‘Berliozian.’
Schmitt was whimsical as well as cynical, and a lot of this whimsy found its way into his shorter works and pieces — but even those have their places in the panorama of French music.”
Anyone who has studied or performed compositions by Florent Schmitt can attest to the music’s difficulty. Often the scores contain mixed meter … polyrhythms such as alternated duple and triple division … vertically stacked adjacent tritones and isolated stacked dissonant blocks of harmony … shifting accents … and always, frequently changing time signatures.
As early as 1920, Florent Schmitt’s pathfinding approach to rhythm was singled out by the American composer Marion Bauer, who spent a number of years teaching in Paris. In her article “Natural Law: Its Influence on Modern Music,” published in the October 1920 issue of the British magazine The Musical Quarterly, Bauer wrote:
“In addition to the recognized rhythms of duple and triple divisions, and the irregular groupings of five, seven and sometimes eleven beats of the measure, as the Russians have presented them, modern music may also be described as being “multi-rhythmic and “polyrhythmic. “Multi-rhythmic refers to the constant shift of meter as it is found, for example, in Cyril Scott’s compositions — two measures of 4/4, one of 5/4, three of 6/4, two more of 4/4, etc. “Polyrhythmic” music employs simultaneously three or four kinds of rhythms as Florent Schmitt does — 6/8, 3/4, 4/4, to say nothing of more complicated combinations used, as it were, contrapuntally.”
To illustrate the pioneering aspects of the composer’s score-writing, according to research conducted by music notation specialist Dr. Donald Byrd at Indiana University, Schmitt’s 1907 ballet score La Tragédie de Salomé represents the earliest appearance of a non-integer time signature numerator — (3-1/2)/4 — in published music, pre-dating the usage of similar treatments by Charles Ives, Edgar Varèse and others.
Yves Hucher, one of Schmitt’s biographers, expands on the composer’s music scores further:
“[Florent Schmitt] writes his bar-lines with the greatest care … at the same time freeing himself from measure and breaking the mould of uniformity. Not only does he superimpose binary and tertiary forms … within a given bar he mingles various rhythmic formulae. In so doing, while retaining the difference between strong and weak beats — and between the various components of time — he achieves a rhythmic space that is the principal of life in his melody.”
It all makes for an intoxicating brew — albeit one that’s full of musical land-mines for the performer. But the rewards are many.
“From its very first bars, we recognize a work by Schmitt. We cannot connect it with anyone else — nor even with any ‘movement’ — despite the inevitable resemblences to other contemporary works. He contented himself with giving a new twist and tone to the grammar and syntax of his time. His vocabulary isn’t ‘new’ … but his manner of using it is his alone.”
Famously an “independent,” Schmitt founded no musical school, nor did he attach to one. Underscoring this fierce independence, In 1949 the composer wrote presciently:
“The proponents of the current twelve-tone system, diatonic or chromatic, tonal or atonal — all are cornered at the foot of an impassable Wall of China. It will be necessary to venture on dangerous roads and to force the forbidden doors for anyone who wishes to find something new at all costs.”
Florent Schmitt’s extensive travels in Asia Minor and North Africa in the early 1900s surely contributed to his keen interest in eastern subject matters — biblical, historical and fictional — as inspiration for his music.
Indeed, Schmitt’s “orientalist” compositions, written between 1900 and the early 1930s, are among his best-known pieces; they include the blockbuster orchestral works La Tragédie de Salomé (1907/10), Dionysiaques (1913/14, for concert band), Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920), Salammbô (1925) and Oriane et le Prince d’amour (1933), as well as the monumental Psalm XLVII (1904) for soprano, chorus, organ and orchestra.
Several of these were collaborations with the famed Russian-Jewish dancer and dramatic actress Ida Rubinstein, who was a dominant force on the Parisian stage during the interwar years and with whom Florent Schmitt shared a particularly fruitful artistic partnership.
But Schmitt also wrote in a more intimate style, including many chamber works for standard and not-so-standard combinations of instruments (such as quartets for four saxophones, four flutes, and trombones plus tuba, a sextet for six clarinets), plus other instrumental combinations.
He also created vast swaths of music written for solo and duo-pianists, along with a trove of compositions featuring solo singers or groups of vocalists. Of Florent Schmitt’s four-hand piano music, the English composer and keyboard artist Alec Rowley wrote:
“[They are] probably the finest in the whole modern repertoire. Sanely modern and splendidly constructed (they are a joy to play), his large output — in quality and inspiration — stands alone and his genius finds full expression in this form.”
At the time he was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1922, it was noted that “Florent Schmitt has set a very high ideal of art and has great faith in his musical ideas; already highly appreciated by connoisseurs, his music is in the process of winning favor with the general public.”
In addition to his extensive composing activities, Florent Schmitt spent nearly three decades — from 1912 to 1939 — as an influential music critic for several Parisian magazines and newspapers. From this perch, he championed the music of the younger generation of composers and often crossed swords with the generally conservative and sometimes hostile Parisian audiences.
Schmitt famously made this statement about what it took to be effective in performing the role of music critic: «Le critique qui a peur de faire de la peine ne peut pas critique.» (“The critic who is afraid of causing hurt cannot be a critic.”)
Equally important, Florent Schmitt was someone who used his celebrity and influence to nurture the careers of fellow musicians and composers. It was a trait that exhibited itself throughout his career from the early 1900s all the way to the late 1950s.
Among the many artists who benefited from Schmitt’s attentions and encouragement were Igor Stravinsky, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Marcel Delannoy, René Herbin, Alain Margoni, Olivier Messiaen, Jean Langlais, Charles Chaynes, Jean-Michel Damase, Jean Dupérier, César Geoffray, Lucien Ferrier-Jourdain (aka Marcel Harmand), Matilde Salvador, Akio Yashiro, and countless others.
Florent Schmitt was often a vociferous supporter of new and avant-garde music in the face of often-chilly Paris audiences. The most famous of these examples involved concert presentations the music of the composers Ravel, Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. At the March 1908 Colonne Concerts premiere of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, when the second movement “Malagueña” was greeted by scattered hissing and boos, Schmitt could be heard declaring from the balcony, “Play it once more — for the ladies and gentlemen below who haven’t understood!”
Schmitt was equally supportive of Schoenberg at the December 1921 Paris premiere of Pierrot lunaire (conducted by Darius Milhaud), where each movement was greeted, in equal measure, by hisses and cheers. The flautist and music critic Louis Fleury, who was present at the concert, would write later, “I hope Messieurs Ravel and Schmitt will not mind my revealing the fact that they were among the warmest of Schoenberg’s admirers — but even they were hard put to defend their opinion with musicians of their own mettle.”
And perhaps most famously, Schmitt’s vocal defense of Igor Stravinsky at the June 1913 Diaghilev Ballets-Russes premiere of Le Sacre du printemps — peppered with some very choice words aimed at the detractors in the audience — is the stuff of legend.
Schmitt’s support of musicians extended well beyond fellow composers, too. The recollections of the Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, recounted late in his extraordinarily long life, give us a sense of how Schmitt went about nurturing the careers of younger artists:
“It was in 1928 that I began singing in concerts, thanks to my cousin Virginie Cuénod who knew so many people in Paris. She introduced me to painters, composers, writers, and some people from other segments of society I probably never would have met without her … which threw me into the middle of the Parisian world of that time.
I made friends a little bit with Florent Schmitt, who always had an open house on Sundays at his beautiful estate near Boulogne. He engaged me to put together a vocal trio [with Marcelle Bunlet and Lina Falk] … to perform several of his works. We sang in the large hall of the Paris Conservatoire …”
The Second World War would prove to be a challenging time for Schmitt who, unlike some other French composers and musicians, did not flee France. Instead, he spent most of his days at his country retreat in the Pyrenees Mountains, returning to Paris mainly to attend concerts of his music. At the end of the war, the 75-year-old composer was questioned by the French government for suspected “collaboration” with the Vichy regime. The result of the investigation was a one-year suspension (retroactive to the previous year) of performances of Schmitt’s music in France.
Despite this setback, Schmitt, who never stopped composing, came back to see two dozen late-career compositions premiered during the final decade of his life. Video footage of the composer from the 1950s, filmed at his home in St-Cloud, shows a still-active and spry elderly gentleman. Several newspaper and radio interviews Schmitt gave during the 1950s provide glimpses into the composer’s perspectives on music and life as he looked back on a highly productive career of 70+ years.
In 1957 the venerable composer was awarded the Grand prix de musique from the City of Paris. At the time of the awards ceremony, the newspaper Le Figaro Littéraire reported:
“‘If you absolutely must put a label to my name, say that I am a neo-romantic,’ declared Florent Schmitt, who has just received the Grand prix de musique from the City of Paris.
Neo-romantic? It takes a certain courage to root here in the twentieth century an aesthetic faith that some would prefer to reserve for the nineteenth.
However, the composer … did not deny his epoch by fighting under the romantic banner. Even better, he did not annex to his own profit the discoveries of the modern art of sound; he preceded them. Much has been said about the prodigious wealth of his invention. In Schmitt’s monumental Piano Quintet there is perhaps enough material for two operas and four symphonies …”
Schmitt’s last large-scale work, the Symphony #2, was premiered by conductor Charles Munch and the French National Radio Orchestra at the Strasbourg Festival just a few months before the composer’s death in 1958.
Remembering those final few months of the composer’s life, the musical journalist Marc Pincherle would write:
“In the course of May 1958, we saw the lines of his face growing deeper, his voice losing its sharpness. But he did not change his habits … Up to the end, he was present with that energy which was one of the prevailing features of his character.”
“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.”
And writing in the pages of the newspaper Le Figaro Littéraire, arts journalist and author Claude Baignères observed:
“Age never caught up with Florent Schmitt — neither in his creative genius nor in his need to explore new horizons …
Schmitt will remain the essential link between the music of yesterday and that of tomorrow. For a composer who never sought it, it is his claim to immortality.”
Long relegated to the “musical purgatory” that so many composers from the early 20th century faced during the “atonal era,” in more recent years Schmitt’s music has experienced a renaissance, with many important conductors of today bringing his orchestral music to an admiring musical public: Leon Botstein, Lionel Bringuier, Sylvain Cambreling, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Fabien Gabel, Jacques Mercier, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Leonard Slatkin, Jean-Luc Tingaud and Yan-Pascal Tortelier, to name just some.
Likewise, there are many more solo instrumentalists and chamber groups programming Schmitt’s music in the concert hall and on recordings.
For classical music aficionados — particularly those who love French music of the late romantic/early modern idiom (Debussy, Ibert, Poulenc, Ravel, Roussel, etc.) — the “perilously seductive” music of Florent Schmitt is a major discovery. Come listen, learn and enjoy!
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