Florent Schmitt – A French Composer Extraordinaire (Short Biography)

Florent Schmitt signature French composer

Florent Schmitt French composer 1870-1958

Florent Schmitt, photographed by two French brothers, Henri Manuel (1874-1947) and Gaston Manuel (1880-1967). In the interwar period, the G. L. Manuel Frères studio portrayed tout Paris: Auguste Rodin, Mistinguett, Joséphine Baker, Aristide Bruant, Colette, Jules Renard, Yvonne Printemps and the most famous French composers.

“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 Orchestral 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, American 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.”

— G. 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 Orchestral Conductor

“It’s really quite rare, I think, to come across music which simultaneously sounds so old and so new.”

— Sakari Oramo, Finnish Orchestral Conductor

“What is admirable about Florent Schmitt is the continuity of his inspiration and the universality of his work. It has been said that he personified contemporary romanticism.”

— Robert Aron, French Historian and Writer

“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 Medal Weysset Paris

This commemorative medal of Florent Schmitt was created by Weysset and issued by the Monnaie de Paris.

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.

Blamont France aerial view

Two vintage postcards showing aerial views of Blâmont, France, where Florent Schmitt was born in 1870.

Impressionnistes francais Debussy Schmitt Ravel

Three great composers from France’s “Golden Age” of classical music (Bleu Nuit biography series).

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).

Paris Conservatoire

The Paris Conservatoire, pictured during Florent Schmitt’s time there as a student (Rue de Madrid entrance).

Born into a musical family — Schmitt’s father was an amateur musician and a younger brother (Henri Schmitt, 1873-1955) would become a church organist and composer — young Florent’s early musical studies were at the conservatoire in Nancy where his instructors included Henry Hess and Gustave Sandré.

Albert Lavignac

Alexandre Jean Albert Lavignac (1846-1916). The French music scholar taught at the Paris Conservatoire for decades, numbering among his students Vincent d’Indy, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Pierné and Philipp Jarnach in addition to Florent Schmitt.

Educated from 1889 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.

Gabriel Faure, French composer

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), Florent Schmitt’s teacher and mentor.

Of all his instructors, Fauré was the one who Schmitt admired most. As a teacher, Fauré was inclined to grant his students greater freedom to explore their creativity, a quality that Schmitt undoubtedly found attractive considering his own non-conformist tendendies. But Schmitt also saw in Fauré a composer of particular genius. As just one example, Schmitt once described Fauré’s trait of ending a phrase, after undergoing the most audacious harmonic, melodic or contrapuntal turns, on firm ground “as if it were nothing.”

Qualities of the “Eastern Frenchman”

G. Jean-Aubry

G. Jean-Aubry (1885-1952)

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.”

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:

Nadia Boulanger

Juliette Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

“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.”

Fellow-French composer Henry Barraud addressed similar aspects of this “dual musical nature” in words he wrote about Florent Schmitt in the magazine L’Art musical in December 1936:

Henry Barraud

Henry Barraud (1900-1997). (Photo: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet)

“The fundamental traits of Schmitt’s nature are impulsiveness and impetuosity. He loves abundance and vehemence. A wide range of musical interests and a romantic disposition predispose his imagination to run riot.

Remembering that he was born in Lorraine, one shudders when one imagines what might have happened had he been born on the other side of the border and trained in Germany. Fortunately, the bright sunshine of his Latin culture has exercised upon him a moderating influence, doing away with all dangerous pathogens and inspiring him with a sense of clarity, order and restraint.”

Schmitt’s pupil and biographer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, characterized the composer somewhat differently, denying any such geographic imputations. In his biography of the composer, Ferroud wrote:

Pierre-Octave Ferroud

Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-1936), French composer and student of Florent Schmitt. About Schmitt’s 1904 choral composition Ferroud once said, “To us French, Psaume XLVII is our [Beethoven’s] Ninth.”

“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 — shortly 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.”

Florent Schmitt 1894 concert program

The first appearance of Florent Schmitt’s compositions on a Parisian concert program: March 17, 1894 at the Salle Érard, when the composer was 23 years old.

There’s no question that Schmitt’s studies at the Paris Conservatoire, augmented by the rich artistic and literary milieu of turn-of-the-century Paris, proved irresistible to the budding composer and would serve as continuous inspiration throughout his long career. Schmitt’s interactions with any number of “beaux-arts luminaries” — those already well-established as well as the up-and-comers — were an endless fount of insights and exploration, sometimes sparking vigorous debate.

Reynaldo Hahn

Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) (1906 photo)

In the recent biography of French-Venezuelan composer Reynaldo Hahn by Philippe Blay, the author reports on how Schmitt was characterized by Hahn, his fellow student at the Paris Conservatoire:

“Oh yes, what a hard worker [“forcené”], this bloody Schmitt!  In music he only dreams of sores and bumps [“plaies et bosses”]!”

Hahn’s comment was made to a friend, following a disagreement he had had with Schmitt concerning the operas Lohengrin by Wagner and Le Roi d’Ys by Lalo.  This was in the mid-1890s, demonstrating that Schmitt had definite points of view — and didn’t mind expressing them vociferously — even as a young man.

Paris Conservatoire composition class photo 1895 Eugene Pirou

Members of the 1895 composition class at the Paris Conservatoire pose for photographer Eugène Pirou, part of the celebration of the school’s 100th anniversary (1795-1895). Among Florent Schmitt’s fellow students in the 1895 class were Reynaldo Hahn, Charles Koechlin, Max d’Ollone and Fernand Halphen. This class photo, along with ones portraying violin, viola, cello, solfège and other Conservatoire classes, appeared in the publication Monde Musical.

The Prix de Rome Period

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. Schmitt’s journey to win the prize was — to say the least — arduous. A quarter century later he was quoted in the book Cinquante ans de musique française as follows:

Florent Schmitt Semiramis 12-1900

This announcement of the upcoming Colonne Concerts presentation of Florent Schmitt’s Sémiramis on December 9, 1900 appeared in several issues of Le Guide musical. The premiere performance happened a month earlier, on November 3, in a performance by Paris Conservatoire musicians led by Paul Taffanel.

“I had to compete five times for the Prix de Rome to win it once. And if in the end I was not left out in the cold, it was thanks to Gabriel Fauré, my much-lamented teacher, who managed to gather for me enough votes among the sculptors and painters to counterbalance the animosity of the musicians, who with the exception of Massenet, Reyer and Saint-Saëns turned thumbs-down on me … 

But I have no shame for all that … the important thing was the 30,000 gold francs.”

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 secular cantata Sémiramis.

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.

Prix de Rome Composition Competition candidates 1900

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 composer-contestants in the photo include Gabriel Dupont and Jean Roger-Ducasse (back row) and Maurice Ravel (front row, second from right). (Photo: courtesy Philippe Raynald Simon.)

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.

Florent Schmitt Andre Caplet Villa Medici Rome

The camaraderie of the musicians, artists and architects who resided at the Villa Medici was palpable, resulting in many lifelong friendships. This rare photograph from Florent Schmitt’s days at the Villa Medici shows him playing piano duets with fellow composer André Caplet (1878-1925), to Schmitt’s right. Looking on is the sculptor René Grégoire (1871-1945) and lounging upside-down on the sofa is the painter Jean-Amadée Gibert (1869-1945).

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:

Haydn Sonatas Schmitt

Violin/piano sonatas by Franz Josef Haydn, edited by Florent Schmitt and published by Durand.

“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 [47] 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 renegade group of French musicians, writers and artists which was formed around 1900.

NYT Feb 26 1933 John Alden Carpenter

In a February 26, 1933 New York Times article, correspondent May Birkhead reported on a reception given in honor of John Alden Carpenter and his new American bride in Paris. Florent Schmitt (fresh off his concert tour of America) along with several other notable French composers were among the guests.

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, John Alden Carpenter, 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.

Maurice Ravel Florent Schmitt Durand catalog page 1920

This Durand catalogue page dating from about 1920 showcases two of the brightest stars in the galaxy of composers represented by the publisher: Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt.

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 Musical Style

Florent Schmitt birthplace, Blamont, France

The birthplace of Florent Schmitt, Blâmont, France.

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.”


Florent Schmitt, photographed in about 1910.

Early on, critics were finding it a challenge to definitively characterize Florent Schmitt’s musical style. Writing in the pages of New Music Review in 1913, the musicologist M.-D. Calvocoressi noted:

M.D. Calvocoressi music critic

Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi (1877-1944). The French-born musicologist was a member of Les Apaches alongside Florent Schmitt, Ravel and other notable Parisian musicians and writers. Calvocoressi settled in London during World War I and spent the remainder of his life there, writing and publishing his works in English. (Photo: Auguste Bert, 1913)

“He stands apart and baffles all attempt at classification. He is as capable of constructing — of dealing with broad and complex forms, abstract emotions and ‘pure’ music — as any of the ‘intellectualists’; [and] as richly endowed with fancy, receptiveness and the capacity to create delicate and refined modes of expressing himself as any impressionist.

The chief idiosyncracy of his music is its variety and adaptability according to mood or subject. Even more noteworthy than the … qualities that Mr. Schmitt has in common with other progressive French musicians is the fact that he reveals himself as deeply imbued with classical tendencies — not of the reactionary, imitative sort to which we owe so much counterfeit classicism, but the sort resulting from the natural affinities of an artist who has much to say, and says it in the most appropriate way.”

Florent Schmitt Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi 1909

A 1909 postcard from Florent Schmitt to M.-D. Calvocoressi, French musicologist, critic and author.

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 …”

At the same time, Snook has pointed out another characteristic of Schmitt’s ethos:

“Never forget that the inescapable byword when performing Schmitt is ‘detachment’.”

That observation may seem countervailing, but behind the extravagant colors and the sometimes-extreme sensuality of the music, we can see how there remains a cool-headed artist who was able to maintain a certain clear-eyed distance — a lack of sentimentality. Or as the French music critic and author René Dumesnil characterized it, “Irony rubbing shoulders with emotion and fantasy.”

Florent Schmitt letter to Albert Roussel 1912

A letter written in 1912 by Florent Schmitt to Albert Roussel, when Roussel was stationed as a maritime officer at Port-Goulphar on Belle-île-en-mer in Brittany. Born just one year apart, the two composers were lifelong friends.

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.”

Florent Schmitt 1937

Florent Schmitt, standing at the front door of his home in St-Cloud (1937). (Photo: Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

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.

The American pianist and musicologist Frank Cooper summarizes the composer’s artistry well when he states:

“The possessor of seemingly unlimited skills, Schmitt could solve any compositional problem no matter what the boundaries of a work might hold. But Schmitt’s music does not surrender itself easily!”

Marion Bauer American composer

Marion Bauer (1882-1955) (1922 photo)

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.

Florent Schmitt biographical books

Three biographies of Florent Schmitt: Yves Hucher, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Catherine Lorent.

Yves Hucher, one of Schmitt’s biographers, expands on the composer’s music scores further:

“He 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 is also the science of his instrumental writing that enables Florent Schmitt to convey, with just three, four or five instruments, the impression of an entire orchestra.”

It all makes for an intoxicating brew — albeit one that’s full of musical land-mines for the performer. But the rewards are many.

Florent Schmitt listing of compositions Alphonse Leduc

This 1928 advertisement for Florent Schmitt’s compositions published by Alphonse Leduc also includes a number of arrangements for different instruments that were prepared by other musicians. But Schmitt himself would often prepare several versions of his compositions — typically for piano as well as orchestra like his friend and fellow-composer Maurice Ravel.

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 these words to say about another particularly notable aspect of Florent Schmitt’s music — its distinctiveness:

Florent Schmitt Albert Gleizes

A portrait of Florent Schmitt by Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), the famed cubist painter who created several different portraits of the composer (oil on canvas, 1915).

“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.”

The complete catalogue of Florent Schmitt is extensive — 136 opus -numbered compositions plus several additional pieces. Some observers express surprise at such a large body of work, created in nearly every genre except for opera. But what’s also interesting is that only about fifteen of Schmitt’s scores take more than 20 minutes to perform. Regarding the short length of so many of his compositions, the composer was fond of quoting a line from Voltaire: “The key to being boring is to say everything.”

Famously an “independent,” Florent Schmitt founded no musical school, nor did he attach to one.  Underscoring this fierce independence, In 1949 the composer would write 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 forbidden doors for anyone who wishes to find something new at all costs.”

A Life of Exploration and Travel

Florent Schmitt, French composer (1870-1958)

Florent Schmitt, photographed in about 1925. (Photo: Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet)

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 catalogue pages show numerous pieces composed by Schmitt for piano-four hands as well as two pianos.

Alec Rowley English composer organist

Alec Rowley (1892-1958)

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.”

Cevalier Legion d'Honneur Third Republic FranceAt the time he was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1922, the selection committee noted:

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.”

All throughout his life Florent Schmitt would be an intrepid traveler, including undertaking a concert tour of North America in 1932 when he played the challenging piano part in the premiere performances of his Symphonie concertante, written for Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Schmitt’s final passport, issued when he was 85 years old, contained more than 40 visa stamps at the time of his death; Swedish Lapland was among his last travel destinations, where he began work on what would turn out to be his final composition, the Messe en quatre parties.)

Florent Schmitt Symphonie Concertante Boston Symphony 1932 program

The world premiere performances of Florent Schmitt’s Symphonie concertante were presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1932. The composer was at the keyboard and Serge Koussevitzky conducted.

Schmitt the Music Critic … and the Nurturer

For many composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their musical lives also centered on being associated with music conservatories — but in this regard, Florent Schmitt was something of an outlier. His one foray into the world of academia came in 1921, when French politician (and later Prime Minister) Édouard Herriot called on him to replace the retiring Augustin Savard as director of the Lyon Conservatoire. In contrast to his own teachers Dubois, Massenet, Fauré and other composers who spent many rewarding years in academia, Schmitt proved to be ill-disposed to life as an academician, where he was known to advise budding conservatory musicians struggling to master their craft to seek out an alternate field of study!

Leon Vallas 1937

Léon Vallas (1879-1956) (1937 photo)

In a 1950 interview, musicologist, author and teacher Léon Vallas recounted the circumstances that led to Florent Schmitt’s appointment:

“The city of Lyon sought a famous musician to take the title, if not the office, of director of the National School of Music. The great men of the time were visited — Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel and Florent Schmitt. The first two declined an honor which would have removed them from Paris; Florent Schmitt accepted under the condition of being, every week, to make contact with the capital. He landed at Lyon on December 15, 1921.”

Florent Schmitt Lyon Conservatoire stone plaque

A stone plaque commemorating Florent Schmitt’s tenure as director of the Lyon Conservatoire (1921-23).

From the outset, Florent Schmitt had signed on for what was to be a one-year tenure in Lyon; in actuality, he stayed in the position longer, resigning in 1923 and happily returning to Paris.

Schmitt would never take up another post in academia. Instead, the composer would make a consequential contribution in a wholly different way — as an influential music critic for several Parisian magazines and newspapers until 1939. From this perch, Schmitt championed 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 fulfilling 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.”)

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.

Copland Lecture announcement 11-18-27

This advertisement for a November 1927 New York City lecture by Aaron Copland on new trends in contemporary music appeared in the pages of Musical America magazine. It was one of a series of lectures presented by Copland following his return from studying in France with Nadia Boulanger, during which time he met and worked with Florent Schmitt.

Equally significant, 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. As just one example, Schmitt was instrumental in the creation of the Association of Young Polish Musicians in Paris, active during the years 1926-50, for which he served as an artistic advisor as well as a member of the jury for the Association’s composition competition (with Albert Roussel).

Florent Schmitt Pierre Revel biking September 1943

Florent Schmitt, age 73 (r.) photographed while on a bicycle excursion with fellow French composer Pierre Revel (1901-1984). (September 1943 photo)

Among the many composers 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, Joseph-Ermend Bonnal, Alexander Voormolen, Mihail Jora, Pedro Humberto Allende Sarón, Pierre Revel, Lucien Ferrier-Jourdain (aka Marcel Harmand), Matilde Salvador, and Akio Yashiro.

No doubt, there are countless others whose names have faded into history.

Florent Schmitt banquet card December 1927 Rotisserie Perigourdine Schmitt Grovlez Aubert

A vintage copy of the menu card prepared for a banquet held at Rotisserie Péredourdin in Paris on December 12, 1927 in honor of Florent Schmitt. Shown on the card is a musical “puzzler” inscribed by fellow-composers Florent Schmitt, Gabriel Grovlez and Louis Aubert.

Florent Schmitt Igor Stravinsky 1910

Igor Stravinsky (l.), photographed with Florent Schmitt in 1912.

As noted above, Florent Schmitt was often a vociferous supporter of new and avant-garde music in the face of often-unwelcoming Paris audiences. The most famous examples involved presentations of the music of 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!”

Srnold Schoenberg Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt (r.) and Arnold Schoenberg, together aboard ship (North Sea, 1920).

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, wrote afterward, “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.”

In yet another “scene” — this one instigated by the presentation of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra — it was reported by the press that the melee cost Schmitt a pair of glasses plus a copy of the music score he had been given.

And perhaps most famously, Schmitt’s vocal defense of Igor Stravinsky at Diaghilev’s June 1913 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.

Florent Schmitt Igor Stravinsky 1957

Florent Schmitt (l.) and Igor Stravinsky at a social function at the American Embassy in Paris (1957), nearly a half-century following the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Also pictured are Mme. Vera Stravinsky (at far left) and Henri Dutilleux (in center, back to camera).

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 young artists:

Hugues Cuenod Swiss tenor

Hugues Cuénod (1902-2010)

“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 [sic] 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 …”

Seth Bingham organist

Seth Daniels Bingham (1882-1972). A noted American organist and composer, he studied in Paris with Alexandre Guilmont, Charles-Marie Widor and Vincent d’Indy in the years prior to World War I, during which time he met Florent Schmitt.

As for his interactions with the general public, Florent Schmitt’s manner could be described as courtly, often spiced with a bit of wry humor. A story recounted by the American organist and composer Seth Bingham, writing in the June 1959 issue of The American Organist magazine, is illustrative:

“I met Florent Schmitt only once, years ago, when a mutual friend brought him to spend an evening with us. A simple, unassuming man of easy conversation, with a sly sense of humor, he told us of a society lady who asked him, ‘Oh, Mr. Schmitt — do tell me how you compose.’ Said Schmitt: ‘First I take a nice clean sheet of music paper, then a well-sharpened pencil and a good eraser — above all, an eraser.'”

World War II and Late Years

Artiguemy Haute Pyrenees France

Artiguemy, Haute-Pyrenées, France

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.

Artiguemy House Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt’s country retreat at Artiguemy in the Pyrenees Mountains, where he spent the majority of his time during World War II. (ca. 1950 photograph)

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.

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.

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.

Many of Schmitt’s colleagues continued to view him as a valued presence in the Parisian musical community. Journalist Suzanne Demarquez, writing in the December 15, 1950 issue of Musical Courier, wrote about an 80th birthday concert given in honor of the composer as follows:

“St-Cloud, where Florent Schmitt resides, celebrated the 80th birthday anniversary of the noted composer with a concert dedicated to his works. All his friends took part, and musicians of renown from Paris flocked to the hall to congratulate him. The youthfulness and power of inspiration of the master have been preserved remarkably.”

In 1954, American music scholar and author David Ewen wrote this description of the venerable composer and his daily activities in those last years of his life:

“Florent Schmitt spends winters in Paris at the home of Mme. Frédéric Moreau, who guards him jealously from the distractions and annoyances of the outside world. In summers he occupies his own house in St-Cloud. His diversions, today as yesterday, include travel, long walks, attending five o’clock teas of friends, and going to the theatre and movies. He possesses extraordinary vitality and has magically retained his enthusiasms. His conversation is usually spiced with cynical humor.”

Florent Schmitt 1957 photo by Rene Pari

Florent Schmitt in 1957 (Photo: René Pari)

As a final honor from his French compatriots, in 1957 Schmitt 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. 

Albert Gleizes Florent Schmitt postage stamp 2012

Albert Gleizes’ 1915 portrait of Florent Schmitt was featured on a French postage stamp issued nearly a century later (2012).

‘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 for 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 …”

Florent Schmitt Grand Prix Figaro Litteraire 1957

Florent Schmitt’s Grand prix de musique award from the City of Paris was front-page news in La Figaro Littéraire’s May 11, 1957 newspaper edition. (Photo: René Pari)

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 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 music tributes 1937 L'Art Musical

“Musical signature” tributes to Florent Schmitt presented by 15 fellow composers and published in the January 1937 issue of L’Art musical magazine. Among the composers who honored Schmitt were Jean Absil, Henry Barraud, Claude Delvincourt, Arthur Honegger, Jacques Ibert, Raymond Loucheur and Manuel Rosenthal.

Florent Schmitt gravestone inscriptionAt the time of Schmitt’s passing in August 1958, the French composer Henri Dutilleux wrote a memorable epitaph in honor of his older compatriot:

Florent Schmitt

This photo of Florent Schmitt accompanied the news bulletin announcing the death of the composer. Issued the first week of September, 1958 by the Paris bureau of the Associated Press, the news bulletin contained several factual errors, including the incorrect year when Schmitt began his studies at the Paris Conservatoire.

“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:

Florent Schmitt Le Figaro Litteraire 8/23/58 edition Claude Baigneres

From Claude Baignères’ tribute to Florent Schmitt, published in the August 23, 1958 edition of Le Figaro Littéraire

“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, this is his claim to immortality.”

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.

Florent Schmitt postage stamp France 1992 printing plate

A test print from the plate used to produce the 1992 French postage stamp commemorating the artistry of Florent Schmitt, signed by the engraver, André Lavergne. Among the other composers commemorated in the series were Georges Auric, César Franck, Arthur Honegger, Erik Satie and Germaine Tailleferre.

A monograph on the life and work of Florent Schmitt prepared in 1959 by Emmanuel Bondeville (1898-1987), a French composer who was also director of the Paris Opéra. Bondeville would be appointed to Schmitt’s chair at the Académie des Beaux-Arts following the death of his older compatriot. The two composers’ acquaintance dated back the 1930s when Schmitt reviewed Bondeville’s comic opera L’Ecole des maris favorably.

Decline … and the Schmitt Renaissance

Even prior to his death, we can see that Florent Schmitt’s artistic worth was already beginning to be called into question in some circles. The composer continued to produce new works during the 1950s, but increasingly these would be met with general indifference by a music world that no longer felt that the creative output of the “older generation” mattered. Commenting on the prevailing “atmospherics” of early 1950s artistic Paris, composer and conductor Lazare Saminsky wrote these words in the October 15, 1952 issue of Musical Courier magazine:

Lazare Saminsky conductor composer

Lazare Semyonovich Saminsky (1882-1959) was a conductor and composer who specialized in Jewish music history and performance. While a student in St. Petersburg, he became a founding member of the Society for Jewish Music and helped organize its earliest publications. Head of the music conservatory in Tblisi until 1918, Saminsky subsequently moved to Western Europe, eventually settling in the United States where he served as music director for Temple Emanu-El Synagogue in New York City beginning in 1924. His most famous compositions are two books of Hebrew Song Cycles, Opp. 12 + 13, set to Yiddish texts, that were published in 1922.

“Paris is growing alarmingly into a hard-visaged, indigestible exhibit of ‘today in music’ and fast losing taste for subtle divergencies of the tonal mind — rather faintly discriminating between aloof creators of size and reigning conterfeit.

Yet when some of the ruling Parisian ‘smart-alecks’ used a public discussion of Musical Creation of the Twentieth Century to belittle the work of Florent Schmitt, still the greatest composer of present-day France and its most accomplished master, a host of brilliant men of music, including Honegger, Messiaen and Enesco, rose angrily to denounce the maneuver.”

Today, from the vantage point of more than a half-century on, the situation looks very different. Long relegated to the “musical purgatory” that so many composers from the earlier part of the 20th century faced during the “atonal era,” in recent years Florent Schmitt’s music has been rediscovered, with many important conductors of today bringing forth his orchestral music to an admiring musical public:  Leon Botstein, Lionel Bringuier, Sylvain Cambreling, Stéphane Denève, JoAnn Falletta, Fabien Gabel, Jacques Mercier, Yannick Nézet-SéguinLeonard Slatkin, Jean-Luc Tingaud and Yan-Pascal Tortelier, to name just some.

Florent Schmitt Arthur Honegger

Florent Schmitt, seated at far right, at an event honoring the composer Arthur Honegger (standing at left) on the occasion of receiving the diploma of Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur. The reception was organized by Pierre Bourgeoise, chairman of Pathé-Marconi, and was held at the Cercle Interallié in Paris in December, 1954.

Florent Schmitt Roger-Ducasse

Florent Schmitt in later life (l), pictured in 1952 with fellow composer Jean Roger-Ducasse (1873-1954) (r).

Likewise, there are many more solo instrumentalists and chamber groups programming Schmitt’s music in the concert hall and on recordings. And whereas a decade ago barely half of Schmitt’s 136 opus-numbered compositions had been commercially recorded, today that percentage has risen to more than 75% — a remarkable increase.

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!

Florent Schmitt recordings

A sampling of Florent Schmitt recordings.


The information provided on the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog is on an as-is basis, and no representations as to accuracy, completeness, currentness, suitability, or validity of any information 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:

©2012-2023 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.

4 thoughts on “Florent Schmitt – A French Composer Extraordinaire (Short Biography)

  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.

  4. Pingback: Jad „Jade”? – Fletowo

Leave a Reply