By Phillip Nones
“Florent 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: 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 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.
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 G. 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.”
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.
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, 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 piano sonatas of Franz Josef Haydn for the publishing firm Durand et Cie.
Florent Schmitt’s own compositions have 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.
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] 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.”
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.
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 “chilly” 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.»
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, René Herbin, Alain Margoni, Olivier Messiaen, Charles Chaynes, Jean Dupérier, Lucien Ferrier-Jourdain (aka Marcel Harmand), and countless others.
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 musicians:
“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 …”
Florent Schmitt continued to compose until the very end of his long life (138 opus numbers). Video footage of the composer from the 1950s, filmed at his home in St-Cloud, shows a still-active and spry elderly gentleman.
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.”
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 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!
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