Florent Schmitt

1870 1958

Florent Schmitt

Composer

Biography

Florent Schmitt was a French composer, pianist and music critic who shied away from the standard French style of his time. He is considered one of the greatest French composers of his generation. He is known for his independence and unwillingness to be identified by any musical school or group. His music possesses a blend of French and German qualities, leading the way for future composers.

Schmitt was born in France in 1870 into a family that loved music. His parents directed him toward Classical and German Romantic music and his father hoped that he would play organ.

Schmitt entered the Nancy Conservatoire at the age of 17. There, he studied piano with Henri Ness and harmony with Gustave Sandré. During his studies he encounteredCésar Franck’s Violin Sonata which had a considerable impact on the young musician. In 1889 Schmitt continued his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where he earned second prize in harmony, with both Dubois and Lavignac. He also studied fugue with Gédalge (with whomRavel, Ibert, Enescu, Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger also studied) and composition with Massenet and Fauré. Vincent d’Indy’s indirect influence was found in the music director Jean Gay, a student of d’Indy, who directed the military group in which Schmitt played flute.

Schmitt enjoyed a life-long friendship with Ravel and also knew Debussy and Satie. Schmitt had a fondness for Russian music and attended many performances ofWagner, including all of the showings of Lohengrin at the Opéra. Schmitt’s discovery ofRichard Strauss’s music in 1899 at the Concerts Lamoureux also proved very influential.

From 1896 to 1900, Schmitt entered the Prix de Rome competition every year until he finally one with his cantataSémiramis (1900). His travels after winning lasted three years, during which he was very prolific. Works from this period represent his travels such as the waltzes inspired by German and Austrian TownsReflets d’Allemagne (1905) and the symphonic poem Sélamik (1906) for military band, inspired by Islam.

While in Rome he composed several envois which established his innovative nature, the most important of which is his Psalm xlvii (1904), a unique large-scale work for orchestra, organ, soprano and choir, premiered in 1906 by organist Nadia Boulanger and conductor Henri Busser. The work is reminiscent of Debussy’s style, with regard especially to the middle section filled with harp and woodwind sounds. The composition not only glorified God, it refreshed the old polyphonic tradition. It was thought to depict the ‘awesome power and mystery of the Old Testament’. Psalm xlvii prompted a new stream of religious music, leading way to the music of Lili Boulanger,Honegger, Stravinsky and Roussel. As a group, hisenvois convey savage emotions and a plethora of colours.

As a music critic, Schmitt wrote for several publications throughout his life includingLa France and later Revue de France and Le Temps. Through his writing he was able to promote the ‘pure music’ of Chabrier, Lalo, Franck, Saint-Saëns and Fauré. Evident from his publications is his awe ofRimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky andSchoenberg, especially the Coq d’or, The Nightingale and Pierrot lunaire, respectively. He also promoted jazz in his articles.

Despite Schmitt's undeniable importance, much controversy surrounds his talent as a composer. Satie, for example, was known to have told his students to ‘kill yourselves rather than orchestrate as badly as Florent Schmitt’ while others praised him as the ‘Wild Boar of the Vosges’.

Images courtesy of View From Here, Florent Schmitt and public domain

In contrast to the serious envois, Schmitt displayed a bit of humour, probably something he picked up fromChabrier, in several works including his Marche burlesque from Feuillets de voyage (1903-13), a seeming parody of Lenepveu’s march fromJeanne d’Arc, performed at the Société Nationale after a student of Lenepveu won the Prix de Rome, beating Ravel. Another piece of musical humour is found in the military march from hisHumoresques (1911), which gradually dies out ironically at the end. Other works of a similar nature include hisSerenade burlesque for piano (1899), Pupazzi (1907), Musiques foraines (1895-1902), Fonctionnaire MCMXII (1923-4) and Ronde burlesque (1927). Pupazzi is meant as a musical commentary on the 18th-century commedia dell’arte while the Ronde burlesque comes from an imaginative ballet about an underwater battle. The Musiques foraines is perhaps the most absurd, containing duets about parades, clowns, elephants and wooden horses.

During World War I, Schmitt turned to writing for chorus and military band but returned to piano compositions after the war concluded and then to orchestrations and ballets. His works during the war continued in the musical style of his earlier period.

His piano compositions following the war were later orchestrated to form ballets, such asLe petit elfe ferme-l'oeil (1923) and Reflets (1905), which were staged in 1924 and 1932, respectively. Other works from this period include hisLégende  for viola, violin or saxophone and orchestra or piano (1918), the incidental music toAntoine et Cléopatre (1920) and the ballet Oriane et le Prince d’amour(1934), which was premiered in 1938 at the Paris Opéra. He also composed the music for a film based on Flaubert’sSalammbô (1925), which  was a failure at the Opéra, partly because the film itself was not impressive. The audience was also not pleased with the new genre or the excessive orchestration. During World War II he also remained very active, and was suspected of sympathizing with the Vichy Regime.

As president of the Association de musique contemporaine, a festival of his chamber music was sponsored, in association with theRevue musicale, in 1942. The works performed included hisQuatre poèmes de Ronsard (1942), tour d'anches for woodwind trio and piano (1954) and En bonnes voix for six a cappella  choruses (1938). TheQuatre poèmes de Ronsard received positive critique despite its modern leanings and complexity. These works show the direction he was going to take with his music for the rest of his career. Other major works that followed include his Mass (1958), String Trio (1946), Quartet (1949) and a symphony (1956-8). The String Trio was premiered by the Pasquier Trio while the Quartet was premiered by the Calvet Quartet. His symphony was performed for the first time at the Strasbourg Festival in 1958 and praised for its balance of ‘power, lightness, violence and meditative calm’.

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