“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, 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.”
— 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).
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 Guastave Sandré.
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.
Qualities of the “Eastern Frenchman”
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.”
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:
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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’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 …”
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 is able to maintain a certain clear-eyed distance — a lack of sentimentality.
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.
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!”
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:
“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.
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 distinguishability:
“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 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’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, the selection committee 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.”
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.)
Schmitt the Music Critic … and the Nurturer
In addition to his extensive traveling and 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 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.”)
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.
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, 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.
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!”
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.
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:
“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 …”
World War II and Late Years
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 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.”
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.
‘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 …”
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 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, this is his claim to immortality.”
The Schmitt Renaissance
Long relegated to the “musical purgatory” that so many composers from the early 20th century faced during the “atonal era,” in more 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, 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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