Florent Schmitt: A French Composer Extraordinaire

By Phillip Nones

Florent Schmitt postage stampFlorent Schmitt is the most important French composer you’ve never heard of.  His music … moves beyond impressionism into a lush and tangled world of dark poetry and sumptuous story-telling. 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

Florent Schmitt letter and autographFlorent 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 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 Gédalge, 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.

Parisian musicians, 1900 (Ravel, Schmitt, Roger-Ducasse, Dupont)

A photo of Parisian musicians taken in 1900, the year Florent Schmitt won the Prix de Rome first prize in composition. Schmitt is pictured in the back row (second from left). Other composers in the photo include Gabriel Dupont and Jean Roger-Ducasse (back row) and Maurice Ravel (front row, second from right). (Photo courtesy of Philippe Raynald Simon.)

Villa Medici in Rome (Prix de Rome)

Florent Schmitt’s stay at the Villa Medici in Rome was notable for the amount of time he wasn’t there — instead traveling throughout Germany and Scandinavia, around the Mediterranean and in the Near East.

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.

Florent Schmitt Semiramis score inside front cover

Florent Schmitt won the Prix de Rome’s first prize for composition in 1900 on his fifth try, with the cantata Sémiramis.

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.

Florent Schmitt birthplace, Blamont, France

The birthplace of Florent Schmitt, Blâmont, France.

Florent Schmitt’s music has been characterized in diverse ways:  rhapsodic, brooding, sinister, beautiful, sumptuous, magical, mysterious, forceful, stunning, spectacular, thrilling, astouding — 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.

florent-schmitt-1913-age-43-french-composer

Florent Schmitt, photographed in about 1910.

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 …”

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.

Florent Schmitt biographical booksYves Hucher, one of Schmitt’s biographers, expands on this 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.

Durand Music Catalogue Sheet 1935

A partial listing of Florent Schmitt scores published by Durand & Cie. (ca. 1935).

The French composer and music critic Pierre Petit, who served for many years as director of the École normale de musique in Paris, had this to say about Florent Schmitt’s music:

“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.”

Florent Schmitt, French composer (1870-1958)

Florent Schmitt, photographed in about 1925.

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.

Ida Rubinstein

Ida Rubinstein (Portrait by Lado Gudiashvili, 1921.)

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.

Durand catalogue 1965 Florent Schmitt

This page from a 1965 Durand & Cie. piano music catalogue features an extensive listing of keyboard scores by Florent Schmitt. Additional pages show numerous other pieces by Schmitt created for piano-four hands as well as two pianos.

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.

Florent Schmitt manuscript music writings

A page from one of Florent Schmitt’s manuscript articles on music for the Parisian newspaper Le Temps, exhibiting the composer-critic’s characteristically meticulous penmanship.

In addition to his extensive composing activities, Florent Schmitt also 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 “chilly” Parisian audiences.

Cimetiere de Bagneux, burial site of composer Florent Schmitt

The end of a long musical career: Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) is buried at the Cimetière de Bagneux, Ile-de-France.

Florent Schmitt continued to compose until the very end of his long life (138 opus numbers), with his last large-scale work, the Symphony #2, premiered by conductor Charles Munch and the French National Radio Orchestra at the Strasbourg Festival just a few months before his death in 1958.

Florent Schmitt gravestone inscriptionAt the time of Schmitt’s passing, the French composer Henri Dutilleux wrote a memorable epitaph in honor of his older compatriot:

“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.”

Florent Schmitt firt day cover and postage stamp.

First day cover featuring a commemorative postage stamp honoring the composer Florent Schmitt, issued in his hometown of Blâmont, France on April 11, 1992.

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-SéguinLeonard Slatkin, Jeffrey Tate, Jean-Luc Tingaud and Yan-Pascal Tortelier, to name just some.

Likewise, there are many more solo instrumentalists and chamber groups programming more of Schmitt’s music in the concert hall and on recordings.

Florent Schmitt with Roger-Ducasse

Florent Schmitt in later life (l), pictured with fellow composer Jean Roger-Ducasse (1873-1954) (r).

For classical music afficianados — 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!

Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed are those of Phillip Nones. The information provided is on an as-is basis, and no representations as to accuracy, completeness, currentness, suitability, or validity of any information on this blog is made, nor any liability for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its use.

Copyright Notice:

© 2012-2017 by Phillip Nones.  The written content on the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog is protected by copyright.  Reproducing any portion of this content without specific attribution and/or written permission of the author is prohibited.

Florent Schmitt on Facebook.

3 thoughts on “Florent Schmitt: A French Composer Extraordinaire

  1. I present a Piano Album radio programme and it gives me much pleasure to introduce my listening audience here in Melbourne, Australia to some of his fascinating works.

  2. Pingback: Florent Schmitt | Faszination Klavierwelten

  3. Thanks for this blog on an extraordinary composer.

    I’m a great admirer of Schmitt’s music, for its unique blend of emotion and vigor, its passion and formal perfection.

    His music is both classical and romantic. In that, he’s very close to Albert Roussel and Miklos Rozsa.

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